When the first Ghost in the Shell movie was released in 1995, it was revolutionary, presenting a whole new way of looking at technology and artificial intelligence. Twenty years later, director Rupert Sanders not only has to live up to that legacy, he's trying to build upon it, despite being stuck in a cloud of controversy.
Sanders is the director of next year's live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii's anime masterpiece, starring Scarlett Johansson as the Major, a futuristic cyborg in a world where the human essence, called Ghosts, can be transmitted electronically into robot bodies, called Shells. He, along with Johansson and Japanese legend Takeshi Kitano, debuted the first trailer and several clips this past weekend at an event in Tokyo, Japan. We were on the scene.
"We're taking the next chapter of this legacy very seriously," Sanders said of the franchise that has been around in various formats since 1989. "We're not remaking, we're reimagining. In '95, seeing [Mamoru] Oshii's film was so ahead of its time. Really, some of those ideas are just catching up to us today. There are so many elements of: When we're consumed by technology to the degree we are, where does humanity sit?"
In Ghost in the Shell, the Major and the government task force Section 9 fight cyber crimes in a world where people's brains can be hacked just as easily as a computer. Since the film's premise is even more relevant now than when the original movie premiered in 1995, Sanders realised he couldn't just go to the original film and remake it.
Director Rupert Sanders talking at the Tokyo event. Image: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
"It's too philosophical and too introspective," he said of the 1995 film. "That's what so many people like about it and I hope we channel that into the film. But [I] hopefully built a bigger film around it so people are excited in the cinema and enriched, in some way."
To do that, the new film borrows facets from several different iterations of the franchise, including its movies, various TV series and Masamune Shirow's original manga, which began the franchise. In the trailer alone we see multiple shots and scenes lifted from the 1995 movie, most of the main characters and plenty of the action. Paramount screened a scene from the movie where the Major interrogates a man who believes he has a family, but soon realises they were nothing but a programmed memory. This echoes a scene in the anime, where the man is then hacked remotely by the villain known as the Puppet Master; in the live-action version, he'll be hacked by the movie's antagonist Kuze (played by Michael Pitt), a character taken from an arc in one of the later Ghost in the Shell TV series.
"Kuze borrows a few facets from different characters in the series," Sanders said. "He's not just Kuze and he's not just the Puppetmaster, he's an amalgamation. The way he moves through the network is borrowed from other elements. He's kind of our own creation."
One facet that wasn't borrowed from the original film is the heroine's original name — Motoko Kusanagi — and her Japanese ethnicity. The role of course went to Johansson instead of an Asian actress, leading many to accuse the film of "whitewashing" its lead character. Sanders stands by and defends the choice:
Whenever you cast someone, someone is going to be critical about it. To me, I stand by my decision, she's the best actress of her generation. I was flattered and honoured that she'd be in this film.
It's a very international cast and the beauty of casting her is then I didn't have to cast big name actors around her," Sanders said. "I could cast people like Juliette Binoche, Kaori Momoi and Takeshi Kitano. That's unusual for a Hollywood film. Usually, you need the star then you need 10 people who can go on the chat shows and be on the poster. But we didn't have that. I was given the freedom to cast the film as I wanted.
Johansson herself wasn't phased by the controversy. As she explained at the Tokyo event, when she was first offered the part she was more afraid of the role itself. "When I first saw [the anime], it seemed quite daunting because the anime is so philosophical," she said. "I didn't know how it would translate or how I could contribute to it."
She finally realised Sanders' take is kind of a "journey of self-discovery" for the Major. In addition to being an action film, over the course of the movie the character discovers who, or what, she is. "Being able to play these three sides — the ego, super-ego and id — that was pretty enticing," she said.
In addition to dissecting the psychology of the Major, Sanders and his team praised Johansson for her physical ability and dedication. One second she was unloading an entire clip of a submachine gun without blinking. The next, she was holding cue cards off-screen for Kitano, for which the veteran actor said he was very grateful.
However, beyond the action, legacy and controversy, for Sanders and Johansson, Ghost in the Shell boils down to its philosophy, something Sanders described as a "fresh take on futurism".
"What I think is interesting about our film is the sovereignty of data," Sanders explains. "What if [the personal information on your phone] was in your head? And then someone hacked into your head? Not only do they have your contacts, they have your thoughts and emotions and that's a frightening twist on where we go technologically with the story."
While Ghost in the Shell's exploration of humanity and technology is more relevant that ever, it remains to be seen if will be enough to rise above the controversial decision to turn the franchise's main protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi into simply "The Major". But Scarlett Johansson is optimistic.
"It's always my hope when making a film that you connect with people in that dark theatre and you're able to escape to some other world that we've created for them," Johansson said. "My hope for the fans is they get taken on a ride that's not just explosive and exciting but also allows them to be reflective and more curious about themselves from watching this film. I hope it resonates that deeply with them."
Ghost in the Shell opens in Australia on 30 March 2017.
Note: Paramount Pictures paid for Gizmodo's travel to Tokyo to report this piece.