Thor: Ragnarok and the Rejection of Myth

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The rot of Marvel Comics has finally crept into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not just the rot of Social Justice — the rot of mediocrity.

On paper the movie sounds awesome. Thor, the God of Thunder, must defend Asgard and the Nine Realms from Hela, the all-powerful Goddess of Death. However, he is stranded on the planet of Sakaar on the other side of the galaxy. Surviving a brutal gladiatorial arena, Thor gathers allies and makes his way home to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesized destruction of Asgard.

In execution, it was as stale as week-old popcorn. With a basic plot, forgettable dialogue and limp characters, I struggled to remain engaged with the movie, much less care about the story. The heart of the problem lies with the movie’s poor craftsmanship and its rejection of the mythic.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Failed First Impressions

The story begins with Thor bound in chains and swinging gently from the roof of a dungeon. There he encounters Surter the fire giant. Surter, wreathed in flames and as massive as a mountain, reveals that Thor’s brother Loki has been impersonating Odin, and vows to destroy Asgard on the day of Ragnarok when his crown is reunited with the Eternal Flame that burns beneath Asgard. Surter’s speech is a powerful moment, establishing Surter as a creature of unbounded malice and cruelty, capable of restraining even the mighty Thor…

…A moment Thor ruins by interrupting Surter. Twice.

Not by smashing the giant in the face with Mjolnir. But by asking Surter to pause his speech for a moment, when Thor spins away from Surter. Twice.

This break is dead time. Thor doesn’t declare defiance, stall for time to summon his mighty hammer, or break his chains. He just drops a couple of lame remarks–and Surter politely obliges him by waiting until Thor faces him again before continuing.

The interruptions force humor where humor is unwarranted, breaking off an emotional build-up for a payoff of eye-rolls and cringes and sighs. We see the same pattern over and over again.

Returning to Asgard, Thor sees a massive, gaudy statue of Loki and goes to find his brother. Loki, disguised as Odin, is watching a play that allegedly recreates the final moments of the war against the Dark Elves. It has the actor portraying Loki making a dramatic speech to Thor, showing his innate nobility and patriotism with his dying breath–and then asking for a statue made of gold. With a helmet. And horns.

The lines are absolutely cringeworthy — but everyone applauds, hailing it as a masterpiece.

This is absurd. The play could have been a masterpiece of propaganda, depicting Loki as making a final sacrifice, and declaring that he had always been a loyal son of Asgard, and leaving it at that. That would have inspired applause. Not the eye-rollingly awful lines about the statue.

But those lines about the statue were deliberate, referencing the statue seen earlier. This is the filmmakers saying, “I know you were wondering why there’s a stature of a traitor. Here’s why — and we’ll hammer the point home so even you can get it!”

By telling exactly how and why something in-story was made and justified, the filmmakers are treating the audience like idiots who can’t put two and two together in the service of making even more lame jokes.

Later on, when Scrapper 142 is introduced, the scene begins swimmingly. The ramp of her spaceship lowers, revealing a lean, muscular woman taking a swig from a bottle. She’s a hard-drinking, no-nonsense hands-on woman, who isn’t about to let a bunch of bottom-feeding scum get between her and her prey. She descends the ramp, steeling for a fight–

And falls off.

She drank so much she couldn’t even walk straight. But she manages to control a pair of machine guns and blow away the enemy–without shooting herself by accident. And while she continues to imbibe liquor by the barrel, she is miraculously cured of all alcohol-inflicted problems. It becomes clear that Scrapper’s initial introduction was designed to force a joke when there was no opportunity for one, sapping the scene of its emotional power.

The filmmakers repeat this pattern of build-up and interruptions, again and again subverting the audience’s expectations for a pay-off in favor of a lame gotcha moment that says, “We know you were expecting something awesome, so enjoy this lame duck!”

Contrast this pattern with this scene from Cowboy Bebop:

 

In this scene, Faye Valentine is introduced to the series. We see her sauntering in, oozing sex appeal, ready to use her charms on the store keeper. But the conversation is interrupted. When the gunmen appear, she spots them coming, and coolly breaks out her submachine gun and opens fire. These shots establish the image of the femme fatale.

Then we see the truth. Despite the barrage of gunfire she doesn’t actually hit any of the bad guys. When they drive up with their Gatling gun, she has no response. And in the face of overwhelming firepower, she surrenders. This reveals the truth: she is a poser.

This sequence works because every scene is allowed to play out to the end, with logical if unexpected consequences. The audience has time to build their first impression, that she is a femme fatale. They see the criminals coming, setting up an expectation for a gunfight. In an action-heavy series like Cowboy Bebop the audience would expect a setpiece battle. Faye’s capture comes out of the blue. However, this moment feels like a mask being peeled off to reveal the true character underneath, because every scene flows organically to the next without pauses to wink at the audience. There are no stupid breaks to force humor into a deadly serious moment, allowing the final moment with Faye’s expression to serve as a sharp juxtaposition to the rest of the sequence and create a moment of levity.

These failed first impressions are but a harbinger of worse things yet.

Not Quite Gods

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Ancient polytheistic religions, including the Old Norse religion, tend to portray the gods as extraordinarily powerful individuals who are nonetheless deeply flawed. They are magnifications of mortal quirks and foibles: strength and cowardice, love and lust, rage and fear. Thor, God of Thunder, the Protector of Mankind, slayer of giants and monsters, is not exempt.

The difference between a man with superpowers and a pagan god is magnitude. A man may dine well every day; the Thor of myth feasts on two whole oxen every night, then resurrects them from their bones with the power of Mjolner. A man who can lift four hundred pounds is incredibly strong; Thor is so strong he lifts the paw of a cat — the world-serpent Jormungandr in disguise. A man may drink heartily; Thor drank from the ocean and created the tides.

