Region: 2 - UK
Length: 85 minutes
Japanese 2.0 Stereo
Blending cyberpunk action, philosophical musings and epic sci-fi vision, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell is an acknowledged masterpiece; a milestone of world animation that revolutionised the West's outlook on anime. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original manga books, Manga Entertainment is bringing a specially remastered edition of Ghost In The Shell to the big screen and high definition Blu-ray - the first time that this restored version of Oshii's classic movie has been made available outside Japan. This is the Ghost In The Shell you've been waiting for.
Gateway anime? Check. Responsible for changing how Western audiences looked at anime? Check. Voluminous plot and deep, structured characters? Check. What could I be talking about? Kōkaku kidōtai, of course. Oh well, to give its more famous title, Ghost in the Shell.
Ghost in the Shell has been one of my favourite films for the past twenty years. While other titles when I think how long ago they were released make me feel old, GITS is the one title I think of and have nothing but love for. A dense, mercurial in tone polemic on what it truly is to be human, the film asks so much of its audience and give back so much in return.
Set in the future, circa 2029, where humanity has learned how to connect their brains directly into the information grid that stretches across the planet, the film charts the course of the government department Section 9 and its core officers. The main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg woman who having joined the section, is the very latest in combat cybernetic operative. She and her department partner Batou are dealing with the double problem of a government programmer defecting to the US and also the hacking of a ministers interpreter brain during sensitive negotiations with an Asian nation. While this seems like standard work for Section 9, there is another case brewing just underneath that nobody can see coming. The Puppet Master, a high level hacker who is a wanted person, is pulling strings in the case of the programmer and the government negotiations. To be perfectly blunt, they're are a smokescreen to what the Puppet Master is and wants. The heart of the film is the Major's growing crisis internally about who she is, what she is and what in the end does it mean to be a human in a cyborg's body?
The film works on a physical and metaphysical level. On the physical, the ease at which people have seemingly signed away their identities into the ether of the net, coupled with the idea that you're just one brainwipe away from being someone's tool or unwitting accomplice is a terrifying thought. Imagine having to police a wave of crime using these methods? Into that mix is the fact that Section 9 is working extrajudicially to solve the cases they're given. That is, they don't have to respect due process, don't answer to regular police complaints and don't need to check before stepping on people's toes and that includes other government departments, backed up by their boss, Aramaki. Now, that sounds like a militia rather than a police department but Section 9 is actually the one that follows the law as close as possible. Aramaki doesn't like the dirty politics he's immersed in but he has enough dirt on people that his team instead in danger and neither is he. Section 9 is often called in to pick up the pieces from another department's botched jobs so the team doesn't even blink with what they're dealing with. On another physical level, the film deals with the idea of the superman or ubermensch. If you could just download yourself into another body, say a combat model, what would injury or death mean to you? Would you see it as par for the course to get upgrades like a PC or a car? Would you rebel against the idea?
That last question parleys nicely into the second level of the film. On a metaphysical level, in this world of brains being downloaded, shells (the cyborg bodies people use) and ghosts (er, a soul) just what makes people human? To paraphrase Captain Picard, it's our mortality that defines us, it's part of the truth of our existence. What would be the point of being human if you couldn't really die? GITS answers this by saying that merely saying that humanity is the only creature with dibs on what a soul is fast coming to an end. Whereas other films and stories have us destroying ourselves in our attempts to better the human condition, here the human condition is the starting point not the ending. Here is an idea that using technology to integrate the human paradigm is going to cause a singularity of consciousness and what comes out will be both human and machine with all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. Which is exactly how biology and the propagation of the species works and mirrors how machines can't solve all the problems and that the human element is as important.
In this version of the GITS storyline, the Major is at her most remote. Contrasting her to the version in Stand Alone Complex is difficult since both characters spring from the same source. Here she wonders at the nature of her existence but she knows how close she is the flame as the proverbial moth. She is the best example of humanity combined with cybernetics but to borrow another Star Trek reference she needs another quality in order to evolve. She needs to go higher but she's afraid that doing so will rob her of what makes her human. Humanity is overrated in this world but not the intentions behind it. Motoko grapples with the nature of existence itself, something that has bested most good philosophers over the years, and as she looks around the culturally dead world she works in, it's like she's moving slower and slower and the world is come to stop. Batou is the perfect foil. A man who just does his job and gets on with it, the thought that he can stare into the abyss and nonplused about it but that his friend stares back and wants to ask it questions scares him. He cares for his friend but there's nothing he can do to help since he's caught in the same existential crisis as well. The difference for him is he's not paid enough to think about it. Also, for him he has a hard time knowing it's a world that he doesn't know about and that it would stare back at with equally alien eyes. On top of all of this philosophical angst, there's the political dimension of nations trying to make something of the Puppet Master and what they can get out of it. Who's the villain here? Who is the enemy? Where's the frontline and where's the homefront? As the film comes to an end, the lines for all of the above get blurred and then blown to smithereens by the ending.
