Review: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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For many, Ghost in the Shell will need no introduction, but as its twentieth anniversary looms large on the horizon, and Manga UK have favoured us with a lavish Blu-Ray re-release, now is the perfect time to rediscover director Mamoru Oshii’s transhumanist cyberpunk classic.

Set in a future where cybernetic augmentation of the body is commonplace, and the human brain is readily subjected to computerised enhancement, the film follows Motoko Kusanagi, cyborg-bodied field officer of an elite government anti cyber-crime agency.  Tasked with capturing ‘The Puppet Master’, a mysterious hacker using his power to tap into the minds of government leaders, their hunt forces Kusanagi and her team to confront many difficult questions about the nature of their own humanity.

I don’t feel it would be wrong to suggest that Mamoru Oshii is a dour customer.  Despite a few noteworthy early forays into comedy, he quickly established a record of serious, contemplative films, mostly beloved by serious, contemplative people.  Even when working with established titles not known for their intellectual heft, he demonstrated a strange knack for extracting the deep and meaningful from even the silliest of franchises.  Presented with a quirky sci-fi action manga that already contained quite a bit of a existential navel-gazing, however, he really went to town.

Rejecting the more light-hearted elements of Masamune Shirow’s original story, Oshii and writer Kazunori Ito rebuilt Ghost in the Shell as a deadly serious, yet oddly dreamlike experience, foretelling the melding of man and machine.  For all its slick execution, the techno-thriller plot is surprisingly slight, and I think it’s actually the scenes of Kusanagi gazing out at the uncanniness of her environment that linger more in the mind, as the film slowly weaves these strange asides into its story until everything is united at the end.  Deftly choreographed action arrives in sporadic bursts, but, despite often being marketed as an action movie, the film is dominated by introspection, repeatedly asking us to consider and reevaluate the things we take for granted.

There is a cold, remote quality to much of the interaction between characters that can be offputting, but that is exactly the point.  With her inexpressive face and economical dialogue, Kusanagi is a detached and otherworldly guide to the film’s world, keeping us on equally distant and analytical footing.  Little exchanges, such as the (almost) entirely flesh and blood agent Togusa’s stubborn refusal to upgrade his old-fashioned revolver or the interrogation of a suspect implanted with false memories, are pointed and meaningful, but we are always watching from afar.  Even Kusanagi herself is difficult to become invested in as a character, with an early sequence revealing how little original human tissue remains behind her cold, impassive eyes.  It is suggested that even her face may not be her own, as, in a blink and you’ll miss it moment, she catches sight of an apparently identical woman eating in a restaurant.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell is still stunning to look at.  Rather than the more typical futuristic visions of Tokyo, its cityscape is modeled quite explicitly on diverse and chaotic Hong Kong, with its dense layers of gaudy neon advertising butting up against traditional street markets, rich in tiny details.  Paired with the eerie chanting overlaid in the soundtrack, even the ostensibly unimportant scenes of Kusanagi wandering the streets take on an oddly hypnotic quality and it’s hard not to be awestruck by the sheer craftsmanship involved in the film’s design.

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For all the acclaim heaped upon the film, however, it will not be for everyone.  Unlike Akira, where, even if you weren’t engaged with the story, you could still appreciate the sheer spectacle, Ghost in the Shell is unlikely to win over anyone who doesn’t buy into its world.  Despite action at regular intervals, the story is generally slow and meandering for its surprisingly short running time, with most of the film’s real depth built into the questions it asks, rather than the actual plot.  If you aren’t on board for that, the overall experience may just feel ponderous and repellant, with blank-eyed automatons spouting technobabble at each other for ninety minutes.

Many of the film’s most vocal nay-sayers prefer the later, more accessible Stand Alone Complex tv series, which skewed far closer to the original manga.  If I was forced to choose between the two, I can’t be sure I’d go for this version, but I don’t think the two are at all mutually exclusive.  Oshii’s film sets out to do something entirely different and, provided it is what you’re seeking, it succeeds at almost every step along the way.

Ghost in the Shell will always be a victim of its own hype; a constantly cited flagbearer for the medium on the level of Akira, every bit as unable to please all of the people all of the time.  Approach it with an open mind, however, and it is plain to see why an intense blast of Oshii at his Oshiiest has become one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time.

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