October 1, 2020 Ghost in the Shell – 25 Years Online
Manga Entertainment caught on in the early 1990s when they brought 1988’s Akira to the West, playing a part in anime’s rising popularity outside of Japan. However, the stuff they subsequently brought over was not exactly on Akira’s level, and the quality varied between entertainingly violent schlock like 1993’s Ninja Scroll or abominably wretched violent schlock like the late ’80s OVA series Violence Jack.
Things changed when they co-produced an adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s manga series Ghost in the Shell with Bandai Visual. The film made its debut at the Tokyo Fantastic Film Festival in October of 1995, before moving on to the London Film Festival two months later. It eventually got official releases worldwide across early 1996 to modest box office success.
However, its biggest achievement came in the video market, where it became the first Japanese animated film to top the Billboard charts. James Cameron even called it “The first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.”
It went on to have a sequel in 2004’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Then it had a brace of TV series, notably 2002’s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. That is not to mention the controversial 2017 live-action adaptation with Scarlett Johansson. So what did it do to get such a following and why has it remained an influential classic 25 years later?
Ironically, it might be in how the film took its own liberties with Masamune’s manga. Sure, the plot is essentially the same – Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, Listeners series), a cyborg agent for the police organization Section 9 tracks down a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master (Kayumi Iemasa: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind 1984) – but a few things were altered.
For example, the art style itself. Character designer Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade 1999) went for a more serious tone than Masamune’s perkier look. Masamune’s Major went into the field with a comic expression and a ‘tactical’ one-piece. By comparison, the film’s Major looks more mature, with a more job-appropriate outfit. Likewise, the script by Kazunori Ito (Avalon 2001) tones down on the manga’s jokes to focus more on its ideas, going for its highbrow rather than its lowbrow.
There are still a few moments of light-hearted banter, and the Major’s stealth outfit somehow makes her look more naked than her nude scenes. Yet the film comes off as quite chaste compared to the manga’s borderline pornographic panels. This toned-down approach feels like a deliberate move, as it plays into its message about a person’s essence vs. their look; their ‘ghost’ vs. their ‘shell’.
Throughout the film, the Major has trouble reconciling the two. The Major’s thoughts, feelings, personality, etc., are contained in her brain- the only organic part of her left. The rest is a government-owned, mass-produced artificial body anyone could buy. How can she say that it is part of ‘her’ when her employer will take it back when she retires, or when others have the same body? Can she even be sure she’s a woman when her brain could have been put into any body?
Certain people have tied the female experience into their biology (i.e. one must have a womb, etc., to be a ‘real’ woman). However, the Major’s body lacks these parts; her body is just a female form without function beyond looks. Others recognize her as a woman regardless of that inability to reproduce, but is that enough, or can someone’s sense of self go beyond their biology?
The film provides food for thought on top of its lush design and animation, though it was not perfect. The film can be quite dry, running the risk of pretension through its Bible quotes and Kabbalah visual metaphors. In context they make sense, but that is not necessarily apparent on the first watch. It is not completely unique either. When fans decried 1999’s The Matrix for taking inspiration from this film, Oshii had to point out he took cues from 1982’s Blade Runner with its interrogation scenes and memory manipulation themes.
Then there is the original English dub. The acting is quite good, overall, especially compared to other Manga Entertainment releases at the time. However, while the low-key, depressed approach Mimi Woods uses for the Major does fit, it does not make for a particularly engaging performance. At least not compared to Richard Epcar, whose act as the brash, stern Batou is livelier. When a scene feels like it is getting too ho-hum, his character manages to break through and inject some life into the proceedings.
However, the film’s pros outweigh its cons. Ghost in the Shell has enough under its hood to help it stand out on its own as a Sci-Fi classic on par with Blade Runner. The film’s themes on identity and the expression thereof remain intriguing, and its animation is still smooth and impressive 25 years on. If anything, the original film’s cool, bluish-green color scheme has aged better than the overpowering, orange bloom effects and CGI additions of its 2008 update Ghost in the Shell 2.0. So accept no substitutes – give the original film a go and see how far the rabbit hole goes.