The Thor of Thor: Ragnarok is no god. He has human-sized strengths and flaws, and fails to overcome them. His feats are human-sized, and so are most of the enemies he faces. Nothing he does marks him as divine, or even as a worthy heir to the throne of Asgard.

When Thor converses with Dr Strange, Dr Strange easily discombobulates Thor with his magic — thus implying that Thor is weaker than a mere man. On Sakaar, Thor is immediately subdued by a small obedience disc — which uses electricity, the element he allegedly controls, to shock its victim into submission. Later, when Thor puts his team together, he delivers no inspiring speeches and displays no leadership: everybody is simply coming along for the ride, because reasons. After learning of Scrapper’s true identity, instead of pressing her into service as the sovereign of his realm, Thor delivers more cringe-worthy politically correct statements admiring her for being a Valkyrie and stating that having Strong Action Females is Perfectly Okay. Throughout the movie, Thor empowers no humans, demonstrates no feats worthy of a god, rules over nothing, and overcomes no impossible odds.

The Thor of the movie is barely a man who possesses some superpowers, not a being hailed as a god.

And the other heroes aren’t much better.

On Sakaar, the Hulk is hailed as the hero of the gladiatorial games, and constantly acts like a powerful but petulant child. It turns out Bruce Banner has been the Hulk for two years — and he only returns to a human after seeing a video of the Black Widow calming him down. Bruce Banner quickly becomes a quivering nervous wreck who needs to be constantly soothed and shielded from anything that remotely reminds him of the Hulk, and is afraid that if he becomes the Hulk again he can’t come back. This is a far cry from the Bruce Banner of lore, who revealed his supreme self-control by turning into the Hulk on a moment’s notice by declaring “I’m always angry” — and always coming back.

Scrapper, in turn, is a Valkyrie trying to run from her past. After Hela slaughtered the Valkyries in the backstory, Scrapper fled to Sakaar and tried to live a new life. Par the course for Hollywood-issue Strong Action Females, she displays the usual contempt towards all male characters in the movie, and the men display the expected slavish admiration of her. Thor wants her on the job anyway, and she rejects him.

By the fiat of the almighty script, they join up anyway. Bruce Banner miraculously recovers and chooses to become the Hulk to fight giant monsters, because reasons. Loki forces Scrapper to relive her past, which makes her decide to return to Asgard to fight the goddess who killed her friends, because reasons. In both instances there were opportunities for Thor to demonstrate his divinity, help these characters overcome their trauma and help them become more than they were — but the movie squanders them in favor of portraying a formerly-collected Bruce Banner as a gibbering lunatic and Scrapper as a Strong Independent Action Woman.

Thor in Thor: Ragnarok is neither god nor hero; he is simply the protagonist because the plot said so, displaying neither leadership nor divinity. He has been reduced from a god to a shadow of a superman.

So-Called Villains

 

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Every superhero story needs supervillains. None in this movie fit the bill.

When Odin passes on, Hela escapes from her prison by the simple expedient of opening a portal to Earth a few minutes later. Why she didn’t do this earlier isn’t explained; she simply shows up out of thin air. After beating Loki and Odin, she returns to Asgard to establish her rule. The armies of Asgard objects, so she slays them all single-handedly without breaking a sweat.

Up to this point there is nothing special about her. Hela may be the Goddess of Death, but she displays no powers that display her command of death. Her action scenes are no different from a generic Dark Action Girl fighting off hordes of good guy mooks with melee weapons. When she resurrects her army, she doesn’t open a doorway from Hel to let them march forth; she uses the Eternal Flame, hinting at its true purpose.

There is nothing terrifying about Hela, nothing that demonstrates she has supernatural control over death, nothing that presents her as anything more than a daughter angry at her father and taking revenge by conquering the Nine Realms. There is nothing about Hela that shows she is a goddess. Like Thor, she is no god, only a woman with some measure of superstrength.

The second antagonist is the Grandmaster, supreme ruler of Sakaar. He organizes the gladiatorial games and rewards people who bring in fresh meat, and… little else.

His screen presence is completely flat. He executes no plots against his enemies, he displays no political sense, and his most notable trait is his insistence on seeking the right words. He is just…there, a minor character with little impact on the story. He poses no threat to the heroes at all, not even indirectly by organizing an efficient crackdown (as opposed to the disorganized ragtag affair we see in the movie) or disposing of the rebels before they become a threat. Between the flatness of his character and the lack of character development from the main cast, the entire Sakaar plotline feels like a distraction.

Special mention must be made of Skurge. When he is introduced, the audience sees him hamming it up with a pair of M16s, trying and failing to impress two women. He’s too shallow and self-absorbed to graduate to the ranks of sleazy wannabe pick-up artists, much less to play the part of a true Cassanova. When Hela invades Asgard, he is the first to bend the knee.

And for most of the movie, he does…nothing.

Skurge accompanies Hela in her scenes, mostly so she has an audience for her monologues. He doesn’t even say anything of note. Hela rewards his dedication by making him her executioner — not simply the man who kills her enemies, but the man who executes her will. His promotion further undercuts Hela’s image: by promoting Skurge, who at this point is little more than a worthless hanger-on, to such an important role, she shows that she has no idea how to pick subordinates. She is no evil goddess, just an idiot.

As executioner, Skurge prepares to execute all of one civilian when he is stopped. That is the extent of his on-screen service for Hela. Later, Skurge grabs his guns and turns on Hela’s armies. Because…reasons.

If this is supposed to be a redemption scene, I’m not buying it. Skurge simply hasn’t done anything truly evil. The audience did not see him murdering, raping, looting or pillaging anyone. The closest he got was almost but not actually executing an innocent person. While he acted like a blowhard early on, that is the extent of his sins. He has little to atone for, so his redemption moment falls flat.

If the supervillains fail to be super or villains, they have no place in a superhero story.

Just Another Non-Apocalypse

 

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Ragnarok is the most terrifying time in Norse myth. The last of all winters descends upon the world, with starvation and madness in its wake. Brother turns on brother, family ties sunder, and all sins run amok. It is the age of the sword and the axe, the age of the wind and the wolf, the age of madness and disdain.

Yggdrasil shudders. The giants march forth to make war on the gods, Hyrm from the east with his shield and Sutr from the South with a blazing sword. Jormungandr writhes, sending mighty waves crashing ashore. Naglfar, filled with the hordes of the dead, lands on Midgard to disgorge its dreadful load. Fenrir breaks his bonds and rampages across the world.

The gods go forth to battle the invaders, and die. The einherjar ride to meet the monsters and foemen, and all fall in battle. Fenrir swallows Odin whole. Thor slays Jormungandr, but succumbs to its poison. Sutr kills Freyr. Tyr and Garmr kill each other in mutual combat. The earth sinks into the seas, the stars vanish and flames rise into the heavens. The gods die, humans die, all die.

Compared to this Ragnarok, the movie falls flat.

There are no betrayals, no unnatural weather, no rise of the giants, no epic moments by gods or men. There is a Fenrir and there are armies of the dead, but otherwise there are no similarities to the original Ragnarok. Worse yet, the movie highlights no virtue.

Ragnarok is the grim collision of destiny and duty. The gods know they will die, and how they will die, and no matter what they do they cannot change fate. But they will fight the invaders regardless. In the movie, though the characters from Asgard know Ragnarok is upon them, there is no sense of fatalism or duty, not even an acknowledgement that their world is ending. The closest they came to acknowledging duty is to have Thor appeal to Scrapper’s sense of duty — and fail. A blatant disregard of Norse values, or indeed, the values of *any* civilisation worth living in.

The closes the movie comes to tapping the mythic is by having Thor lose an eye in the final fight against Hela — and even that is only to create some superficial similarity to Odin, and to have Thor pull a last-minute power up. This is a pale shadow of Norse myth.

Sacrifice and equivalent exchange run through Norse culture. Odin sacrificed his eye to drink from the well of Urd, gaining the knowledge of the cosmos. Tyr sacrificed his right hand to bind Fenrir, buying safety from the wolf until the end of the age. Thor makes no such sacrifice — his losing an eye was no deliberate choice, but merely the fortunes of war. No equivalent exchange occurs, no price was willingly paid, but something was gained anyway.

Above all else, Ragnarok isn’t merely the end of the world. It is the end of an age — and the beginning of another. After the death of the Aesir and the destruction of Asgard, Lif and Lifpraser shall repopulate the world, and a new pantheon of gods shall emerge. There is hope for a new world, a new beginning, a new age.

The movie offers nothing. Hela draws her power from Asgard, so to destroy her the heroes decide to destroy Asgard. They resurrect Surter, who fulfills the prophecy by destroying the entire planet. With himself still on it. (Because, well, reasons.) This Ragnarok is not the end of a cycle; it is simply an end. A great, terrible tragedy that the filmmakers just *had* to ruin with an unfunny ‘joke’.

*Thor: Ragnarok* acknowledges no morals and elevates no virtues, it elevates no gods and eschews the epic, it sacrifices the mythic in exchange for lame winks at the audience. If this is the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I want no more of it.

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if you’d like a modern story that captures the mythic, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, featuring heroes that act like heroes, angels that act like angels, and demons that act like demons.

 

 

The Dark Tower Movie Won’t Come Close to the Dark Tower Novels

Watching the Dark Tower movie trailer, I understood immediately that Hollywood had once again taken a beloved franchise and warped it into something barely recognisable.

Part of these changes are necessary. Adapting a novel into a movie requires requires the filmmakers to make massive changes to fit the new medium. It is a difficult process for one story, much less seven. Looking at the trailer it seems that the Dark Tower movie is inspired primarily by the first book, The Gunslinger. We have Jake, a boy from Earth; the Man in Black, the main antagonist; and Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger. Who is now black.

The race swap isn’t the only difference. In the novels, the Man in Black is merely the servant of the Crimson King, who is imprisoned in a balcony on the Tower and wishes to destroy all existence. In the movie, the Man in Black seems to be the primary antagonist. There is no mention of the other principal characters of the Dark Tower series, such as Eddie and Susannah Dean. Most critically, in the movie, Roland Deschain is on a quest to protect the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of all worlds — but in the novel, Roland strikes for the Tower to demand answers of whatever entity that dwells there, and during his quest he tries to redeem himself for the wrongs he has committed in his life.

The Dark Tower novels explore destiny and damnation, redemption and repetition, obsession and addiction. Going by the trailer, the Dark Tower movie is a generic Hollywood action movie about good versus evil. A major step down from the series described as Stephen King’s magnum opus.

But that is now par for the course.

Coins from Controversy

What do GhostbustersGhost in the Shell, and The Dark Tower have in common?

First, purchase the rights to a beloved intellectual property. Then deliberately alter something about the main characters, making them female or of a different race. After that, create a hue and cry about racism/sexism/misogyny/bigotry. Ride on the controversy to secure media attention and box office sales. Then, disappear forever.

For Ghostbusters, Hollywood took an all-male cast of geeks and replaced them with an all-female cast. In Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood replaced the Japanese Major with Scarlet Johansson. For The Dark Tower, Hollywood replaced a character explicitly described as a white man with bombardier blue eyes with a black man.

Hollywood responded to the predictable outcry by focusing media attention on it. People who criticised the changes were immediately decried as sexists, racists and misogynists. These words are like dog whistles: break them out and hordes of Social Justice Warriors will jump to your cause, circle the wagons, talk up your movie and slam whoever won’t toe the party line. As the release date approaches, reignite the controversy as needed. With all that attention, Hollywood hopes that people will come flocking to the theatres.

It is far easier to generate controversy than it is to write a good story. To do the latter, you need talent and hard work, then invest the time and money to properly build the brand to attract an audience. For the former, all you have to do is to obtain the rights to a well-known IP, make a deliberate casting decision, wait for someone to criticise it, then run screaming to the media and let the SJWs handle your marketing for you.

This is an incredibly short-sighted move. In the short term it may translate into a spike in opening day sales, but if the story is poor, it will undermine faith in the medium and the film companies that produced the adaptations. People will realise that Hollywood is just leeching off famous brand names, and they will walk away from future movie adaptations, or even movies altogether. As seen in how badly Ghostbusters bombed, this will significantly affect the profit margin.

But never trust the players to think in the long term. Hollywood cares about recouping costs and seeing a return on investment, not telling good stories. Social Justice Warriors don’t care about profits or stories, just in pushing their agenda. They don’t have the customers’ interests at heart.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Hollywood. In comics, we have female Thor, black teenage female Iron Man, Captain America the Nazi, Donald Trump the supervillain, and more. Loyal readers punished Marvel’s ham-fisted attempt at left-wing propaganda by abandoning the company in droves, causing sales to plummet. The recent non-controversy about a female Doctor Who will likely follow a similar trajectory. Social Justice Warriors don’t care the audience, the brands, or even what makes good stories. They just want to push their agenda. They infiltrate well-known IPs, twist it into a gross and soulless husk, and destroy it from the inside out.

This is social justice convergence. Companies that have been converged will turn their customers against them, effectively committing suicide. At best, converged companies churn out forgettable creations, and at worst, they destroy the creative legacy of previous generations.

The Dark Tower That Could Have Been

In The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws Eddie, a white man, and Odetta Susannah Holmes, a black wheelchair-bound woman. Odetta has a split personality: Detta Susannah Walker, a foul-mouthed racist who heaps abuse and racist epithets on the men and plots to kill them. This conflict is the heart of the character drama in The Drawing of the Three, and resolving it forges an unbreakable bond between the trio.

By casting Idris Elba, a black man, as Roland Deschain, Hollywood can’t have that conflict any more. Indeed, in the trailers so far, it’s telling that there is no hint of Eddie or Odetta. After all, portraying a disabled black woman who spouts racist screeds against white men runs against the prevailing left-wing narratives. Better to pre-emptively bury the conflict before it even begins.

The character of Roland Deschain himself is based on Childe Roland of the poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, written by English author Robert Browning. In addition, Roland Deschain’s guns are hinted to have been forged from Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur. King Arthur is a European myth, not an African one. And the gunslinger is an American archetype, born on the frontiers of the Old West. If we use the standards of modern-day progressives, having a black man use the myths of white men is cultural appropriation. But the hypocrisy of the Left runs deep: it’s only cultural appropriation if a white man does it. Notice also how this little nugget went unnoticed in the popular press.

In the books, Roland Deschain the gunslinger is a lawman, a negotiator, a diplomat and an outdoorsman. He is less Rambo and more John F Kennedy. Yet in the trailer, Roland is reduced to a shootist with some fancy tricks. In Drawing of the Three lobstrosities cripple Roland Deschain’s right hand, forcing him to give one of his guns to his companions, symbolising his trust and growing reliance on them and reinforcing the dangers of his journey. In the movie trailer, Roland is a typical invincible Hollywood action hero.

The most critical change is the nature of Roland’s quest, and what it says about his character. In the novels, Roland is monomaniacally focused on reaching the Dark Tower, and will sacrifice anything and anybody if it means taking one step closer to it. His character arc has him seeking redemption and developing bonds with the other characters. In the movie, Roland is already sworn to protect the tower: his motivation is obvious, and knowing Hollywood, I wouldn’t be surprised if this Roland doesn’t possess the complexity of the original.

The Dark Tower movie has every sign of being all flash and no depth. The plot of the movie doesn’t even come close to the plot of the original. It may even be a decent action flick in its own right, but with all the changes to the story, it might as well be a brand new IP altogether.

But for Hollywood, it is far easier to piggyback off an established brand than to invest the time and money needed to build up a new one. And they will keep doing that, regardless of the cost.

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia

Disney’s Gay LeFou is Tokenism

LeFou of Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is the lackey of Gaston, the main antagonist. By turning LeFou into a gay man for the 2017 live action adaptation, Disney has sunk ever deeper into the abyss of social justice. Through this act of mutilation, Disney has demonstrated its contempt for the original story. In recent years, Disney has been pushing the social justice agenda hard, producing film after film starring Strong Independent Female Protagonists Who Don’t Need Men. What makes LeFou’s distortion especially egregarious is that Disney’s attempt at virtue signalling is really tokenism.

Squandered Drama

The original novel was published in 1740. The Disney animated film shifted retained the setting of 18th century France. The live-action movie also keeps this setting. And 18th century France was cruel to gay men.

During the Ancien Regime, homosexuality (specifically, male sodomy) was punishable by death. The last gay men to be executed for sodomy were burned to death in 1750. Homosexuality was decriminalised only in 1791.

There was no mention of the French Revolution or the French Terror in the source material or the 1991 animated film. Thus, it’s safe to assume that the events of the story took place before the Revolution. By exploring his feelings for Gaston, Gay LeFou runs the risk of arrest, jail and execution.

Even if the story were set after the decriminalisation of sodomy, he would not be immune. New laws do not automatically lead to new social attitudes. Homosexuality was still widely seen as immoral and unnatural. If Gay LeFou were open about his feelings, he could be ostracised and run out of town. Everyone would spurn him, leaving only the company of the pederasts who frequented the public urinals and the molly houses where they pretended to be women.

