Ghost in the Shell
Animated Movie Review by Diana DeRiggs
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Screenplay: Kazunori Itoh
Animation/Production: Production I.G.
Music: Kenji Kawai
Publisher/Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Rating: Super Star Destroyer
There is a very good reason that many animé and Japanimation movies and features look ... well, "sexy" is not the right word. "Pornographic" or "erotic" are more the right words. It's because most of the people who create both genres are, in fact, the same people. So things which you'd think should be for children show girls in sexy dresses, acting in a pouty, suggestive manner ... in a way, they can't help it. Those bodaciously detailed bods are simply part of the animators' drawing style and how they make a living.
So what if you take that style and set it in a futuristic setting ... where the body is no longer a unique thing because it can be built to specifications or bought from a "line." If you have enough money, you can look like a porn star. Or a dog. Or a guy. What if you can occupy these bodies at will because not only is your body cybernetic, but so is your brain? What, then, makes a human different from other humans? Is one human different from any other, in fact? ... When you mix all these components into a brew called Ghost in the Shell, what you get is a sort of Eros-Goth-Cyberpunk-styled story which turns out to be not about sex at all.
The world in this story allows a person to be more than they thought they could be. What defines a living entity is not about the body, which is the part which everyone can easily see and by which humans tend to judge one another. A perfect body becomes a common blank canvas: imperfections which are reviled in our current world suddenly become precious. A politician might prefer to look old, wrinkled, warty so that he looks more like a politician ... a middle-aged man might revel in his hair loss and fat belly because it makes him different ... a woman might no longer care about having perfectly tweezed eyebrows because only androids have perfect features, and why would you want to be mistaken for an android? And when even your organic brain is replaced often by choice by an electronic device so you can think faster, harder and better ... what is the only thing left about you that is human, other than your imperfections?
Scientist and author Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme," which is the information unit analog to a gene in biology. It is a piece of information which can be replicated and becomes integral to the entity which uses it or possesses it. Just like a gene will determine your eye color, a meme will define output and replication of information. In simple terms, "meme transfer" is about copying the information then conveying it to others via voice, books, visuals, etc. It's how culture grows and evolves and how ideas can be conveyed. And like genes, memes can mutate following random processes, producing variations and new concepts in a potentially endless array.
But memes do not really have infinite potential. Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that a man's existence can only be defined through his thought, and that a man can only be reformed by showing him a new thought which then commands the man's existing and future thoughts. This is the essence of the mutated meme how the mutation occurs depends on the individual human and thus has limitations some predictable, some totally random-seeming.
Do memes come about as the result of processes analogous to how biological life is thought to start? If so, where is the primordial sea where memes the evolutionary germ of thought are created and propagated?
Ghost in the Shell investigates this concept in a very human story, set in a mechanical computer age in the not-too-distant future. There is differentiation between cyborgs, androids, robots ... but there is no doubt as to what makes a being "human," even when the being is entirely cybernetic. But if you no longer remember that you were born a human being ... are you human? Can you trust the documentation? Are you instead an android which has achieved awareness and thus sentience? How is that different from being human and becoming a cyborg?
In the society of this movie, what defines actual human sentience is the presence of a "ghost" which can be defined loosely as a "soul," or "human essence." The characters say, "Check for the presence of a ghost," when trying to figure out if an android is an android ... or is it a fully cybernetic human? Or, "My ghost tells me," when asked for the reasoning behind some apparently illogical proposed course of action. But unlike a flesh-and-blood completely human spirit, a ghost can be invaded ("ghost hacking"), duplicated, controlled, and transferred from cyberbrain to cyberbrain, or even be imprisoned in a conventional computer. The brain achieves high levels of efficiency, creativity, technical understanding, etc., but like any other electronic device, it can be carried around, swapped, stolen, hacked and destroyed without any blood being spilled. Murder thus becomes a "concept."
Defining a "ghost" is nearly impossible, and thus it becomes completely possible to "make" a ghost. Can it be done like other things are manufactured? Or is more like making life it can be made, but the how is poorly defined. Can a ghost evolve from scraps of non-living information, just as life can be generated from non-living chemicals and environmental factors? Obviously, as Yoda says, "this crude flesh" is not the essence of what is human; it's the ghost.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is a full cyborg body and mind containing a "ghost." As ideal as this situation may seem to be, it's actually still rare in the world of 2028. Her colleagues have far fewer cybernetic parts than she, but many do have cybernetic brains. The ones who have kept their organic brains have neural implants which allow them to hook up to other brains, computers, the Internet. Despite the obvious benefits to a cybernetic bosy, there is some tension between those who choose to keep their flesh, and those who give theirs up.
