With the American live-action adaptation of 1995’s manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell hitting cinemas this March, I have the glorious task of revisiting a franchise I so dearly love.
Like a lot of kids born in the mid-eighties anime was a very alien and kind of frowned upon deviation of popular media. It hadn’t exactly exploded over the Western world yet, but the advent of Akira in 1988 and, yes, Ghost in the Shell in 1995, the west were finally starting to take notice of this incredible art form that was initially considered to be “adult cartoons”.
Personally Ghost in the Shell became known to me at a very young age and from a very obscure source. Despite its risque poster suggesting sex and gun violence, I discovered the film through a video game called Syndicate Wars. Developed by British games company Bullfrog Productions (later merged into the monstrosity we know today, EA, in 2001) Syndicate Wars was released in 1996 and was heavily inspired by the anime movie, to the point in which they had in-game adverts for the movie!
That’s right, my future obsession began with grainy, pixelated FMV footage on billboards in a 3D video game environment!
But with the nineties as they were, I didn’t actually see Ghost in the Shell until much later when I was in college and investigating what inspired movies like The Matrix. After that, I was all over it. Buying the DVD and watching the two season anime television show Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex frequently.
Now I get to rewatch it! I even got to see it in the cinema with a re-release!
(My opinion could be… slightly biased)
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
A classic, albeit opaque, cyber-punk thriller that merges philosophy and action.
Sector 9, a Japanese based cyber crimes special operations unit, goes on the hunt for a hacker known only as The Puppet Master who specialises in hi-jacking people’s cybernetic brains. Their point-woman, Motoko Kusanagi, believes there is more to this villain than the others can comprehend.
It is incredibly hard to recommend Ghost in the Shell to anyone these days, but straight off the back of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, being a forerunner in influence for 1990s Hollywood and beyond – The Matrix primarily – the historical importance of the film cannot be understated. Based off the manga by Masamune Shirow, directed by Mamoru Oshii, the animated film depicts the year 2029 in a realistic, neither idealistic nor dystopian, light. A morose, contemplative, technology-bent world where the nature of humanity is blurred to an almost unrecognisable state. It is as far-thinking and ground-breaking as Blade Runner or any number of science fiction literature.
The film has an incredibly lonely, mystical, almost meditative atmosphere throughout. A standout moment is a lengthy scene where Motoko takes a boat through the canals of this Neo-Tokyo. Nothing is said, there is very little animation, but the music… god the music; a haunting, warbling track of ancient Japanese singing. Spellbinding.
But despite all of this moody stillness that feels otherworldly by today’s social standards, the film boasts impressive action set pieces, bolstered by their juxtaposition with the film’s serene qualities. These scenes are still downplayed, but absolutely exacting in their execution. A man’s cyborg body planting its feet to the floor yet the power of his automatic pistol pushing him backwards, the massive bullets pounding a car into debris. It is all intensely animated and thrillingly methodical. The animation for the time is incredible.
While I know there is more Ghost in the Shell out there, from the second film to the incredible Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex anime series (which I highly recommend) watching this film in isolation… does leave a little to be desired. Motoko is probably the first crush of a lot of geeks out there (myself probably included) yet her personality here only goes as far as her philosophical musings. The same goes for her colleagues, like Batou, who we only get a sense of his affection for Motoko and his loyal protectiveness.
But the film is about minimalism, it is about precision and absolutely zero wastefulness. Only through multiple viewings will you pick up on the emotional layers.
Of course, Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to win newcomers on a first try; this will take several viewings and even that is unlikely since they will probably be disengaged within the first ten minutes. You absolutely do not want to disengage! The dialogue is intense and cerebral, a hallmark for what the franchise stands for, but often not what it is known for. This is an action film second, it is a philosophical debate primarily, focused on the classic dilemma of what happens to the human soul when people start becoming more machine than human, and if a soul exists in an entirely artificial life form?
Yeah, it is heavy stuff, and the film doesn’t give any concrete answers. Sitting at a tiny runtime of eighty minutes, many newcomers might feel cheated by the film’s stonewall ambiguity and thinking-man’s philosophy.