This is not to say Gay LeFou is doubleplus ungood. Rather, by casting a gay man in 18th century France, Disney had the perfect set-up for drama, angst, and conflict.

And they squandered it.

The Most Interesting Man in the Room

The most interesting person in an area is the one who is most different from everybody else. In homogenous societies like 18th century France, minorities like gay men are the most interesting people around. They have to face legal repercussions, societal disapproval and disease just to be who they are. Gay LeFou would face enough drama and conflict for an entire movie all to himself.

But the story is not about Gay LeFou. It is about Belle and the Beast.

All things in a story must serve the story. A subplot about Gay LeFou finding his feelings adds nothing to the story. It will have no impact on the protagonists or their relationship; LeFou, both Gay and Regular versions, have exactly no influence over them. That makes the gay subplot a distraction at best, a time-waster at worst.

Disney claims there will be a happily ever after moment for LeFou. This flies in the face of historical fact. The gay subculture of mid-18th century France was marked with profligacy, prostitution, casual sex and group sex. Men in committed relationships with other men were despised — especially those with reputations for being debauchees.

A happily ever after for LeFou doesn’t do anything for the core story of Beauty and the Beast. How his life turns out has little to do with the main characters. As such, Gay LeFou’s story is just a sideshow, a sop to progressives, and nothing more.

By turning LeFou gay, Disney has injected modern liberal attitudes into a setting with vastly different values and attitudes. Through its focus on Belle and the Beast, Disney turned the spotlight away from the struggles Gay LeFou would realistically face in a believable 18th century France, bringing him out only to reaffirm that Gay Is Okay.

Disney’s first gay character is just a token, an object to be trotted out to signal to left-wingers that Disney shares their values, then quietly hidden away when it comes time to actually explore what it means to be gay in such a society. And yet Disney continues to be lauded for its progressive ideas.

In other words: tokenism is okay is progressives do it.

The Altar of SocJus

Gay LeFou isn’t the only indicator of social justice infection. Emma Watson, a self-proclaimed feminist, plays Belle. In the movie, Belle says, “I’m not a princess.”

This is a time and place when girls and women aspired to be treated with the grace, courtesy and respect accorded to princesses, and to receive the wealth and luxury the title implies. Further, in that time period, such a retort would indicate that a) Belle is a troublemaker who will not acknowledge the roles of women at that time, b) Belle disrespects the Beast’s servants, and by extension her host, and c) the Beast (who is a prince) has poor taste for choosing such a troublesome woman as a companion — which suggests his ability to judge people and make decisions is impaired. This, in turn, would lead the Beast’s servants to either ‘educate’ Belle on proper manners and/or convince the Beast to find a new companion.

Likewise, Belle wears a dress that conforms to modern fashion sensibilities, flying in the face of historical female fashions of the time that emphasise narrow, inverted conical torsos. The excuse is that Belle is a more active heroine than before. Which is nonsense — clothes do not define a character. As any good creator knows, having your character deal with clothing hang-ups at the most inconvenient of times is a prime source of comedy and tension. At the very least, everybody would look askance at Belle’s fashion sense and actions, and start whisper campaigns against her, forcing Belle to change her ways. At worst, the Beast would believe them and ditch her.

Again and again, the movie sacrifices verisimilitude on the altar of social justice. Instead of capturing the little details like the difficulty of wearing women’s dress of the period or the drama that arises from making social faux pas, Disney chooses the easy way of toting a token gay man and a feminist from out of time, and pretending the drama that should have occurred would not happen.

The live action film had so much potential. It could have been filled with the angst, drama, social sniping and prejudices that define an epic historic fantasy romance. Instead, Disney sacrificed it all to signal to progressives that they, too, hold modern ideas.

Such a poor prize for such a grand price.

The disease of virtue-signalling must be fought wherever it appears in fiction. It robs stories of their full potential, turning them from potential epics to hollow tales, just so that the creator can say, “Look at me! I believe in SocJus too!” Creators like these are not interested in fiction. They are only interested in ramming their ideas down your throat.

Sources:

Still: Beauty and the Beast, 1991, first sourced from Disneyfied or Disney Tried

From Twickenham to Turkey: Eighteenth-Century Gay Subcultures in Europe, America and Australia

Gay subcultures in eighteenth century Europe

The Sodomite Becomes a Molly

1700-1750 in Western fashion

Emma Watson’s Belle ditches the corset and princess title in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Beauty and the Beast Director on His Decision to Make LeFou Gay: ‘In a Very Disney Way, We Are Including Everybody’

Film Analysis: Fifty Shades of Grey Franchise

The Fifty Shades of Grey movies surpasses the original prose trilogy while capturing its original spirit. Unlike the novel, I could endure the film until the end — mostly by picking apart everything wrong about them. With the release of Fifty Shades Darker, I’m confident that I cannot be further entertained by the franchise.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

In Fifty Shades of Grey, literature senior Anastasia Steele interviews billionaire entrepreneur Christian Grey and is utterly attracted to him. Grey instantly falls for her, and begins to pursue her. Classic female fantasy. If Grey were a homeless bum or just an everyman, this would be a psychological thriller, but since Grey is a billionaire it’s billed as a romance.

It’s easy to understand why she is attracted to him. Christian Grey is wealthy, powerful and not ugly. But what does he see in her?

It’s obvious that neither E L James nor the scriptwriter have any inkling about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Billionaires do not live in the same world as regular people. The one percent hang out at exclusive clubs and societies that cater to the ultra-wealthy. They attend galas, pageants and social events to network with their fellow one-percenters and strike up marriage alliances. They are the guests of honour everywhere they go.