The film works to escape the limitations of a mere story of robots, cyborgs and political skullduggery to become a theoretical piece about who gets to decide what makes up a person and what makes up a soul residing within that person. In the end, the only thing separating us from the machines is that we know we're alive but that doesn't mean the machines can't have an existential crisis themselves. Imagine being so smart that you could recognise life as life but not having the ability to cognitively separate yourself from the background and recognise that you, yourself, were alive. That would be like being sealed in a box, unable to move, but knowing there was an outside. As the Major and Batou struggle with their demons and try to solve their case, their respect for each other never falters and never breaks. Here, encapsulated in a sterile, clinical procedural, is what makes us human: our capacity to connect with others and to recognise that our memories, ideas, thoughts and actions define our notion of the Self as well as the Other. The duo's relationship is the reason the film has a heartbeat and why at the end it has a soul. I can only say that for all of the questions the film asks of me and all the ideas it makes me consider, it's the Major and Batou that make the film one of my favourite films of all time and why it is my favourite, hands down, anime film ever.
The animation, voices and music of GITS is the reason why you thank whatever you believe in that you're a film fan. Expertly handled by Production I.G. the film drifts through an Asian cityscape haze and sprawling markets and open air locations as the case in Section 9 winds to its conclusion. Hyper fast action scenes with bullets flying, cars screaming around corners, people throwing each other flying at lighting fast speeds make the super quiet moments all that harder to escape. The scene in the market where Motoko and Batou take on a machine gun wielding pawn of the Puppet Master as he destroys a rubbish van, marketplace and more trying to kill them. The final sequence involving the Major using thermoptic camouflage and completely taking him out is one of my favourites in the film. The still moments where the Major drifts along in public barge transport and we see other cyborg models that look like her make for interesting meta commentary: is that just another cyborg or is that the Major really in the window looking at a combat Section 9 officer? Hey, it's a stretch but it's an interesting idea, no? Starting their run on GITS is Atsuko Tanaka as the Major and Akio Ōtsuka as Batou. Both actors brought so much to the role that to this day, they are the defaults for the characters. Tanaka is one of the best voices in an acting role for anime in my opinion because for me, the Major is her, she's the Major. Ōtsuka is a gruff voice with a mellow centre, he is that clear in his delivery. On the English side, well, this is where I've some discord. Mimi Woods is the Major's English voice and for my money she does a brilliant job taking on the role and delivering the dense, tricky dialogue she's forced to say with conviction and certainty. However, I couldn't see her as the Stand Alone Complex version, which was voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as that version is too playful and easygoing. Here, we need the Major to be quiet, cool and disconnected. Richard Epcar, man alive that guy will always be Batou. No matter who ends up filling in for him, he is Batou and that he played him on and off for over twenty years is how much he brought to the character and how much I love him and his no nonsense approach to Batou. I say brought because even if the English voices changed, the Japanese versions were constant. Not so for the new OVA series, ARISE. Here everyone is different and I can't tell you how hard it will be for me after growing up listening to these voices to listen for them and not hear them. I guess, much like the final conversation with Puppet Master and the Major, we all have to evolve or go extinct. The music by Kenji Kawai is second to none and provides an unearthly, ethereal simpatico companion to the visuals. I can still only have to hear the first chords of Making of a Cyborg and I fall into a quiet, mellow mood. It's really one of the best film soundtracks going and only by composer Yoko Kanno bringing a burning, busy and emotionally complex feeling to Stand Alone Complex is the only reason that SAC holds up, musically to the original.
Ghost in the Shell is my favourite film by Mamoru Oshii, a director that I fell in love with the Patlabor films and then with GITS. He made a film about an asexual girl who can't reproduce but who has to evolve in the normal way that species do with an technological slant. he made a film that stands out as an amazing story about humanity in all of its infinite complexity. He and his team elevated Shirow Masamune's original manga into art of the highest order. I can never fault him for that. That said, I've no time for him as a director these days as I feel that he now speaks to his audience from a too psychologically complex place that we can't understand without taking a long course on dead Greek philosophers and theologians. Everything he could say on the human condition, he said with stunning brilliance on Ghost in the Shell. Since then, it feels like he just wants to say the same things over and over again. I can't bring myself to watch Innocence, his sequel to GITS, again after being bored to death by it. Maybe I'm being overly critical since Innocence only has Batou and not really the Major in it but even Sky Crawlers left me feeling disconnected and even his live action efforts feel piecemeal compared to Patlabor and GITS. If I could put a phrase on it, I'd say he was the Japanese version of how Orson Welles described his career as "I started at the top and worked my way down." That said, GITS is a fantastic effort on his part and that's why I'll always watch his stuff even if I end up hating it. Boring Oshii is always better than mildly amusing Michael Bay.
This film made Manga Entertainment and it's the reason why the Manga banner still commands respect among fans. If they never had done anything else good in their history, they helped finance and release Ghost in the Shell and for that, we should always give them respect and thanks. Here they have released the film in its original version after the somewhat step backward with Oshii's re-released version called GITS 2.0 with a beautiful picture, cleaned up and shiny for the masses. I think they misstepped with the audio as I've heard nothing but complaints about bad audio mixes for the English track and rather stiff translation subtitles for the Japanese track. That said, GITS will always be in the public view, it's just too important to us fans not to be available. If you've never seen it, it's a great film to watch, think about and discuss with fans online. If you have, you've probably already bought it and are killing time before jacking back into the net. Hey, now who's getting metaphysical? Me, I'm giving it another go and then having a think about it again, after so many years.