As a heads up, this review will contain spoilers for the film Ghost in the Shell. You’ve been warned.
Normally, when I write a review of a movie, I do it right after I actually watch the film. This allows me to strike while the proverbial iron is hot. Ghost in the Shell is different. Here, I really had to think about what I was going to say. I think about what I’m going to say anyway, but this is different, because Ghost in the Shell itself is different. To explain why, and to explain why I think the way I do about the film, I have to give some background, not necessarily about the film, but about me.
Ghost in the Shell is one of those anime films that everybody needs to see once. Every “anime fan” or “otaku” or “geek” or even “film buffs” in general. Everybody needs to see it at least once. If they don’t like it, they never have to watch it again, but they need that first time. This was my first time, sort of. I had seen bits and pieces before, back when I had satellite TV, and when we had Starz. I’d heard big things about the movie before, and the manga. However, I’d never seen or read either. What I saw of the anime intregued me, but because there was nudity and violence, and because I was just getting into High School, I couldn’t see a way to watch it without my parents knowing. So, I read the manga, written by Masamune Shirow instead. It intrigued me, having a mixture of humor, action, and sexy characters, with a deep story in both the political and philosophical arenas.
Plus, as the point is raised on another blog I read, it is science fiction. While some of the political aspects of the story could be told in a different setting or a different time, the philosophical aspects of the story are different – as it brings up the question of “What does it mean to be alive?” This is a topic that science fiction writers both in the film and literary medium have grappled with for quite some time and frankly one that they certainly aren’t going to stop doing in the future, as the question is tied part and parsel in with the meaning of life – you can’t figure out what life means if you don’t know what life is. What the story does differently though, if you’ll pardon the spoiler, is have the artifical life be created accidentially – half improvised and half compromised – a program designed to grease the wheels of international politics, which eventualy started making its own decisions, and then becoming aware it was making its own decisions, and eventually realizing that it was alive.
This is without getting into the whole concept of “Ghost Hacking”, the idea that you can hack into a person’s mind, and not only change their memories, but their entire personality as well, reprogram them much as you can reprogram a computer. The concept of re-programming a human has been around for a long time – both cults and the organizations that seek to help those leaving a cult work on that concept. However, the idea of “ghost hacking,” reprogramming a human as subtly as is done in Ghost in the Shell has not yet been accomplished with modern technology yet – that I’m aware of.
Now, this explains why I like the story, and the manga. What do I think about the movie? The movie takes Shiow’s manga, and basically cuts it down to the philosophical issues that I mentioned above. In short, the movie is to the manga what the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey is to Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, for better or worse – and frankly it’s a little of both.
The film’s story is set in the distant-but-not-too-distant (read: Cyberpunk) future, and follows Section 9 of the Japanese Government. Section 9 is, basically, the MI5 of the Japanese government, tasked with taking out domestic terrorist and espionage threats, and occasionally doing domestic dirty work for the foreign ministry. Section 9, lead by Daisuke Aramaki, with it’s top agents of Batou, Ishikawa, Togusa, and Major Mokoto Kusanagi (or just “The Major), find themselves up against the master hacker known as “The Puppet Master”, who has been wanted by foreign police forces and governments for years. However, the Puppet Master is certainly much more than he seems.
The film’s narrative is crisp, straightforward, and direct. Even when we get into the heavy philosophical issues, where our characters are forced to ask the big questions, they’re handled directly, through dialog. The problem is that where the philosophical issues come up, the basically monologues. The film asks its own questions and, ultimately, answers its own questions. Now, depending on the question, this isn’t necessarily something major, but a question like “What is life?” is one that this film handles a bit too matter-of-factly. We learn that the Puppet Master is a life form, we seeks out Mokoto to merge with her, as “he” seeks to pass down his “genetic material” through creating new, similar life forms, through the contribution of another entity or donor, in this case The Major, and through learning of this, we basicaly also basically get the film’s messages on life and what it means to be a “alive”. It answers its own question, something that the best films in this genre, and which approach or try to tackle this same issue, such as Blade Runner and 2001, didn’t do.
The film’s visuals are beautiful. Mamoru Oshii is an excellent director, and it shows by how beautifully every shot is framed, and all the loving detail that makes it into every shot. Now, this is as much the responsiblity of the animatiors as well as the director – but much like the special effects department of a movie, while the animators are given the task to carry out the director’s vision, the vision is first and foremost the director’s. The film’s visual feeling reminds me a great deal of Blade Runner, not in terms of solely the visual style of the city (which was itself, inspired by Tokyo), but through the long establishing shots of the city, where there is not a lot of action or Plot going on in the shot, so we’re able to simply see the city and soak up this world the story takes place in, making the city itself a character, and allowing the city itself to help set the tone of the piece.
This brings us to the tone. The film is, frankly, much grimmer than the manga. The manga had a great deal of levity to it. In the manga, Mokoto was very irevverent, and had a very casual attitude with her co-workers, on several occasions nailing Batou with the virtual equivalent of the mallet Kaori would nail Ryo Saeba with in City Hunter. Plus, there was the also added humor of the Tachikomas, the small personal tanks that Section 9 would use in operations, which each had their own artificial intelligences, and their own personality. These provided more humor, as well as continuing with the theme of what it means to be “alive”. Plus there’s various sexy shots of Mokoto (including Mokoto taking part in a virtual lesbian orgy).
All that humor is gone in the film. Kaput! The film’s tone is overwhelmingly grim, dark, and somewhat forboding. Oddly, the nudity is kept in, but Oshii made an interesting directorial choice. The nudity is never used in situations where it would tittilate. We see Mokoto naked about 4 times. Once when she’s assassinating a foreign diplomat. Once when she’s taking out an would-be assassin/terrorist. Once when fighting the “Think Tank” (as it’s called in the manga) and ends up ripping herself apart, and once when she’s diving into the ghost of The Puppet Master. At none of these times is the nudity intended to arouse or tittilate. It’s just there. On the one hand, it does feel out of place for this reason – the nudity itself serves no real purpose. It’s not there to tittilate, it’s not there to digust, it’s not there to provoke any sort of emotional reaction, and it doesn’t make us feel vulnerable, not until the Think Tank fight.
That said, the film is an excellent film. When the film first came out is was regard as being a masterpiece of cinema, an assessment that is completely accurate. It really is a film that you need to watch at least once. Even if you don’t like it, and decide to never watch it again, give it a shot.