Ghost In The Shell: chasing ghosts in Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan
This week saw the release of Ghost In The Shell, a live action Hollywood remake of the classic (1995) Japanese anime movie (itself based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow). The casting of Scarlet Johansson in the lead role caused some controversy (as her character – a special ops cyborg called ‘the Major’ (Major Mira Killian) – was the (Japanese) Major Motoko Kusanagi in the source material) but I don’t really care to discuss that on a travel blog, and nor is this a movie review or movie comparison; with the film having only just come out I’ll avoid any spoilers and won’t discuss it much more than to say that although I wasn’t too keen on the changes they made to the story, visually speaking it’s stunning and it was great to see some of the original’s most iconic scenes recreated (to good effect) as live action:
But rather than posting about the new version, I’m here to talk about how the original Ghost In The Shell movie was a seminal influence not only in cinema but also on a generation of travellers to Japan, and where to go if you’re visiting Asia and want to get a sense for some real-life GITS-esque locations and cityscapes.
Ghost In The Shell: influence on Western cinema
The original Ghost In The Shell is one of the absolute classic movies of Japanese anime and has had a long-lasting impact on Hollywood, cited as an influence by James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, among others – Spielberg’s Dreamworks is behind the new live action version. It was perhaps most obviously influential on The Matrix (which drew heavily from it), though it’s worth also noting that Ghost In The Shell had in turn drawn on and made allusions to plenty of earlier sci-fi such as Blade Runner.
As well as Hollywood directors, it’s also frequently cited as an influence by movie buffs who visit Japan. I’ve had plenty of gaijin bar conversations in Japan with people who were visiting because of certain movies, and in its tourist-pulling power Ghost In The Shell is probably second only to Scarlet Johansson’s previous Japanese outing Lost in Translation (alongside the peerless Bill Murray in what many consider his career-best performance). The Studio Ghibli catalogue is the other big draw, along with Ghost In The Shell’s fellow dystopian near-future sci-fi anime Akira, still jaw-dropping almost 30 years after its release (and I’d like to see someone try to tackle that for a live-action version!)
Ghost In The Shell: Hong Kong
But here’s the thing… the monolithic Asian metropolis in which Ghost In The Shell takes place isn’t even in Japan… while the story is set in a vaguely defined future Japan(*1), the visual model for the city in the film was actually Hong Kong (albeit a flooded version, making it a city of canals). The neon signs reflected in puddles of rain, the umbrellas shuffling down the sloped side streets, vehicles splashing past… these things can of course be seen, producing a similar atmosphere to the movie (and Blade Runner too, while we’re at it), in Tokyo just as they can in Hong Kong; but if you watch this outstanding mise-en-scène that takes place halfway through the movie, it is unmistakably Hong Kong:
The crowded skyscrapers, the neon and water, the signs and air conditioners hanging out over the narrow roads, the steep alleyways, the blend of English and Chinese lettering and names (we see the name Walter Ma in a boutique window, and I’m no fashion expert but Walter Ma appears to be a genuine Hong Kong designer), and (for those who see the difference) the fact they’re traditional Chinese characters(*2); it’s Hong Kong all the way. A Japanese movie featuring Japanese characters speaking entirely in Japanese, yet set in Hong Kong with Chinese writing everywhere… go figure! Yet, it works… Hong Kong’s atmospheric streets and fairly extreme juxtaposition of the gleamingly new and the shabbily old, the hi-tech and the lo-fi, form the perfect backdrop for the story.
So anyway, if you watched Ghost In The Shell back in the day and it made you think “Holy shit I wanna go to Japan!”, you might want to get yourself to Hong Kong instead of Japan… although really, you should probably get yourself to both of them!
(I should note here that I’m specifically talking about the film version of Ghost In The Shell; there was also a TV series (called Stand Alone Complex) which didn’t use Hong Kong as the location and is more clearly set in Japan)
And then there’s the even more outstanding parade scene from 2004’s Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, surely the best 3-minute sequence in animated cinema, and I’d even say one of the best 3-minute sequences in all cinema. Blending CGI with hand-drawn animation (apparently taking an entire year to complete), it’s set to the same haunting Japanese minyo chanting used in the first film but with the added kick of taiko drums, and I just love that rising bass line as we see the seagulls flocking past dragon-gargoyled skyscrapers; this scene is a real visual and aural masterpiece and alone makes the movie worth watching:
And while I’m on the subject of the music used in these two scenes, have a watch of this 18-minute live performance (it’s absolutely incredible stuff, but if you don’t fancy the full 18 minutes, start it from 8:34):
(I actually once saw a Japanese DJ drop this Ghost In The Shell theme in the middle of a techno set in a Beijing nightclub; it was pretty intense, though no one on the dance floor knew what to make of it!)