In these appearances, they smile and strut and schmooze and scheme. They know they are the movers and shakers of society, and they know that there will always be people waiting to pounce on the slightest sign of weakness. Thus, they have to learn impeccable manners and social skills, and see and be seen only by the luminaries of the world. The companions they bring to these events reflect their wealth, status and taste; they choose their mates very selectively and demand a hundred percent at all times.

An eligible bachelor like Grey will have no end of women throwing themselves at his feet. He will be invited to events where supermodels, actresses, athletes and fellow billionaires will be in attendance. During meetings with clients and investors, there will be no shortage of opportunities to meet glamorous hostesses or hire gorgeous escorts. More ordinary women (like Ana!) would do everything in their power to gain the privilege of a single night with him. Wealth and power are the most potent female aphrodisiacs in the world, and men like Grey would be spoiled for choice.

So why Ana?

Anastasia Steele is slim and pretty, but she is not supermodel material. She doesn’t demonstrate any sign of superior intelligence — her one shot at this, when interviewing Christian, was entirely unmemorable. The movies offer no opportunities for her to demonstrate qualities like resilience, independence and determination to him. As she makes abundantly clear, she does not share Christian’s sexual tastes.

Men like Christian Grey can afford to be picky. People do not become billionaires by the age of 27 by thinking like regular people. A man like that knows that he has to be highly selective to hire the right employees, and be ruthless in firing those who fail to meet his standards. Christian isn’t a complete naif either; he’s implied to have plenty of sexual experience in his past. Ana clearly doesn’t completely suit him — so why should he care about her?

The answer is simple: the series is not about Christian Grey. It is about the enduring female fantasy of being swept off her feet by a powerful man who finds her irresistible.

Romance? What Romance?

Romance stories are driven by interactions between the main characters. But when characters are flat, the story falls flat.

Take a look at Vox Day’s socio-sexual hierarchy and Heartiste’s Dating Market Value Test for Men. Grey is described as ‘dominant’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘intimidating’. By all accounts he should be an alpha or a sigma. But he acts like a low beta (Heartiste) or delta (Vox Day).

A high-value man seduces women by careful displays of wealth and attention, attracting them to him. Grey lavishes time and money on Ana, but receives no financial gain in return. A high-value man sets the pace of the relationship — he may negotiate boundaries with his mate, but the relationship is on his terms. Grey does everything Ana asks of him without the slightest complaint or protest. A high-value man employs wit, charm, game and deep penetration to win women over. Grey’s dialogue is either utterly bland or breathless proclamations of how much he adores Ana. A high-value man will run background checks on potential mates to guard himself, and hide that fact from people. Grey casually surrenders that knowledge to Ana without even drawing a concession. A high-value man seeks to maximise profit and cedes ground in negotiations only reluctantly. Grey displays none of the drive that makes men billionaires. A high-value man maintains frame. Grey surrenders it.

Christian Grey doesn’t act like a dominant high-status male. He doesn’t even act like a billionaire. Men like that do not have the luxury of dropping or delaying appointments on a whim just to chase a girl, not if they want to land the multi-million dollar deals that made them rich in the first place. They know that women are everywhere, but a sales opportunity may be once in a lifetime. They will remain focused on their mission of making money, especially if they are single, and only turn their attention to their women after they are done.

And if the woman keeps complaining about it? She’s fired and replaced without a second thought.

Christian Grey acts like every woman’s fantasy. He is rich and powerful, but eats out of Ana’s hand. He has the ability to devote time, money and attention on her, and will change his essential nature for her. He won’t ever chase other, higher-status women with more compatible sexual fantasies because he is utterly obsessed with her.

And in the real world, men who act like Christian Grey become hollowed-out shells of their former selves, losing everything that made them great.

Characters? What characters?

Every person in the film franchise revolves around Anastasia Steele. Their thoughts, feelings and actions revolve entirely around her. When she is not in the frame, they cease to exist. Case in point: Fifty Shades Darker.

The trailer promises that people from Christian’s past shows up. They do, but not in any significant way.

Mrs Robinson, the woman who originally seduced Christian, makes hostile remarks at Ana and…nothing more. As Christian’s business partner, she has leverage over him. She can whisper into his ear, spread rumours about Ana and use her resources to make life difficult for Ana. Instead, the movie resolves the conflict simply by having Ana throw water on her and walk away.

In the real world, women as powerful as Mrs Robinson don’t act directly. They will plot their revenge, hire thugs and lawyers, and ruin their target without any trace of suspicion falling on her. It may feel good to throw water on her, but people like Mrs Robinson won’t rest until she or her target is destroyed. And Christian ought to know that too. The movie shows no attempt to resolve the conflict, wasting an opportunity for drama.

Leila Williams, Christian’s former submissive, also shows up. She appears for a few scenes, utters a couple of lines, and fades away. There is no sense of personality or motivation to her. The one moment she makes an impact is when she breaks into Ana’s home. And even then, Ana’s reaction isn’t one of fear for her safety (what if someone else breaks in?) or relief (thank God Christian and his bodyguard dealt with this madwoman) but jealousy. Leila is simply a device to make Ana jealous, compelling Christian to further emasculate himself through signalling his loyalty. Once Leila has served her purpose, she disappears.

Jack Hyde was Ana’s boss, working as Commissioning Editor at Seattle Independent Publishing. When he first shows up, he serves to make Christian jealous. His existence signals to the audience that Ana is attractive to other men. When the three meet at a bar, Christian introduces himself to Jack by saying, “I’m the boyfriend.” This is a signal of anger, jealousy and insecurity; it is a definition of identity based on someone else instead of who he is. It is what an ordinary man would do, not a true high-status man.

In the real world, a true dominant would smile broadly, focus his gaze on Jack, extend his hand and say, “Hi. I’m Christian. Nice meeting you.” At the same time, he would wrap his arm around Ana’s waist and pull her into him. This is a demonstration of confidence, superiority, ownership and frame — without openly giving Jack a reason to get mad at him.

