Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ghost in the Shell

Year: 1995 (Ghost in the Shell), 2004 (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Running time: 83 minutes (Ghost in the Shell), 100 minutes (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Certificate: 15
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Kazunori Itô (Ghost in the Shell), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring (voices): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ôtsuka, Tamio Ôki, Iemasa Kayumi, Kôichi Yamadera

The Major takes a moment to think.
Japanese animation is unique in a number of ways. Firstly, it is generally aimed at a much older and more sophisticated audience than animation in the western world is. In Japan it has a huge fan base, but it usually fails to find much more than cult appeal in American and European markets. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii was set to change all that. His futuristic cyber-thriller Ghost in the Shell was going to be the big cross-over hit that Akira so very nearly was. It was a bold vision, it was ambitious, it was...not to be. Despite all-round positive reactions from two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert to gushing praise from James Cameron, it wasn't the hit its makers were hoping for. By the time the sequel arrived in 2004, however, Ghost in the Shell had finally conquered Hollywood, albeit rather more under the radar than was originally expected. Which is fitting, really. The Matrix trilogy is, pretty much, a three film live action remake in so many ways; thematically, stylistically, and even on a number of specific plot points The Wachowskis blatantly lift a ton of stuff from Ghost in the Shell.
A glimpse of some of the gorgeous Blade Runner-like

It is with good reason that Ghost in the Shell is so venerated, as the artistry with which it is created is frankly mind boggling - the landscapes have a gorgeous Blade Runner-esque look that makes merely soaking up the imagery a joy. But the subject matter is also engaging. Set in a future where almost everyone is part cyborg, the story follows two government operatives Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka) and her partner Batau (Akio Ôtsuka), who are working for Japan's anti-terrorist division Section 6. While attempting to track down a mysterious entity who is able to hack pretty much any system, anywhere, Motoko and Batau find themselves on the trail of The Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi), a sentient program also known as Project 2501, a name which suggests it was created by the very government hunting for it. Project 2501 is looking for a body, and the Major may be just what it's been looking for.

While there is some of the graphic nudity and violence associated with Japanese animation, particularly in the show-stopping opening scenes, Ghost in the Shell is far from a non-stop orgy of action. It takes time to examine deeper undercurrents, and thinks nothing of slowing or even stopping the plot altogether to allow its characters to consider philosophical questions on what it means to be alive. By enhancing yourself using cybernetic implants and upgrades, as both Motoko and Batau have done to a great degree, are you sacrificing your humanity? The 'ghost' of the title refers to the small spark of life that remains inside the cybernetically enhanced 'shells' many people give up their flesh and blood for. If a person is entirely machine, are they still considered alive, do they not have a soul? Why? Should they not have the same right to exist as anyone? What, in the end, defines life?
Batau struggles on alone.
The sequel raises similar questions, albeit from a different perspective. When a pleasure model commits a brutal murder, one of a recent spate, we follow the now Motoko-less Batau as he attempts to solve the mystery of why. Batau feels somehow less than he was, and it seems he lost part of himself when his partner merged with Project 2501. Like the first film, Ghost in the Shell 2 has its moments of action and plot-forwarding, but won't think twice about putting the story on hold to mull over philosophical arguments or simply spend some down-time with Batau and his beloved dog. While some may find these changes of pace maddening, for me it enhanced the experience of watching hugely. Ghost in the Shell 2 is as much about Batau's attempts to move on without Motoko (although the body-less Major can still communicate and offer net-based assistance occasionally, which must make it much harder if not impossible for Batau to move on) and learning to work with his new partner Togusa (Kôichi Yamadera) as it is about solving the mystery of the killer sex robots.

Jaw-dropping animation.
Time is taken to consider the rights of the robot population; when you get right down to it, what, if any, is the difference between human life and any other life - particularly artificial in this case. Do you really need the 'ghost' in the 'shell' to be truly alive? We're not talking humans turning into machines here, like in the first movie, but life, sentient life artificial from the outset. Who decides and who defines what life is? The imagery is utterly jaw-dropping - the mixing of CGI with hand-drawn animation is genuinely incredible, so even if you don’t wish to consider the larger questions raised, you still have an artistic masterpiece to appreciate.

Both Ghost in the Shell and its sequel are entertaining and thought-provoking, which is exactly what a good film should be, but I suspect the changeable pace, which slows to a standstill at times, won't be for everyone.

Ghost in the Shell: 8/10
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: 8/10

Ghost in the Shell and its sequel are held in high regard: see these reviews of the original and the sequel at Cyberpunk Review and these by Fransisco: Ghost in the Shell,Ghost in the Shell 2.