A new Ghost in the Shell was announced recently. No Kenji Kamiyama on it this time though, he’s too busy making surprisingly awesome looking fully CG movies of Cyborg 009. Instead, Production IG have given it to Kazuchika Kise. Looking at his resume, he’s largely only done animation directing. Still though, he was animation director on stuff like Evangelion, Blood the Last Vampire, Patlabor and the first GITS series, so it appears to be safe hands in that case. It doesn’t look like he’ll be as hands-on with the writing process as Kamiyama or Oshii are. This time the writing duties have been handed over to Tow Ubukata, described as one of Japan’s most promising new writers last decade. He wrote Mardock Scramble, the second movie of which I saw recently. So now sounds like the best time to do a review for it.
The first Mardock Scramble movie had some…well, a lot of problems, but there was something genuinely fascinating at its core that I really enjoyed. The relationship between teenage prostitute turned mute cyborg assassin Balot and her inter-dimensional transforming intelligent golden mouse Oeufcoque had this wonderful contrasting symmetry. Their dialogue revealed more about their characters through their contrasting viewpoints. Sure, the movie also had a man who grafted a vagina onto the palm of his hand, but it was ultimately centred on their relationship and that’s what made me come back to the sequel movie. Second Combustion has homosexual dolphins, Norio Wakamoto being eaten by flying sharks, and a completely baffling shift to gambling as though the author got really into the online gaming website Partypoker and had to include all the strategy and tricks he had learned from playing there.
Mardock Scramble has always had a bit of a problem with symbolism. Its shtick of characters being named after eggs is probably supposed to tie into rebirth, but it’s so shoddily implemented. It’s as though Ubukata read the first page of ‘Symbolism for Dummies’ but got totally the wrong idea from it, like he read a book on how to chop down a tree with an axe but then stuck the axe up his backside and started to gnaw at the tree trunk. The contrast between how blatant the naming convention comes across is completely at odds with the effort it then goes into making it relevant. In the end it all comes across as incredibly silly.
Or maybe it’s supposed to be silly, what with the first half of the movie being spent largely on Balot swimming nude with a homosexual dolphin while jumping through a sort of cyberspace. What the hell this was supposed to represent was completely lost on my mind, not having taken the requisite amount of hallucinogenic drugs beforehand. If it was meant to be a big fat joke though, it goes against the tone of the movie. Norio Wakamoto being eaten by flying sharks was possibly supposed to be hilarious, but everyone looked so stone faced about the event that I just felt confused. Plus why was Norio was relevant too the story in the first place?
What really kills that first half of the movie is that Oeufcoque is nowhere to be seen. He spends a solid half hour in a vat looking like something I threw up after a kebab. Without him, there’s no direction. Perhaps intentional, given that Balot is effectively aimless without her golden mouse, but considering how capable Mardock Scramble had proven itself to be with regular old symbolism, the idea that it could pull off this level of meta-narrative is hard to swallow. That said, once Oeufcoque dresses back up in that adorable little set of dungarees and starts talking to Balot, I finally saw a glimpse of what kept me watching this franchise in the first place.
And then they went to a casino, and suddenly it becomes an entirely different story. The gambling segment doesn’t tie into Balot’s relationship with Oeufcoque, nor does it do anything to develop her character and put her further on the path to redemption and rebuilding. It’s all supposed to be a battle of wits with other gamblers. My guess is halfway through writing this book, Ubukata got obsessed with gambling tricks and had to include that in everything he was writing at the time.
It’s not even a well-written gambling story. A large part of the appeal in stuff like One Outs or Kaiji is being able to follow the events and understand their strategies. When Tokuchi Toua pretends he’s going to throw a certain kind of breaking ball, you can understand he’s done this to give the batter he’s facing something to latch onto which means he ignores all other signs. Stuff like that, you can follow the reasoning and the strategy. With the roulette table segment that takes up a solid 15-20 minutes of this movie, the entire strategy boils down to “can I correctly calculate how the dealer has thrown the ball into the roulette wheel”. There’s some mind games going on, but the movie does a miserable job of conveying what these mind games are. Combine this with how irrelevant the entire piece is to the overall story, and it feels like a massive waste of time.
I can see the logic in bringing Ubukata on board. He’s written cyberpunk that tries to tackle deep themes. Ghost in the Shell has gone through various creative hands before, and if anything has only improved through each one. But I really hope it has better writing than Mardock Scramble.