Ghost in the Shell

In New Port city everything, it seems, is connected. Information, like consumer technology, is everywhere. Almost everybody enjoys a certain level of cybernetic enhancement. Citizens sport prosthetic limbs and bodies and converse via electronic brain-to-brain communication. Machines and computers have become an integral part of the fabric of society, and everyone from the highest paid dignitary to the lowly dust-cart worker enjoys the benefits these advances have brought to the modern world.

This is the picture painted by Masamune Shirow in his ground-breaking manga series ‘Ghost In The Shell’, and brought to life in Mamoru Oshii’s much-talked-about 1995 animated feature – a movie that belatedly followed the success of Akira in the West, and made the second biggest splash on the anime scene of the 1990s outside Japan.

The film chronicles the efforts of Public Security Section 9, a specialist team assembled to counter cyber-crime. Overseen by section head Aramaki, this team comprises a number of specialist personnel, spearheaded by the charismatic Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, both of whom are cybernetically enhanced. As the story begins, the members of Section 9 are embroiled in their pursuit of the infamous ‘Puppet Master’ – a cyber criminal of some notoriety. This unseen agitator is capable of hacking into the cyber-brains of the citizenry, causing them to act in accordance with its own agendas – agendas which are as much a mystery as this super-hacker’s own identity. A tough nut for Section 9 to crack, to be sure – but Motoko, Batou and the team are nothing if not determined. The investigation will lead them in some unexpected directions, and, for Kusanagi, particularly, the findings could be life-changing…

Let’s establish one thing clearly from the outset: This is a review of the original 1995 version of the movie, and not the comparatively recent ‘Ghost In The Shell 2.0’ edition. That’s a different beast altogether, and one to be tackled by a critic with slightly more enthusiasm for it than I can muster.  What’s up for consideration this time around is an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga, directed by Mamoru Oshii with a screenplay by Kazunori Ito and animated by the powerhouse talents of Production IG. In many respects, it’s a faithful retelling of Shirow’s unique, genre-defining story.  In other areas, it deviates, but more on that later.

A standout aspect of this movie, and one that will doubtless make a strong impression from the outset on first time viewers, is the musical score, directed by the ever-reliable Kenji Kawai. Where a good number of movies would employ obvious (if not overblown) orchestral backing, or up-tempo cues for action scenes, Kawai has delivered something far more subtle and effective. Using a mixture of authentic Japanese instruments and synthesizers, the resulting effect is a mesmerising score which unloads a massive payload of atmosphere into the movie from its very beginning. At times, the movie is infused with a feeling of unease and uncertainty, and it sets the mood for the whole shebang with great aplomb.

Visually, as you’d expect from Production IG, ‘Ghost In The Shell’ is a real treat to behold. Much is made on the DVD extras of the fact that the feature was created using cutting edge advances in animation technology. Admittedly, we’re talking ‘cutting edge circa 1995’ here, but let’s be honest – hand drawn cells have a certain charm and integrity that modern digital animation is hard pushed to achieve. When it’s at its best, for my money, hand drawn animation cannot be beaten. ‘Ghost In The Shell’ really excels in this department. It’s a smooth, fluid looking film, with a very strong design ethic lifted straight from the manga’s pages.

The daunting urban sprawls that Shirow so carefully rendered are recreated here in faithful fashion, along with the mechanical designs, here supervised by Shoji Kawamori. A respectful approach is taken to referencing Shirow’s original works of design, meaning that everything on the screen reflects the creator’s original vision to a staggering degree. While it’s possibly a shame that there’s little of Kawamori’s particular visual style on show as a by-product of this, it’s truly amazing how well the environment and technology of the books is brought to life.

Unfortunately, this line of visual consistency between what’s in print and what’s on screen isn’t without a few blips. For example, character designs have been tweaked across the board. This works to give the film a more ‘serious’ look than Shirow’s printed work. While it fits with the tone of the movie, it’s slightly jarring in a few instances. For example, character Aramaki’s appearance is noticeably less ape-like compared to the way Shirow draws him, and Motoko bears little to no immediate resemblance to her comic book counterpart, either. This was apparently a conscious creative decision with the aim of making her character appear more mature. While these aspects of the film are bearable, it’s likely that they’ll be more of a problem for long-time fans. This reviewer falling into the latter category, and as somebody who has a special love for the original character designs as they appear on the printed page, I’d have to admit it bugs me quite a bit. Still these bugbears aside, the movie looks superb.

But what about the all-important content of the movie itself? Is the hype surrounding the title justified?

