For a long while now, I’ve been meaning to rewatch Ghost in the Shell and review it. And by a long while, I mean several years – since around the time I wrote my Akira review. After all, when I was growing up, those were the two most iconic anime films in the West – Akira and Ghost in the Shell, held up as the pinnacles of what anime can achieve. And having enjoyed Akira, I expected to love Ghost in the Shell too. But I must confess, I did not. I was disappointed at the time: it was beautiful, but rather sterile and dull. I never felt involved with any of the characters, and found the incessant nudity a bit puerile – too obviously titillation masquerading as art.
Yet I’ve always wanted to reassess, and to rewatch. This was especially the case on a recent trip to
where I visited an exhibition of the artwork for the film and its various
sequels. I hadn’t fully appreciated the sheer level of detail in the artwork,
nor the obvious joy in machinery, weaponry and the human form that went into
them until that gallery. It really is astounding and rather beautiful, and the
long pan up on the city that ends the film made for a beautiful sketch and
painting. That really set me wanting to watch the first film again – but still
I put it off, and I’m quite glad I did. Last night, there was a one-off
screening of the remastered version in a local cinema, and that really was the
best way to see this visually stunning film.
Plot-wise, for an action piece, it actually moves very slowly and makes a point of making much of its more dramatic violence stately, with languid, epic music composed by Kawai Kenji rather than pounding rhythms. It’s remarkable how far that goes to elevate things. Based on the first part of the manga by Shirow Masamune, it tells a thoughtful but not very eventful story that unfortunately ends just as it gets most interesting.
In a world of cybernetic implants and enhancements, law enforcement officer Kusanagi Motoko is almost entirely robotic, to the point that she worries if she is still human or not. We see her and her likeable team of colleagues investigating the ‘puppet master’, a hacker capable of controlling others. Eventually, it turns out that the Puppet Master is actually artificially created, though now believes itself to have a mind and a soul. Trapped in a single body so as not to spread over the network, it engineers events to bring itself into contact with Motoko, realising that without the human element, it can never diversify in a way that it can protect itself through unpredictability. Everything works, a new gestalt being is created and...the film ends, just as it becomes most intriguing.
Still, the journey has many very interesting elements, including interesting philosophical questions related to the Cartesian ghost in the machine. Most affecting is the minor character manipulated into believing he has a wife and daughter: if the soul results from important memories and relationships, what is the soul when those are fabricated? Is the mind just a ghost and the body the shell? How is that affected when the body is artificial? For a film that also has a beautiful woman stripping off all her clothes to do physical battle with a huge spider-like ‘tank’ and beat up her target while cloaked to even scratch at the surface of such questions is quite satisfying, and this balances them well.
But the problem with that very elevation is that especially around the middle, without any real clear goal or motivations made apparent, the film is actually quite dull. I was kept engaged by simply enjoying the art – the detailed backgrounds, the interesting angles, the highly detailed machinery. But I ought to be engaged by the plot. And the thing is, I know that Oshii Mamoru can give his characters a whole lot of heart and soul and interesting character arcs. But I don’t really see it here, and that Motoko remains a glacial figure of intrigue and mystery works only if the real emotional heart of the piece is with her teammates. And while the beginnings of that are there with Batou and Togusa, it’s not taken nearly far enough. The result is something rather beautiful, but icy and distant. Conceptually understandable, but for 90 minutes, not especially enjoyable.
The film achieves much, especially visually. But I can’t call it one of my favourite anime films of all time. Nice to have finally, finally watched it in Japanese, though!