Should I Watch..? 'Ghost In The Shell' (1995)
What's the big deal?
Ghost In The Shell is a Japanese anime film released in 1995 and is based on the manga series of the same name created by Masamune Shirow. The film is a cyberpunk thriller following a cyborg security agent on the trail of a notorious hacker known as the Puppet Master. It became the first anime film to be released simultaneously in Japan, the US and Britain as part of a strategy to increase the global appeal of anime films. The film is also notable for combining traditional hand-drawn animation with CG. Initially a box office disappointment with global takings of just $10 million, the film became a cult hit via home release and went on to influence a number of filmmakers including the Wachowskis who were heavily influenced when they produced The Matrix. It has since gone on to become recognised as one of the best anime films of all time. Please note that the version of the film I watched was in its original Japanese with subtitles and not the English dub as seen in the trailer.
What's it about?
In the near future, cybernetics allows the human body to become augmented or even replaced by cybernetic parts. It also allows the creation of the cyberbrain, a mechanical casing around an organic brain that allows the user to connect to the Internet and other networks. One such individual who has undergone extensive cybernetic enhancement is Major Motoko Kusanagi, an operative with the elite law enforcement Section 9 organisation, who has undergone a complete body-replacement and had her consciousness (known as her "ghost") transferred into the new body.
Together with her cyborg partner Batou, they are tasked by Section 9 chief Daisuke Aramaki to investigate a ghost-hacking on the Foreign Minister's interpreter which is being linked to the internationally renowned hacker known as the Puppet Master. After pursuing two suspects, they make a chilling discovery - Megatech Body, a government-affiliated producer of cybernetic bodies, has been hacked and a body escapes from the facility. What's even worse is that when the body is found, it appears to contain a human ghost in it's computer brain...
Trailer (English dub)
Major Motoko Kusanagi
The Puppet Master
Release Date (UK)
8th December, 1995
Action, Animation, Thriller
What's to like?
Having grown up watching old school anime like Golgo 13: The Professional and Vampire Hunter D, the first thing I noticed about Ghost In The Shell was the standard of animation which has improved in leaps and bounds over those earlier movies. The seamless blend of old techniques and modern technology mirrors the film's setting, a partially flooded metropolis with decaying urban landscapes and illuminated by bright neon advertising. It's a gorgeous film to watch, especially during the film's action scenes where you can most obviously see where the Wachowskis got most of their ideas for the lobby shootout in The Matrix. Despite the technobabble dialogue, you understand who these characters are and why they're conflicted. The film's ruminations about the nature of humanity in a world of advanced technology remind you of another great sci-fi film, Blade Runner. This is a movie that is much deeper than you might suppose.
Because of the detail and depth of the animation, you never fully divert your attention for the film which is good because it's an easy film to get confused by. Thankfully, the film is supported by a vocal cast that breathes life into these characters. Take Kusanagi's performance as Major Motoko - not only does she give the role a soul but combined with breath-taking scenes such as the diving sequence or the impossibly precise introduction which sees her character being built in intimate detail, the character becomes the star of the piece. Without being fully aware of it, you care deeply for her safety despite her being one of the baddest female action characters I've seen outside of the Alien franchise.
- In traditional anime films, characters would often be shown blinking to create the feeling of being animated. However, director Mamoru Oshii deliberately chose to have Motoko's eyes wide open nearly all of the time. This subtly underscores the fact that she is a cyborg.
- The film's haunting opening theme 'Making Of A Cyborg' is sung in classical Japanese and the lyrics are actually a wedding song sung to dispel evil influences.
- There is a brief shot of a basset hound looking down from a bridge onto Major Motoko as she drifts past in a boat. The basset hound is a trademark of Oshii's films as he is a fan of the breed and tries to include at least one shot of the dog in every one of his films.
What's not to like?
When I say that Ghost In The Shell is easily confusing, I'm not exaggerating. Due to a fairly short running time, the film doesn't have the time to fully explore the implications of technology on humanity in the way Blade Runner does. I can understand why it makes time for a stylish shootout or another lingering scene over Motoko's practically nude battle armour because part of the film's brilliance is in the visual experience. But I would have liked another ten minutes or so that really examined what the film was trying to say or even going into the obviously complex relationship between Motoko and Batou.
So if my only legitimate complaint about a film is that there wasn't enough of it, do I really have room to complain? As an introduction to anime, this is as good as you're going to get - it's easier to understand than the somewhat overly ambitious Akira and it also isn't as obtuse or fantastical as Studio Ghibli's output like Howl's Moving Castle or Spirited Away, both excellent films in their own right. But what's really satisfying is seeing how Ghost In The Shell has influenced other sci-fi films to such a degree that even little moments spark the fire of recognition such as Motoko landing from a jump, shamelessly copied by the Wachowskis in the opening sequence to The Matrix. No wonder that their whole pitch for that film was their intention to remake this film in real life, a feat later accomplished by Hollywood in 2017.
Should I watch it?
As deep as its wonderful animation and posing lots of philosophical questions, Ghost In The Shell is a world-class piece of science fiction that is uniquely Japanese and utterly irresistible. It's perfect for anyone who believes that animation has to be about talking animals and being family friendly - this is dark, brooding and adult. Watching it, you completely understand why it has been ransacked by other filmmakers looking to create their own sci-fi masterpieces even though they often leave the more intelligent aspects of the screenplay behind.
Great For: science fiction fans, fans of Blade Runner and/or The Matrix, Asian viewers
Not So Great For: the live-action adaptation (see below), short attention spans, teenage boys with a pause button
What else should I watch?
In 2017, a live-action adaptation finally arrived with Scarlett Johansson in the renamed lead role of Major Mira Killian. The film is considered a prime example of what has become known as 'whitewashing', Hollywood's long-established practise of recasting ethnic minority roles with Caucasian actors, something which dogged the film during production and post-release. It's been suggested that this negativity about the film contributed to Ghost In The Shell bombing at the box office although the film's emphasis on visual effects and style over the film's story might also have complicated things. Needless to say, I'll be judging for myself soon enough.
Sure enough, Hollywood has had a torrid time producing live-action versions of anime films and TV shows. From notorious turkey The Last Airbender to flop B-movie The Guyver, few films have had the same impact as their anime originals. So really, you're much better off sticking with the original anime - Studio Ghibli have produced some of the most successful anime films in history like Spirited Away, Ponyo and the stunning Princess Mononoke. However, the highest grossing anime film in history is Your Name, a romantic fantasy that depicts a young girl in rural Japan swapping bodies with a young boy in Tokyo. The anime industry seems to have moved on considerably from those early films I mentioned earlier which tended to be more action or horror orientated and much more straight-forward.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox