Ghost in the Shell is one of the best known exports of Japanese pop-culture. With Scarlett Johannsen in Wellington to film the live-action feature, we take a look at the colourful history of Masamune Shirow's beloved story of a police cyborg going through an existential crisis.

Kokaku Kidotai (Ghost in the Shell) by Masamune Shirow began its first run as a manga in Young Magazine, a youth-based publication featuring comics and babes, in 1989.

Manga is big business in Japan. It's completely normal for men and women of all ages to be seen reading manga on trains and buses. Manga can be purchased at any corner store and billboards will run major advertisements on the latest popular manga.

READ MORE: Scarlett Johansson flies into NZ with baby for new film

Censorship

After a successful run in Young Magazine, Shirow scored a tankonbon (independent book) for the manga. American publisher Dark Horse then picked Ghost in the Shell up for western audiences in 1995. They were forced to either censor some of the more adult themes or face losing a huge youth audience with a mature rating. Shirow himself opted to rework some pages leading to a sex scene so that the story would continue to flow without the censored parts.

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Cover of the original manga which underwent censorship and revision for western audiences.
Cover of the original manga which underwent censorship and revision for western audiences.

In 2004 Dark Horse released an uncensored version of the entirety of the manga, but subsequent versions have remained censored.

The English translation of Ghost in the Shell manga coincided with the release of the animated film (anime) from Production IG. The film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, was a box office hit in Japan and the first anime breakout hit in the West since the widely acclaimed Akira in 1988.

Reception

The haunting score was a major talking point of the film. The opening shots use traditional folk singing while a female body is reconstructed and combined with machinery.

The film was praised for its depiction of the imperiled Japanese body and threats of modernity and identity.
The film was praised for its depiction of the imperiled Japanese body and threats of modernity and identity.

Jeff Beck of The Examiner described the Ghost in the Shell as "one of the pioneering films of anime history, one that captures the imagination with its intricate history and dazzles the eyes with its gorgeous animation."

Ghost in the Shell also became a critically studied work. The appearance of female cyborg in Japanese anime was attributed by academic Sharalyn Orbaugh to Japan's feminisation and domination by Western powers in the nineteenth century. The rapid modernization and attempts at western acceptance, "was not enough to save them from the curse of monstrosity in the eyes of the west."

"[Ghost in the Shell is] produced under the shadow of this recognition, leading to an unusual concern with monstrous or anomalous bodies."

Scene from the atmospheric 1995 anime, Ghost in the Shell. Image / Production I.G
Scene from the atmospheric 1995 anime, Ghost in the Shell. Image / Production I.G

The film was also praised for its depiction of post-gendered identity. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, embodies a female form but is essentially without gender or reproductive function. Early in the film she jokes about her inability to menstruate and later muses on her lack of human identification, wondering if she has a soul or 'ghost'. She's simultaneously sexy and sexless. She is later torn apart and exists only as transplanted consciousness - an existence she finds preferable to regaining physical embodiment.

Hollywood responds

Major western directors cited influence from Ghost in the Shell including the Wachowskis, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

When Larry and Andy Wachowski pitched The Matrix to their producers, they showed them Ghost in the Shell and said "we wanna do that for real."

The Wachowskis pitched the Matrix as live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.
The Wachowskis pitched the Matrix as live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.

James Cameron described Ghost in the Shell as a "stunning work of speculative fiction ... the first to reach a level of literary excellence," and Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence is particularly owing to the film.

Adaptation woes

In 2008, DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to produce a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, marking the beginning an epic struggle to try and get the film made.

Jamie Moss (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: First Class) was on board as the first screenwriter but was replaced a year later with Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys).

Fast forward to 2014 and Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) is named director with a screenplay from William Wheeler, with Jonathan Herman joining in 2015 to write the script.

Spielberg's A.I: Artificial Intelligence was partially inspired by Ghost in the Shell.
Spielberg's A.I: Artificial Intelligence was partially inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

Paramount Pictures and Disney were co-producers and distributors until Disney dropped the film as reported just hours ago.

Fans are already upset at the casting of all-white actors and suggestions that the film won't be set in Japan which holds an important place in the text.

Last year news came that shooting would take place in Wellington's own Stone Street Studios and a casting call for extras was put out.

And yesterday, she arrived. Ghost in the Shell is a canonical work of Japanese art and bastions of fans are already cloying around the original and decrying the deviations Sanders and co. are making to the plot.

It remains to be seen if they can do justice to anime classic which changed Hollywood.

- nzherald.co.nz