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Ghost in the Shell (1995)

“In the not so distant future, when corporate networks fill the Earth with electronic and optical communication lines but society has not been computerised to erase nation and races...”

Two icons move along a path against a digital representation of a map which transitions into two helicopters against a night-time urban skyline. A woman is crouching on top of a building listening in to many simultaneous channels, filtering the audio for the meeting she is spying on somewhere. After a brief exchange with a colleague who calls her “Major” she pulls the wires from her neck, removes her coat, holsters a gun and allows herself to fall naked from the building. Inside the meeting looks to be wrapping up, armed police storm the building and break up the meeting. After a heated exchange between two serious looking men, a woman’s voice is heard before bullets fire through the windows. One of the men takes 4 bullets and his head explodes. The police are ordered to shoot the windows and the remaining serious man runs to it and looks out. It is then we see the woman, the Major, falling gracefully to the city below, her body beginning to fade and blend into the background. She waves her hand in front of her face and she is gone. “I don’t believe it, thermoptic-camouflage.” I didn't believe it either. Much like the deceased man on the screen, my mind had just been blown.

Ghost in the Shell is a big deal for me. I can remember very clearly where I was when I first saw this piece of anime and it left a big impact on me. It reignited an interest in animation by showing me a story with imagery I was not expecting. I first saw Ghost in the Shell after I recorded it onto a VHS tape when it was showing in a late-night anime block on The Sci-Fi Channel in the UK (Jonathan Clements was part of the team fronting it). I had never seen an animated feature like that before. Yes, I had seen many Disney and other studio productions, but this was definitely aimed at an older, more mature audience. It was something saying that cartoons (or animation) is not just for kids. Finally, it was my gateway into what I recognised as anime

Ghost in the Shell is one of the titans of anime from the 1990s along with Akira. It’s based on a manga by Masamune Shirow and was directed by Mamoru Oshii. The story is a bit of a cyber-punk, action-crime thriller where you are asked to think about what reality is and whether an AI (artificial intelligence) could gain sentience. In the film we follow Section 9, a homeland security, anti-terrorist and anti-cyber crime unit. What they are is not really described in the film but is certainly expanded in the other entries in the franchise (see further down). The team we meet comprises Major Motoko Kusanagi (the aforementioned Major), Batou, Togusa, Ishikawa and Chief Aramaki. We learn that the Major and Batou are cyborgs and that many members of society have some kind of augmentation. From looking at the Major it is not obvious that she is a cyborg but Batou “eyes” are clearly an augmentation.

Through their current assignments Section 9 begin to investigate the Puppetmaster, an infamous cyber criminal and wizard-class hacker. Could he (or she?) be responsible for ghost-hacking people to do his bidding resulting in Section 9s case? If so, what is the ultimate end game? Throughout this investigation the Major starts to ask difficult questions of herself, beginning to doubt that she was ever a real person. Could an AI spontaneously create its own “ghost” or soul or conscience? What does it mean to be alive, how is it defined and should these definitions change now with progress in science? Within the film these ideas are explored and give the viewer enough to think about it further.

As you can imagine it is a very exposition heavy film in places (as a lot of Oshii films are) which does not bother me too much as it serves the whole piece. This can make the film seem slow and ponderous to some, especially as the dialogue likes to use long complicated sentences citing philosophers and grand ideas. To be fair it can sound a bit pretentious. I however enjoyed that the intense action was followed by a block of dialogue and/or a silent piece of animation. It gives time to reflect on what is going on, form opinions, ideas and marvel at the imagery (be it background or character motion). Luckily there is very little world building dialogue, it is taken for granted that you know (or will figure out) what a ghost-hack is, what diving means or what a barrier maze might be. This at times gives the feeling that you are an observer in their highly-connected world.

This film is beautiful to look at. Ghost in the Shell was one of the early anime to use digital techniques in its production. Each cell was hand-drawn and then scanned into a PC, the scenes and sequences composed, then integrated with digital effects. I believe the final article was then put onto film. As such, all of the background and character animation is done by hand giving it a very distinctive look when compared to more modern anime, even its sequel Innocence. For a film about technology it really has a weighty analogue feel. For a big-budget film you would expect the character animation and vehicle movement to be first rate – and it is. There is care, thought and significant effort placed on to all of the animation, even the holstering of a gun. It is the detail that it goes into that makes it work and keeps the world “real”. Bullets interact and effect different materials in the way you would expect. We see sparks from shell ricochets from metal, wood is blasted apart and holes in soft metal doors. Everything has a weight that fits with our expectations. The opening credit sequence is a fantastic fusion of hand and digital work. Through this sequence we see the “birth” of a cyborg that looks like the major. It is a wonderfully detailed sequence showing different stages of construction set to haunting music. 

