Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

When this film came out in 1995 there was a strong belief that it would be the game changer for Japanese animation in North America. The film was going to generate word of mouth and end up a smash hit. Folks would be lining up to see it and anime would be lifted from the stigma of being ultraviolent almost porn for adults. Well it didn’t quite turn out that way. It would take a few more years and a little show called Pokemon to do that. Instead, Ghost in the Shell became a cult favorite for film buffs, and an excellent science fiction film that anime fans loved diving into.

In the near future Major Motoko Kusanagi (Mimi Woods) is in charge of a Special Forces unit that fights cybernetic terrorists. To deal with this technological threat, her team is comprised of heavy artillery, cutting edge technology and even full cyborg bodies. They finds themselves up against a very dangerous criminal who calls himself the Puppet Master (Abe Lasser).

The Puppet Master can hack into people’s brains and use them as pawns to achieve his ends. Kusanagi’s team does their best to track down the real criminal, but keep running into puppets and dead ends. When a break in the case occurs, clues point to another government agency possibly at work behind the puppet master. Kusanagi will have to use all her skills to determine the identity of The Ghost in the Shell.

Good Points:
  • A thought provoking science fiction story
  • Impressive visuals in both the action scenes and quiet moments
  • Never plays down to the audience

Bad Points:
  • Can get a touch over-philosophical
  • Moves at a very slow pace
  • A combination of violence and nudity (but no sex) will alienate some viewers 

Any fans of thinking science fiction films need to see Ghost in the Shell. A single viewing is enough to get the story and basic ideas down, but the film rewards multiple viewings with its depth of visuals and atmosphere. Those looking for lots of action will be disappointed. But the film is certainly a landmark for animation in the 1990s and inspired many anime series and films like The Matrix.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
Major Kusanagi about to jump into action.
I find Ghost in the Shell to be difficult to write about. The film has so much going on in it. To really do it justice and dive deeply into the imagery, themes and story would require more time than I have and more patience than most readers want to give. Besides, it’s much better if you watch the film yourself and make up your own mind about the film.

I’ll touch on the key points on why this film remains on my top ten science fiction film list.

There are two main contributors to the film. Masamune Shirow created the original graphic novel that this movie is based on. Then you have Mamoru Oshii, the director who has a very unique visual style and sense of pacing. In the end you get a combination of Shirow’s world though Oshii’s eyes. The result works surprisingly well. Shirow’s wacky sense of humor is toned down but Oshii took key elements from the graphic novel and used them for the main plot of the film. This makes the film version of Ghost in the Shell very different from the original manga and the television series that came afterward.

Was the puppet captured or is this the master?
Oshii’s films all tend to be deliberately paced, allowing the viewer to really delve into the atmosphere of the worlds he creates. The film is filled with long shots, methodical pans, slow zooms and entire sequences without dialogue. Beyond showing off the animation, these scenes also give the viewers a better sense of the setting, and the mood of the characters.

This contrasts with the action scenes in Ghost in the Shell where Oshii keeps things moving. There are three set pieces in the film. You have the opening sequence with the assassination of a diplomat that literally explodes in several different ways. The next sequence involves the chasing a hacker who uses armor piercing rounds and has camouflage that renders him invisible. There’s some good tension building here as the hacker attempts to elude his pursuers. The final sequence involves Major Kusanagi attempting to stop a cyborg tank with minimal weapons and no back up.

Each scene combines fast action with long takes and slow pans. Creating a disconnect that actual makes the tension work well. Kusanagi’s battle against the tank is intense. It becomes apparent that she has almost no chance of surviving. There are moments when the screen seems to remain static as the tank waits for her next attack and all he we hear is the rain falling and the atmospheric musical score.

Water and grime in the futuristic cityscape
In 1995 Ghost in the Shell was at state of the art for animation. Computers were just beginning to make their presence felt. Many of the displays and computer interfaces in the film were created by computer graphics. On the other hand you get some amazing hand drawn backgrounds, with the unnamed Asian city (some folks have decided it is Hong Kong) coming to life before you eyes. It’s a dirty city that always seems to have some kind of moisture flowing around it. One of my favorite scenes is the mid-film montage featuring Kusanagi on a boat trip down a canal and watching the activity around her. The detail here is amazing and does so much to create a melancholy, vaguely oppressive feel to the city. It’s cool greens and blues feeling almost alienating.

Water imagery is abundant in the film. The opening scene features windows that appear to be a giant aquarium. The opening credits show the creation of a cyborg with the body being created while immersed in fluid. Following scenes feature rainfall, sanding puddles, not to mention scenes occurring on boats. As I mentioned it creates a melancholy feel to the film, but there’s also a thematic idea here. The term “flow of information” is used several times in the film. The constant motion of the water, and its ever-present state mirror the idea of information surrounding us and flowing between us. Or maybe there is other symbolism here that I’m not aware of.

Kusanagi reflects literally and figuratively
Finally a note about the character design, Oshii opted for a more realistic look to all the characters. It’s easy to see Shirow’s influence on the looks, but here the large eyes, small mouth look has been greatly modified to create much more realistic characters. This actually adds to the impact of the story dealing with humans and beings that are nearly all machine but with (supposedly) human brains inside them.  You don’t usually see this type of design outside of horror anime, but for some, the final message of this film may be horrifying.

Sound work in Ghost in the Shell is solid and immersive as well. Most of what you hear is standard city noise, rainfall and the hum of computers. Actions scenes us a solid variety of sounds for the gunfire, explosions and cyborg hand to hand combat. It doesn’t stand out as anything too innovative, but it creates a familiar world, just a short jog into the our future

The cyborg tank rages against the machine
Prolific anime composer Kenji Kawai wrote the score. For the most part it is an atmospheric affair, focused on creating and sustaining a mood. There are no themes, and at times it seems to simply be the same set of notes repeating in an endless pattern. However, it is very effective in the film, adding to the scenes by creating a pulse behind them, or touching on the revelations with a well placed choir.

