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Anime Reviews: Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell has withstood the test of time with gorgeous visuals and an intelligent story, but its frigid, disposable characters can make it a tough sit.
Title: Ghost in the Shell a.k.a. Koukaku Kidoutai a.k.a. Armored Riot Police
Production: Production I.G.
Film Length: 84 minutes
Air Dates: 11/18/1995
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, partial nudity, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In the year 2029, cybernetic technology has advanced to the point where everything imaginable is connected to an online network, and people can abandon their traditional flesh bodies in favor of complex state-of-the-art machinery forming the "shell" that protects their brain and their "ghost." Motoko Kusanagi is one such person who made the transition, and she puts her robotic body to good use. As a high-ranking officer of Section 9--a top-secret government branch--she and her team are responsible for dealing with military incidents, international crime, and espionage. Motoko, along with squadmates Batou and Ishikawa, is called into action to apprehend a notorious hacker known as the Puppet Master--called so because of his ability to "ghost hack" into the neural networks of cyborgs as well as any traditional computer system. Can Section 9 bring an end to this menace before it's too late?
The Good: HIgh-quality art and animation; cool atmosphere and setting; interesting and tense story provides food for thought
The Bad: As frigid as the Antarctic; setting poorly explained
The Ugly: Motoko's perpetually rock-hard nipples prove just how frigid this film really is
And here's yet another classic film that has evaded review for so long, but this time there's a difference: with Akira, I'd seen it before but just slacked off on reviewing it, but I have actually never even seen Ghost in the Shell until recently when I decided to review it. No joke. My beef with Akira is well over a decade old, but I had no clue what to expect with this film, so I walked into it pretty blind. Was this a film I should be kicking myself for not seeing earlier? I suppose. Maybe. Let's get to talking about its finer points, shall we?
First of all, as with Akira, a lot of the acclaim and fame surrounding this title revolves around its animation, and also like Akira, it's for good reason--the art is very clean and appealing, and the animation is meticulous and smooth. The aesthetic is bleak and washed-out, with a lot of metallic colors defining the scenery, and the visuals perfectly capture the sense that this is a world where the idea of humanity is becoming passé, where the future is full of cold, unemotional cyborgs. Maddening amounts of detail are present in the technological designs of the film, and they are animated with even more maddening care and diligence. Your eyes will find a lot to love here.
Also similarly to Akira, there is a very clear cyberpunk bent to the setting and atmosphere in Ghost in the Shell, but while the former focused more on the social aspects of cyberpunk, the latter is far more concerned with the ideas of trans-humanism and post-humanism, and the more technological aspects in general (while also being far, far less cynical about law enforcement than most other cyberpunk titles). This makes for a very unsettling atmosphere around the film, as it's not very welcoming for boring full humans like most of us, and it gives the film a creepy vibe that makes it all the more engrossing. Even more unsettling is the fact that the city seems to comprise entirely of empty, soulless apartments, extremely opulent government buildings, skeletal unfinished skyscrapers, and dark, filthy streets and alleyways--an especially eerie setting that makes this oh-so-wonderful future feel more real, as if all the focus was on personal cybernetics instead of improving peoples' lives in any other way. Cyberpunk fans, if you haven't already caught this one, you are in for a delightfully dilapidated treat.
However, unlike Akira, Ghost in the Shell actually manages to tell a (mostly) coherent story within its runtime, and it's not nearly as long either. It starts as a simple police case where our main characters have to track down a hacker, and the tension in the film comes not from a clash with the military or any megacorporations (as you would expect from many other cyberpunk titles), but instead from the mere fact that many humans have implemented cybernetic parts into themselves and some guy out there is able to hack into those parts to do God knows what to you. That's pretty terrifying, if you ask me--someone miles away can turn my body against me? No thanks, son! Not only does the film not throw any obtuse curveballs at you, but this simple plot is positively rife with things for you to consider about the topics of trans- and post-humanism I mentioned earlier. I won't get into any real detail, as it does come with pretty big spoilers, but do keep in mind that this is a fairly cerebral film that focuses on theme rather than confusing you with convoluted plotlines.
Unfortunately, Ghost in the Shell is not without its flaws, but thankfully they're few in number. The first I'd like to mention is the fact that, yes, the film takes place in a world where the concept of humanity is on the way out and it's populated with colder, more uncaring cybernetic people, but would it really have killed them to have some personality? These people are so boring! I'm really getting into the story and I love the setting, but my God are these characters disposable and worthless. The conversation Motoko and Batou have on the boat about Motoko's obsession with diving would have been so much more interesting if I gave even the remotest of damns about either of them, but I don't and the movie doesn't, either, so the scene becomes pointless. Hey writers! Cyborgs may be less human than humans, but they're still way more human than the potted plants you took inspiration from while writing them! Give them some personality, for crying out loud!
The other major problem with the film is that the setting isn't given a lot of explanation. Sure, some things can be put together with some context clues, but there's still important stuff we're never given any insight into. For example, we know Section 9 is involved with law enforcement and espionage, and Section 6 is something something public safety something something, but what are the other Sections all about? They say that Motoko is almost fully cyborg but still has her "ghost," but what does that mean? Her soul? Is the film implying souls exist? But we later see an artificial intelligence gain sentience later in the film, so does he have a soul? Is "ghost" a code word for something else? I don't know, movie--you tell me! There are all kinds of little nagging questions about the setting like this that bother me, and I'm just sad almost none of them get any explanation; takes a really cool setting and leaves it feeling hollow and unfinished.
But I'll tell you what, at least this time I can confidently say Ghost in the Shell is a good film despite those issues. Yeah, it's so distant and cold that your nipples will be as rock-hard as Motoko's by the end, and you'll have some unanswered questions about how this world works, but at least the plot is easy to follow and the ending is satisfactory, on top of having an interesting setting and top-notch visuals. I was really hesitant to give Akira a recommendation (and even then, it's only for the cyberpunk junkies who have no choice), but this film is much easier to do so with. Cyberpunk fans, this one's a no-brainer (as well as a no-cyber-brainer), and it's an easy pick for general sci-fi and anime fans, as well, and at only 84 minutes long, it doesn't demand a lot of your time. Definitely check it out--it's a classic that actually is worth remembering.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. Ghost in the Shell may be as cold and unfeeling as its characters' cybernetic parts, but its incredibly detailed animation, cool as hell setting, and thought-provoking storyline make it a perennial classic that belongs on any anime fan's shelf.