Thankfully, there’s a certain balance about the storyline and plot development that isn’t commonplace in anime – or indeed, many mainstream movies – today. While the film isn’t without its action sequences, it’s very dialogue heavy in places – so much so that a casual viewer lured by the promise of action-packed sci-fi might find it off-putting. So it pays to go into this movie expecting something a little more measured than the average sci-fi anime. However, there’s no denying that this is a well put together, maturely written slice of animation.

While it certainly has Mamoru Oshii’s stamp on it, it’s pleasing to note that in this instance he keeps his storytelling direct and focused, with some of his more grating excesses kept firmly in check. He develops the story in such a way as requires its audience to pay attention and follow along carefully – arguably a lost art in today’s cinema offerings. While it takes some time for the plot proper to kick in, the opening third of the film does a fine job of providing exposition and building the story environment. The futuristic setting is established well, with early scenes doing much to create a credible setting, and affording plenty of opportunities for spot-on characterisation of Section 9’s colourful members. Amid all of this, there’s enough chatter both political and technological to add a layer of complexity and depth that doesn’t feel too contrived.  It’s very easy to get drawn into the world that’s portrayed here – the urban setting feels relatable, with the sci-fi and drama elements making it immersive, complex and involving.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, the story of ‘Ghost In The Shell’ is really quite simple once the wordy techno babble and political intrigue is peeled away to get to the bare bones of it. Motoko and Batou make for engaging leads and feel like three-dimensional, sympathetic characters. Their scenes together establish them as effective foils for each other, and cement viewer interest.

Special mention must go to the inventive action sequences. These have something unique about them which is hard to describe – Motoko and Batou’s pursuit of a terrorist leads to an impressive sequence involving ’optical camouflage’ which looks no less impressive for its age, while Motoko’s face off with a giant mecha immediately prior to the finale is, frankly, the stuff of anime legend. These sequences play out in a manner that is at once understated and yet still grabs the attention – no mean feat. I wish more movies were made this way!

Once we’ve learned the true identity of the Puppet Master, things speed to a conclusion that could be accused of being derivative, but is nonetheless quite gripping. It’s well played and feels like a good fit within the context of what’s gone before. Some folks will undoubtedly get on with while others might feel frustrated, but speaking as a long-time fan of the original manga, I enjoyed how it referenced events from that and tied things up. Personally, I feel it’s a solid conclusion – and one that ensured I’d remain curious enough about the franchise to explore it further. Your mileage may vary.

It’s worth commenting on the idiosyncrasies of the English dub at this point.  Keep in mind that this was a product of the mid ‘90s, when anime was still famous in the west for some occasionally atrocious dubs. This is a more polished job, however, featuring some mainstay talents from the American VA scene. Richard Epcar (here credited as Richard George) is present and correct as Batou, as is William Knight (credited as William Frederick) as Aramaki, who would both later go on to reprise their roles in the direct sequel, ‘Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence’, as well as the ‘Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ TV series and the ‘Solid State Society’ movie. Sadly, I have some misgivings about Mimi Woods, the VA cast to play Motoko – the combination of her voice and Kusanagi’s tweaked design seem to put a spin on her that I initially found quite difficult to take. It’s a matter of personal taste, though, to be sure, and hardly an unassailable one.

Ultimately, GITS is a movie that has managed to increase in its own legend somewhat since it first arrived, and deservedly so. While comparisons to other well-known sci-fi features always seem to be inevitable, in truth ‘Ghost In The Shell’ defies that. It presents its own unique brand of storytelling, creates a world stuffed with its own technology, jargon and concepts, populated with characters that feel like they belong there. Credit for that must go to Masamune Shirow for the work he poured into his original story and vision. But Oshii and Ito deserve equal credit for translating that into a compelling and satisfying viewing experience.

If, like me, you’ve also read the graphic novel, you’ll notice some inevitable discrepancies. Ito and Oshii’s efforts render the manga’s content down to a simplified telling of its central arc, omitting subplots and a lot of action. Inarguably, the humour of the book is, save for the most deadpan quip, completely absent. For example, the Fuchikoma units from the manga are absent, and, with them, any sense of light comic relief. But given how this material is played admirably straight, it’s an omission that seems sensible. If they were here, they’d most likely feel forced-in and out-of place.

In fact, in terms of feel and tone, the mark’s been hit dead centre. This ensures that Oshii’s movie stands apart as its own entity.  It’s that rare thing: a movie adapted from a comic book that not only stands – for the most part – as a respectful and faithful re-telling, but also as a damned fine movie experience for the uninitiated. Recommended viewing.

9 / 10