It sometimes feels pretty lonely being a fan of Mamoru Oshii. He's squandered much of his goodwill on the fiasco Innocence (which I still liked but that's a whole 'nother story) and the rest of his cinematic canon is quite often dismissed, and not merely by action fans who dislike anything slow. He's accused of being pretentious for its own sake, following the forms of arthouse flicks merely at the surface without adding sufficient depth to create a good film.
There's truth to both of these criticisms, particularly in his weaker works. Certainly Oshii is pretentious but heck, pretentiousness is underrated. I love me some good pretentiousness. It's an essential quality in the kind of films he tries to make, those that borrow so much from the greats of art cinema in an effort to bring something different to the world of cartooning.
Oshii's never been spectacularly successful in the West, but he did have one bona fide hit - a film that many anime fans have watched and no doubt some still love (even those who probably have no idea who I'm talking about or think I mean Matsumune Shirow).
That film, of course, is Ghost in the Shell. This is a cyberpunk tale that deftly melds action and philosophy - though none of the questions it poses about man and machine are particularly original, they're interestingly framed. A difficult but surprisingly successful balance is maintained between the action aspect and the underlying thematic material, though it tends to lean towards the latter to the expense of the former.
Perhaps the most intriguing notion raised is that of 'ghosts', which are meant in the now somewhat archaic sense of 'soul' - a quantity that can determine the difference between real life and artificial intelligence. For those whose entire bodies have been replaced by machines, these ghosts are the only indications left of their humanity. However, it is a little opaque as to what exactly these ghosts are, giving it a vaguely tacked-on metaphysical feel.
I'm not calling this a profound film (it isn't), but it executes its aforementioned blend effectively. How well you believe it does really would depend on your fondness for extended monologues or debates.
This is a wonderfully realised urban landscape - the Blade Runner of the East, at the time only rivalled by the landmark Akira. Action sequences are kinetic and the character designs are good. The animation brings out the best of the cyberpunk aesthetic, one I'm more than partial to.
What's aged poorest is the use of CGI, which thankfully was confined to computer screens rather than being incorporated into the film itself. Still, this CGI seems primitive compared to what our computers could handle today, let alone in some near-future where we can create cyborgs.
An atmospheric and haunting chant in ancient Japanese is the most memorable piece of music, provided by frequent Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawaii. There's an extended musical interlude featuring this around the centre of the film that is one of my favourite moments in anime - it is almost spiritual in its reflectiveness.
The voice acting in English is a little monotone but I thought it was okay - Mimi Woods's delivery resembles Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise. Naturally, the Japanese track was a fair bit better.
Characterisation isn't a strong point here. Mokoto Kusanagi may raise a lot of questions about her own humanity but she's sufficiently robotic to make us doubt too, and the rest of the cast are without much presence. Perhaps the most interesting character is the least human - but that's mainly for the questions he raises as an entity. They're largely people to follow around as they fight and then as mouthpieces to idly air the philosophical touchstones of the piece and they work on that level.
If Hayao Miyazaki introduced me to the possibilities of anime, then Oshii films like Angel's Egg, Beautiful Dreamer and this one is what made me fall in love with it. Fans of cyberpunk who presumably live under a rock and haven't seen this film are invited to try it.
ANIME EVOLUTION SERIES
Full list of the review series can be found on this page, 3rd post from bottom:
GiTS, the story of an anti-terrorist group of men and cyborgs, as they prevent cyber crimes and try to apprehend a criminal who manipulates the memories of his victims. And this is not even the tip of the iceberg.
1995 was a major turning point in anime and stands as the point where the gold era of Japanese animation began. The industry started taking risks and making a lot of interesting titles thereafter for over a decade. A reason is the great effect Neon Genesis had on its mainland audience, which inspired the companies to fund affiliated works, things that before that anime would pass as risky and not profitable. Another reason is the coming of a new form or data recording. I am referring to the DVD which offered much higher analysis and resolution than the CD and thus allowing for anime to look better.
Also, the third generation of anime fans came to be around this point for me.
- The first is the one in the mid 60’s who grew up with Tetsuwan Atom and Tetsoujin 28. That generation was given works of producers who grew up in WW2 and thus all famous works of that time have to do with technology and sadness around a vastly changed world which seems to have lost its innocence, yet strives on with hope.
- The second is the one in the early 80’s who grew up with Urusei Yatsura and Macross. That generations was given less depressing works and a world now recovered from war and enjoying unparallel technological achievements.
- The third generation is the one I am referring to this point. Their country was going through economic depression and the end of the world speculation fuss had created this feeling of unrest and doubt to the problems technology can solve. So once again the feeling returned to a more depressing one around technology and the change of the world, just like before.
