Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ghost In Shell (1995)

Title: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Director: Mamoru Oshii


Ghost in the Shell was supposed to be the film that would make Americans turn their heads and realize just what they had been missing about Japanese animation all these years. Well, at least that was what the films producers and distributors had in mind, to make American audiences (and the rest of the world) discover ‘Japanimation’. Back then, in the mid 90’s Japanimation wasn’t as huge as it is now, it was something left for fans of Manga and comic books, not for mainstream audiences. As I remember it, Ghost in the Shell didn’t exactly set American movie goers ablaze. It did garner some attention, but this was mostly amongst genre and anime fans. Ghost in the Shell came and went from movie theaters pretty quickly. It did manage to impress critics, film buffs and filmmakers, but failed to capture the attention of the masses. It found its audience later, when it was released on VHS, which is where I discovered it as well. I think what Ghost in the Shell did was begin something, it was one of the first Japanese animation films to garner world wide attention, it was the beginning of something that would grow to become what it is today. I remember not falling in love with Ghost in the Shell immediately either. I mean, I loved the animation. There was no doubt that this was a beautifully made film and as an artist I loved the design that went into the film. The animation was flawless in my book. And of course, I loved the cyberpunk/sci-fi angle. I loved the look of the film and its technical achievements, but what turned me off was that it was low in action and big on scenes upon scenes of characters having long philosophical conversations, most of which simply bounced off my teenage brain. At the time, the film felt overtly complex to me. How did it fare now all these years later?

Well, it fared rather well. I still think this is a decidedly and purposely slow film, but I think that was obviously the vibe the filmmakers were going for. This isnt a dumb action film. This is a philosophical and introspective film every step of the way. Even though it does have some action, the films primary purpose is to explore themes of existentialism and corruption in the government. In Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi is assigned with locating a hacker known as The Puppet Master. The governments computers are being hacked by this mysterious hacker! In fact, any computer anywhere is being hacked by this entity. The computers at Megatech (a company that builds cyborgs) get hacked as well, so much so that a cyborg gets assembled without authorization and walks right out of the complex and onto the streets! Apparently The Puppet Master has a purpose with all this hacking, and it’s up to Major Motoko and her crew to find out just what that purpose is.

Ghost in the Shell impressed the hell out of American filmmakers like James Cameron who was gushing about it calling it one of the most stylish and intelligent animation films ever made. The Wachowski Brothers were so impressed by it that in order to convince Joel Silver to produce The Matrix for them, they screened it for him and told him “we want to do that, but for real”, the rest is history. After watching Ghost in the Shell, suddenly The Matrix doesn’t feel so original anymore. The Wachowski’s took so much from Ghost in the Shell it’s not even funny! For example, those scenes of Trinity falling down from a building with shards of glass all over her and the city as her backdrop? Completely stolen from Ghost in the Shell! The idea of computer programs becoming sentient beings? The Cyberpunk vibe? Lot ’s of green visuals, with letters and numbers flashing on the screen? Characters with plugs on their necks that connect them to a computer system? Chase sequences that take place in streets full of people? Exploding watermelons? Action scenes with pillars getting shut to hell by machine guns? All these elements were swiped by the Wachowski's from Ghost in the Shell. What the Wachowski’s did was pepper their film with lots more action, which is essentially what’s missing from Ghost in the Shell. But whatever, when Mamoru Oshii set out to make Ghost in the Shell, he obviously didn’t have an action film in mind and when we look into who Mamoru Oshii is as a filmmaker, that makes perfect sense. 

The film is based on Masamune Shirow's comic books

Mamoru Oshii is a filmmaker who constantly strives to go against the Hollywood formula, meaning he doesn’t really like to focus so much on action, or on pleasing the masses by making a cute film that will sell. His cinematic concerns deal more with visuals, mood, and the philosophical angles he can explore. In other words, he prefers to create thought provoking films instead of brainless action spectacles or family fare. One look at Ghost in the Shell and its clear he wanted to create a world made up of stylish visuals, with characters who focus on exploring who they are and why they are here. This is probably why his films aren’t huge box office monsters like for example Hayao Miyazaki films, a director who’s a house hold name in Japan but is diametrically opposed to Oshii as a filmmaker. Mamoru Oshii’s films aren’t directed towards children or deal with overtly simplistic plot lines, rather, Oshii makes films that are very adult oriented, complex, and made so that audiences can work out an interpretation of the film by using their brains instead of having things spelled out for them. In Oshii’s own words “In terms of the persuasiveness of their films, it is true that they have such a power, and it is also true that they have what I don’t have. They have their own instinct for appealing to the general public” Still, even though Oshii’s films don’t have a mass appeal, Oshii is regarded as a very important and influential director in Japan. His influence has even transcended to filmmakers from other parts of the world as well.

There’s a strange thing about this movie, The Puppet Master who is supposed to be the films villain, isn’t really a villain in my book. In the film, The Puppet Master is a program created by the government called Project 2501, the program was designed to do the governments “dirty work”. Problem is that this program got so smart that it's turned into a sentient being, meaning that it knows it exists, just like we do. It knows what it is and it wants out. In this way, Ghost in the Shell reminded me of a movie from the 70’s called Demon Seed (1977) about a program called 'Proteus', in Demon Seed Proteus goes through the same exact process. It wants to escape from the virtual world into the real world and it is willing to do whatever it can to do it. In Demon Seed, the programs main preoccupation is giving birth to a child, to reproduce. This is The Puppet Master’s exact preoccupation as well. But what I found interesting about Ghost in the Shell is that I was agreeing with many of the things that the program is constantly suggesting to Major Motoko, the films cyborg protagonist. He is constantly telling her to be more then she currently is, to evolve, to change. One of my favorite lines in the film is “All things change in a dynamic environment, your effort to remain what you are, is what limits you”

So what we got here ladies and gentlemen is the thinking mans science fiction film. It is deliberately slow paced, so if you cant take a film where characters talk a lot, don’t bother with this one. If on the other hand you’re like philosophy, and enjoy conversations that revolve around existentialism, then this is your film. And to be honest, the film does have its cool action moments! The first 15 minutes are a show stopper of action and will bring to mind many scenes from The Matrix. Plus, the film has that heavy sci-fi angle that instantly makes it a little bit cooler in my book. We get cyborgs hacking into other cyborgs brains, a sentient computer system that has a subversive vibe, cyborgs with abilities to turn invisible, machine guns galore, add all that up and what do you get? A killer sci-fi flick with a heavy dose of intelligence that’s what! It could have used a bit more action, but it wasn’t a big problem for me. A word of warning though: Oshii released a newer version of Ghost in the Shell called “Ghost in the Shell 2.0” which is essentially the same movie, but with “upgraded” computer effects, Im sad to say that this version isnt all that great. It is the same movie, but with new computer graphics in certain scenes. The new computer graphics simply do not gel with the old school traditional animation and the added effects simply serve to take us out of the movie. So my suggestion is to just watch the original version of this film and not version 2.0. Out of Oshii's filmography, I’ll be reviewing Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence next, so be on the look out for that review soon. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


Jack L said...

Sounds very interesting,
I really should get into this kind of anime more. So far i've only really explored Miyazaki's work.
I'd be interested in seeing some more adult oriented anime's.
And the Scifi side to it looks cool.
I'll be sure to check it out now.

Great review, very comprehensive!

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

I just watched this last month after not having seen it in about ten years. I was amazed not only in how amazingly it held up but just how the animation pretty much blows away a lot of the stuff made know. great review!

Franco Macabro said...

@JackL: I'm pretty sure you'd like it Jack, Miyazaki and Oshii are friends, but they dont agree on certain views, Oshii seems to me like more of a rebel, leaning towards ideas of being free in the world, and achieving our full potential in this world inspite of so many things that old us back, Oshii's got a bleaker view of the world, in many ways, a bit more realistic than Miyazaki's idealism.

But I personally find Miyazaki's films beautiful as well, they are two different kind of directors with very different world views, but both offer up some of the best Japanese animation there is.

Oshii also directs live action films: ever seen Avalon? Its a pretty cool sci-fi flick about people who escape into a virtual world called Avalon, recommend it, James Cameron praised that one as well. I'll be reviewing a couple of Oshii's work in the next couple of days, be on the look out for that.

@Professor Brian O'Blivion: I went through the same thing this week. I hadn't seen it since 1995! Totally agree, it blows away a lot of the things being done today. Some scenes are simply so beautiful, like the scene where they are creating the cyborg, and we can see how they make its body, and its skin...beautiful stuff.

Thanks for commenting people!

SFF said...

I'm late, but I was thrilled to see you covering this film Franscisco. You beat me to it. :)

Furthermore, time is killing me because I need to go back and read all of these wonderful pieces you've been writing on Godzilla.

"begin something"
I agree. Like Akira before it, GITS seemed to take the subculture of anime and open it up a bit more to the mass audience without completely reaching it. It garnered significant accalim and captured the attention of film fans.

GITS, like so many of Oshii's films, is big on exposition. I agree with you. A little more action in his films would be welcomed. He does the same thing in his Patlabor films. His animation is gorgeous, but his scripts can be talky expounding on issues for us to ponder.

But yes, there isn't an Oshii film that isn't "slow." The issues of self-awareness and identity etc in this film are wonderful and once viewers open to it, it can be rewarding.

And Yes, The Matrix is stamped with all kinds of GITS ideas. It's all in evidence and the animated film had a profound impact on that wonderfully exciting and smart sci-fi trilogy.

Again, Patlabor goes down similar philosophical meanderings. All of those giant robots seem wasted, but the films are beautiful.

I could be wrong, but I believe Oshii is more highly regarded outside of Japan. Also, just to be devil's advocate my friend, Miyazaki's films, while lovely, gorgeous and accessible, certainly have deeper, layered meanings about man and nature. I suppose Walt Disney's sponsorship stateside doesn't necessarily give his films the same kind of weight, but they are significant.

So, your reading of the film is spot on. I think there are exciting sequences, but they only flavor the overarching ideas.

Well done Francisco and I look forward to your take on GITS Innocence. I have not seen it yet.

Franco Macabro said...

@Sci-Fi Fanatic: About Ghost in the Shell beginning something, of course what I mean is that it opened up awareness towards anime a little more, the world suddenly paid attention and said, wait a sec! This is pretty cutting edge stuff! But of course, AKIRA had done its part in the past as well. Thats another biggie in the world of Anime.

Agree about the talky nature of Oshii's films. As I watched Ghost in the Shell, I felt that the film prefered to have its characters talk than do things. But I guess this is the nature of an Oshii film, he love to explore themes this way.

You feel like damn, we got cyborgs and the future, and machine guns, yet characters just LOVE to talk talk talk, but the conversations are interesting, and action does eventually show up. The talky nature of his films is the only reason why I didnt give them a full five out of five.

Agree about Miyazaki, I didnt mean to sound like I was putting his films down or anything. Im a huge fan of his work and have personally loved all of his movies. There's not one I havent enjoyed. Some are deeper and more complex then others thats for sure. Spirited Away for example is pretty layered, I always have a hard time trying to figure out exactly what he is trying to say with that one. I will be reviewing some of his film during the course of the summer as well. My favorite of his: Howl's Moving Castle.

Thanks for commenting!


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