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SECOND LOOK: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Written by Mark Russell

Back in the 1990s, Japanese anime was still an emerging medium in the west, and only rarely did a television series or a film break through into the public eye. Amongst them is the intelligent, science fiction action film Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. A thrilling, engaging film with amazing visuals, philosophical discussions on life, slick animation, and very memorable music, Ghost in the Shell inspired The Matrix and other such films, and celebrated its twentieth anniversary this November. Let’s take a second look at this iconic piece of animation history.

In 2029, much of humanity have become cyborgs, possessing cyber brains that are connected to an alternate version of the internet. They bodies are referred to as “shells” and their souls/minds as “ghosts”. In Japan, Public Security Section 9, which deals with cyberterrorism, investigates the crimes of a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master, who seems hellbent on disrupting international peace talks. Major Motoko Kusanagi (Mimi Woods) and her partner Batou (Richard Epcar) attempt to track down the Puppet Master through associates but learn they are mere pawns in the hacker’s game. But when the Puppet Master makes his appearance in the body of a female automaton, revelations are unveiled that rock Section 9 and prompt Kusanagi, who is having a quietly explored identity crisis, to confront the Puppet Master personally in both mind and soul.

There is a lot going on in this film’s story. Trying to locate the sinister Puppet Master (Tom Wyner) is the main plot, but there is a lot going on around it. Major Kusanagi, who comes off as a very controlled, emotionally repressed character, is searching for an answer to whether or not she is still human. There is sympathetic garbageman who is unknowingly being manipulated by the Puppet Master, and the truth about his involvement is both heartbreaking and raises questions about the consequences of having your brain directly linked to a computer network. There is also a subplot deep in the politics and bureaucracy of the world, which I find confusing, but offers a lot of world building on the side and explains the origins of the villain if you pay close enough attention.

The film has a lot of philosophical discussions about the reclassification of humanity in an age where copying a mind and body is the norm, what is the definition of the human “ghost”, the differences and relations between man and machine, the growth in AI, out with the old and in with the new, etc. At times in the film, characters pause to discuss such questions which will either intrigue or bore the audience. Ghost in the Shell is a film that makes you think and wants you too, so it might alienate those expecting just a fun sci-fi film that has some similarities to Blade Runner in terms of visuals and tone. However, the film is a fun film, and offers some iconic moments.

In the opening scene, Kusanagi leaps off a building, assassinates a sleazy American cyber-diplomat, then makes her get away using thermo-optic camouflage that turns her invisible. The action scenes are very entertaining and thrilling. They have car chases, gunfights, people kicking asses while invisible, and Kusanagi steals the show with her epic battle against a knife-wielding martial artist who is flipping around like he is Bruce Lee, and then she takes on an enormous mecha tank before Batou comes in with a giant rocket launcher to blow it up. There are some fantastic visuals and iconic moments – Kusanagi’s camouflage suit, the unique aircraft, one guy’s fingers split apart to type on a keyboard quickly, etc. It is great stuff. The animation is very beautiful and the computer animation used blends perfectly well into the scenery.

The characters are a mixed bag and most don’t really get much development. Kusanagi obviously stands out as our heroine, though at times, she can be dull and emotionless, and whenever she just stares off into space, it creeps me out. She doesn’t blink. But she is a well-rounded, cool character and expresses her thoughts and feelings through subtlety. There is a lengthy montage where Kusanagi travels through Tokyo, pondering her own humanity when she sees a woman with an identical body to hers and the old parts of society being abandoned in favour of the new. My favourite character is Batou, who is expressive, snarky, and tough, making the perfect foil to Kusanagi. They have a great relationship, very sibling-like, but with a little hint of romance.

There is also Togusa (Christopher Joyce), a former cop now in Section 9 who acts as the heart of the crew since he is still mostly human, intelligence expert Ishikawa (Michael Sorich), and the team’s leader Chief Aramaki (William Frederick). I do particularly like Togusa and Aramaki, though Ishikawa doesn’t get to do much. There is also the Section 6 Chief Nakamura (Ben Isaacson), a charismatic but shifty diplomat, and the Puppet Master serves as a very intriguing, multilayered antagonist with complex motives.

Another fantastic element of the film is the soundtrack. It is both haunting and amazing. The film’s theme tune, used in the opening credits and later during Kusanagi’s montage, using an ancient Japanese language called Yamato, and the vocals are actually a wedding song used to dispel evil spirits as per Japanese culture. The rest of the score is wonderful. I particularly like the quiet melody playing when one badguy is fleeing from Kusanagi through back alleys, and the use of Japanese instruments whenever Kusanagi turns invisible.

Ghost in the Shell is a very good movie and has spawned quite the franchise beyond the manga. This includes a sequel film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence which is more action than mystery and has a lot of ugly computer animation. The franchise has also had two separate anime set in different alternate timelines – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and its sequel season, and the even more different Ghost in the Shell: Arise which tells the origins of Section 9. Recently, it was announced that a long-rumoured live action film would be released in 2017, starring Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi and will be released by Touchstone Pictures. I’m looking forward to it, though there is the concern it will ignore the source material like numerous anime adaptations have done before.

Are you are fan of Ghost in the Shell? What are your favourite moments of not only the film, but the manga and TV series too? Will it work as a live action film? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell