As word arises that, once again, a director and star are circling a possible Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, I'm reminded once again of how Hollywood seems determined to make more work for itself than it really has to. Why adapt one of anime's more difficult and challenging (albeit rewarding) properties, one with virtually no mainstream recognition, and one where the likely route of adaptation — turning the whole thing into a cyberpunk mix of CSI and 24 -- won't accomplish much except pitch overboard all of the things about Ghost in the Shell that made it interesting to begin with?
It only looks like an easy job
Whenever I've chosen an anime property for discussion in Let's Film This, I've looked for titles that can survive the jump from East to West without breaking their ankles in the process. Claymore and Fullmetal Alchemist are informed by many of the same sensibilities that are found in other anime titles, but they aren't limited by them. They're "pre-localized", meaning there's nothing in them that has to be translated for the sake of a Western audience. In the case of something like Black Lagoon, there's even less localization work to do: barring the fact that the hero is a Japanese salaryman, it is a Western work by any other name. It's easy to draw some of the same conclusions about Ghost in the Shell, but I believe that is misleading.
The things that make Ghost superficially "Western" — the post-modern, high-tech storyline, the action scenes, etc. — are more how it is what it is than what it is, to use a critical formula devised by Susan Sontag. Much of what makes the Shell franchise its own animal is tied into the same things found in another anime that faces a dismal time of it in a Western adaptation, AKIRA. By this I mean the way those stories are rooted in Japan's sense of itself, especially its troubled sense of self in the wake of WWII. AKIRA manifests such things a lot more explicitly than Ghost in the Shell, but the latter property has it in an assortment of ways — what role Japan has as a world power, how much it can afford to militarize internally and at what cost, how its attitude of compulsive technological advancement coexists uneasily with social artifacts of earlier ages both good and bad, and so on.
These are all things which have ostensible parallels in the West, but the point I made with AKIRA is the same point I make here: those parallels are not one-to-one. Re-seat those questions in the West — specifically, the U.S. — and you get not only different answers but fundamentally different questions, and thus a different story. You might even get an interesting story, but you don't get Ghost in the Shell.
A Ghost without a soul
Something else that I suspect will go AWOL in a Hollywood adaptation of the material is something that has already fallen out the bottom of the most recent incarnation of the franchise, Ghost in the Shell: ARISE. It is, for lack of any better word for it, the spiritual overtones of the franchise — the questions about memory and personhood, the blurring of lines between men, machines, and sentience, all evoked with broad strokes of aching nostalgia or grand mystery.
Each incarnation of the franchise has touched on this idea in a different way. In Masamune Shirow's original manga, it existed mostly as yet another hyper-intellectualism for the author to push through the mouths of his creations, or to fill the margins of the page with as footnotes. In the first two films, it was evoked as atmosphere and mood; it was used to striking effect in the first film, but the way the second movie was almost entirely atmosphere (still, what atmosphere!) indicated that the approach could only go so far before becoming self-defeating. In the Stand Alone Complex / Solid State Society incarnation of the story, it was used to its most satisfying effect, since it complemented and expanded on the other concerns of the story without drowning them out.
By the time ARISE came along, though, such sentiments only figured prominently in the first installment; by the second, they had been shoved aside in favor of the kind of deep plotting I can imagine playing a strong role in any Hollywood incarnation of the material. It's ARISE that I fear will be the most likely model for any Hollywood incarnation to follow: a solid, slick, but unadventurous story — unadventurous especially in the psychological and emotional sense, where what emotional sparks get thrown off come mainly as a by-product of the grinding of the plot's gears.
What's in a name?
Given all this, any Hollywood incarnation of the Shell franchise is likely to be a losing battle against terrible odds. We might be better served by taking the energy that might be poured into such a production and playing what I would call the Guillermo del Toro Gambit: pay homage to the material, but at the same time create something that is undeniably original and moves in its own identifiable and independent direction, much as that director fused multiple elements (the Cthulhu mythos, the Godzilla films, the Evangelion franchise) to make Pacific Rim.
I suspect this won't happen, though, because Hollywood is hung up, foolishly so, on the power of a brand name — yes, even when that brand name only means something to maybe one out of two hundred people in the audience. For all I know, the people involved are actually gigantic fans of the material and sincerely want to bring it to a broader audience, but this is evangelism of the wrong order. Not everything is going to have a mainstream audience, and trying to force the issue only brings to mind Boy Scouts helping a little old lady across the street who'd really rather not go.
The one area where I have no doubts is whether or not the film is technically feasible, or what the logistics of making a live-action version of this material would be like. There is little, if anything, at this point that cannot be transposed from animation to live-action — and Ghost in the Shell has an advantage in that much of what happens can work very well when rendered literally. Some individual details might need tweaking — Batou's eyes, for instance — but the prospective look and feel of the film aren't major issues.
The ultimate problem, still unconfronted from what I see, is whether it makes sense to Westernize something that would lose many of its core reasons for being in the process.