Manga Video // 1995 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // December 16th, 2009
It found a voice...Now it needs a body.
The original anime classic makes its Blu-ray debut, but this isn't the Ghost in the Shell you remember. The legendary anime classic returns in a stunning new edition remastered by director Mamoru Oshii (The Sky Crawlers). Every aspect of the film has been re-tooled and re-produced with the latest in cutting edge technology.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is a field agent in Neuport City's public security division, known as Section 9. Her world is the world of the 'net, where living souls inhabit cybernetic bodies, and data flows across vast networks spanning the globe. When a mysterious hacker nicknamed "The Puppet Master" begins hitting political targets, Section 9 is unleashed, in the hopes of catching the most enigmatic and capable cybercriminal the world has ever known. When the line between the real and the digital is blurred, Motoko finds herself questioning her own humanity, and her own place in this burgeoning digital age.
Never has a film come at a better time than Ghost in the Shell. The film appeared in North America around the same time the Internet was seeping into public consciousness, computerization was building, and by 1999 the brave new world of broadband would envelop the globe. Mamoru Oshii saw this coming, and with Masamune Shirow's manga tucked under arm, he proceeded to craft an eerie vision of the wired world circa 2029 AD.
As an adaptation, Ghost in the Shell is a lousy attempt at best. If you want something true to Shirow's source material, you'd be better off tracking down episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. However, what Oshii has done with the film easily surpasses Shirow's comic. Oshii's screenplay is centered on Motoko Kusanagi, essentially a living consciousness or "Ghost" inhabiting a cybernetic body, her "shell." While Ghost in the Shell provides a simple enough plot, like all truly great science fiction, it's the journey that propels us forward. Motoko's disconnect with her human side has her questioning her own identity. Her existential crisis is the core of the film, the question at the heart of a whirlwind of swirling events that ties everything together. When mankind gives himself over to the digital, is he still man? When all that's left of your living body is what you remember, are you still human? What constitutes a soul? Does anything more than rote memory define us as people? It's heady stuff, written on the cusp of the digital age. And while cyborg bodies may not have come to pass, and genetics seems to be replacing cybernetics as the wave of the future, Ghost in the Shell is still a chilling look at a future that could have been, or very well could be right around the corner.
Not only is Motoko a strong female lead, but there's a strong supporting cast in play as well. Of particular note are Batou, Matoko's towering, mostly cybernetic partner, and The Puppet Master, the object of the team's query. These two are extensions of Matoko herself. Batou is her humanity. He clings to life as though it were slipping through his fingers, displaying affection and warmth toward her that's not always reciprocated. He keeps her on the human path, as it were, dismissing her musings out of hand. Meanwhile The Puppet Master, once Matoko meets him, ushers in her machine side. He's an enigmatic figure, countering every point of her "humanity" with cold hard logic and precision. Both are invaluable to the plot, and Batou in particular really endears himself.
The film is not all existential argument and philosophy. Ghost in the Shell does feature several highly kinetic and beautifully executed action sequences. From the opening sequence, where Section 9 aids in solving a delicate immigration issue, to the marketplace chase with a hacker suspect, and a scene that pits Matoko up against a six-legged walking tank, there's one common element: fantastic direction. The action is marvelously cut, more like feature film than animation, and the degree of skill on display by the animation team is nothing short of brilliant. Even amongst peers like Akira, Ghost in the Shell manages to surpass just about anything I'd seen in animation up to that point. While the techniques have become more commonplace in the 15 years since, there are still very few films which nail action sequences like these.
When the film began making the rounds in 1995 and 1996, Ghost in the Shell was heralded for its technical brilliance, and remains to this day a wonderfully animated film. Beyond the action beats, Mamoru Oshii is known for quiet contemplative "mood pieces," and his attention to detail is staggering. Again, the animators prove that there are few teams, East or West, who can match them for sheer raw skill, when firing on all cylinders.
Before I get into the technical merits of this particular disc, I thought I'd give a quick nod to the amazing score by Kenji Kawai. Heavy on distinctly Asian vocal harmonies, percussion, and synth beats, it's uniquely distinct, instantly identifiable, and one of the most hauntingly beautiful combinations of sound and image. Kawai's music is as much a part of Oshii's filmmaking as his own direction, and he's said he finds it impossible to make a film unless Kawai's melodies accompany his visuals.
