Ghost in the Shell Film Analysis Part II: Aesthetics

I can’t find a better word that encompasses set design, cinematography and so on, therefore ‘aesthetics’ will have to do.

Do any readers remember how in my write-up about the film preview I waxed on about how the influence of Transformers and TRON: Legacy had ruined sci-fi flicks’ colour palettes? Yes, I rescind that criticism in regards to this film. I’m capable of admitting when I’m wrong. To cut a long story short, while I had already seen both Ghost in the Shell anime films by Mamoru Oshii’s by the time I saw the film preview at the cinema, I could not remember at the time much about Ghost in the Shell: Innocence; the second anime film.

Because of this I didn’t catch on to the fact that the live-action film’s colour palette is modeled on Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, rather than on the first anime film. A friend I went with to the cinema when I saw the live-action film was the one who pointed it out to me, so I looked up and skimmed through the second film. I saw both anime films about six years ago; that’s over a quarter of my life, so cut me some slack here.

Anyway, I still maintain the whole look of the film is very washed out, the colour palette is drab, and the only really vibrant colour that pops out is green — something most evident when Chief Aramaki and Cutter have their final face-off at Cutter’s office. The film would be much improved visually if they just did away with the filters. there is too much blue. Me no likey. You can watch this video about some of the work New Zealand VFX studio WETA did on the film, and see for yourself how much better the pre-processed scenes look:

Still, I have quibbles with the special effects in this film. At some points they don’t look real. The intro of the film, where they make the body of the Major, can be labelled as CGI from a mile away. And some effects from the fight scenes don’t look quite right. Major Mira Killian’s body sometimes looks nude, or sometimes looks as if it has a flesh-coloured skin-tight armor (which is actually the intended effect.) There’s a particular stunt in the final fight scene against the mecha controlled by Cutter where the Major runs up some debris, which looks really cartoony, and it was way too evident that Scarlett was using stunt wires.

Speaking of action scenes, my enthusiasm for the first action set piece featuring the robo-geishas has been dampened somewhat upon further reflection because it turns out it’s a problematic scene, but I still can gush about gorgeous it is. I talked in the article about the preview how it seemed a great update on the theme of a Japanese tea salon, and so on.

Now I want to talk more about the robo-geishas themselves. It didn’t hit me until I skimmed through Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, however, the robo-geishas are a fusion between the Hadaly model that goes amok in that film for reasons that’d be spoileriffic, and the karakuri ningyō, a type of traditional Japanese automata mostly sold as luxury items from the Edo period onwards. It bears saying that Japanese automata are also featured in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence when Batou and Togusa go visit uber-hacker Kim, albeit in a very low-key way. If anybody watched the video on the work WETA did for the film, then one would have seen a lot about the robo-geishas, the artistry of their costumes, the faces, everything. I would like people to compare and contrast with the surprisingly complex movements of these Japanese dolls:

Amazing, isn’t it? And I like that. I like that the filmmakers did not only lean on the anime films but looked to the original sources of inspiration in order to make a more immersive experience. It’s reinventing the material.

The city in general, was clearly meant to evoke Tokyo. The city is never named inside of the film specifically, but the ambience, the ads, apartment buildings, everything just screams ‘Tokyo!’ There were tons of Japanese writing everywhere. The holographic ads that were pervasive throughout the cityscape and storefronts really add to the ambience. They were just so full of life, advertising different products, fitness; and they featured lots of (presumably) Japanese people just modelling around.

(Side note: In keeping with the multi-cultural approach, there is even an ad featuring a woman in a niqab in the background on top of a building! And one with a Buddhist monk. The buildings were also appropriately oppressive and industrial-looking, ideal for a steampunk setting.)

There was nary a plant in sight, which contributed to the artificial feeling of the whole city and how it has changed. In the blocks of the heavily residential areas there was a lot of garbage, giving off an air of overpopulation.

Another scene I really liked is when Major Mira Killian has to accompany Batou through a street market, and Batou picks up bones for his dog. They managed to blend seamlessly the future with the streetmarket. In my country there are several streetmarkets and I felt transported into that. I can really see how this vision of the future the film presents to me could become reality. The holo ads were ubiquitous, and ‘hung’ in the same way banners would or how paper ads would be plastered to the stalls. There were even some people bickering in the background at the various stalls and sellers. Why was this scene so brief? It’s literally one of the best things ever.

Having said all that, the Ghost in the Shell anime films didn’t shy away from colour in their urban settings, unlike this live-action adaptation. It’s as if the producers feared if the reds and yellows looked too bright, somebody might confuse this film with a happy film, somehow.

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence anime film, screencap from the parade scene
Look at all the pretty colours in the anime films.

The soundtrack is nothing much to write home about except for some sort of bell rings in certain moments that, to my ears, echoed Kenji Kawai’s Making of a Cyborg, an OST from the Ghost in the Shell anime film. I suggest you go listen to it, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Also, Making of a Cyborg makes an appearance for the film’s credits, so it’s a nice homage.

A lot of the heavy duty machinery, such as the robot that fights Major Mira Killian in the climax, are just the models from the anime films and the mangas updated to look believable in the live-action adaptation. It’s good work, although nothing particularly original. Also, to give credit where credit is due, all the extras were either appropriately outfitted to the setting or had some post-production done over them so they looked like another one of the faceless individuals amongst the cybernetically-augmented masses.

I’m not too happy with the editing, though. In several of the fight scenes, after a while it just looks messy. There’s a fight scene where Major is electroshocked by Kuze in dark light conditions, and it cannot be appreciated in full effect because of the filters and the confusing editing. The idea is cool; its execution, not so much.

Next week, Part III!

Rosario is an early-twenties, outspoken woman, who likes to burrow between piles of books, and store miscellaneous trivia in her head.