Overview: In a futuristic, cyberpunk world where humanity has become interconnected through the net, a team of public-security officers seek an elusive hacker known as the Puppetmaster who can hack into people’s brains, erase their memories, and control them. Anchor Bay Entertainment; 1995; Rated R; 83 minutes.
Where the Devil’s In: During the second or third watch of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, you start to notice odd, delightful details that you’d missed the first time. Details like how despite the film taking place in a futuristic universe where people can swap their brains into robot bodies, transmit their consciousnesses into the net, and remotely brainwash innocent bystanders, the general populace still relies on public phone booths and computer terminals for communication. Details like how the animators eschewed their meticulous, hyperrealistic depiction of its cyberpunk setting for such expressionistic flourishes as slow-moving garbage trucks literally flying a few feet off the ground while going over hills the size of speed bumps. Details like the main character Major Motoko Kusanagi—a full-bodied cyborg with only her brain remaining from her original body—having nipples on her robot body despite having no genitalia.
We notice these things because Ghost in the Shell gives us a world we can truly enter as spectators and then strands us there. For a cyberpunk police procedural full of graphic action sequences featuring a buxom female protagonist who does her fighting either in skin-tight skivvies or totally nude, it’s a film of mood and ideas, atmosphere and existential dilemmas. Take one of the most striking scenes in the film. During an investigation into the activities of the murderous Puppet Master—a world-famous hacker who infiltrates people’s brains while jacked into the net, brainwashes them, gives them new memories and personalities, and programs them to do his bidding—Kusanagi takes a river ferry through the heart of an unnamed city the filmmakers based on Hong Kong. As she drifts through canals studded with strange, bizarre advertisements in odd, unreadable languages, she notices cyborg civilians who selected the same robot body as the one she has. Who are these people? What are their lives like? Could they represent possible lives Kusanagi could have chosen if she hadn’t become a cop? And then, near the end, she sees another similar robot body used as a storefront mannequin. Is there any difference between herself and that mannequin? Does her having a consciousness, a “ghost” in her “shell” of a body, make her actually alive? All of these things are inferred without a single line of dialogue. It’s one of the most transcendent moments in cinema, and that is not hyperbole. It’s a scene that reaches into your mind, shakes loose the cords holding it all together, and rewires the way you look at the world and yourself.
When I Was a Child, I Talked Plot Exposition Like a Child: There are several more dialogue-less sequences like these throughout Ghost in the Shell. They are easily the best part of the film. In fact, they’re almost too good for the rest of the movie. It’s also during the second or third watch that you realize just how clunky, forced, and obtuse the rest of the movie is. Much of the philosophizing that helped make the film such a monumental, ground-breaking hit both in Japan and abroad are just that: philosophizing. More than once the characters, who I remind you are cops chasing a deadly terrorist, literally stop what they’re doing and just chat about the nature of life and consciousness, occasionally peppering their conversations with Bible verses. The plot itself is told almost entirely through tedious expository plot dumps. At one point one of the characters explains a good chunk of the plot to Kusanagi because she “arrived two hours late” to the police briefing. It’s the kind of stuff that makes George Lucas’ screenwriting in the Star Wars prequels seem like Paul Schrader.
Overall: Ghost in the Shell is one of the few true watershed moments of anime here in the West, rivaling the impact of the original Astro Boy television show, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira, and the Saturday morning one-two punch of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. The film was directly responsible for inspiring a new generation of filmmakers, such as The Wachowskis (who modeled much of The Matrix after it), James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg. The film itself went on to inspire several sequels, a hit television series, and a big-budget Hollywood remake starring Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi. Despite all the problems with its cumbersome storytelling, it’s essential viewing, if only for all the delicate quiet moments that make you wonder what it’s like to be truly human. If you’ve never seen it before, you might want to pick up the new SteelBook Blu-ray edition being released this month. Though it doesn’t have any special features, the transfer is drop-dead gorgeous. It’s quite possibly the best way to watch it besides on a big screen.
Featured Image: Anchor Bay Entertainment