All that contributed to the creation and even to the success of Ghost in the Shell, a movie phenomenon for its time and era in general. If it was made a few years back, chances are it would flop badly because the audience was not mentally ready to accept such a concept yet. Even Akira, which was also an instant hit, was far simpler in its ideas and based half its appeal on action and mass destruction, something this movie does not have. Although it itself probably inspired by even older sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner or Neuromancer, it still succeeded in further progressing the main theme of man-machine interface to far deeper regions.
The story is basically the loose adaptation of the homonymous manga, which was a phenomenon on its own. And since I love lists, here are the reasons of why this film, and by extension the manga, is so great.
1) Great production values. Even better than Akira, which also counts as great. Cinematography is masterful as everything is drawn and animated in a way it feels alive, There is an amazing detail given to machinery and various parts explain brand new technologies and applications. It gives you the feeling that it is all possible and probable, making you believe them as viable and not as mumbo jumbo magic technology like in other sci-fi works. The smart camera angles, the right use of BGM, and several scenes which are used only as mute depiction of a feeling or a mood. All that make viewing a pleasure unlike anything else ever made up until then.
2) Great story and concepts. The blur between reality and virtual reality may feel commonplace today but this movie is from the oldest examples and still holds today as amongst the most mature and well-thought-of takes on the subject. In fact, more than half of all following movies were heavily influenced by this work and any similarities may as well be considered as tribute to this one. Also, unlike most other variants on augmented or virtual reality which focus on a small concept or part of the world, here the idea covers all aspects of life, from society, to religion, to philosophy, to one’s personal search for identity and happiness.
3) Great characters. Motoko, Batou and Togusa are three very easy to understand yet complicating personalities, all a product of their era, affected by the ever-present technology yet still making their own personal choices. The movie is more about them having existentialism dialogues than fighting criminals and more about separating reality from illusion to completing their mission and go home for beers. There were many shows about people turning to robots or robots trying to be people before, but most were quite simple and all ended up by having to beat a bad guy or something. Here, the main bad guy of sorts is the Puppet Master who, as corny as his name sounds, is actually a very interesting character by himself; not really evil or with hatred towards the world. In fact, nobody is really evil as is selfish and profit-centered. Mercenaries and company presidents and politicians, all of them just try to make the best of what they can in a world run by information and the power of stealth ends up being more effective than the power of guns.
I have heard lots of things from people who didn’t like the movie and almost all of them are about how the film doesn’t have great action or how they keep talking and acting all emo instead of, I don’t know, shot at stuff and laugh like they enjoy what they are doing. To those people I can only say that this is not a brain-dead action story like the Transformers or Black Lagoon. It is dialogue-heavy and full of talking around philosophy and politics and the meaning of life. It may feel like it’s preachy or overblown with emoness at times but, hey, that was what it aimed for in the first place. I too would prefer longer action scenes and longer duration to get to see more about the world that is why Story and Enjoyment don’t stand as perfect for me; but I’m not going to disregard all the rest just because of that minor issue.
A thing to take notice is that the manga version has a far different feeling, as the characters there are more comical and act more like humans. If you prefer less depressing stuff, you can just read the manga version. Also, a decade later they made two tv seasons based on the same story, and again the feeling is different as here the characters think and act more like amoral professionals rather than people who seek a reason for being. You can also check that one. And if you still find the concept simplistic after all these years and how today all that are mainstream stuff, you can also “try” to read the second GiTS manga or the watch the second GiTS movie, where things are even harder to understand. Good luck to you; I lost track at some point and my organic hard drive crashed so I left it for another time.
Bottom line, GiTS stands as most likely the best in overall and most influential cyberpunk work to hit the screens and tv screens and it is still a concept that was never surpassed in detail and attention by any other producer or filmmaker. Seriously, the Matrix trilogy looks like elementary school before it.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 10/10
General Artwork 2/2 (great)
Character Figures 2/2 (realistic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (detailed)
Animation 2/2 (fluid)
Visual Effects 2/2 (great)
SOUND SECTION: 10/10
Voice Acting 3/3 (mature and intelligent)
Music Themes 4/4 (great)
Sound Effects 3/3 (great)
STORY SECTION: 9/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (too fast)
Complexity 2/2 (rich context)
Plausibility 2/2 (fine)
Conclusion 2/2 (satisfying)
CHARACTER SECTION: 8/10
Presence 2/2 (strong)
Personality 2/2 (well founded)
Backdrop 2/2 (rich)
Development 1/2 (rushed but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (rushed but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 9/10
Historical Value 3/3 (all-known)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high if you like its style)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely mature to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 9/10
Art 1/1 (looks great)
Sound 2/2 (sounds great)
Story 2/3 (rushed but great)
Characters 4/4 (amazing)
“If you don’t know where you’re from, then you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you’re going.” It’s a clichéd if truthful saying, especially for this film. Well, sort of. This film knows where it’s going, but it doesn’t know how to get there, it doesn’t know where it is, and it doesn’t know where it’s from. This film is a voice pining to speak, but it studders at every word.
