In many ways, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 effort “Ghost in the Shell” is one of the more influential sci-fi works out there. Which doesn’t mean it’s one of the best, only influential. The film that benefits most from “Ghost’s” look is the Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix”. Once you’ve seen the technology on display in “Ghost”, and listen to its talk of “ghost hacking” and other novel ideas, it’s an inevitable conclusion that the Wachowskis owe Oshii more than just a thank you. Heck, even the now familiar “green-tinted computer numbers scrolling across screen” credit sequence of “The Matrix” is a slight variation of what Oshii uses here. To their credit, the Wachowskis make no bones about being heavily influenced by Oshii’s work.
Based on a manga by Masamune Shirow (“M66”), “Ghost in the Shell” follows cyborg cop Major Kusanagi, who works for a secret Japanese agency known as Section 9. A cyborg whose body is more synthetic than human, Kusanagi is feeling more than a little self-doubt about her existence, wondering if she’s still human at all. Things come to a head when a hacker known as the Puppet Master appears on the scene, effortlessly “hacking” the “ghosts” of people in order to use their consciousness as puppets. Kusanagi’s job is to stop the Puppet Master, but how do you stop someone who can jump from body to body and erase memories of anyone it chooses?
Running at just under 80 minutes, “Ghost in the Shell” is needlessly crammed with pontificating exposition and a lot of really inane dialogue about life and immortality and consciousness and blah blah blah. I.e. if you thought “The Matrix” featured some truly redundant and immature conceptions of life, death, and existence, now you know where the Wachowskis got it. The point is, Kazunori Ito’s script lacks anything resembling actual philosophy, and every junior high student at one point or another has considered all the things it brought up. It ain’t that deep, folks.
If “Ghost” fails to live up to its own ambitions as a script, it almost makes up for it with some stellar action sequences. Almost. Although the film features three action scenes, the first is minor at best, leaving only two outstanding fights in the rest of the movie. One takes place halfway in, and the last one toward the end. In the final gun battle, Kusanagi takes on a tank in the form of a mechanical spider armed with powerful cannons. It’s quite spectacular, made even more intense by the eardrum-shattering sound work that puts emphasis on every discharging bullet while shutting off all other ambient sound.
But of course “Ghost” falters because of a short running time that doesn’t favor a movie with too much going on at once. It’s not until the hour mark (in an 80-minute movie) that the movie’s real plot bothers to show itself. That is, the origins of the Puppet Master and its ties to Section 9’s rival agency, Section 6. Along the way, there are a lot of subplots about high-level talks between Japan and another government, as well as some other things that gets tossed into the mix for one reason or another. Predictably, the short running time nixes everything except the hunt for the Puppet Master, a major plot that nevertheless sometimes come across as irrelevant.
As an anime, “Ghost in the Shell” is technically very sound, even innovative. Oshii, who would later go on to do the live-action “Avalon” with “Ghost’s” writer Kazunori Ito, seems to have a thing for lonely heroines with super heroic leanings and moody dispositions. The men in the movie are relegated to background duty, with only Bateau, another Section 9 cyborg cop, managing to make himself really known to the viewer. There is a touch of romance between Bateau and Kusanagi, but it’s never followed up, and Kusanagi seems oblivious to Bateau’s obvious, albeit unspoken, feelings for her.
“Ghost in the Shell” is probably not as seminal a work as “Akira”, which strived for (and I think achieved) a level of epic quality about it. If anything, “Ghost” seems more like a single episode of a longer storyline, one of many chapters yet to be uncovered. Which makes the recent presence of a lengthy “Ghost in the Shell” series very appropriate. The question isn’t why they’re turning the movie into a long series, but instead why they didn’t do it a long time ago.
For those interested in seeing “Ghost in the Shell: The Movie” I recommend seeking out the original Japanese language version. The English dubbing here is generally bad and suffers from the same problems as most anime dubbed into English. The actors seem either incapable or are too poorly directed to capture the right inflection in tone and dialogue delivery. The dubbing for Kusanagi in particular is completely incompatible with the character’s supposedly moodiness and occasional lapses into philosophical self-doubt. As a result, whenever Kusanagi opens her mouth she sounds like a flippant cashier at Starbucks. Not exactly the “vibe” the movie was going for, I’m sure.
Mamoru Oshii (director) / Kazunori Ito (screenplay), Masamune Shirow (comic)