Before the Matrix there was Ghost in the Shell! Richly textured, literate, bold in its concept and profoundly disconcerting in its conclusions, this seminal Anime movie tackles an old sf concept – the artificial human being, cyborg and android alike. Between the Matrix Trilogy and the Terminator Series it is likely the most complex and far-reaching onscreen treatment of a future in which the fate, as well as the face, of mankind is shaped by intelligent machines.

Review by SAndman
January 3, 2010

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Movie

Director: Mamoru Oshii

graphic novel: Masamune Shirow
screenplay: Kazunori Ito

Cast (voices):
Atsuko Tanaka as Major Motoko Kusanagi
Akio Ôtsuka as Batô
Iemasa Kayumi as Project 2501 aka ‘The Puppet Master’
Kôichi Yamadera as Togusa

Released: 1995

Puppet MasterWe have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.

The plot takes us to the early decades of the 21st century when breakthroughs in cyber technology led to interstellar travel and unprecedented progress of mankind, and ultimately to the blurring of the line between machines and men. Despite all this, we learn at the opening of the movie, nation states and ethnic groups still exist and the world continues to be plagued by the same century-old problems.

The story centers on a group of cyborgs working for the elusive Section 9, an intelligence department under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which specializes in international terrorism, espionage, and cybercrime.

The chief among the Section 9 agents, and also some of the lead characters in the movie, are

  • Major Motoko Kusanagi, the best field operative in Section 9, martial-arts expert whose fully automatic body contains one sole remnant of her humanity, her ghost, that is, her memories;
  • Batô, her gruff and loyal second-in-command, another cyborg with a ghost
  • Aramaki, the chief of Section 9, with slight cybernetic augmentations in his brain and powerful political connections;
  • Ishikawa, laid-back tech specialist; and
  • Togusa, the most human of the Section 9 operatives, who was hand-picked by Major precisely because he is almost fully human, and “his body represents what they are trying to protect”.

Interestingly, Ghost in the Shell opens with a false start. Major Motoko Kusanagi is undertaking an operation whose purpose is heading off the attempts of a foreign power to smuggle expert programmers out of the country. In the course of the operation Section 9 clashes with another department of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Section 6, which reveals a rift between the government’s stated goals its secretive machinations as well as the ongoing turf war between different intelligence departments.

Presently the focus shifts to the top secret government operation called Project 2501 (if you watch carefully you’ll find that the soon-to-defect programmer makes a passing reference to the project) and Major and the rest of her team get a new assignment – tracking down a mysterious cyber terrorist who goes by the moniker of the Puppet Master, who has never been captured and whose ghost-hacked zombies – cyborgs whose memories has been hacked into and replaced with faked memories – persist in carrying out his orders. Now it seems that the Pupper Master has started infiltrating the government’s network with his signal, which could lead up to a major international crisis.

Kusanagi and her partners realize they might have been led on a wild-goose chase as the Pupper Master starts breaking into their own personal grid, all the while pulling off incredible feats of programming, like making a fully robotic unit show signs of a ghost on the brain scan, or speaking in the back of Major and Batou’s minds quoting passages from the Bible. The more they find about the Project 2501 the more they become certain of the government’s complicity in acts of cyberterrorism.

But more pertinent to the characters in the movie, the activities of the Puppet Master point to the their existential problem – if a ghost, or memory, can be so easily hacked into, and consequently replaced with a simulation, what then makes them so different from the Puppet Master’s pitiful zombies? Or as a character says at one point, “That’s all it is, information, even a simulated experience, or a dream, is a simultaneous reality and fantasy. Anyway you look at it, all the information that a person accumulates of a lifetime is just a drop in the bucket.”

Naturally, this leads to paranoia, and as we see in the movie, cyborgs are no less prone to it than your regular human beings, even more so as their brains happen to be augmented and require regular maintainance, especially if you work for Section 9. Major Kusanagi is well aware of this and her chase of the Puppet Master turns into a riveting self-quest. For her, Batô, and the rest, this is much more than just another mission. As the plot thickens, and the pursuit for the elusive criminal unfolds, the characters are compelled to put their values as well as their loyalties to the test.

Ghost in the Shell is created thanks to an extensive use of computer animation, which lends versimilitude to the futuristic world, and gives you the feeling of stepping into a different yet somehow familiar universe. Whereas Anime movies tend to somewhat two-dimensional and sketched-out in its outlook, Ghost is much more textured and elaborate graphic-wise, and some sequences are executed with a real gusto for detail and are filled with enigmatic leitmotiffs, such as dogs, mirrors, rain, water.

Despite the authors’ best efforts to keep the subplots tight and logical, Ghost in the Shell has its pitfalls and twists, and it is definitely not a clear-cut exercise in action-packed neck-spinning narration. Personally, the best parts of the movie are the more introspective, evocative sequences, beautifully complemented by the haunting soundtrack, which convey the sense of loneliness and angst.

Although Ghost in the Shell is based on the Manga comic of the same title, and it does help to know something about the background of the main characters, you don’t need to be knowledgeable about the comic arc in order to fully appreciate the movie.

If you love films with some philosophic heft and labyrinthine plot, in addition to a dialog which is at once dry-witted and astute and laden with literary references, Ghost in the Shell is definitely a go-to movie. And if Ghost in the Shell whets your appetite for topics such as artificial person and cyborgs, the best thing is that there is a sequel, and it’s even bigger, bolder, and more beguiling than the Part One.


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