Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
Following the huge animation jump of 1989’s Akira, anime took another leap in 1995 with Ghost in the Shell. Using a mixed process of digitally generated animation, which combined cel and computer graphics in a new and unique way, it was a box-office hit in Japan and did fairly well in its US release, but it has only grown in stature over the years. It’s an action film with limited action, relying more on how computers have changed us and will continue to change us.
In the year 2029, people have connected with computers and can log in to a large interconnected network to gain information. Computer hacking now takes place in the form of hacking people—changing, adding, and deleting people’s memories. People can also replace body parts with cybernetic parts, even up to the point of full bodies in which their consciousness can reside. One such person is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full cyborg who works for Public Security Section 9, patrolling and protecting this cyber world. She and her team are working to track down a hacker known as the Puppet Master, but by the end of the movie none of their lives will be the same.
As the film opens, we’re drawn into the end of a mission with Kusanagi working to assassinate a defector. In one of three major action scenes in the film, we see her jump off a skyscraper to do her job and are left to wonder how she survives the fall. There’s a cool bit of chameleon-like stealth suiting that distracts from this, and it’s left unsaid, but I believe she purposefully throws this shell away to be placed in a new one. But this also leads to her questioning how much of her humanity is left. If her consciousness is all that remains of her, and this “ghost” is just put into a new artificial body, is she even human? You add on to that with hackers able to erase memories and those hacked people having nothing “human” remaining; it’s a lot to think about.
This does rank up there as one of my favorite animes, but I fully admit that there is so much to delve into when it comes to Japanese animation and that I’m definitely not an expert on all things anime. What I can tell you is this film addresses a lot of similar themes that have come up in some of my previous columns. It’s a lot of soul searching (literally and figuratively), and it wants to leave you thinking when it’s done. There’s a great scene in the middle of the film in which Kusanagi has just gone diving, and she and her partner, Batou, discuss the ramifications of that—she could actually die doing it if they couldn’t recover her body. A nice, quiet, thoughtful moment in a film that has a lot of them.
The animation is top notch (the visuals even inspired the Wachowskis to create The Matrix), and the film was just re-released in a 20th-anniversary version for which they cleaned up the film a bit. There is also a version entitled Ghost in the Shell 2.0, released in 2008, that adds in some more 3D animation techniques in some of the key scenes. Which I think is fine, but if you’re not familiar with the film it can be a bit jarring jumping between the different animation styles. I would recommend the standard version for an initial viewing. That said, the 2.0 version also has a re-recorded audio track that sounds better, and the subtitles are a little cleaner in translation.
Some subtle spoilers in this paragraph. One of the unique things about this film, and something I haven’t seen a lot of people address, is the idea of gender when it comes to Kusanagi and the Puppet Master. In her cybernetic body, Kusanagi is stronger than any normal human, but she can not reproduce organically. Meanwhile, the Puppet Master is a program that has gained sentience, developed a ghost, and wishes to reproduce, which is impossible for him to do organically as well. Toward the middle of the film, he inhabits a female cybernetic shell in the hopes that Kusanagi will be curious and dive in to his network, which would allow him to create a new life form. The ending of the film shows Kusanagi and the Puppet Master in a new cybernetic body, this time it being a young girl body. The film very subtly shows that gender can be fluid and what our outer shells look like is less important than the ghost inside.
A recommended film for anime newbies and veterans alike.
As mentioned above, this film can be found on a 20th-anniversary disc as well as the “2.0” version that revises a lot of the animation. It is currently available via Netflix DVD rental, but not streaming. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
Let me know if there are any films you think TBT should cover in the future.