But I love it. I love its haunting atmosphere. I love its frankness and its realism in depicting the future. Sure maybe not 2029, but this future where society is still glossy and shiny but built upon the wreckage and garbage of the past, were super advanced robotics exist but no one knows how it works or what it is evolving into, it could all become reality. These questions could become real questions.
If you know you will have a quiet evening without distractions, preferably alone, and enjoy some high concept science fiction that will transport you somewhere else, Ghost in the Shell is the original manuscript.
Additional Marshmallows: There’s quite a difference between watching the film subtitled or dubbed, and there’s quite a fierce debate as to which is better. I always argue that you should watch a foreign film as they made it, thus with subtitles, for at least the first viewing. You will get the full experience that the director wanted.
For something as complex and attention soaking as Ghost in the Shell… I sometimes do have the dub on (I apologise!) simply because there’s a lot of data to process!
But always watch it as it was originally intended first.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
Woof, this one is weird.
Set at some point after the original film, we see Batou and Togusa working as partners for Sector 9. Major Motoko Kusanagi has vanished and no one knows where she has gone, but the two men are put on task to investigate a new model of robot after one goes haywire and murders not only civilians but also police officers. But most disturbing of all, is the apparent evidence of a “ghost” within the soulless machine killer…
I remember watching Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence upon release with huge amounts of anticipation. Huge. But after watching it I couldn’t help but feel massively let down and significantly bemused; this film is utterly unrelenting in its mystery and its inhuman amounts of philosophical ramblings.
While the absence of the Major is somewhat saddening, the focus on Batou and Togusa is actually welcoming; they are two of the most human and most flawed characters in the main cast. The film proceeds like a regular detective story with these two visiting crime scenes and morgues, as well as following their own leads and with each questioning the other’s motivations. They carry the film superbly well.
One absolute thriller of a sequence involves the two investigating possible Yakuza involvement in the conspiracy. The sequence really shows where Batou is in his life, as well as how insanely strong he is as one of the few combat cyborgs left in Sector 9’s employ. Plus the setup to this moment actually makes sense and is satisfying.
That… cannot be exactly said for the penultimate stage of their investigation, and a good twenty minutes of the film’s runtime. If you were able to wrap your head around the spontaneous and rigid overuse of philosophic quotes that every character (even the human Togusa!) spews out, you will have an overload when the film throws you into an Inception-like dream cascade event of virtual realities. (Obviously long before Inception was made, but for point of reference.)
This is perhaps the most alienating part of the film for first timers; the rest of it makes sense in a cyber-crime film noir nature, but this twenty minutes literally derails most audience’s perceptions. Not only with reality, but also with the narrative; it almost feels like a conclusion despite it being anything but! Which is a shame because the final act is incredible!
Really, I watched Innocence just wishing someone in the film would talk without quoting Plato or Buddha or Confucius or Milton or Nikolai Gogol every third line. Please, please, please; stop compounding riddles with more riddles! The first film had some quotations, but not this many!
It is beautifully animated however and the soundtrack is as gorgeous as in the first film. Upon finishing the film, the final act is phenomenally well drawn combat animation and really stands the test of time thirteen years later. Truly, the production studio knew they had a big movie to live up to and they certainly delivered. This almost has me forgive an excessive use of 3D (read: computer generated) animation throughout the film.
Every vehicle or large machine is animated in 3D, and large portions of cityscapes and buildings are also 3D rendered. Characters are classic hand drawn of course, but I can’t help it… the computer generated content simply doesn’t look as nice.
I could write forever about Ghost in the Shell 2, it is a serious investment in your patience and tax on your comprehension. I can’t say I like it anywhere near as much as the first, but there’s more explosive and choreographed action sequences than in the 1995 film and upon a second viewing I appreciated its narrative a lot more.
If you don’t have your head screwed on and your wits about you, this film will drop you within fifteen minutes and you will never catch up.
Additional Marshmallows: Here’s a game: go to a random point in the film and see how long it takes for a quote from a philosopher or writer to occur. You will probably get one immediately!