Manga's release is a showpiece. Version 2.0 is a new print which shines brilliantly on Blu-ray, with a near flawless HD presentation. Some color banding does appear in the CG sequences, but it's really not worth mention and I'm sorry I brought it up. The cel animation looks stunning and ,in motion, everything is smooth and clean. Just amazing. The sound is equally impressive, featuring a robust 6.1 DTS mix that throws the remastered sound around the room with purpose. The original English dub appears alongside the newly recorded Japanese track, and (I know this will piss off the purists) I strongly recommend you make the English language version your selection of choice. The voice acting is perfectly executed and, in a film where dialogue is this wordy and nuanced, you may lose a little in the reading of subtitles. It helps that the English cast turns in one of the best jobs laid to tape, in an era when anime wasn't particularly well known for good English acting. Far be it from me to tell you how to enjoy your anime, though. I'm sure you'll be happy, whichever you choose.
For extras, Manga has seen fit to give us the original, pre-2.0 version of Ghost in the Shell in 1080i that looks a little dirty and grainy. Truth be told, I found the upscaled image on my old 2-disc DVD version to be slightly better, and that disc features 6.1 sound instead of the standard 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese tracks present here. It is, however, the thought that counts. The fact that the original version is included at all is definitely reason to be happy. Also present is the 30 minute "Production Report" featurette which was included not only on the previous DVD releases, but followed the film on the original Manga VHS. It feels archaic, at this point, but serves its purpose and is actually somewhat informative. Better to have it than not.
The "2.0 version" that earns this disc's rather blasé moniker is sure to be a bone of contention among fans. On one side, the animation in Ghost in the Shell has never looked better, full of crisp lines, rich color, and a fresh coat of paint. It's like a brand new film. The controversy comes in the CG elements added rather haphazardly to the proceedings. I can justify changes in color timing, as Oshii considers the less colorful tone of 2.0 to blend better with the film's sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. The Wachowski's made an identical change when they re-released The Matrix alongside its sequels, trading silver and violet for black and green.
The more drastic changes come in the CG sequences added to the film proper. Many background elements have been replaced, and several transition scenes featuring vehicles and what not have been completely cut and pasted with fully computer generated replacements. This will undoubtedly ruffle some purist feathers, but again, I'm fine with it. CG fish in a background scene or a CG helicopter here or there, well, it doesn't impact the film at all.
The problems arise, however, when entire core sequences have been replaced with CG renderings, including our lead character. A CG Motoko opens our film, set atop a CG skyline. The stunning opening scene of the classic film is all but ruined by jarring changes in style from CG characters to traditional cel animation. The filmmakers don't even attempt to blend the styles. It's completely baffling and occurs twice in the film, killing the pre-credits sequence, and showing up briefly during the scene where Motoko spends some off time underwater. It might not sound like much, particularly where the second scene is concerned, but the pain of that first scene...man, it hurts. This is like "Greedo Shooting First" bad for me. Even worse, the transfer on "version 2.0" is so damn good, and the audio so fantastic, that it will probably be my go-to version from here on out. I just wish some restraint had been shown in the CG department. With the offending two scenes in particular, someone could have just said, "No, this is a stupid idea." I can't lay the blame at Manga's feet for this one.
A quick side note to Manga Video and their owners, Starz/Lionsgate: Guys! What the HELL is up with listing features on your packaging that are NOWHERE to be found on the disc?! Seriously??? The package lists a face-to-face interview with Mamoru Oshii. There was one of those on the Manga UK R2 release of GITS 2: Innocence from a few years back, and it was bloody awesome. Oshii is an extremely interesting cat, and his ideas and influences are always a welcome topic. Sadly, there's no such interview here. The packaging lists a commentary track with Oshii and Animation Director Toshihiko Nishikubo. Maybe they'll explain why the hell they replaced Kusanagi with a shitty CG double for two key scenes. Nope, they don't because it's NOT HERE! Mayhap I'll send customer support an e-mail and check on the situation. If replacement discs are to be issued, I'll certainly endeavor to keep you, my dear readers, informed.
So, while the disc isn't exactly perfect, you do get the movie in stunning HD and, if you really can't stomach the 2.0 version, the original is here too (though it won't replace your old 2-disc DVD release).
Look, it may sound like I'm being hard here, but in truth, Ghost in the Shell will likely never look or sound better. My recommendation comes entirely on the strength of the film itself, in its "version 2.0" incarnation. If the changes and updates sound like something you can't handle, just walk away. If however, you love the film (like I do) and actually welcome the changes made to the film, then this is one disc you can grab with confidence. If you haven't seen Ghost in the Shell before, or your only experience was with the excellent TV Series, well, this is a landmark film, and I can't recommend this disc enough.
Guilty of pushing the anime envelope, Ghost in the Shell is a true
science-fiction classic that's not to be missed. Oshii and his team are let off
with a stern warning for being a tad overzealous with the CG. Manga is sentenced
to sensitivity training and two years probation for their slipshod packaging and
lack of advertised features.
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* DTS 6.1 ES (Japanese)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Original Film