If you’re at all a fan of anime or manga, you’ve likely read or seen Ghost in the Shell. The manga (whose Japanese title translates to “Mobile Armored Riot Police”) first launched as a series of books in 1989 and spawned a number of spinoffs, including its famous animated film adaptation. That film posits a cyberpunk future where humans are enhanced by cybernetics; our protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi is one such enhanced individual who works in Public Security Section 9, a special-ops task force that investigates cyber crimes. And while much of it is still a mystery, Paramount’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is set to explore Major’s search for her own humanity inside a robotic body in a whole new way.
Earlier this year, we got a chance to visit the set of the film in New Zealand. While on set, we spoke with director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman), star Scarlett Johansson (who plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, known simply as “Major” in this version) and producer Avi Arad about the portraying such an iconic role, the Major’s inner struggle, and the film’s highly anticipated cyberpunk aesthetic.
As the Major’s body is largely cybernetic, the anime and the upcoming film deal with what it means to be human. Is it our bodies, minds, or souls that determine our humanity? Johansson talked about creating the character and dealing with how she would move in a body that isn’t made of flesh and blood. “You can go deep in one direction and play a very unfeeling, mechanical sort of gait and stride,” Johansson said. “Her mannerisms are cold. But you don’t want to be, of course, shut off from the feeling audience, and also from this character’s inner experience. So you kind of work with varying ways of going too far in different directions.”
Johansson added that one of the most important things about the Major is that everything she does is with intent. As a cybernetically enhanced human, “she doesn’t have those kinds of mannerisms and tics [that let] you see when we’re impatient or nervous or decision-making… She doesn’t have that stuff and I think maybe the absence of those mannerisms is what gives her her physical character.”
Fans of the anime and manga will likely look forward to certain scenes where characters use thermoptic technology to camoflage themselves. But there will be some differences. While a characters in the anime wearing a thermoptic suit would appear naked, this film is going for a PG-13 rating. Arad explained that though the Major’s thermoptic suit in the film mimics nudity, she isn’t actually nude. He said, “Rupert wanted to keep it sexy… And what’s interesting about Ghost in the Shell that all started with the manga was that it’s actually [become] more relevant in [the last] 20 years. The sexuality was something we wanted keep forward.”
He continued, “When you make a movie, things become much more literal. If you’re in a world with someone walking around in a thong, we’re not in a world where that was going to feel natural. So we didn’t do it. But in cases when you’re being born [referring to the “shelling sequence” over the opening credits of the anime, where the Major’s consciousness is put into her cybernetic body, in essence, “being born”]… that’s why they call it the birthday suit. We’re not going to see her naked, but we’re also not fleeing from that element.”
While the manga explores sexuality quite openly, Johansson explained that this really isn’t the focus of the live-action film. “I think she’s very removed from her sexuality. She’s in the midst of an identity crisis… I think perhaps some people’s sexuality, or an abundance of it, comes at that time. Like, they lose themselves in that because they’re missing other parts of themselves. But I think for her, she doesn’t know who she was. She has such a vague idea—this is how we play it in the story—she has such a murky idea of who she was, [so] how would she even know what she likes or who she likes? She also has no heart… Human heart, anyway. So if you would imagine if that could be related to sensuality or sexuality, that part is also missing for her.”
In the anime, there is something of a relationship between the Major and Batou, her brawny second-in-command. That said, whether this rapport is sexual or platonic is often a topic of debate between fans. Pilou Asbæk, who plays Batou in the new film, said they shot their scenes a bunch of different ways, so he’s not sure which relationship will be implied in the final cut. “We’ve done so many different versions,” he said.
We asked Johansson, who wasn’t familiar with the property before she was cast, if there was anything that might surprise fans of the anime and manga. She said, “I think when you have a character that’s so beloved, and certainly even with Black Widow [her role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe], bringing that character to life was sort of daunting. Just because, of course people have a lot of opinions about these characters that they love, and grew up with, and are inspired by and so forth. I try to kind of clean the slate and really follow my instincts with the character and hope that I give the character as much integrity as people expect. And you know, while still understanding the world in which we’re creating here on set.”
She continued, “Bringing these pages to life is a kind of challenge. Because you can’t rip it off the page, it’s totally different. It’s not really a person, but it’s a human brain, it’s someone who’s having this life experience. Which is very different from just ripping stuff off from the manga. One thing that will be very different, probably, is we’re not making the Frank Miller world where those graphic novels come to life. We have kind of the iconic iconography of the manga and stuff, but I think people will be surprised at the gritty kind of realness of this. For a person that doesn’t have a heart, it has a lot of heart, I think. The way that we’re telling it. Anyway, that’s the hope.”
Johansson talked about the aesthetic of the world we’re going to see. “It is a really cool world and I think we’re very used to the idea of the future in an armageddon context or a post-apocalyptic kind of idea or it’s very stringent, like Spike [Jonze] did with Her,” she said. “Everything’s digitized and computerized and clean or absence of character. This movie, [Sanders] described it to me as cities built on cities and the abundance of waste. It’s a kind of collage of cultures and it’s identity-less in that as a whole melange of different kinds of textures and colors and, it’s really rich. The depth of this movie is amazing… There’s a lot of texture and depth to the way that it’s shot and the way that it’s dressed. Of course, the format that they’re shooting in also really adds a lot of texture and depth too. So it’s visually delicious, I think for people.”
Of her approach to the story, Johansson said, “I tried to imagine the Major’s journey as her kind of life as she thinks she was, the life that she is, and the person that she was actually. Which is this kind of story that we’re telling, this Puppet Master story. And when I wrapped my head around that part of it, this id/superego/ego thing, I was like, ‘All right, I can maybe like roll with that.’” She continued, “I think it’s important for the Major to own her…experiences that she’s been through and that she didn’t really have an active choice in where she is. Instead of kind of fighting that, by accepting that, she becomes a young woman, you know? She goes kind of from being a child-woman to becoming a young woman. And I think part of that transition is accepting who you are, I guess. It’s a lot to sit on. She’s different when we see her at the end of this film versus the beginning, certainly. It’s kind of a loss of innocence that happens, but the gain is really significant.”
Are you guys excited for the new live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell? We’ll have more coverage from the set on Nerdist, so stay tuned. Tweet me/us @JennaBusch/@Nerdist and let us know your thoughts. Ghost in the Shell will hit theaters on March 31, 2017.
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