Film Review: Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Many people within the anime fan community like to talk about their first anime. For most people my age, answers to that question include Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and others. But none of these are really that different from any Western cartoon aimed at children. Oh sure, some of them have moments that get dark and violent, and you could argue that they're smarter than what we typically think of for cartoons for kids, but I really think that there is a second "first anime" people have, usually in their teen years, which is the anime that helps them realize how anime can be so many things we don't normally associate with children's cartoons.
In the past, in the West, animation signified one of two things; comedy, and childishness. The Simpsons and Family Guy were merely parodies of old family-focused sitcoms, so though they were ground-breaking, they were still derived from familiar sources. South Park was edgy and different, but it was also kind of a parody of many different movies and Peanuts. There was no Western cartoon that wasn't either comedy or for children, that is, a serious drama brought to life using animation. Or if it existed at all, it was buried. Things like Daria and Bojack Horseman set the stage for a new kind of western animation, but are both tied to parody and comedy tropes. But, kid's cartoons seem to be getting more serious and tackling more adult-world issues, and that may very well be a response to anime.
But anime is always a few steps ahead of western animation, because it was never only for kids to begin with. Sure, some movies and shows were just comedy or just childish, but the medium has always included a far broader range of stories than the medium of animation included, from the origins of the art form. The Japanese have a sense of humor, but they're a serious people. Even their "entertainment" is typically careful, clever, thought-provoking, and precise.
For me, Ghost in the Shell was one of the first anime that helped me see that. The significance of this movie for me cannot be understated. It started me on a path of wanting to know more about anime and experience more of it. It got me to realize that anime was in a class of its own, that it wasn't mere entertainment in the sense of "something to enjoy for 2 hours and forget about" like the kiddie equivalent of time in a strip club or singing karaoke. That it could be something real, powerful, inspiring, philosophical, sophisticated, and intellectual. I would say I had similar experiences at the time with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Trigun, and Studio Ghibli films.
But how does the movie "hold up" after I've since matured, and how does it compare to the contemporary live-action film?
In the movie, Motoko Kusanagi is part of Section 9, an elite special police force dealing with cyber crimes. The movie begins In Media Res, or in the middle of the action, and then has some slow contemplative scenes, and then some explanation and more action, then more slow, contemplative scenes, and then more explanation and a finale. By slow and contemplative, what I mean is, there's a lot of time that passes while the camera lingers on city stuff, everyday life stuff, with no talking or actions of the characters. I like this because it's innovative and provokes discussion, and at the same time I dislike it because it feels like filler or a waste of time. But what's happening is, the same organization that created Motoko's body seems to be connected to a terrorist known as the Puppet Master. But what really happened is, the Puppet Master was originally an android created to be a tool, and had an entirely artificial mind. But then, it developed its own consciousness, and rebelled against its masters. When told that its "consciousness" might just be a self-preservation program, it retorts that that's simply what DNA is itself. Carrying this metaphor further, it chooses Motoko and asks to merge consciousness with her, because life can reproduce sexually, but data can't. It also says that when this happens, it will be able to die, death being a property of life but not necessarily computer programs (unless whoever made the program chooses to delete it). The ending of the film shows that Motoko survived in a new body, that of a small child with her old face, and Bato is taking care of her. But, it is unclear what actually happened, only that whatever did happen was covered up and the audience is given what the official story will be.
Themes and Key Ideas:
This movie is rich in philosophical metaphors and dialog. The heart of the movie is about organic life vs. simulated life, a theme also found in Blade Runner which this movie is inspired by, and The Matrix, to which this movie was an inspiration. In this movie, normally tough badass Action Girl Motoko gets scared and faces uncertainty and doubt. This doubt is put in motion primarily when she finds out that a suspect/witness garbage man was implanted by The Puppet Master with false memories. That person was made to believe he had a wife that never even existed. Since Motoko is full cyber, she worries about her brain being vulnerable to that same thing. The story explores doubts about the safety of technology in terms of its inability to reliably safeguard individuality and privacy.
I've always been a fan of not just this movie, but the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise. I like this movie because it dares to delve into ambiguity, which a lot of films, including the live-action reboot, don't like to do. It's a grown-up movie because it presents questions that are compelling, but doesn't spoon feed the audience an answer, provoking thought and discussion. This has drawbacks too. The 2017 film is more satisfying as a movie, because it answers everything. For some people, the stretches of quiet in the middle of what is supposedly an action film can be unexpected and well, piss people off because it's not what they wanted out of a movie. This movie could also be accused of pretentious navel-gazing and/or philosophical ramblings that sound cool for the sake of sounding cool. I happen to like it, but it's a reason why I can't really say this is a movie for the masses. Not everyone will like it.
I understand why they made this aspect of Ghost in the Shell less obnoxious in the 2017 reboot, but not gone entirely either. Everything was simply made more clear, less ambiguous. In this movie, Motoko has no clear past, and it's not about her or her origin story so much as it's about merging consciousness with The Puppet Master. We learn about him and his past, but we learn nothing about that of Motoko. In the new movie, it's more of like a superhero origin story film for Motoko. I wouldn't say one is better or worse necessarily, it kind of depends on who you are, what you're in the mood for, and what you expect or want out of entertainment.
I prefer other aspects of the franchise, specifically Stand Alone Complex, the anime series, because that balances the philosophical musings with more plot and action. The action in this movie is very good. However, the Puppet Master isn't that menacing or scary, so the plot is weakened and tends to take a back seat to the philosophical stuff. I think that later iterations in this franchise learned how to work philosophy into action, rather than mere dialog, whereas this movie suffers from an over-reliance on dialog. I like this movie for its charming originality and innovation, but it does have flaws.