With recent record-breaking, breakout hits like Your Name, Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- the Movie: Mugen Train and the building hype around the upcoming international release of Mamoru Hosoda’s BELLE, perhaps it might be fair to say that we’re living in a golden age of anime films hitting the mainstream. While it was undoubtedly influenced by the pandemic, who would have thought that a Shonen JUMP adaptation would be last year’s highest grossing film worldwide? Or that the longest applause from this year’s Cannes Film Festival would go to someone whose big break was Digimon? However, it wasn’t always this way.
Back in 1995, I was only three years old, the very first Sony PlayStation entered the console war internationally, and Windows released an operating system whose programs are still running parts of the NHS to this day. While I don’t wish to understate or ignore the impact of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira seven years earlier, the world of anime abroad – and indeed wider filmmaking as a whole – was also changed irrevocably that year with the release of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Still revered as a landmark in science fiction film 26 years after its release, Funimation UK (formerly Manga Entertainment) are once again celebrating one of the more historic parts of their history with a brand new release, bringing Ghost in the Shell to the UK and Ireland in 4K for the very first time.
For those already well aware of Ghost in the Shell but who might just want to know about the specifics of this release, the 4K master is the same as Lionsgate’s release in the United States last year with the minor errors unfixed (details here), but with a different (and in my opinion snazzier) Blu-ray menu. I unfortunately don’t have the equipment or know-how to get into the nitty gritty of the new 4K presentation, but I can say that it breathes new life into the film’s gorgeous cinematography, bringing out all of the detail delicately crammed into Oshii’s lived-in frames, and the contrast of light and darkness, like an earlier shot where Motoko Kusanagi is silhouetted by the light coming through her apartment window. Honestly, the shot composition in Ghost in the Shell is far superior than a lot of anime films made today, and this new release really lets that shine. I can’t speak for how improved the film looks compared to previous Blu-ray releases, but if you’re like me and last watched Ghost in the Shell on DVD… definitely consider this upgrade!
For the uninitiated who are discovering this classic for the first time, then to call Ghost in the Shell thought-provoking would be an understatement. Set in a futuristic society where most people have at least some degree of cybernetic augmentation, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a full-body cyborg working for Section 9, a government security and intelligence division similar to MI5. While on the trail of a mysterious hacker known as “The Puppet Master”, who has the ability to hack into the brains of diplomats and their personnel, the answers that The Major finds may lead to even more questions about herself, and the very concept of “self”.
To be honest, the actual beats of Ghost in the Shell’s story remain a blur to me no matter how many times I’ve re-watched this film over the years. There’s something about a foreign diplomat and a coverup, but honestly, the plot is little more than a light dressing that nudges the characters into the places they need to be in order to ask the big question that the film is really about: what is the “self”? As people embrace more technological advances, such as enhancing or outright replacing their bodies, where does the line between life and artifice lie? If our bodies are artificial and even our memories become data that can be copied or manipulated, can we still call ourselves human? Then, if we still do, despite being physically artificial, what does that make advanced AIs? These are among the big questions that Ghost in the Shell poses, sometimes with the subtlety of your standard issue big gun, but it leaves you to ponder the answers. In the bonus features, multiple people say that Ghost in the Shell is less a film to be enjoyed but more one to be studied, and I’m inclined to agree. The film has some superb action sequences that make full use of its sci-fi world, but if you’re looking for a guns-blazing popcorn flick, then you won’t find it here. However, if a philosophically dense sci-fi sounds like something that might be up your alley… then why has it taken you this long to check out Ghost in the Shell?
There can be no discussion of Ghost in the Shell without mentioning its timeless score by Kenji Kawai. The almost-haunting chant of “Making of a Cyborg” in particular has become one of the most recognisable pieces of music in anime, sounding both traditional yet futuristic at the same time – a perfect fit for this film. Ghost in the Shell also knows the power of silence, and when to just let scenes soak in the atmosphere. Both visually and aurally, Ghost in the Shell is still a cut above the rest over a quarter of a century later.
Included in this release are two documentaries featuring interviews with anime industry professionals like Anime News Network editor and MediaOCD disc wizard Justin Sevakis, as well as some of the staff involved in the English localisation such as script writer Mary Claypool, and voice actor Richard Epcar, who is in my opinion the definitive Batou. The first, Accessing Section 9 – 25 Years Into the Future is a retrospective looking back on the legacy and influence of the film, that also takes a brief look into the localisation process, such as how challenging Mary Claypool found cramming Ghost in the Shell’s dense script into the characters’ mouths. The latter, Landscapes & Dreamscapes – The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell, is a far more fascinating in-depth look at how the film’s elaborate settings were crafted from both artistic and production standpoints, such as detailing how the creative team approached location scouting in Hong Kong. This release also includes a commentary track, and trailers.
Ghost in the Shell is a piece of anime history. A landmark release that not only broadened the medium’s global profile, but inspired both cinema and wider science fiction in ways that are still seen today. However, its heavy-handed approach to the exploration of its themes won’t be for everyone. If you think it might be, or are an existing fan looking for the best presentation of the film so far, then this set is definitely well worth picking up. It is a shame that the minor issues with Lionsgates’ US release weren’t corrected in the year between their release and ours, but honestly, they were so small that they had virtually no impact on my enjoyment of this release.
Ghost in the Shell is returning to selected IMAX cinemas on 17 September 2021, and is currently slated to be released on 4K Blu-ray on 27 September 2021.