Directed by: Mamoru Oshii. Written by: Kazunori Itō, based on Ghost In The Shell by Masamune Shirow. Starring: Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Yutaka Nakano, Tesshō Genda. Cinematography: Hisao Shirai. Animation /CG: Hiroyuki Okiura, Hiromasa Ogura, Toshihiko Nishikubo, Seichi Tanaka. Editing: Shūichi Kakesu, Shigeyuki Yamamori. Music: Kenji Kawai. Certificate: 15. Running time: 82 minutes. Year: 1995. Rating: 7.9
Though I’m no connoisseur of anime, I first became aware of Mamoru Oshii’s Kōkaku Kidōtai (better known outside Japan as Ghost In The Shell) when it was released to widespread critical acclaim in the UK, with magazines in the mid-1990s publishing glowing reviews that claimed it was the equal of Katsuhiro Otomo’s worldwide smash Akira; as such Oshii’s landmark film, with its pioneering blend of computer graphics and cel animation, became the second most popular entry point into the world of anime on these shores when it was released on video shortly thereafter, and probably remains so today.
The original manga, by Masamune Shirow, is a complex tale about a crack squadron of government agents on the trail of a mysterious hacker known as the ‘Puppet Master’. It has been turned into a successful TV and film franchise in the years since it was first published: this 1995 film has spawned two sequels, the latest of which will be released this summer, while an updated ‘2.0’ version with improved graphics was released in 2008, and two TV serials (as far as I’m aware) have also been made. Meanwhile homages to Ghost In The Shell can be seen in several major Hollywood sci-fi movies of the past 20 years, most famously the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy, which copied the anime’s use of green ‘raining code’ to visualise a sprawling network as well as the idea that this flux of information can be accessed by a socket in the back of the neck. Two of Spielberg’s films, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, also drew on Oshii’s work for visual and thematic inspiration, while James Cameron was quick to acknowledge the influence it had on Avatar and a live action remake is currently in production. (N.B. I appreciate that some of these ideas belong to Shirow, but the American directors in question have all referred to Oshii’s film as their inspiration, as presumably it was their first contact with the story.) The influence works both ways, however, and Ghost In The Shell successfully taps into the introspective, questioning strand running through a lot of great science fiction cinema that preceded both the manga and the anime adaptation. Blade Runner, as predictably as ever, is a touchstone, while there are also echoes of the downbeat tone of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There are times, though, when Ghost In The Shell feels like an exercise in anime box-ticking: the sprawling metropolis, the fetishistic approach towards tech and weaponry (thermo-suits!), the pneumatic-chested heroine (a cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi, voiced by Atsuko Tanaka – I’m reviewing the subtitled version here and not the poorly-received dubbed English language version, in which the character is voiced by Mimi Woods), and so on. Then there are the seemingly pre-requisite fast-paced and acrobatic action sequences, which are filled with car and helicopter chases, explosions and the like. This is all great fun, if somewhat predictable, but what I really like about this film is that Oshii continually refuses to get too carried away. Among all this chaos there are a number of quiet, reflective or dialogue-heavy sequences, many of which are longer than you might expect, and during which the main themes of the film are established and explored: Ghost In The Shell‘s story is concerned with identity, gender and reproduction in a technologically-advanced world, while the usual issues associated with sentient machines / cybernetic organisms and memories, feelings, consciousness, etc. are deftly examined. The most striking part of the film, in fact, is a dialogue-free montage of shots of the city that focuses at the end on shop dummies, suggesting perhaps that the cyborg heroes resemble these inanimate window-dressing figures more than they resemble their human counterparts. (Anime characters normally blink to create the feeling of ‘being animated’, but in this movie Motoko’s eyes generally stay open; Oshii’s intention, apparently, was to portray her as ‘a doll’.)
Despite certain elements that can be regarded as typical of anime (though bear in mind this was a pioneering work when first released, and has been aped many times over by Japanese filmmakers as well as American ones), there was a thrilling degree of creativity at work when the futuristic cityscape was imagined, drawn and coloured. Presciently, the city here is turned into a paranoid, privacy-free space, in which no face looks like it can be trusted and devices for monitoring people appear regularly in the streets and in the skies above. It is a fascinating space to dwell in, not least because our own cities have slowly followed suit, so one of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the fact that the short running time – a mere 82 minutes – means we just don’t see enough of this mesmerising cyberpunk world . The film could easily take another ten or fifteen minutes of footage of the city without necessarily becoming flabby as a result, as the backdrops are always worth paying attention to, but I guess the less-is-more approach is entirely valid in itself.
There are other plus and minus points. The soundtrack by composer Kenji Kawai fits brilliantly, the highlight being the opening theme Making Of A Cyborg, a mix of the ancient Japanese language Yamato, traditional notes and Bulgarian harmonies. However the film is difficult to follow at times, and though the pace does slow down regularly the exposition is often hard to take in: repeated viewings are essential in order to fully digest the story, which makes you wonder whether the writing is as tight as it ought to be or whether something has been lost in translation (or whether you’ve just got to hold your hand up and admit you find Japanese sci-fi difficult to understand). There is a lot of exposition: when I watched Ghost In The Shell for a second time I realised I’d missed a lot of the intricacies of the animation as I’d been reading the subtitles closely first time round, trying to figure out the international elements of the plot as well as the technical ideas put forward.
Still, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off with my criticism: Ghost In The Shell is absolutely not a chore to sit through, and Oshii’s visually-striking and thoughtful cyberpunk work is well worth your time if you have never seen it before, and especially if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime.