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Ghost in the Shell, written by Kazunori Itoh from the manga by Masamune Shirow, directed by Mamoru Oshii, 1995, 82 min.

Ghost in the Shell has gained a reputation as one of those breakthrough anime features on the order of Akira or Spirited Away, and it's definitely a strong movie, although not a perfect one. Ghost in the Shell is about a near-future Hong Kong that is the battleground for some intragovernmental feuding and AIs gone rogue, and was one of the first movies to combine traditional animation with complex new computer-aided techniques. The movie is filled with stunning animation, a baroquely complex set of underlying ideas, some interesting characters, and excellent music. The movie is also quite violent, has a lot of profanity, and whenever the heroine wants to use her suit of invisibility, she has to take her clothes off. Ghost in the Shell falls back on some typical anime ingredients at times, but it's generally intelligent and meditative.

Major Kusanagi is a member of Section 9 of the government, an agent whose body is mostly mechanical and cybernetic. She is fighting the threat of the Puppetmaster, a deadly hacker. She is backed up by two partners, Batou, who is augmented but not to the same extent as she is, and Togusa, a normal cop who has been promoted to this elite squad for one reason: he has no augmentations at all and is thus not vulnerable to computer-related attacks (Togusa has little screen time but I found him intriguing). The story puts in a great deal of violence, but also takes the time for some nice bits of character development. In fact, the dominant tone of the movie is contemplative, something that is enhanced by the music (more on that in a minute), and the recollection of the film is probably changed by the graphic quality of the few moments of violence. It seems that Section 9 and Section 6 haven't been getting along, and the Puppetmaster is not who he seems to be. I liked the ending, because it exemplified to me what science fiction can do.

Ghost in the Shell suffers from some stereotypical characters (which are made much worse by the dubbed version -- the DVD with the Japanese language track is highly recommended). The background government agents stick strictly to standard roles, but the handful of foreground characters are more interesting than I was expecting. Kusanagi and Batou, in particular, are always talking about what their lives as cyborgs mean, and there's a strong undercurrent of sadness in their conversations. I also liked the sequence where Kusanagi is swimming. The Puppetmaster, who plays a crucial role to the movie and especially the ending, doesn't come across as very interesting until much later, which is unfortunate. However, had the movie dealt much more with the Puppetmaster, a large part of the surprise of the ending would have been given away.

The visuals and the music of the movie work together particularly well. At several points during the story, the action takes a pause, and we are treated to a contemplative montage of the city, in the vein of Blade Runner. As director Oshii points out in the making-of documentary on the DVD, he wanted to find a visual metaphor for the complexity of information networks, and this element of the movie is certainly successful. The final shootout in the Museum of Evolution was also magnificent, if a bit pretentious at times with the use of imagery. Oshii's direction was simply brilliant, with lots of attention to detail and absolutely gorgeous shots. Much of this imagery was influenced strongly by William Gibson, and the story owes a debt to Gibson especially in the ending. In turn, Ghost in the Shell influenced The Matrix (Ghost in the Shell's computer-generated opening credits are the most blatantly stolen item in The Matrix).

The ideas of the movie, the characters, and the atmosphere of what Oshii shows us onscreen always fit the overall tone of the movie, and in a way that few films achieve. Bleak, yet bursting with life. Violent, and in the end, essentially humane. Quite an accomplishment.

DVD Note: The DVD of Ghost in the Shell is an example of the format in its infancy (it was released in 1998), and it has the clunky interface (mostly web-style buttons) of that time period. The movie itself is presented in a gorgeous widescreen, with Japanese language and subtitles (which is a relief; the first time I saw this movie, I was put off by the horrible dubbing). The major feature on the DVD is a 25-minute making-of documentary. This documentary includes a look at the advances in animation that have been made possible by computers (such as the during the thermoptic camouflage scenes), interviews with most of the main technical talent behind the movie, information on how the movie was edited digitally and how the sound was recorded, a brief audio interview with Shirow Masamune, a few questions for the director (during which he talks about his search for a visual metaphor for an information network), five minutes of highlights from the movie, a brief listen to the music, a few shots of the movie's premiere, and reactions from cast and crew. The documentary is a hodge-podge of information, and the interviews are put into a tiny box on the lower right hand side of the screen. Not the best feature, but better than the other material. The DVD's other extra features are mostly promotional fluff, like trailers for other anime movies. The promising "A Guide to Ghost in the Shell" just summarizes aspects of the movie in a cheesy way. On the whole, though, the DVD is vastly better than the older VHS version, mainly due to the option of turning off the dubbed English and watching the movie in its original Japanese with English subtitles.


First posted: March 26, 1998; Last modified: March 10, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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