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 For those whose entire bodies have been replaced by machines, these ghosts are the only indications left of their humanity.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.