So where does this leave Ghost in the Shell? Read on to find out.
In the year 2029, cybernetic technology has strengthened the human body and connected the human mind. Barriers have been broken as people can access the Internet with just their body alone. But with this new tech, comes cyber criminals looking to exploit it, and Section 9, a group tasked with stopping cyber criminals. One criminal, the Puppet Master, is skilled enough to hack the human mind. As Section 9 works to track him down, his very existence will challenge the idea of what it means to be human.
This is because almost every member of Section 9 is cybernetically enhanced. They’re basically super soldiers, with abilities far beyond even what most civilians can do. But at the same time, they’re just as vulnerable as anyone else. If a cybernetically enhanced person is hacked, their memories can be deleted or they can be fooled into believing a false life. Even then, their bodies need maintenance, and a system failure on that end would mean going back to their old shells or returning to dust. The story is basically used to explore what it means to be human.
But Ghost in the Shell explores these themes with as much discipline as an undisciplined soldier. Sometimes the themes are used believably, like with Motoko or Togusa’s dialog with the captured criminals after the garbage truck chase scene. Or Section 9’s dialog in Daisuke’s office about something they discovered. These scenes are believable because it raises the questions the film wants to ask, without letting them become heavy, so the plot still moves forward.
At other times, the theme use is cringeworthy. The last dialog from the Puppet Master shows an evolutionary tree several times, with the most roundabout way of saying “I want to evolve.” Or the boatside dialog between Motoko and Batou, where the former switches from soldier to philosopher at the drop of a hat, with deep water metaphors abound. There is actually a point where the second scene takes Batou’s point of view, giving the effect of Motoko talking to the viewer. Seriously.
Seriously. The film wants to be thought provoking, but doesn’t know how to express itself. At some points it expresses itself quietly, letting scarce dialog and a lot of plot progress imply questions for its viewers. At other times, the questions are loudly overplayed, hitting viewers over the head and grinding the plot to a halt. The story itself, for all the international conspiracy it involves, is underplayed. But that’s not a problem, since it’s just a vehicle for the themes the film tries to convey.
Too bad then, that said vehicle breaks down several times throughout the film. For minutes on end, the plot is road blocked by scenes of Motoko being cybernetically enhanced, random scenes of the city, and scenes of the military getting ready. But only the military scenes resemble story progress. The city scenes don’t progress the story, and Motoko’s scene would have worked as part of her background, but becomes pointless when later scenes explain it anyway. Time spent on these montages should have been used smoothing out character progress.
Most of the characters themselves have the same personality (military badass), making them hard to tell apart. Some background can help to tell them apart, but most of them are undeveloped on that end too, or share the same background anyway (“we’re all cybernetically enhanced”). This only leaves character progress to save its cast, but the result is like a failed military mission. And the one who takes the most casualties from this is Motoko.
Motoko has the most progress in the film, but it comes in chunks and lacks sincerity. Spending most of the film being a military badass, peppered with scenes FILLED with philosophical rambling, or worry over Section 9’s discovery, simply doesn’t compute. It lacks a middle ground to bridge the opposite sides of her personality, so it’s hard to believe her as the same person. Character progress should be steady, not sudden. The only one with steady progress is Batou.
Batou starts as a military badass, whose humanity slowly shows itself as the film goes on. During the boatside dialog, the viewer can get a sense of why Batou tagged along with Motoko when she’s changing out of her swimwear. During the dialog in Daisuke’s office, Batou casually tells Togusa why a recent discovery is a sore spot for Section 9. And during the last scenes, Batou’s emotions finally boil over in the end confrontation with the Puppet Master.
And speaking of confrontation, there’s the actions scenes in the film, and by extension, the film’s aesthetics. The animation is fluid, but the art design itself is grimy and imperfect. There’s a sense that every street in the city has been lived in, that characters have worn out their outfits, that colors lack any life to them. It’s not pretty, but then again, a crime that can invade the mind itself wouldn’t be pretty. The visuals have an organic look despite the high-tech setting and being computer generated, making them more impressive.
