Sunday, 22 January 2012

Ghost in the Shell (Kôkaku Kidôtai; Japan, 1995)

Genre: Animation

Six years before the Matrix, there was the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell which inspired it. Set in Hong Kong in the year 2029, old parts of the city are flooded, the sky is a dirty orange, humans have invented cynoptic camouflage, weapons and armoured protection are more powerful than ever, and most importantly, everything is digitized. Technology has entered into the human body, to the extent that whilst most humans are still only slightly modified, the elite units are mostly cyborg with the exception of brain matter, enabling them with capabilities of enhanced metabolism, sensory perception, speed, memory, processing capacity, communication and of course toughness. The cost of such progress is the need for occasional maintenance, as well as a gnawing unease at the insignificance of the self beneath all these government-loaned enhancements. There is also the fear that the organic brain might wither away or else be hacked into and controlled, and how would one ever know?

Among these elite forces is Major Kusanagi, a female crime-fighter of the highest calibre. Along with her cyborg-friend Bateau, who is equipped with enhanced vision, and her crime-fighting partner ex-police officer Togusa, she is on the hunt for the infamous Puppet Master, about whom almost nothing is known except for the numerous high-level crimes he has perpetrated through mind-control. All memory is just data, so how could a potential victim of mind-control distinguish reality from fantasy? When one starts to question what you put your trust in, who certifies someone as trustworthy, and who certifies them, The line of questioning never ends. We are only human, which makes all the more disquieting the news of the Puppet Master’s hacking of human brains, their contents having been wiped and replaced with his criminal commands. And who’s to say that the Puppet Master is not himself a puppet?

As well as having an excellent plot, and brilliant animation, with the exception of walking (cyborgs don’t seem to be able to walk properly), the most memorable aspect of the movie is the great central character of the Major herself. All other characters mirror her in a glass darkly, her strong will, toughness and cool reserve. The atmosphere of the film is haunting, a little film-noir in its tone, the palette very grey and sombre, the music ghostly and futuristic.

Another great strength of the movie, already touched on, is the realism of the philosophical issues raised. What does it mean to be human in this world of ever-advancing technology. What happens when a robot claims personhood? How can we prove that while we are life-forms, a robot isn’t? Scientifically, we cannot do it, but one way we are unlike robots is that instead of making copies of ourselves, we die and reproduce. We merge our differences with another, thus protecting ourselves against a single virus that could wipe us all out. When the mostly-human Togusa asks the Major why she chose him to be her crime-fighting partner, it is the difference she saw in him that she gives as the reason for her choice. But when the Major asks the same question of another at the end of the movie, she gets a different answer, one of similarity. Though the story is told from the point of view of Section 9, the nefarious rivals in Section 6 are not so different except in the methods they use.

This review would not be complete without mention of the arguably gratuitous displays of nudity and violence, especially in the opening sequences. Designed no doubt to get the attention of adolescent audiences as “adult" manga, it acts as a superficial cover for the film’s deeper ideas. Cyborgs are not self-conscious of their nudity because they do not identify with it. A cyborg’s body is just a matter of taste, not biology, and for robot shells this extends to a certain ambiguity of gender.

We identify ourselves with our memories. But the real self is not even that. It is the ghost in the shell of a titanium skull. It is the whisper of female intuition. It is the seat of emotions that makes the Major love to go diving despite the dangers. The fear, anxiety, loneliness, darkness… even Hope, that she experiences in the depths, are what makes her feel human. When the red lasers of death caress her in the closing sequences, merging in her forehead, they represent the forces of love also, which in the form of Bateau’s replaceable arm and subsequent care, ultimately save her in a kind of enlightened union with all, as she becomes one with the ether yet in physical form. In words reminiscent of the character Jane, in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” (and subsequent novels), the movie concludes with Major Kusanagi transformed and full of promise, “the net is vast and limitless”. 

The film is begging for a sequel. In 2004, after three years of gruelling work, director Mamoru Oshii released “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence”. This is a tremendously impressive display of anime artistry with more vibrant colour than the original, and not short of philosophical bite either, the focus shifting to robots being used as household dolls and the ethical implications. However, without Major Kusanagi as the central driving character, it couldn’t live up to the simple charm of the original.


  1. Wow. Thanks, Okei. It sounds brilliant. I'll see if I can get it somewhere.

  2. For some reason I thought I must have seen it, but I'm not sure now.

  3. Thanks Betsy!!

    I hope it doesn't disappoint, Jon. :)

    Hi Catherine, I discovered it thanks to a wonderful music video I happened to come across on YouTube a few weeks back... I don't like spoiler-trailers in general, but this is not a trailer, but a version of the song "King of My Castle" set to scenes from the film, so it should definitely help recognize if you've seen it.

  4. I remember you posted this at Catherine's site. :)
    I went through a period where I watched a bunch of anime, Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies, and others. I definitely remember the title to this one, but I'm not remembering the story. It looks good though.

  5. There's also Ghost in the Shell 2.0 which I mentioned in the final paragraph. Lots of dolls being produced on a ship, traced down when some start killing their owners.

    I read the transcript of Grave of the Fireflies once, in Spanish, lol. I didn't understand that much, would love to see it one day. :) But my Spanish is a bit better now. Miyazaki is really amazing.

  6. Sounds fascinating, Okei.... I'm adding this to my netflix list!

  7. So you're into sci-fi too :) Is there anything you're not interested in? -- Other than cooking, that is :P :P :P
    The storyline sounds interesting. I might look it up. I do have tons of movies that I've listed up to watch. I just need to make the time to actually watch them.

  8. Great stuff- thanks! Have been in the mood for japanese anime lately actually so this comes in the perfect moment.

  9. I'll let you know my reaction, Okei, after I watch it this week.

  10. I hope it doesn't disappoint, Nancy! If you like the Matrix, then I think you'll like this also...

    The first Matrix was one of my favourite movies ever when I saw it.

    Shahrizat, who says I wasn't into cooking? For sure, I have gross unproficiency if such a word exists, and I hardly do anything that takes more than ten minutes, but I make all my own meals so would love to know how to cook better.

    I once asked a question on Y!A "is there anything you've learnt recently that you should have known years ago?" I had a new one of those recently, that to open an avocado, you can just cut it round the equator down to the pip, then twist in opposite directions and squeeze the pip out. Amazing! Am I the only one who didn't know that? I used to chop the head off and spoon it out.

    Back to sci-fi, I went through a phase when I was about 16 of reading lots of Asimov, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I enjoyed too. I can't remember much now. It was all light reading.

    Hille, good to see you! I'm grateful for youtube's tip that you'd liked Nicolas Jaar on youtube. He's amazing! Another by him I really liked...

  11. Okei, you had me laughing over that avocado! :-)