Later, Jack threatens to expose Ana’s relationship with Christian unless she provides sexual favours and tries to assault her. She fights her way out (the only time we see courage from her), then runs outside into Christian’s arms. Christian moves to have him fired. Jack naturally seethes at this treatment and plots Christian’s downfall, paving the way for the next story. Here, he simply exists to provide an element of danger and set up the next story.

In the real world, a man like Christian wouldn’t settle for having him fired. He would call the police and use his influence to have Jack locked away for sexual assault. Any regular person would do that, but once Jack is off-screen, he is immediately forgiven of all sins. This makes no sense whatsoever — unless you want a reason for the next story.

Kink? What kink?

All I will say about the sex scenes is that you can find much harder porn on the Internet for free.

Bondage, domination, sadism and masochism is the forbidden fruit that draws in customers. It is taboo, yet dramatic and glamorous. But its on-screen portrayal is tame. The movies walk the fine line between showing just enough BDSM to tantalise the audience while staying clear of the hardcore aspect that will alienate the vanilla audience — and errs on the side of the latter.

It’s All About Ana

Despite being named after Christian Grey, Fifty Shades is all about Ana. She effortlessly attracts and changes a wealthy man, but has no need to mold herself to him. She is the focus of his attentions, but since she can tell him off and he respects her limits, he isn’t really a stalker. There is just enough kink to lure in the audience, but it’s always on her terms and he never pushes her. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn Christian’s affections, but he makes grandiose displays for her. She enjoys the attention and wealth of a billionaire, and has no need to hold up her end of the relationship.

Fifty Shades of Grey is the perfect female fantasy. It allows a female audience to insert themselves into Ana’s shoes and pretend that they, too, can haul in a billionaire without having to lift a finger. No matter how cringe-worthy you may find the franchise, it is the textbook for understanding the solipsism, fantasy and hypergamy of the modern female.

Credits:

Fifty Shades Darker No More Secrets Poster: Universal
Christian Grey: Fanpop
Fifty Shades of Grey still: Aceshowbiz
Leila Williams: The Daily Mail
Meh: Media Makeameme
Fifty Shades Darker No More Rules Poster: Universal

Still Skeptical about Ghost in the Shell

The first official trailer for Ghost in the Shell is out…and, if anything, I’m even more skeptical about the movie.

In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not enthusiastic about the movie. After watching the trailer, I’m almost certain my fears will be realised.

To be fair, this movie is visually stunning. The art direction is top-notch, and it captures the cyberpunk aesthetic of futuristic cities with broken rain-slick streets. However, it seems that the producers focused on amazing visuals instead of faithfully adapting the characters, story and tone.

Major Kusanagi Motoko drives the franchise. In the manga, she is an exuberant, cheerfully destructive woman with a juvenile sense of humour. In the anime, both movie and series, she morphs into a cold, ruthless operator hyper-focused on the mission. In this incarnation, the ‘Major’ (no name given) is a brooding cyborg who feels alienated from society. In the trailer, she says, “Everybody feels connected to something I’m not.”

This is a major departure from established canon: the Kusanagis of the anime and the manga have made peace with the fact that they aren’t part of ‘regular’ society. They don’t brood about it. In the manga, Kusanagi pursues relationships; in the anime, she just doesn’t care.

In the real world, special operators are chosen for their ability to be decisive and adaptable; there are very few navel gazers and moody brooders in their hallowed ranks. Going by the trailer, that makes the anime and manga Kusanagi more believable in my eyes.

Furthermore, Kusanagi is a team leader. She may be the central character, but she knows how to her team to achieve her goals. The opening scene of the movie pays homage to the first episode of the anime series, with one key difference: in the anime, every member of Section 9 deploys, utilising their strengths to efficiently take out the terrorists.

Part of the appeal of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is its attention to detail, including tactics. The creator, Masamune Shirow, and the anime production team at least tried to incorporate tactics and teamwork. Kusanagi may be a superpowered cyborg, but in the world of GitS, her enemies may be just as deadly as she — and oftentimes, deadlier. Section 9 has to work together to succeed. Indeed, when the enemy catches Section 9 members working solo, Bad Things usually happen — to Section 9. This approach increases the verisimilitude of the series, and reinforces both its hard sci fi aesthetic and its gritty tone.

In the movie, we see Major Nameless soloing a room full of bad guys. Yes, this shows she is a Superpowered Female Character…but it also betrays Hollywood’s elevation of the visual. Instead of going for the gritty realism that defined GitS, the Hollywood version emphasises gee-whiz action and shallow sleekness.

We see this visual sophistry again at 1:32, when Major Nameless uppercuts a person. He promptly goes flying and spins round and round. This is painfully obvious wirework. It’s meant to highlight just how powerful she is — in the mind of a Hollywood writer — but to the eyes of a person who studied martial arts, it’s utterly impossible. Physics simply does not work that way.

Most important of all, the anime and manga were not about Kusanagi. She may be the protagonist, but she is not the focus of the story. Those stories explored how rapid technological progress changes people and society, and what it means to have a soul when your body, vital organs, and brain, can be designed and mass-manufactured. Kusanagi’s missions place her at the cutting edge of technology, forcing her, and the viewer, to grapple with the concepts of individual consciousness and emergent group gestalts. Indeed, the ‘ghost’ in the title is an in-universe term characters use when referencing their soul or consciousness, while ‘shell’ indicates their cyborg bodies. The philosophical underpinnings elevated the franchise from mere excellent to timeless.

In the trailer, we hear lines like ‘You know I have a past. I’ll find out who I was’, ‘Everything they told you was a lie’, and ‘They did not save your life. They stole it.’ This suggests that the story is about the Major seeking the truth of her past, and implies false or erased memories, and that she is an unknowing pawn of ‘them’.

Not that this is a bad story, but it is not Ghost in the Shell.

Hollywood GitS is classic cyberpunk: alienated character seeking the truth and fighting a powerful enemy to pursue personal goals. The original GitS is one of the earliest examples of post-cyberpunk: a government agent who uses morally gray methods in the service of civilisation. Cyberpunk is an arrow against the system; post-cyberpunk upholds society. And I don’t think the live action movie recognises that.

The Hollywood movie might still turn out to be a decent flick. But going by the trailer, I’m skeptical if it can live up to the original.

 

Japanese Ghost, Western Shell

Ghost in the Shell was among the first animes I have ever watched, and among the first sci fi manga I have ever read. Even today, its themes, aesthetics, technology and design language influence my writing and worldbuilding. When I learned of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major Kusanagi Motoko for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the only thing I could do was sigh.

I prefer adaptations to be as true to established canon as possible. Everything from themes to technologies, settings to characters, including their mannerisms, personalities and, yes, appearance. Part of this comes from distaste of executive meddling, of Hollywood inserting ideas that are not the original creator’s, or deleting ideas the creator wished to explore. While adaptations and edits are necessary to translate a given work from one medium to another, I prefer that these edits enhance the experience and stay true to the author’s vision instead of detracting from it.

Case in point, let’s look at the upcoming movie adaptation of The Dark Tower. The series protagonist, Roland Deschain, will be played by Idris Elba. However, in canon, Roland is a white man. And his ethnicity plays a major role in the story.

(Spoilers ahead!)

In the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws three characters from different worlds and times into his. One of them is Eddie Dean from 1987 New York — a white man. Another is Odetta Susannah Holmes from New York — a black woman from 1964. Holmes also suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and has a secondary persona, Detta Susannah Walker. Who also happens to be murderously psychotic.

Much of the drama in The Drawing of the Three lies in Detta’s antagonism towards the men. Detta hates all white men, calling them ‘honkey mahfas’, and speaks with a stereotypical black accent. Her racism boils off the page, culminating in attempted murder.

If Roland were a black man, and if the movie version of The Dark Tower extends to The Drawing of the Three, the presence of a black gunslinger would rob the drama of at least half its power. Barring clever editing and rewriting — which Hollywood adaptations are not known to enjoy — the experience will be cheapened. Or even eliminated altogether. And if such a pivotal experience, one that gives rise to Holmes/Walker’s third personality of Susannah Dean, is weakened or eliminated — what else will be given up? What else will be eroded?

What else will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness?

(End spoilers)

When I think of Major Kusanagi Motoko, I think of a Japanese secret policewoman who fights cyberterrorism and corruption in a post-cyberpunk Japan using fair means and foul while grappling with what it means to be human. She lives in a time and place where anybody can afford a customised cybernetic body, a ‘shell’, which throws into question the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’.

It is true that the setting allows Kusanagi to choose whatever body she wants, including, presumably, that of a Westerner. It is also equally true that in the canon she chose to present as a Japanese woman. To present her as a Westerner barring specific circumstances feels like disrespect towards Kusanagi, her choices and her motivations. Further, the entire franchise is set mainly in Japan. If Kusanagi presents as a Westerner in Japan, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, she will stand out — not a good trait for a secret policewoman who operates outside the law and fights terrorists and corrupt government officials.

And what if the story is not set in Japan? Then the next question must be: Why even call it Ghost in the Shell? While the core theme of the franchise is an exploration of what it means to be human, the cornerstones of the story universe are based on Japanese concerns. Ghost in the Shell, it must be remembered, was originally a manga published in 1989. The manga dealt with powerful Japanese corporations, superior Japanese technology,  growing Japanese soft and hard power, unelected Japanese bureaucrats and officials consolidating and abusing their power, and Real Robots — itself a spinoff from the pioneering mecha genre, a Japanese innovation.The manga reflected a dark vision of a future Japan, seen from 1989. The anime adaptations stayed true to this vision. If the live adaptation isn’t set in Japan, and doesn’t have a Japanese lead, then it won’t reflect the Japanese underpinnings of the story. In which case, why even call it Ghost in the Shell? It might as well be a whole new post-cyberpunk movie.

Otaku are not a forgiving breed. When they encounter questions like this, they default to the worst case scenario: Hollywood cast Scarlet Johansen in an attempt to appeal to a Western audience, and they don’t care if it ruins the creative vision of the franchise. If an American film company will cast an American to play the role of a Japanese, then will the Americans respect the Japanese ideas underpinning the story, including a cynical view of American imperialism and interference in Japanese affairs? If the film concept is about a Westerner doing things set in a cyberpunk West, with little or no reference to Japan, then is it simply leeching off the fame of the franchise like the all-female Ghostbusters remake and Mad Max: Fury Road?

In other words, what other aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism?

There may be good reasons for casting Johanssen as a Japanese woman. Hollywood may even take the safe way out and eventually brand it as a Western adaptation of Ghost in the Shell under a different title, the same way Edge of Tomorrow was a Western adaptation of All You Need is Kill. I’m hoping that the film makers will take this path, as it respects the executives’ desire to appeal to a Western audience and the otaku’s desire for integrity of the franchise’s creative vision — and also because Ghost in the Shell as a title isn’t particularly evocative to Western ears. The director may even surprise everyone and cast a second, Japanese, woman to play the role of Kusanagi Motoko, perhaps as Kusanagi’s shell when she wants to appear Japanese, reinforcing the franchise’s theme.

But until more is known about the movie, the otaku of the world are simply going to assume that Johanssen’s casting is symptomatic about a much deeper problem — one Hollywood is infamous for. And Hollywood isn’t doing anything to assuage their fears.