Ghost in the Shell: what makes sci-fi immersive?

Spoilers (obviously)

It’s tempting after watching a disappointing movie, tv series, or adaptation to lay out exactly what was wrong with it.

I thought the Ghost in the Shell 2017 movie was a bad adaptation, but writing out a catalogue of the film’s faults felt a bit too negative.

So instead I thought I’d use the 2017 adaptation as an exercise in contrast – taking what I didn’t like about the movie to explore what made the original anime and the subsequent Stand Alone Complex series so good.

Immersion

Immersion is the sense of having fully entered into a fictional world.

I’ve always found the anime incarnations of GitS immersive, but it wasn’t until I saw the 2017 adaptation that I started to think about why.

Broadly, I think the anime incarnations enhance the viewer’s sense of immersion by adhering to the characters’ standards of normalcy rather than the viewers’. This is especially poignant in a science-fiction setting, where much of the technology that shapes the characters’ world is partly or entirely new to the viewer.

As such, we would expect to see characters interact with technology in ways that are normal for the characters, despite being unfamiliar to us as viewers.

In the anime incarnations, GitS characters tend not to refer to technology unless it is relevant to the plot. How many times have you heard references to Batou’s artificial eyes?

I can’t recall any instances. Batou having artificial eyes is treated as unremarkable by the other characters (both primary and secondary), even though it’s probably the most striking and visible aspect of cyborg technology for the viewer.

By contrast, the 2017 adaptation makes Batou’s artificial eyes part of the story. In the course of the movie Batou begins with his natural human eyes, is injured in an explosion, and has artificial eyes installed.

The movie includes a scene where the Major and Batou specifically talk about his new eyes, shortly after receiving them. Batou’s new eyes and the novelty of them become a talking point between him and the main character.

I suspect the intention was to use this scene to highlight the issue of identity, but in the process it undermined one of the most powerful sources of immersion from the anime.

To have a character with artificial eyes is pretty sci-fi…but to have them and never remark on them as unusual is an amazing way of telling us how advanced and widespread this technology and cyborgisation generally are in the world of GitS.

The anime incarnations implicitly tell us what is normal and what isn’t, by how the characters respond to things. It’s obvious in hindsight, but when it’s done well the viewer is drawn in further by the allure of jarring novelties that the characters and the plot treat as mundane.

Activate the spider-tank!

A smaller instance of the same problem is in the 2017 adaptation’s decision to refer to the tank at the end of the film as a “spider-tank”.

In the original anime they simply refer to it as a tank. As with Batou’s eyes, this implies that walking-tanks are normal in the GitS world.

The audience is thinking “it’s a tank…with legs!”, but the characters are acting as if this is completely normal, telling us that this technology is now pervasive.

Unfortunately the 2017 movie chooses to highlight the novelty of the tank by having characters refer to it as a “spider-tank”.

It’s as if the characters are agreeing with the audience “a tank with legs…dude, I’m as surprised as you are!”

In the future tanks have legs and soldiers often have artificial eyes — but the strength of that assertion is diminished if the movie treats these things as special, unusual, and noteworthy.

It’s like travelling to another country: there are so many small differences, dozens of everyday things that no one would even think to mention to you on arrival. It’s not as if they say “Welcome to China, btw people spit a lot here and it’s considered normal so no one even thinks about it!”

These immersion issues correspond to other differences between the anime incarnations of GitS and the 2017 adaptation. There are consistent choices to emphasise aspects of character and plot in the 2017 adaptation that, in my opinion, fundamentally detract from what makes GitS an appealing franchise in the first place.

It’s not just a question of Hollywood versus anime either. The recent Arise anime incarnation of GitS proved similarly disappointing to fans.

In my next post I’ll use the 2017 adaptation to discuss what makes the Major such a compelling character.

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