The action scenes themselves are quiet, forgoing actual music in favor of bone-crunching sound effects. The ground crunches when Motoko drops from a large height, and gun shots are the only melody during action-packed symphonies. Some of the scenes, like a criminal’s leg being twisted, or the snapping of Motoko’s arms when she’s trying to open an army tank, can be hard to watch. But that just goes with the gritty feel the film tries—and succeeds—to give.
There IS actual music, a haunting, choir-like piece. But it’s used in the montages that do almost nothing for the story, making for a nice but pointless soundtrack. Time spent on those montages should have been used to smooth out character progress. Even then, the story’s themes are believably used one moment, then without subtlety the next moment. Some viewers may wish the Puppet Master would delete their memories of wasting 82 minutes gawking at aesthetic wonders.
Now, to say Ghost in the Shell is enjoyable with the viewer’s brain turned off, watching it for the underplayed story, and being wowed by the aesthetics is a reasonable stance. But that would be ignoring everything else the film tries to do, and for something trying to be thought provoking, it’s inexcusable. This film may be a smart Ghost, but the voice it leaves behind is only a Shell of what it could be.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Ghost in the Shell. I think it’s a good film, thought-provoking and entertaining, with dynamic animation and an interesting cast of characters. But it’s also curiously pedantic – the exposition is just a little too on-the-nose, and the ending is an anticlimactic mess. It’s still an excellent movie, but at the end I found myself wondering, “Is that it?”
This might not be the film’s fault. I’ve done quite a bit of research and critical reading on the concept of embodiment in cyberspace and cyborg-feminist theory over the past year or so, and many of the film’s ideas are ones that are not particularly revolutionary for me. This may also account for how I had an easier time following a film that has a reputation for being somewhat opaque. But I don’t want to pretend I’m smarter than this movie – this is a very smart movie. And I also don’t want to let it off so easily.
The film starts out in a remarkably interesting way, with a truly unique assassination. It then moves on into murkier, more interesting territory as we learn about a hacker called The Puppet Master, and get a couple of highly engaging action scenes that show the extent and power of his (or her … or its) influence. The Puppet Master can control people through erasing their memory and other such devices; he can do this because of how cybernetically enhanced everyone in this world is. Let’s put it this way – it’s a big deal that one of the characters doesn’t have hardly any cybernetic enhancements.
The film begins with the question of what makes us human, and at first the answer seems to be “our memory,” because of various monologues about how we are who we are because of what we remember about our past. As the film the progresses the answer gets harder and harder to discern, as the question is broadened to ask, “What is life?”
These are the big questions. These are questions we’ve been trying to answer for millennia, since the dawn of man, probably. Now, I’m not expecting this movie to "answer" these questions. That would be miraculous. What I do expect is an honest engagement with them, which is hard to do when your runtime is so limited. This movie is under an hour and a half long, and therein lies the major problem it has: it simply has too many ideas to cram into one movie, especially one that’s so short.
To be fair, someone must have realized this because there’s a TV show based on the movie. But that doesn’t really help the movie much; with such a short runtime, the characters have to engage in lengthy dialogues that don’t just explain the admittedly complex plot, but also the large, omnipresent themes of the film. It simply doesn’t have time to do these big questions justice, and it seeks to remedy this through a series of exposition-laden conversations towards the end of the film that more or less kill the momentum. Even a last-minute car chase can’t make up for the fact that most of the characters spend the entire thing talking through it, trying to figure out the plot.
It may sound like I didn’t like the movie, but I did give it 8/10 for a reason. The characters are highly engaging and entertaining – the female lead is especially complex and interesting. The animation is great, and the action scenes are among the most exhilarating I’ve seen. I enjoyed the music as well, though it wasn’t as instantly iconic in my mind as say, Kaneda’s theme from Akira. This is, in essence, an extremely well put together film that suffered some problems in pacing and runtime. Still, it’s also revolutionary and unique, and while its questions may be asked a little too bluntly, they’re still highly thought-provoking questions. This is a good movie that could have been great with better writing and a little more room to breathe; as it stands, it’ll have to settle for being one of the more influential anime.
Ghost in the shell was amazing, simply amazing. My only issue with it was the amount of nudity in it. it seemed excessive for the type on film this was. Ghost in the shell has an intense plot that is not for the simple minded. The plot was great, catching the rogue computer virus taking over a cyborg body, then that virus gaining animal instinct and trying to reproduce, this shows what can happen to mankind when we over-computerize ourselves. The other unique feature is the deeper meaning of just the title, Ghost in the Shell, and its relation to Motoko. Throughout the movie they discuss their "Ghosts". The Ghost represents the human soul, or what makes humans human, and the shell represents the characters cybernetic bodies. Man is trapped in the cyber body trying to be as human as possible.