Ghost In The Shell

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Hong Kong in 2029 seems to be in many respects as it is today. Skyscrapers tower over a thronging multitude going about their business. Governments make shadowy deals with other countries under the cover of diplomacy. Occasionally dirty jobs have to be undertaken to ‘grease the wheels’ of these diplomatic actions, and one of the top teams of lubricants is headed by Major Motoko Kusanagi (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka). Oh, and she’s a cyborg.

Her introduction is as effective as it is baffling on first view. After the credits that The Matrix so shamelessly ripped off roll she’s seen diving from the top of a multi-storey building, naked bar a sidearm, pausing only in her plummet to rather impressively shoot apart a member of a political argy-bargy over the defection of a leading programmer. Target dealt with, she escapes the prying eyes of the shell-shocked politicos by activating her handy thermoptic camouflage, vanishing into the nightscape. And somehow not cratering on impact with the ground, although given what we know about her by the end of the film we can assume she had some thought out exit strategy that was cut out for pacing reasons.

What follows is a film I reluctant to spend a lot of time relaying the plot to you good people that don’t already know it, as it would spoil it somewhat. It combines elements of interdepartmental government conspiracies, murder and computer hacking, peppered with the occasional car chase and gunfight. Kusanagi and her team are under the employ of Section 9, from what we can gather a kind of internal security outfit. All bar their Chief (Tamio Oki) and the newest recruit Togusa (Koichi Yamadera) have been significantly cybernetically enhanced. This can bring a wealth of benefits. Both Kusanagi and Bateau (Akio Otsuka), her lieutenant feature bodies (or shells, to use the films vernacular) constructed of titanium. This has certain obvious advantages in firefights, and also grants then great strength and speed seemingly unbecoming of their weight.

Kusanagi is an interesting character, as the youthfulness of her shell doesn’t reflect her maturity or, we are lead to believe, her actual age. This means she circumvents the general anime convention that young lass = ditsy. One of the downsides of her cyborg nature, she relates idly to Bateau on their rare downtime, is a heavy case of introspection. If her senses are entirely artificial how can she declare herself to be truly human? Does her organic brain, the only original albeit modified component of her body surviving her upgrade cycle give her the right to call herself human? Is she something more that human? Less than?

Any thoughts that are provoked are cut short by the activities of a hacker known as the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi). One of the downsides to cybernetic implants is the ability of future l33t h@xorz to fiddle directly with your head and memories. Section 9 discover an attempt by the Puppet Master to hack into a junior member of the diplomat core, attempting to reprogram the target to perform an assassination mission. This is always a danger when plugging yourself directly into the FutureInterWeb or whatever you wish to call it, using ports on the back of the neck that The Matrix so shamelessly ripped off. It’s clear that Section 9 have to stop the Puppet Master, but something unexpected happens when Kusanagi goes looking for him. He finds her first.

The Puppet Master had been working for the American secret services, but now applies for political asylum. Another government department, Section 6 doesn’t seem too keen on this idea and stage an undercover attack to recapture The Puppet Master. Some sterling detective work from Togusa uncovers this, and the chase to recover the Puppet Master and bring down those Section 6 infidels is on. In terms of percentage of the run-time, this isn’t an overly action oriented anime. The balance between trying to figure out what to do and actually doing it is pretty delicate in any film, and GitS (an unfortunate acronym, but lets stick with it) manages it pretty well. There is perhaps a little too much soul-searching on Kusanagi’s part, but it is balanced by some of the most spectacular action scenes in anime. GitS was one of the first animes where there is such fluidity to the motion of the characters and attention to detail in bullet hits and flashes that even hardened anime playa-hatas started to recognise that ‘cartoons’ could also be a legitimate action (or any other genre) movie.

Mamoru Oshii put together a wealth of talent for this project, called Kokaku kidotai in its native Japan. Based on an original manga from the talented Masamune Shirow, Oshii’s fellow Patlabor veteran Kazunori Ito was drafted in for the adaptation. Much of the teams from Patlabor return in various other production roles, the most important arguably being Kenji Kawai. His music is perhaps the most affecting aspect of the movie, and vital to the mood of the piece that Oshii intended. He’d later go on to scare the living bejesus out of us in 1998’s horror classic Ring, aided by Yoshiya Obara in a film with some of the most astonishing sound design yet heard.

GitS proves itself to be a strangely divisive movie, although not in the usual love / hate sense. There are few people that can outright slate this film, and they would have little reason to do so. Whatever your thoughts on it meandering story and perhaps cod-philosophy it remains an undeniably well made film and a stunning technical achievement. One of the earliest animes to attempt a mesh of traditional cel based work and 3D based techniques, which gives the film a far greater illusion of depth than had been seen before. From a pure technical and effectiveness standpoint perhaps only the jaw-dropping Metropolis betters it.

At this point I’ll insert my standard Matrix rant – the Wachowskis are thieves. There’s a fine line between ‘inspired by’ and ‘stolen from’ and the brothers Wach have crossed that particular border with more than a few smash and grab raids on GitS. They have the decency to admit it, but without this film their vision of the Matrix would be somewhat different. From relatively minor details (the credits, representation of the digital world, the ‘jacking in’ through ports in the neck) to higher scale concepts (themselves not entirely original, admittedly. More on this below) there’s been a fair amount of plundering going on here.

The main hook of the movie, and cause for some slight controversy, lies not in its artwork or in its action. Revelations towards the end of the film I’m reluctant to divulge prompt a few questions that deserve serious consideration for anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction. This is one of the few films deep enough to warrant watching through again armed with this knowledge and have it enhance the second experience. As I wouldn’t want to spoil it for the two or three people who haven’t seen this, let’s just say you’ll have to put on your philosophy hat by the end of it.

There have been two main criticisms levelled at GitS. Firstly, there’s too much extraneous talking between characters discussing things that ought to be second nature to them. True, but as the runtime only extends to 88 minutes it would have to include some sort of Basil Exposition character somewhere along the line to point various things out. It’s done in an odd way though. Much of it comes from Bateau and Kusanagi’s discussion on the boat, tell each other things they already know. Given that they establish Togusa from his introduction as a new recruit to the division that doesn’t know much in the way of details, why aren’t they telling this to him? Hardly groundbreaking narrative, but it would at least make sense going by the films internal logic.

The second group of complaints are harder to deal with, as it’s composed of people who think this isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. There are philosophical questions here for sure, but the film itself tends to merely hint at them, not spit everything out on the screen in bite sized chunks. Curiously this is exactly the criticism I have of Matrix Reloaded, but the questions provoked by GitS are a little more tangible and come across more as an exercise for the interested rather Reloaded‘s attempt to seemingly create a temple around it’s poorly defined constructs for believers to unconditionally worship. Seriously, in some circles saying ‘I didn’t like Reloaded‘ prompts an immediate barrage of ‘you didn’t understand it’ and ‘you’re too thick too appreciate it’. Nothin’ like those fanboys. Anyway, while there’s some basis to their complaints the film is left somewhat open ended on purpose, so it’s possible to create your own answers. I appreciated the opportunity, although the ‘official’ answers provided by the forthcoming sequel Innocence may ruin it for me the same way Reloaded ruined it’s sibling.

Still, they are valid points that I largely agree with. It doesn’t spoil the film too much but combined with the at times erratic pacing take some of the carefully applied polish off the surface. The symbolism is at times astonishingly heavy handed but at least some thought has gone into it, unlike Reloaded‘s mish mash of nonsense. Still, not only is GitS worth watching, it’s worth watching at least twice. I can almost guarantee the second time will be better than the first.