By Andrew Haas
Japanese animation, or anime, has grown a massive following in the U.S. over the past few decades. Some features have even played a big influence in Hollywood, and this is the case with the 1995 sci-fi flick Ghost in the Shell. Based on the manga series by Masamune Shirow, this film is often seen in many top anime movies lists and, more notably, has inspired filmmakers like the Wachowskis when they made The Matrix. In honor of the new live-action American take on the property, I figured it would only be fitting to look at the first film adaptation and see how it holds up. It took a few viewings, but I can now see why fans call it a great piece of science fiction.
In the 2029 of Ghost in the Shell, the world is connected by an electronic network and many humans access it through cybernetic bodies, or “shells.” Female cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi is a federal agent from Section 9 and is currently on the trail of the Puppet Master, a mysterious hacker capable of infiltrating the minds, or “ghosts,” of human-cyborg hybrids. Aided by her partner, Batou, Kusanagi races to capture the dangerous entity, only to find herself caught up in political cover-ups and questions of identity.
Regardless of how one feels about anime, there’s no denying that a lot of effort is put into the animation. Ghost in the Shell has been hailed for its use of traditional cels and CGI, and it’s not hard to see why. The way the hand-painted character animation and backgrounds are mixed with computer graphics is amazingly seamless and adds a lot of depth in some shots. The beautifully detailed backgrounds show off a future city that appears tangible and gritty. The character animation is great in how it handles the designs and in its use of realistic movement. There are times where it favors design over fluidity, like much of anime, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The action is especially well paced and at times brutal, not afraid to show limbs breaking or blowing up in bloody detail. One of the most memorable scenes involves Major Motoko taking down a man while wearing a thermoptic camouflage suit. It’s no surprise that when it comes to traditional animation, Japan sure knows how to offer such high quality.
Accompanying the animation is the wonderful score by Kenji Kawai. The main theme in particular, titled “Making a Cyborg,” is a major highlight on the soundtrack and plays twice in the film: once in the opening credits sequence, which depicts Motoko’s creation, and again in a city montage. Both times, the music fills the scenes with such haunting atmosphere that it made me feel like I was experiencing the world the film created. These moments alone helped in making me want to watch the film again and fully study it.
It’s important to note that the film is rather complicated to understand in one viewing. There’s a lot of dialogue discussing technological, existential, and political information. When I first watched this movie, I was confused but also intrigued enough to rewatch and look deeper into it. Upon multiple viewings, I found myself captivated by its various themes. The film looks into the concepts of identity in a technological world. With humanity and technology somewhat becoming one, everyone has a way to be connected. But the more man and machine mix together, the more questions arise about what makes them the same or separate. Motoko may be fully cybernetic, but she has a ghost inside of her that she feels gives her some form of humanity. This makes her curious as to how artificial life compares to what is considered “human.” There’s also the plot of the Puppet Master, and the idea of minds being hacked and memories being altered creates concerning thoughts about how much technology can affect our lives. If anything, it’s not too far off from our relationships with technology today. We’re all connected through the Internet and we often deal with the threat of our personal information being corrupted or stolen. So the film is actually pretty relevant in our modern world.
On top of the issues of personal identity, the movie also touches on the topic of sexual/gender identity. There are a few scenes that at first feel like fanservice, with Motoko either being nude or wearing a thermoptic camouflage suit so tight that it could be confused for her skin. But when looking into her character, I noticed that being a cyborg, she doesn’t really have much of a connection with her gender. This actually leads to some subtle contrast between her and her partner. Batou has more human emotions compared to Motoko, despite them both being cyborgs. In one scene, when she strips out of a diving suit, she does not care who sees her naked body, but he feels the urge to look away out of respect. Not only is this a fine example of acting through animation, but it further asks how much gender plays a role in humanity.
Ghost in the Shell may be a tough film to understand at first, but once I finally did, I was completely hooked. This film is as engaging and thought-provoking today as it was back in 1995, with stunning animation and complex philosophical ideas. It raises many compelling questions while never really giving clear answers, smartly leaving things up to the viewer’s interpretation. Fans of challenging science fiction or anime in general will definitely enjoy this film. I’m not sure if this will sway people who aren’t into either of those, but it’s still a great experience that’s at least worth a look. Also, keep in mind: I haven’t read the manga or watched the various anime series, although from what I’ve heard, this film is almost its own entity. How will the American version compare to this or other adaptations? We’ll find out this weekend.