The background art is simply stunning, again for the detail it has. Some of the standout ones are a shot of a tower shows the individual scaffolding poles and the streets that show a high level of overcrowding with shops and signs as far as they eye can see. It has the feel of the China-influenced future prevalent in a lot of the techno-future films of the time. The night-time urban skyline feels very real with its blinking lights and motorways. It makes me think of flying into London at night. One of the prettiest sequences bringing background, movement and some of the digital effect work is a scene of the Major out diving.

The use of digital effects in the film are, by modern standards, very simple but very effective. Scanning the cells into an AVID system enabled the integration of digital scenes (for example some of the machine-world representations) seamlessly. Some imagery is rendered as if being watched on a monitor where we see the lines on the display and a small amount of flicker. The scene at the beginning when the Major falls from the building employing her thermoptic camouflage would have been incredibly complex to do all by hand. The effect is like watching a curved, transparent glass surface fall in front of what you’re looking at. Another way of thinking of it is that a flat surface has been projected onto a curved one. Employing the digital processing also meant that they could do some interesting camera movement and effects that change the mood of a scene very subtly.

The soundtrack by Kenji Kawai to the film was like nothing I had heard before. The music behind the opening sequence is haunting and very alien. It has a traditional, almost religious quality (reinforced by the percussion and bells). It conjures a procession in my mind and fits the “birth” imagery superbly. Again, against the themes of the film and the technology on display the traditional instruments used create an interesting contrast. A few years ago I bought a copy and listened to it whilst I was in London. My mind was filled with the images from the film and at times it felt like I was in the film (especially walking through the crowded streets and bridges across the river).

There is an attention to detail in the audio for the film, for both the foreground and background sounds. The brain-to-brain communication has a slight distortion or echo suggesting a level of distance between the people. A bit like when on the phone and someone saying “where are you? You sound really far away.” The audio for this is brought into focus (or the background faded) though to suggest it is dominant at that point, like sounds draw our attention. There is a general hustle and bustle about the crowded scenes where you can just make out things that people are saying. To match the visual impact of bullets against different surfaces and materials, the sounds match maintaining a consistency and congruency in the world.

Ghost in the Shell is a significant franchise. This anime has a very western feel and has influenced films like the Matrix. It all started with Shirow’s manga from 1991 spawning animated 2 films (Innocence in 2004), books, sequel manga, two series of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002 & 2004), a Stand Alone Complex animated film (2006), the new series Ghost in the Shell: Arise (2013) and a forthcoming live-action Hollywood film. Phew! Whilst the manga was the inspiration for it all most of the content is self-contained with its own universe and continuity. The manga is one set, the original anime and sequel, Innocence work together. The Stand Alone Complex instalments are a different continuity as is Arise. The only think linking them are the characters and the view of the future. The characters are envisaged differently in each “version” but my favourites are the designs from the first anime feature as they are much more adult and un-sexualised.

Watching Ghost in the Shell now I still get the same rush and enjoyment from it as I did on the first watch. The difference now is that I can appreciate the art, craft and story in a way I could not then. With the way and rate that technology advances now each viewing also is influenced by the changes in science and technology. Recently we have had the “bionic eye” or the man beginning to walk again using a device that can read his brain. With the progress of mobile technology too, slowly but surely we are becoming a more connected world and we are becoming more computerised. Perhaps some of the ideas presented in this Ghost in the Shell story may yet come to pass.

Ghost in the Shell is an audio-visual treat. The action sequences are stunning and very few anime have adult characters behaving like adults or asking thought provoking questions. The quality of the background and character art is exceptionally high. It is absolutely a must see for animation lovers and I would put it on my top 10 list of must see animated features.

Ghost in the Shell is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Manga Entertainment in the UK or Blu-RayDVD and streaming from Anchor Bay and Manga Entertainment in the USA.

P.S. Brian Ruh author of The Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii has written some fantastic work and analysis of Ghost in the Shell and other Oshii works. It is well worth a read.