Ghost in the Shell

November 7, 2004 on 1:52 pm | In Ghost in the Shell | Comments Off on Ghost in the Shell

1995’s Ghost in the Shell was a big film in anime history, and also symbolic of the time when Manga Entertainment held some swing. They co-produced this film and orchestrated close enough to a world premiere. And this was Manga Entertainment UK.

In the year 2029, human body parts are replaced with cybernetic components when necessary. Section 9 is part of the government that monitors technological crimes, particularly “ghost hacks” – hackers who break into the bodies of people and control their actions. One of the most charismatic members of Section 9 is the fully cybernetic Major Kusanagi Motoko, who is on the trail of the “Puppet Master” – a hacker who has been manipulating ghosts to his own ends. Government conspiracy abounds and, of course, so to do questions of what makes an individual.

Ghost in the Shell, at 82 minutes, is remarkably brief. Considering that for the past twenty years most of the “good” anime films have been at least 100 minutes (most tipping the scales at 120+), it’s refreshing to see such a compact, effectively told story. The characters are easily recognisable even if the viewer is not familiar with the manga (although this was likely not the case in Japan, where Masamune Shirow’s work is very popular), and the themes are easy to pick up because they’re oft repeated in anime. Any fan of Blade Runner is likely to find Ghost in the Shell an enjoyable film.

Oshii Mamoru hit all of the right spots when he directed this film; he never goes for the supremely obvious. The showdown between Kusanagi and a tank is not accompanied by strong action tunes, but rather a slow suspense filled score. Oshii lets the film pan the streets of Hong Kong for minutes at a time while the haunting theme of the film plays; a move that would be seen as indulgent in many other directors, but Oshii shrugs it off. He did this movie his way, and because of this attitude it works. There’s some graphic violence, but not a lot, and there’s a bit of nudity, but there’s not enough of this stuff to satiate those who came specifically to see those elements: people have to be interested in the brief moments that the characters spend waxing philosophical for this film to work.
It’s only a little bit heavy, and not really overbearing. Those who can bear ten plus hours of this stuff will have no problems with the roughly ten minutes it occupies here. The only real aspect of this film that seems outdated is that, despite promoting a society in which all of humanity is connected, the technology is not as wired as it could be expected; that is, of course, one of the best things about science-fiction films: they provide a vision of the future consistent with the time of their production.

Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful film, and this is never more obvious than in its invisible knife fights in shallow canals. That may sound weird, but any melée that occurs over a water lined surface is just that much more exciting. Hong Kong is beautifully realised, and is not weirdly desolate: it’s a largely bustling metropolis filled with the poor and the rich, and quite a bit of the action takes place during the day, which is nice and refreshing. Only in the last few minutes does Oshii resort to the cheap and static, which is a little disappointing but ultimately forgivable.
The use of early digital imagery is impressive, and the CG works are obvious yet functional: maps and such that would likely appear that way anyway.
For such an early application of the technology, Ghost in the Shell is surprisingly close to mastery.

The score is a large part of what makes the film, and is quite possibly the defining point of Kawai Kenji’s career: the theme is written in an ancient Japanese dialect and eerily fits with the opening sequence depicting the construction of a cyborg body. Kawai never sweeps, but rather feels the atmosphere, and plods around the landscape of Hong Kong in the nicest possible way. The tension inherent in the movie works much better than any crash bang opera could possibly do.

Voice work is good, and the seiyuu continued to portray the characters into the two recent sequel properties. Tanaka Atsuko is an excellent Kusanagi, who does not betray her origins as a woman and in one remarkable scene demonstrates her control. Ohtsuka Akio, who frequently rocks out, is excellent as Batou, the Section 9 agent who is allegedly in love with Kusanagi. This is one of the least played parts of the film, but he does a good job of the concern necessary. Beyond that, the rest of the cast are good, but these two make their characters and the film.

Ghost in the Shell is a quiet, contemplative science fiction film. It handles itself deftly and is not afraid to take a few minutes out. In many ways, it represents the end of an era. In others, it represents the beginning. This is a film that is frequently quoted as a keen way to get into anime, and that’s a fair analysis (although I hated it six years ago). Its appeal is a mystery: it’s a combination of many things, but not one stands out quite enough for a clear definition. Ghost in the Shell is an excellent whole, a deceptively simple mastery.

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