In addition there is a song used three times in the film. I blogged a little about it here. It’s very unique in style and has been known to annoy the hell out of some viewers. But to me it adds to the character of the film. It also changes slightly each time it is used, reaching its most complete form in the end credits.

Bateau shares beer and philosophy with Kusanagi
Unfortunately one of the weakest elements is the English voice acting. You get some solid performances, especially by Richard George as Bateau and William Frederick as Aramaki. But there’s a few folks who are too over the top, and pull you out of the film. Unfortunately the key performance of Kusanagi by Mimi Woods is just plain off. I’m not sure what they were going for, but Woods keeps her performance as Kusanagi very cold. Perhaps this was an attempt to mirror the Japanese voice actress. However she sounds more wooden and uncomfortable than anything else. Woods is a capable voice actress and did a great job in El Hazard as the fire priestess Shayla Shayla. I just think the part wasn’t a good fit for her and she ends up distracting instead of pulling you into the story. For that reason, I recommend seeing the film in Japanese as well as English to get the full impact.

The script is also slightly different between the two versions. Viewing the film in English first will allow a viewer who isn’t fluent in Japanese to absorb the visuals as well as the story. But the translation is different enough from the subtitled version to cause some viewers concern about which is the closest to the original version. The Japanese version seems a bit more oblique in some ways, and yet feels truer to the spirit of the film. The English version seems like it was made to cater to a more action movie oriented crowd. It is fair to say that the dialogue in both versions contains sequences that seem out of place, but will end up having an impact later in the story. One of my favorite examples is a conversation between Kusanagi and one of her team members. They talk about how cyborgs are limited by their artificial bodies. They can act according to the peramiters set by the manufacturers. A pure human is not limited in that way, and provides a necessary variable in the team, keeping the whole unit effective and unpredictable. This mirrors a conversation between the Puppet Master and Kusanagi at the end of the film.

The Major melts into the world around her
It’s elements like that that make Oshii’s direction of the film most impressive. The film is layered in so many different ways. It rewards repeat viewings as well as reflection and discussion on what you’ve seen and understood. This isn’t to say that Ghost in the Shell is overly complex or difficult to follow. It is actually a pretty straightforward story. But the more you put into watching it the more you get out of it. It’s one of the reasons I return to it so frequently, and put it not only in the top tier of anime along with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Spirited Away and Millennium Actress, but also in my favorite science fiction films.  The film was eventually followed by a sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and a television series. But for me this movie is one of the may be the most effective incarnation of the story.  

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008)
Everything you see here is computer generated.
At some point director Mamoru Oshii decided to revisit his 1995 film and make some changes. Now I know what you’re thinking. He was going to go all George Lucas on the films and fill them needless additions and re-edit the film to suit some kind of master vision.

Well the answer is yes and no.

For the most part Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is the same film as the 1995 version. It flows the same way, has all the same scenes, tells the same story and explores the same themes. And yet the experience is slightly different in its updated version.

Two big changes were made. One was the addition of computer-generated sequences replacing two traditionally animated sequences. All the shots, angles, and imagery are exactly the same. The CG additions also spread to the computer screen and virtual reality interfaces used in the film. These have been replaced by more dynamic visuals, ones that look closer to the images used in the follow up film Innocence.

I don’t mind the updates to the computer screens and VR interfaces. What looked high tech in 1995 does look a bit simplistic and dated now. But that is always a problem with any science fiction film that focuses on technology. It doesn’t hurt the story of flow, so it’s just a simple change.

Now the replacement of sequences with CG counterparts is a bit tougher to reconcile. I believe this was done for two reasons. They wanted to make the cityscape shots and vehicle scenes look more realistic with computer images. And second, they figured they might was well throw in a CG Kusanagi in there for funsies.

A new life form looks upon a Tang colored world.
But the result is an odd disconnect between this full CG version of Kusanagi in two scenes to the hand drawn version in the rest of the film. It leaves the viewer wondering what happened, instead of pulling the viewer into the story and the world. The film’s chilly style can be a turnoff for some viewers, but this strangeness might be the nail in the coffin for some viewers, who will end up focusing on the reasons behind the switch in animation styles, instead of the story and themes.

The other change is something that seems small, but actually affects the tone of the film. The 1995 film used lots of blues, dark greens and purples to create a cool color pallet. In the update, oranges and yellows have replaces nearly all the light and computer screens in the film. I think this was to match the look closer to Innocence. Unfortunately this adds a warmth to the film that feels out of place. The coolness of the overtly technological world fits this vision better. It’s not a deal breaker, but it feels wrong especially when you’ve seen the 1995 version first.

I suggest starting with the original cut from 1995. Check out the 2.0 upgrade if you’re curious. 


  1. Sometimes you've got to know when to stop. Would anyone suggest re-editing the 1933 King Kong with CGI? (I hope I'm not giving anyone ideas.) The full remake of 2005 was the right way to go, rather than making a hybrid of the original.

    1. I completely agree. At this point "Ghost in the Shell" had already received a remake of a type. The television series that came out in the early 2000s was closer in spirit to the original graphic novel, with more humor and a whole host of antagonists.

      I think that after making "Innocence" Oshii was annoyed by the the disparity in the looks between the two films. They happen in the same city and the same time, and they do look quite a bit different. But the final results of his update just don't seem to have any real positive impact.