Anyway, back to Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence; we’re left to assume that the action in the sequel takes place in the same city as the first film, but while it looks the same in the close-in details the movie lacks any establishing shots which explicitly show it to be Hong Kong, and the parade and temple are clearly of a Hokkien Chinese style. If you’ve been to Taiwan, you should recognise the style of the temple as the majority of Taiwanese are of Hokkien roots(*3) (the language usually referred to as Taiwanese is the Taiwan dialect of Minnan Chinese i.e. Hokkien); this is confirmed in the movie’s DVD commentary by the director, who tells us the team made two trips there to get the inspiration for this scene from Taiwanese temples and a parade – which specific parade isn’t made clear, but it looks a bit like the Keelung Ghost Festival.
So, if you’re a fan of Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, you might also have to add Taiwan to your anime travel wishlist!
Where to Visit in Asia for a Ghost In The Shell Fix
The new version of Ghost In The Shell also takes place in a vaguely defined future Asian metropolis based on Hong Kong (it was partly filmed there), but this time it features an international cast of characters and is filmed (mostly) in English; the Japanese influence is diminished (though a number of key characters are still Japanese) and if the visuals of the new movie blow you away and inspire you to go to Asia (and the visuals are absolutely stunning), then Hong Kong is definitely the place you’re looking for.
If it’s locales reminiscent of the original anime films that you’re searching for, then again Hong Kong is the main location to visit – check out this awesome post on Recreating Ghost in Hong Kong, and also the amazing photography of Andy Yeung; you might also want to visit Taiwan’s temples or a parade like the Keelung Ghost Festival to see the inspiration for the sequel’s parade sequence. Among many options, Taipei’s Longshan Temple, Ciyou Temple, and Bishan Temple are good ones to visit, especially the latter if you like the sound of a mountain hike to get up to it – with some cracking views to reward you at the top.
But what about Japan? After all, even though visually based on Hong Kong they’re still Japanese movies based on a Japanese story – so where to go if you’re a Ghost In The Shell fan visiting Japan and hoping to catch a whiff of Ghost In The Shell there?
Well, the obvious answer to that is central Tokyo, and more specifically, the area around Shinjuku station with its skyscrapers and neon-decked shopping & entertainment district. West Shinjuku is home to Tokyo’s main skyscraper district, and you can go up a few of them for the city views. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has observation decks up on the 45th floor of each of its twin towers, the Shinjuku NS Building has a couple of dining floors at the top with great views (though you’ll need to actually go into a restaurant to eat in order to see them) as well as an amazing hollow interior, and the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (aka the Lost In Translation bar) has outstanding views to go with its outstanding cocktails.
The Metropolitan Government Building is free, but the other two are more interesting. The NS Building is a neat bit of architecture, utterly non-descript on the outside but having a hollow interior with an atrium going right up to the roof and an enormous water clock, and if you go for dinner on the upper floors you get the views thrown in (the restaurants up there aren’t crazy expensive either, unlike in some of the other skyscrapers in town); visiting the Park Hyatt bar means paying an entrance fee in the evening, but it’s free to enter in the afternoon and you just have to pay for your drinks (it’s not a cheap bar though – think in the region of 2,000 yen for a cocktail).
All these buildings are cool to go up, though there’s nothing particularly GITS-esque about them, beyond having somewhat futuristic views of an Asian metropolis. Perhaps better is a wander around the shopping streets and alleyways of East Shinjuku – head there on a rainy day and get yourself a plastic umbrella from the convenience store, and walk around in the neon-lit drizzle while listening to this and you might just capture the feeling you’re looking for. Or alternatively, stick some Vangelis on and pretend you’re in Blade Runner! It works for both:
For a walking tour of Shinjuku taking in the above and more, see my post here (with maps)
*1 although vaguely defined in the film, things are much more fleshed out in the manga and TV series. Although the two differ, they both have the main centre of the action as the fictional Japanese city of Niihama, built on reclaimed land in the Seto Inland Sea following the complete destruction of the Greater Tokyo area in World Wars 3 & 4
*2 although the film is mostly consistent in using traditional Chinese characters, I do spot a few simplified (i.e. mainland Chinese) characters in the sequence:
This could be a mistake on the part of the animators, or perhaps they actually did see those characters in Hong Kong and so reproduced it on film – but given it was made in 1995, prior to Hong Kong’s return to China, this doesn’t seem all that likely. Or, perhaps, it was even a prescient prediction of the increased future influence of mainland China on Hong Kong
*3 The overseas Chinese communities of Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are also mostly Hokkien, with significant Hokkien influence in Singapore & Malaysia too, so if you’ve visited the Chinese temples in Bangkok’s Chinatown, or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, you’ll likely have seen a similar style there
Any questions or comments? Give me a shout below!
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