By Kim Hollis
May 13, 2003
Note: This commentary is fairly spoiler-laden due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to discuss the themes and issues addressed in Ghost in the Shell without a complete and thorough examination of the story.
With the sequel to The Matrix arriving at long last this week, it seems a perfectly appropriate time to take a look at an animated film from which the Wachowski brothers clearly drew a healthy amount of inspiration. Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime Ghost in the Shell is probably best known as a visual feast. Released in 1995, the combination of computer graphics and traditional cel animation was in fact groundbreaking, but the film also resonates for the themes it explores, particularly in a time when advancements in technology are proceeding with lightning speed.
Appropriately described as a cyber-punk hacker opera, the hyper-complex story takes place in a not-so-distant 2029, with a setting that looks suspiciously like Hong Kong, but is called Newport City. The plausible background to the events that unfold is that because of the ubiquity of the ‘Net, the world has entered a new ideological plane of existence, as mechanically and technologically modified humans inhabit virtual environs. Watching over everything with a studied eye are varying groups of law enforcement officers who are themselves semi-cybernetic. Representing different factions of the government, they occasionally find themselves conflicting over goals that are not precisely shared or overt.
Drawing this latent friction out in the open is the emergence of an ingenious and mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. This enigmatic presence is able to manipulate various ‘Net users to do “his” dirty work, thus causing detection to be nothing short of impossible.
In the midst of it all are the officers of Section 9, including our true protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, an almost completely cybernetic female agent who has been carefully and highly trained. As she works with her compatriots to neutralize the threat presented by the Puppet Master, the master hacker subtly seduces her by entering her programming, offering her enticing hints about the essence of true freedom. Though Major Kusanagi is almost wholly mechanical, her “ghost” still resides inside complex machinery, giving her the consciousness to question her own significance as a human being.
Eventually, the Puppet Master reveals itself by entering a “shell,” or body, that just happens to have been created at the same plant as Major Kusanagi’s. After that body is run down by a semi truck, Section 9 takes custody of the body. It isn’t long before members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have arrived to enforce their own custodianship. As the two agencies develop discreet machinations to maintain control, the truth emerges. The Puppet Master is actually a man-made creation known as Project 2501, created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be the ultimate secret agent. Their plans have gone terribly awry, though, because this prototype has achieved sentience, determining that it is in fact a new form of life and asking for political asylum in wake of this discovery.
After the arrival of the Ministry, Project 2501 escapes, and the race is on to see which agency can capture the ever-changing entity. In the end, Major Kusanagi is able to make contact, at which point Project 2501 suggests a merger with her to create an all-new entity, allowing the Puppet Master a chance at life outside the ‘Net while simultaneously lending purpose to Major Kusanagi’s existence.
If the whole thing sounds a bit convoluted and perhaps even esoteric to some degree, that’s probably because it is, somewhat. Ghost in the Shell is by no means a film for everyone, and it’s not a movie that one should expect to fully grasp after only one viewing. It probably bears noting at this point that GitS is by no means appropriate for children; this film is for adults, with all of the violence, nudity and mature themes that the type implies.
Much of the maturity comes from the motifs delineated in the manga on which the anime is based. Masamune Shirow is the writer/artist responsible for the original Japanese-style comic book that provides the story for the film, and that manga was the first one that received a wide audience acceptance in the United States. As a result, the resulting movie adaptation became a joint Japanese/British/U.S. production, a grand experiment intended for an expanding target demographic. Not only was Ghost in the Shell the first anime to hit the number one spot for video sales on the Billboard chart, it was also one of the first movies to be released in DVD format.
When director Oshii took the manga for transformation to film, he eliminated a good portion of the book for clarity and to more accurately match his own vision. Gone were the giant mecha, cut so that the focus would be more on the cybernetic humans, with a particular emphasis on the question of what exactly it means to be “human.”
It’s a logical progression on numerous science fiction themes, picking up almost where Arthur Clarke’s 2001 leaves off, with additional shades of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World wrapped inside. Where 2001 deals with a computer that achieves sentience, Ghost in the Shell takes the concept a bit farther, exploring varying notions of existence. The “ghosts” that are so crucial to the development of the movie’s themes are not only present in the cybernetic shells of the central characters, but are also able to download themselves to different programs, even having the ability to “dive” into other bodies. The question of what it means to be alive takes on particular poignancy when Major Kusanagi makes the comment that she’s not even sure what or who she is anymore, delving into New Testament theology for some sense of guidance in light of her shaky faith.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.” --I Corinthians 13:12
It is her realization that all her knowledge is but a tiny fragment in a massive sea of information that leads her to doubt her own humanity; how is it possible that a being that can gather and interminably store ever-greater amounts of data would ever truly be human? In the end, Major Kusanagi develops into something that is potentially even greater and might be the next logical step in the evolutionary chain. Evidence that this notion holds true is evinced in the background of the final scene, which is set in a museum with a diagram of the “tree of life.” That graphical picture traces the history of humanity, from mere bacterium to current homo sapiens. As the locale is being shot to bits by a massive tank, the picture carefully lingers at the evolutionary chart, showing that the bullets stop right where “man” begins.
In the end, Major Kusanagi’s evocation of another verse in Corinthians is boldly prophetic. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” -- I Corinthians 13:12
After her emergence as a new life form subsequent to her merging with the Puppet Master, the shell that her compatriot Batou finds for her on the black market is that of a young girl. Her new ghost exists in the body of a child, allowing her understanding of a wider range of consciousness and to see with a greater vision. Perhaps it’s significant, then, that the upcoming sequel to Ghost in the Shell is titled “Innocence.”
Much has been made of the amazing artistic vision present in Ghost in the Shell, and there can be no doubt that the animation is truly stunning. The characters are fluid and even realistic, particularly considering that they are supposed to be partially mechanical. Most notable in its beauty, though, is Oshii’s depiction of the city. It is here where he really excels, with not even the tiniest detail escaping his attention. Particularly breathtaking is a quick cut to a group of schoolchildren running across the screen, their yellow umbrellas adding a splash of brightness to a movie that would generally considered to be of noir derivation.
As a fun aside, pay close attention and you’ll also see a beagle that appears a couple of times in the film. Director Oshii is known for always slipping his pet beagle into the scenery at some point in his films, much like a Hitchcock cameo. It’s a rather engaging little personal touch.
The musical score that accompanies the film is remarkable and is perfectly suited to the mood and action. Composer Kenji Kawai’s work is well-deserving of mention, and it’s unfortunate that he hasn’t done much that would be recognized by the majority of audience members outside Japan (he’s been responsible for the music in anime series such as Ranma ½ and Patlabor, but of recent note, he did the score for the rather infamous horror films Ringu and Ringu 2).
The fact that The Matrix bears so many visual similarities to Ghost in the Shell may or may not be coincidence, but I submit that at the very least, the Wachowski brothers fully intended a few homages, particularly in light of the fact that the two movies explore comparable thematic ground. Of particular note are the opening scenes with the computer screens full of rapidly moving green numbers, not to mention that Major Kusanagi links her “ghost” to the ‘Net via a neck connector. Also, one Matrix scene in particular is almost a direct lift from Ghost in the Shell - it involves a market chase and an exploding watermelon.
What’s certain is that both movies provide a heady trip, deriving of such clear intelligence that at the very least, their cerebral natures render them a genuine pleasure to watch. The real joy comes in the repeat viewings that follow, with new concepts and notions emerging to the forefront with each subsequent examination, and additional tiny details that personalize the overall experience even more.