Wednesday, 9 October 2019
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The story of the Ghost in the Shell franchise is a bit complicated. It started as a manga by Masamune Shirow. The original Ghost in the Shell movie (which is what this review is about) followed in 1995. It was directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Itô. A few years later this was followed by the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series. The TV series does not follow on directly from the movie however and appears to take place in a different timeline. Then there was a second series of the TV series, and then the Solid State Society movie. Then in 2004 Mamoru Oshii made a sequel to the original movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. And I think there are some other iterations as well that I’ve overlooked.
The central character of the movie is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She works for Section 9, a kind of counter-terrorism counter-intelligence agency. When the government wants something done that can’t be done by strictly legal means and they want plausible deniability they call on Section 9.
Major Kusanagi is not exactly human. She’s a cyborg. In the Ghost in the Shell universe a cyborg is a human whose brain has been enhanced. The cyberbrain is partly human and partly computer. In many cases cyborgs have bodies that are also artificial. These cyborgs are not machines as such but the extent to which they are still human is perhaps debatable. That’s particularly so in Major Kusanagi’s case. She was once entirely human but now there’s nothing human left of her but her ghost. The ghost is not quite a soul but it is the product of a person’s memories and experiences. It’s what makes a human being a human being. You can call it a soul. Major Kusanagi still has that.
The ghost is what makes one human. Everything else is referred to as the shell.
In a world of cyborgs and cyberbrains there are going to be people who are going to try to hack into people’s cyberbrains. They may even implant false memories. So even a person’s ghost may not be as secure as one might like it to be.
The world of Ghost in the Shell is a troubled place. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Espionage and white-collar crime are very high-tech enterprises. In the movie the Japanese Government has a problem with its relation to a certain foreign government, part of the problem being that the foreign country in question now has a new government and the leader of the old government wants political asylum in Japan. And there’s the problem of the Puppet Master, a kind of super-hacker. He’s gained that name because when he hacks someone’s cyberbrain they really do become nothing more than puppets.
More worrying is that escaped shell. It’s just a shell. There’s no ghost. Or is there? If there is a ghost in the shell where did it come from?
Section 9’s problem is how to proceed. They’re not sure they can trust Section 6. Or the diplomats. They’re not sure they can trust anybody. And Motoko Kusanagi is behaving strangely. It’s as if she’s not sure how real she is. Or how human. And she seems dangerously obsessed with the idea of the ghost in that shell.
This is a Japanese movie with a distinctively different approach to action scenes compared to American movies. The action sequences are not merely stylised but rather poetic, and at the same time often extremely violent.
The cyberpunk aesthetic is very strong. This movie though is closer to literary cyberpunk than to American movies with a cyberpunk influence. Can a machine be alive? Can a cyborg remain human? These issues are complex and they’re treated as complex issues without easy answers. These are also issues that other anime productions have grappled with, the most notable being the extraordinary and superb TV series Serial Experiments Lain.
The animation is what you expect from a big-budget 1990s Japanese production. Very stylish and with a heady mix of poetry and violence.
Ghost in the Shell is intelligent thoughtful science fiction, in fact one of the very best science fiction movies of the 90s. Very highly recommended.