Year: 1995 (original film), 2008 (digitally remastered version Ghost in the Shell 2.0)
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Genre: Cyberpunk
Director: Oshii Mamoru (押井 守)
Original Manga by: Shirō Masamune (士郎 正宗 )
Screenplay: Itō Kazunori (伊藤 和典)
Art Direction: Ogura Hiromasa
Animation Direction: Nishikubo Toshihiko
Runtime: 83 min
Trailer: Teaser and longer trailer on YouTube (both not subtitled)

Seen at a special one-off screening at Prince Charles Cinema as part of their weekly Double Bill event. The other film screened as part of the “Most Manga Double Bill” was アキラ (Akira, Japan, 1988) – retrospectively, I should have watched that one too. Both screenings were completely sold out – lots of otaku about London it seems. :-)

With some films, watching them once or twice does not suffice, but multiple viewings are required in order to fully understand and appreciate them – and 「攻殻機動隊」 (Ghost in the Shell) is, without doubt, one of these magnificently layered creations. Seeing the cult anime for the first time earlier this week at a special screening organised by London’s Prince Charles Cinema, this means what I can offer at this point is a first impression of a work that I plan to revisit many times, along with its sequel 「イノセンス」(Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, known simply as Innocence in Japan, 2004), a digitally remastered remake (Ghost in the Shell 2.0., 2008), the anime series 「攻殻機動隊 STAND ALONE COMPLEX」 (Kōkaku Kidōtai Sutando Arōn Konpurekkusu/Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, first season, 2002-2003) and 「攻殻機動隊 S.A.C. 2nd GIG」 (Kōkaku Kidōtai Sutando Arōn Konpurekkusu Sekando Gigu/Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG, second season, 2004-2005) and the OVA 「攻殻機動隊 STAND ALONE COMPLEX Solid State Society」 (Kōkaku Kidōtai: Sutando Arōn Konpurekkusu Soriddo Sutēto Sosaieti/Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Solid State Society, 2006), all inspired by the original manga (full run: 1989-1997) by Shirō Masamune (士郎 正宗).

Gallery: Ghost in the Shell in Its Various Forms

The story of Ghost in the Shell is set in the futuristic Japan of 2029. Cyborgs are a regular feature of everyday life and plenty of humans have performance-enhancing digital implants in their brains as well. Major Kusanagi Matoko, a cyborg, is a squad leader in Public Security Section 9 (公安9課/Kōan Kyūka), an anti-crime unit and counter-terrorist network. She is partnered with Batō (バトー) and sometimes also accompanied by Togusa (トグサ), who is human except for a cybernetic brain implant – one of the reasons why Kusanagi chooses to work with him in order to avoid homogenisation in behaviour and thought on her team. Kusanagi and other Section 9 members are on the hunt for the Puppetmaster (人形使い/Ningyō-zukai), which/who started its life as Project 2051, a computer and cyberbrain hacking tool created by Section 6 for the Japanese Foreign Ministry of Affairs essentially to do dirty work. In the course of trawling data highways, the Puppetmaster however reaches self-awareness and, realising that it will be shut down by Section 6, goes rogue, escaping its creators by entering a cyborg shell.

This is how cyborgs exist in this futuristic world: they possess a soul, or ‘ghost’, which inhabits a physical form – a robot shell. Ghosts however are not tied to particular shells but can switch between them, dive into other shells to connect with ghosts inside of them, traverse cybernetworks and so forth. Their cybernetic form gives the cyborgs access to immense amounts of data and knowledge and provides them with extraordinary powers both on a mental as well as a physical level, but also comes with the risk of being hacked – something that happens to various characters in Ghost in the Shell.

Kusanagi in fighting action.

So there you have it: a cyberpunk film – animated to top it off -, full of action-filled crime fighting scenes, with mostly cyborgs wielding the superguns, including an often rather scantily/sexily dressed (heck, even undressed) female one. On paper, this is definitely not my kind of thing. On the screen, however, it all translates to amazingly detailed and utterly gorgeous animation art, which, thanks to the success of the first instalment of Ghost in the Shell, apparently gets even better in part two (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). There is also a hauntingly beautiful original soundtrack that adds depth to every scene it accompanies. But, most of all, there is a story that is not, like it would seem at first instance, a superficial action thriller but a pensive tale that anchors all kinds of allusions into its dialogues and throws complex philosophical questions at us, as in this exchange (copied from here) between the Puppetmaster and Nakamura, a member of Section 6:

Puppetmaster: As an autonomous life-form, l request political asylum.
Nakamura: A life-form? Ridiculous! You’re merely a self-preserving program!
Puppetmaster: By that argument, l submit the DNA you carry is nothing more than a self-preserving program itself. Life is like a node which is born within the flow of information. As a species of life that carries DNA as its memory system man gains his individuality from the memories he carries. While memories may as well be the same as fantasy it is by these memories that mankind exists. When computers made it possible to externalise memory you should have considered all the implications that held.
Nakamura: Nonsense! No matter what you say, you’ve no proof that you’re a life-form!
Puppetmaster: lt is impossible to prove such a thing. Especially since modern science cannot define what life is.

