I did not see the original Japanese anime film with the same name which triggered the idea of Ghost in the Shell and this may be an advantage or a disadvantage. I have read some articles that compare the two works, and also refer to the comics series, as well as to ‘Matrix’ which took apparently many ideas from it. It seems to me that I can enjoy and appreciate director Rupert Sanders‘ film even better without that comparison, although I may be missing some of the nuances or different directions the original work was taking the theme to.
What may have changed in the two decades since the Japanese original works were created is the fact that much of the technology that is described in the film became reality, and for the rest the feasibility is a confirmed fact. Artificial organs are now more and more replacing organs and tissues damaged by diseases or accidents. We know much more about how brain functions, how information circulates between brain and body, and how mechanical actions of the human body or artificial prosthesis are controlled. Brain transplant was not achieved, but it’s considered feasible, as well as a future implant in a completely artificial body. As in the film, many of the humans are or will become hybrids with a higher and higher percentage of replaced parts.
The film deals with a future in which the first brain implant is made in an artificial body. This makes of the lead heroine (Scarlett Johansson) kind of a super-hero, a living weapon to fight terrorists. It’s just that her former identity (her ‘ghost’) comes to haunt her, and while she slowly recovers her human identity the reality around becomes less connected to the truth. What follows is a combination of action (or even super-heroes action) and smart science-fiction genres, which takes place in a world where men coexist with hybrids, or maybe better said almost any man also became a hybrid. It’s a film which succeeds both to entertain as well as to ask difficult questions about the future evolution of mankind and it’s relation with the thinking machines created by men.
Some exceptional work was performed in order to create on screen the possible world of the future described in Ghost in the Shell. The visual concept makes reference to previous art like the one in Metropolis or Blade Runner, but develops those into new directions starting from the images and shapes that define today’s Asian big cities. There are a lot of computerized effects but they all have logic and are backing the story line, and so do the action scenes. The film succeeds to satisfy both action fans as well as viewers who are looking for meaningful science-fiction. Scarlett Johansson is very good in the lead role, she continues her daring undertaking of roles in science-fiction movies, but each one of the roles is different and this should help her avoid automatic casting in a new stereotype which replaces the older beautiful-fragile girl one in the first years of her career. It’s a pleasure to see huge actors as Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche also involved in this project.
Blood and Bones is a violent epic story whose hero is a Zainichi Korean which is the name of the ethnic Koreans settled in Japan, many of them during the first half of the 20th century when Korea was under Japanese rule. Director Yoichi Sai‘s father was a Zainichi Korean, so the social medium must be well known to him. His ambitious project describes the tough life of the community through the story of the life of Joon-pyong Kim who comes as a young and hopeful immigrant before WWII to get enrolled in the Japanese army, and at the return to embark in a life of crime, violence and family abuse which sees his ascension to and decay, while confining most of the action in the space of the same street in the Korean immigrants district.
The ambition of the project and the breath of the epic brought me to mind the parallel to ‘The Godfather’. The combination between a family saga and the crime environment may be the same, but there is one crucial difference between Sai’s and Coppola’s films – while both characters are similarly despicable in crime, the attitudes to their families are radically different. For Coppola’s characters family values are at the highest possible level, while Sai’s character (magistrally acted by Takeshi Kitano) is a violent tyrant, causing suffering to everybody he gets in touch with, harming them physically and psychically and destroying their lives. It is almost the most perfect study in evil I have seen since Hannibal Lecter, just missing his wit and sophistication.
There is a lot to appreciate in this film, starting with Kitano’s performance and that of the rest of the team, passing through the fluent story telling, and ending with the refined cinematography which uses basically the same set for the duration of the action (which spreads on many decades) marking the passing of time with small changes in colors or accessories. It is not easy to follow if you do not absorb easily violence on screen, but otherwise it is a good story and a credible cinematographic reflection of a piece in the history of Japan whose details I at least have become aware about only now.
By one of these coincidences that make you wonder the very day the strongest earthquake in memory hit Japan, a Japanese film festival took place at the cinematheque in my city. Kikujiro which I saw last night is a very special film in the Japanese cinema and in the filmography of Takeshi Kitano.
The fans of Kitano will notice that he is taking the character he usually plays in the gangster movies and creates here a failed version of it. He is dominated by a bad-mouthed wife. His walk is uncertain, closer to Chaplin’s than to a well assured yakuza. He does have a scaring tatoo on his back but this becomes just the reason of the bad dreams of his little boy friend. When confronted with a gang of local gangsters he ends by being beaten in a situation in which his self from other movies would have killed his opponents in a fraction of time. All over the film he looks more like inadequate and unadapted to reality.
There is however much more in the character than this. The name – which we learn in the last scene – is the real name of Takeshi Kitano’s father which is said to have shared at least some of the vices of the character in the movie like gambling. This is a personal film in which a lonely young kid gradually gains some kind of a father instead of the one he never had. The feelings of the little boy and his permanently sad look may have been inspired by the feelings of kid Takeshi and his disappointments in the relation with his father.
By the time Kitano made this movie the ‘grumpy man – lonely kid’ films (which had the classic in Chaplin’s Vagabond) were making a comeback. In 1996 the Czech Kolya had moved audiences and the Oscar jury with the story of the relation between the Czech musician and a Russian kid in occupied Czechoslovakia. Two years earlier Natalie Portman’s first breakthrough was in Leon, where she befriended another gangster played by the wonderful Jean Reno. Kitano was not afraid to take over a popular theme which he developed adding to it other dimensions to the merge of mature and childish loneliness. The film speaks about in-adaptation and about the right to be different. It brings on screen characters to illustrate that different people can get together and create beauty from weird. The Poet and the two motorcyclists seem to come out from the Land of Oz in a very different road experience.
The style of the film is inspired by some of the Japanese popular culture techniques and form of art. The kid’s dreams look like traditional theater scenes. A toy he receives and starts relating to it as an amulet looks like one of artist’s Takashi Murakami gadgets. Acting is excellent and the music belongs to Joe Hisaishi, a composer famous in Japan and author of the soundtrack of more than 100 films. While you need to make a small effort to get into the mood and buy the transformation of the traditional gangster image in Kitano’s films, Kikujiro ends by being a very satisfying cinema experience.