Way back in 1995, Mamoru Oshii brought us the live-action film adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s epic manga, Ghost in the Shell. (cue angel choir humming in unison) At the time, I couldn’t be bothered with the Matrix-styled techno-thriller, I was way too busy gorging myself on frilly fairy fluff like, Clamp’s Magic Knight Rayearth, and Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yuugi. I wasn’t going to let myself be impressed by then-cutting-edge visuals, electro-jargon politics, nor even all it’s inflated fanboy hype, no sir, I had passed judgment on it without as much as a nod for accomplishment. Despite being a staunch anime fan, I was still reveling in the wonder of enormous battle-bots and superhuman heroics of a bygone age. And now, …15 years later, I bow my head in shame.
I recently ventured, quite by accident, into the world of 90s cyberpunk animation, by way of the Silent Mobius (Kia Asamiya’s most popular work to date) animated television series. That in itself, contains elements of cyberpunk, alchemy, and finished off with a healthy dose of gritty police procedural. It spurred me to look more closely at a genre I so quickly ignored. Why wasn’t I in the least bit interested in the melding of man and machine, as an information superpower, rather than a simple war machine? As I’ve aged, I’m yearning for animation that’s a bit more intellectual, more meaningful, and more than the endless flow of rapid-fire bombshells battling bio-beasts, something more than a ‘phantom-filled shell’.
First on my list was Ghost in the Shell. What better way to flash-rewind than this alleged ‘masterpiece of Japanese animation’. The film was applauded as one of the first anime films to seamlessly blend digital and traditional animation (Macross Plus being the first), and was also one of the first anime features to breakthrough to non-anime fans in the U.S.
2029. The world is connected by a global electronic network, much like our own interwebs. It’s futuristic cityscape, looking much more like a Blade Runner infused Hong Kong, than any Tokyo I’ve ever seen. With its boat-lined canals, and looming garish billboards peppered with Chinese lettering, all eerily lit in hued neon, we welcome you to ‘New Port City’. The city’s cyber-net security force, Section 9, is on a mission to arrest the mysterious hacker, known only as the Puppet Master. The hacker has been responsible for stealing high-level secrets from the government. ‘Major’ Motoko Kusanagi, our alluring cyborg officer, leads the investigation, and finds that the Puppet Master hacks human minds, which leaves victims with implanted fake memories. Recruited from the Rangers, and second in command under Major Kusanagi, is Batou. He is the only other full-body cyborg in the unit, and possible love interest for Motoko. Sporting spectacle-styled peepers to offset his hulking physique, he’s a capable hand-to-hand combatant, dealing death to any that cross Section 9’s path.
One victim, a neurotic garbage man, after being discarded and arrested on his pupeteered crime, finds out that his memories of a nagging wife, well-behaved daughter, and also an impending divorce, were just implanted memories to keep him unaware of his programmed techno-thefts. Kusanagi begins to question her own existence as an artificial construct. Left with only unanswered questions and hopeless dreams of what once was, how are these victims to go on ‘living’? As the investigation goes on, she learns that the Puppet Master may have answers for her, and he seems to be hot on her trail.
This ghost has a shell packed with amazing visuals, like none I’ve seen before. Especially noteworthy are the smaller details, as a programmer is asked to enter information, and her fingertips split open and birth many thin pronged feelers for easier keyboard manipulation. All cyborgs have ports placed in the nape of their neck for Net access via old fashioned black cables, a creepy yet practical use of hardware. Oshii’s distinct attention to detail makes for an exciting task to notice something fresh with each repeated viewing.
Add to these visuals, a haunting New Age score by renowned composer, Kenji Kawai. In the chase scene, where Batou is hunting the ghost-hacked puppet in the marketplace, a pop song sung in Cantonese by Fang Ka Wing can be heard softly, and it’s a nice touch, adding to the distinctly Chinese inspired audioscape.
As an interesting side note, the film was re-released in 2008, as Ghost in the Shell Version 2.0, with all the original animation re-produced with the latest digital film and animation technologies, such as 3D CGI. The original soundtrack was also re-organized and re-recorded. Also three stand-alone films are available, elaborating on some of the more intricate stories from the television series.
The movie also spawned two television anime series. In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a detective inadvertently discovers that several members of the task force have been injected with specialized micro-machines. These micro-machines accumulate in the eyes and act as remote cameras, allowing authorized users to see from the visual perspective of the person injected with them. For unknown reasons, top police officials are spying on the task force using this method. The series is composed of individual cases that Section 9 investigates, along with an ongoing, more serious investigation, dealing with a mysterious hacker dubbed, Laughing Man. In the end, the entire credibility of Section 9 is challenged, and remains in question.
In its second season, Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG, a delicate hostage situation forces Section 9 on the scene. After being officially re-instated by the Prime Minister, Section 9 is ordered to resolve the conflict. As the series progresses, Kusanagi becomes fed up with Section 9 being used by the Cabinet Intelligence Service (New Port’s take on the CIA)and undertakes a risky plan to infiltrate the CIS’s computer database. It turns out that the CIS is behind a recent series of terrorist events in Japan, and also confirms that Section 9 is being manipulated in an effort to sway public opinion against the growing refugee population in Japan. It’s an intelligent storyline, supported by a cast of hundreds, and chock full of intriguing cyber-political twists and turns.
It took nearly fifteen years for me to sit myself down to enjoy this. Somebody slap me. Enjoyed it immensely, and damned if it won’t be on my personal faves list. If interested in others akin to this series, try the enigmatic Ergo Proxy, and dystopian Texhnolyze on for size.