It’s a fast-paced conversation that may seem like the Puppetmaster is spouting pure nonsense, but the argument made – and its implications – are in fact profound. What is it that makes humans really so different from the technological life-forms we have been creating, not only in our own image but to copy (and replace) any functionalities we possess, in thousand-fold enhanced form?

Cybernetic hands get moving: a wonderfully imaginative moment in Ghost in the Shell.

This question is as relevant as ever in a 2012 world of automated translation, thinking prosthetics and Google’s Project Glass (which, if you think about it, isn’t far-fetched at all: replace the glasses with an iPhone and everything the techno-specs propose to do, we already do, just a little more cumbersomely. Then replace the specs with a chip implanted into your brain and we’re probably halfway in a Ghost in the Shell future). Regardless of the current state of these technological advances in real life, what they share is an increasingly blurred relationship between human and robot forms, a blurring that Ghost in the Shell projects to the future: in its time machine and (wo)man have become indistinguishable as it is impossible to tell which of its characters is cyborg and which is human unless the film chooses to reveal it. (On a sidenote: on a metaphorical level this is precisely why a live-adaptation of Ghost in the Shell would never be as powerful as the animation. With the latter both real humans and cyborgs are rendered at the same level – the level of an animated drawing – while the use of real actors and CGI operates, if not technically on reel or digital film, certainly symbolically on separate levels.)

Breakneck action scenes and cascades of words aside, Ghost in the Shell also has moments of quietude – completely dialogueless segments that do not contain anything to propel the plot forwards. These are scenes in which the ‘camera’ surveys the city, dark but artificially half-lighted and seemingly devoid of any forms of life, plus shots of dehumanised data networks, emanating the isolation and loneliness that awaits both people and cyborgs in this future of amazing technological advances. Although the prospect proposed is bleak, these sequences are, for me, one of Ghost in the Shell’s highlights.

A thoughtful Kusanagi – a full-fledged cyborg, but somehow also incredibly human.

And, finally, there is Kusanagi: the cyborg heroine who is, to put it in a single word, simply awesome. As a super-advanced machine she possesses exceptional intellectual and physical powers, leaving no doubt that she is superhuman. And yet, Kusanagi has quite a few moments of deep reflection in the film, not only in connection to her work (e.g. her rationale to have Togusa with her) but with bigger questions about her identity and existence, that make her seem incredibly human. Some criticism has been levelled at the character and the anime more generally with respect to ‘unnecessary nudity’, but I can’t quite agree. It is obvious that Ghost in the Shell is not a children’s anime but geared at a more adult audience. Furthermore, although Kusanagi (and other female cyborg shells) are stripped down or otherwise wear tight-fitting clothes clearly outlining a big-breasted, stereotypically seductive female physique as often seen in particular anime genres, the squad leader is not actually defined and sexualised by this body. There may be a flash breast here or there, but it’s no more significant than a little child that runs around naked on the beach. Kusanagi’s body is a shell, a shell that she is not permanently attached to and that is indeed replaced with a distinctly less womanly figure at the end of Ghost in the Shell.

Overall Verdict: Yes, it’s cyberpunk, but Ghost in the Shell is a must-watch not only for any self-respecting anime fan, but for anyone interested in films that provide aesthetic as well as intellectual nourishment.

Rating: I am not really ready to rate Ghost in the Shell yet – as I said, multiple viewings (and further context) is required. If you want to press me for a number, I currently place it at 9/10. I can’t justify a 10 just yet when there is still more for me to understand, and, given the quality of what I have seen and absorbed already, anything less than a 9 would be an insult.

Bonus bits:

  • Ghost in the Shell manga: the licensed translation is available on amazon.co.uk.
  • Ghost in the Shell original soundtrack, also on amazon.co.uk (could not find it on cdjapan.com or yesasia.com).
  • Ghost in the Shell wiki. Warning: full of spoilers but helpful for clarifications once you have seen the film.
  • A very insightful review of the Blu-Ray edition of Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which comments on the digital remastering (comparative images included) and DVD extras.
  • Comparative screenshots of the 1995/2008 versions (Ghost in the Shell and the digitally remastered Ghost in the Shell 2.0)
  • The Prince Charles Cinema’s retro-cool Most Manga Double Bill poster:

Image Gallery: