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.
- A thought provoking science fiction story
- Impressive visuals in both the action scenes and quiet moments
- Never plays down to the audience
- 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)
In Depth Review
|Major Kusanagi about to jump into action.|
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?|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008)
|Everything you see here is computer generated.|
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.