I wrote this review of Ghost in the Shell for a Science Fiction class, and a teacher who never watched anime. I was recently reminded that I actually had an anime blog, so, here’s some content. Regardless of how current the content is.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
In the high-tech world of Ghost in the Shell, humans and cyborgs coexist. Cyborgs who were once normal humans retain their humanity by having a part of their cybernetic brain contain a ‘ghost’, which represents their memories and individuality. A hacker known as the Puppet Master surfaces who can not only hack into the cyber brains of people to control them, but also alter their ghosts. There are two criminals at the beginning of the movie who are victims of a ‘ghost hack’. While they appear to be lucid during interrogation, when asked about personal things such as their parents, childhood memories, even their own name (things that would be stored in one’s ghost), they can’t recall any of them.
This attracts the attention of Section 9, a military division that is particularly specialized in cyber warfare. We later learn that the Puppet Master is a computer program that believes itself to be a sentient life form. For reasons best explained in the movie (as it is the core plot that I don’t want to spoil), it has wanted to get in contact with Section 9 for a long time, and this was the best way it decided to do it.
Roger Ebert once called Ghost in the Shell “Unusually intelligent and challenging science fiction, aimed at smart audiences” (proudly printed on the cover of the 1996 VHS release). Director James Cameron described it (on the UK version of the recently released remastered Blu-ray edition) as “a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.”
Ghost in the Shell thrives in its SciFi “post cyberpunk” setting. The main character is a female member of Section 9, referred to as the ‘Major’. She is fully cybernetic, having no human parts in her besides her ‘ghost’. The first dialogue we hear from her is not spoken with her mouth, but through her cyber brain to one of her teammates over a network. For them, everything revolves around the information network, which is where the Puppet Master emerges from. Once she learns of the Puppet Master’s ability to hack and change a ghost, she begins to wonder if she ever really was human. After all, if a hacker could change someone’s ghost, it could be easily manipulated by the organizations in charge of maintaining cybernetic bodies. The question of what makes a human, what constitutes life, sentience, and individuality is a theme that prevails in all of the media that the Ghost in the Shell franchise encompasses (it started as a Japanese comic, then this movie, then later another two movies and a 52 episode television series).
When I first watched this film almost seven years ago, all of the philosophy talk bored me. The movie also isn’t afraid to utilize its vocabulary of ‘technobabble’, which can make it hard to follow at times. Now that I’m a little older and more patient, and more familiar with anime, science fiction and this particular franchise as a whole, I can absorb a lot of the heady concepts they present more easily. The expertly animated action sequences still hold up incredibly well fourteen years later and are what really kept me interested in it when I was seven years younger. Now, I can derive even more intellectually stimulating entertainment from it.
This is certainly a film intended for adults. The violence is graphic (though only average by anime-of-the-time standards) and the Major spends much of the movie naked. As an example: the first few minutes of the film have the naked Major shooting a diplomat in the head, causing it to explode in a mess of red liquid and electronic wiring. Immediately after that, she activates her thermoptic camouflage to disappear from sight. We learn in one of the other series that it’s not really necessary for her to be nude to use thermoptics, but she prefers it anyway. This is a trait inherited from the original comic creator, Shirow Masamune, who is notorious for finding any excuse to draw women in various states of undress.
The only criticism I really have for it is its accessibility issues: there are long, pensive scenes where not much happens (a trademark of the much respected director Mamoru Oshii); esoteric philosophic and ‘technobabbley’ conversations which also go on a little long sometimes; and frequent nudity that might turn off people who might otherwise really enjoy the film. In spite of that, I’m glad that this is a film that I can appreciate even more as I mature. I actually envy people whose first exposure to anime was Ghost in the Shell. It is a spectacular way to be introduced to the medium of anime.