Our reviews of Ghost In The Shell: Special Edition (published February 10th, 2005) and Ghost in the Shell (Blu-ray) 25th Anniversary Edition (published October 15th, 2014) are also available.
"But to be human is to constantly change. Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you."—The Puppet Master
A.D. 2029. Cybernetic agents prowl the virtual space of the computer network, hunting ghosts. Major Kusanagi and her team search for the enigmatic hacker known only as the Puppet Master. Kusanagi thinks she can find him. She has the clue: "I hear a whisper…a whisper from my ghost."
In this world, ghosts are on everyone's mind. When a poor garbage man wants to know why his wife left him, he purchases software to "ghost-hack" her brain over the telephone. But the ghost-hack is a specter in any case. There is no wife, no family; the garbage man is a puppet programmed with false memories. The hacker from whom he purchased the software has no memory at all, no identity, no name. Batou, Kusanagi's cybernetic partner shrugs, "There's nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost. Especially the kind with red blood running through them." A spectral figure without a ghost: a true ghost perhaps?
And beyond this ghost, a Puppet Master, who may be a puppet himself, dangling on a hinge of fate, unable to die, unable to reproduce. A ghost in search of a body…
In Mamoru Oshii's vision of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, the "ghost" is what remains beyond the machine. The government agents of the top-secret Section 9 are nearly all cyborgs, technical constructs with little organic material left. Major Kusanagi is virtually all machine, with only an organic brain stem remaining. The opening credit sequence shows her laboratory assembly in a smooth display of computer graphics and animation. Kusanagi still believes she is human, however, attributing technical errors to organic causes. When her lieutenant Batou comments on the radio, "There's a lot of static in your brain," her response is cliché: "It's that time of the month."
Oddly, the English dub of Ghost in the Shell gets this all backwards, translating Kusanagi's response as, "It must be a loose wire." Whose fault is the malfunction: the organic body, or the technical one?
The intersection between organic and technical, between subject and object, is the core of Oshii's film. This cynosure is crucial, as all change, all growth, comes with the accession of chance into a closed system. When the fully-human Togusa asks Kusanagi why she would keep a non-cybered officer on her team, she explains, "No matter how powerful we may be fighting-wise, a system where all the parts react the same way is a system with a fatal flaw. Like individual, like organization. Overspecialization leads to death." At the film's climax, Kusanagi engages in a tense battle with a robot tank. The tank's cannons destroy a mural of an "evolutionary tree." Such an image suggests the very paradox of progress: does change move us forward, or merely sideways?
Any science fiction worth its salt must address these issues, if it is to address the real problem of the future at all. And as glossy as some of Ghost in the Shell's anime kin might be—the apocalyptic visions of Akira, or the hopeful technological leaps of Wings of Honneamise—few films, even American films, explore the problem of our evolution with as much sophistication as Oshii's philosophical thriller.
A thorough analysis of this film would take far longer than this forum affords us (and I devote a good deal of space to it in my forthcoming book in any case), but in brief, Mamoru Oshii crafts Masamune Shirow's technically proficient but often cryptic comic book into a deliberately paced exploration of the blurred boundaries between circuit and ether. These are boundaries Major Kusanagi must cross each day. After all, DNA itself is merely information, like a computer code, and Kusanagi's body itself is fashioned synthetically, an assemblage of human and machine parts. She wonders if perhaps she died a long time ago, "and I'm a replicant made with a cyborg body and computer brain. Or maybe there was never a real 'me' to begin with." Batou asks her if she even believes in her own ghost. She responds, "What if a computer could make a ghost?"
And what of her adversary, the Puppet Master? Told by their superiors that this über-hacker was merely a rogue American, the crew of Section 9 is startled to discover that this enemy is a ghost—a free spirit, if you will—in search of a place within the body politic. But ultimately, the Puppet Master wants something more. Like Kusanagi, it seeks answers to the enigma of its very existence. Together, perhaps they can reach some compromise.
Manga Video presents Oshii's film in a sharp anamorphic print with a 5.1 English dub. The dub itself is tolerable but rather uninspired, with a few translation flaws here and there (as noted above). But generally, the translators seem to get the point, especially with the crucial exposition at the film's climax (where it really counts). The 5.1 mix takes advantage of the wide soundscape created in the studio, given a sense of depth important to give the animation the further illusion of reality. Unfortunately, a pinched 2.0 mix stifles the superior Japanese voice acting on the original soundtrack. Why does Manga Video insist on not offering remixed versions of the original soundtracks on most of their anime? Oshii's desire to create a sense of physical texture to the film is enhanced by his discrete use of computer animation to add visual depth and a high level of detail, and the clean transfer on this DVD helps avoid the flatness that often comes with presenting animation (especially Japanese animation) in this format.
Flatness is, unfortunately, the ideal word to describe most of the extras provided on this DVD release. The promised "theatrical trailer" turns out to be a badly narrated English video trailer that is pointedly not either the original Japanese trailer or the American theatrical trailer that I recall seeing during this film's release in 1996. The "Guide to Ghost in the Shell" is a collection of text screens that offer a series of mini-essays that rarely say anything substantive about either the film's content or its production. Apart from a genuinely helpful glossary of terms (the film offers its own jargon peculiar to the world of 2029), most of the information reads like it comes from a press kit. For instance, under the section "Key Points," one might expect a list of crucial themes explored in the film (like some of the ones discussed briefly above). Instead, it offers a list of selling points for the movie: "High energy, high speed action," "High quality," "Super reality SF," and "Anime Worldwide" (that is, the film ties into the general anime craze). I am sure this is helpful for marketers, but less than informative for newcomers trying to puzzle out the complex philosophical mysteries offered in the film itself.
But leave it to the Japanese themselves to offer a more substantive look behind the scenes of the film. The 27-minute "Ghost in the Shell Production Report" (listed on the menu as "The Making of Ghost in the Shell") was produced in conjunction with the film's original release on video in Japan. After a look at the real trailer for the film, we are presented with discussions of the film's use of computer graphics (a novelty in anime at the time—and the reason why it had such a huge budget for a Japanese animated film), its detailed character animation, and voice-recording and sound engineering. Along the way, interviews with the crew actually tackle serious questions about the production—unusual considering the Japanese penchant for lowballing interview questions in favor of politeness in these sorts of documentaries. Manga creator Shirow, always reclusive, offers a voice-only interview, and director Oshii, also responsible for the marvelous Beautiful Dreamer and Patlabor II (when will we get his latest film Avalon in the United States?), gives his thoughts on the cultural impact of computers, a key theme which inspired him to tackle this film.
This Production Report is offered in full-frame (a little faded compared to the remastered feature itself) in its original Japanese (without subtitles!) or a straightforward English dub. Oddly, the disc defaults to the Japanese soundtrack (the feature defaults to English—and bypasses the menu to play automatically when you insert the disc). Overall, this documentary gives a solid overview of the film and the creative minds behind it.
In spite of the fact that voice actor Akio Otsuka (Batou on the Japanese soundtrack) cautions us to watch Ghost in the Shell with your heart and not with your mind, Oshii's masterpiece offers stunningly crisp animation and intellectual puzzles that will linger in your memory. Perhaps James Cameron is overstating the case when he argues in a plug on the DVD's cover that this is "the first truly adult animation film," but Ghost in the Shell does offer challenges that make it worth seeing again even after you finish marveling over it gorgeous visual stylings. As Kusanagi herself remarks, quoting scripture, "When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things." The mysteries of Ghost in the Shell are waiting to unfold, if only we are prepared to grow into them.
The futures of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master cannot be settled here. Manga Video is given a slap on the wrist for minor, but forgivable infractions. Oshii and company are released on the strength of their superior work.
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