"The Major" weighs 600 pounds and requires special buoyancy devices to be able to swim. Her perceptions and senses are all cybernetically enhanced. Her skin is a brand of camouflage armor which can make her appear invisible by reflecting that which is surrounding her (though she has to be naked to be invisible ...). She communicates with others without actually giving voice to her thoughts; instead she thinks them and talks through a sort of wireless, internal walkie-talkie. She is a hand-to-hand combat specialist, an investigator, a first-class authorized master computer hacker, a crack shot, and a totally hot babe. All those components both babe and non-babe have to be constantly maintained and are paid for by "Section 9," the secret para-military branch which gets the worst, most delicate, and most intelligence-sensitive cases. They get the assignments when others fail, or in an crisis situation, or when dirty work needs to be done to avoid an international "incident," ensuring that the Major's life is full of action.
The other characters do not treat the often naked Major as a cyber pornbabe they respect her and treat her as a full human. It's another aspect to emphasize how little porn and the body actually mean, in the visual sense. Think about it.
Major Kusanagi's starts to doubt the existence of her ghost. Like someone in a brooding midlife crisis, she wonders why she is here, what she is doing, is this her function in life? This can be devastating even to those who are absolutely certain about their humanity; when you are a thinking, responsive, commanding combat cyborg, it proves to be potentially dangerous. In one scene in an elevator, she wonders aloud to Batou her lieutenant and possibly her closest friend if the original "her" ever existed? What if she evolved a ghost, and was actually never a human? And since a ghost cannot be defined, how does she know she really has one? She points out that no one has ever even seen their own brain ... Batou is disgusted that she should even wonder such things. He has no doubts regarding his humanity, or hers, either.
Though there is a lot of fighting and shooting action, the missions Kusanagi and her Section 9 team draw are largely Internet-based hacking crimes, where the spread of viruses can do more than simply annoy computer user populations. It's not just computers catching the viruses; these criminals can erase your brain, possess you, convince you that you lead a particular life when it's all an illusion. One garbageman is upset because his wife had just left him, taking their daughter with her. But the photo he clutches in his hand depicting the family in happier days shows only him, and the apartment he insists he moved into last month when his marriage fell apart has been occupied by him alone for over a decade ... Murdering thugs are captured, and when asked what their mothers' faces look like, they discover they are unable to remember or resolve the question, forcing them into a temporary catatonia ... A foreign refugee demanding political asylum is nabbed by one government agency, then another for some unknown reasons ... These criminals use the 'net to access databases, spread information, topple governments. Is it just a bunch of netnerds having immature fun? Is it a criminal conspiracy? A secret government edict?
Kusanagi has serious doubts that these apparently unrelated crimes violent or otherwise are normal in any way. Something starts telling her to search for the common source, but not as an investigator. Is it her ghost? Or something from outside of her? Her journey of discovery entails risky recreational (as in not work-related) dives both in water where if her buoyancy apparatus fails, she will die; and by hacking into cyberbrains and diving into the 'net itself. Diving into a brain runs the risk of you never coming out ... or coming out so changed that you are damaged.
Her personal story's climax is visceral and physical, but entirely philosophical and survival-driven and tragic in its way, too. And it's also dangerously invasive and frightening. What she finds is the very core of a meme, wrapped in a very personal revelation. As she prepares to make that dive, can she trust her ghost, the very essence of her human-ness?
Pretty deep for an animated movie, eh? The illustrated settings are dark and cold in color. It rains a lot in this old city, there's a lot of garbage, and the buildings show decay and a lot of dilapidation. The streets are crowded or deserted, and the population of this undefined country are the working poor, the industrial rich, the homeless. Even the Major's eyes are often drawn as gray or often colorless, to reflect the dark, brooding mood of the environment as well as the distress in her mind. She's dressed in skin-tight jumpsuits or even less, but it seems cold and sinister, not warm and inviting.
The trappings seem very Big Brother-ish, but the essence of the story is the Major's identity crisis. Those who love fighting action sequences and shoot 'em ups will not be disappointed. And as stated, the Major is a totally hot looking babe the body she uses is the one she prefers to retain, rather than getting a new body every time she goes in for an overhaul. Yet the body is not unique. In one scene, the Major walks through the crowded city and sees her doppelganger sitting in a coffeeshop, emphasizing that the body is not a unique aspect of YOU. (Unlike androids and robots, the Major has no weapons hidden or implanted in her. There is a line defining what is acceptable to be human enhancements, ideal reconfigurations, yes ... adding new stuff not within human physical parameters, no.)
The creator / author Masamune Shirow is a well-known erotica / pornographic / hentai illustrator, and he uses his experience and talent not to convey sex, but to convey atmosphere and emotion. The director, Mamoru Oshii, owns this story as much if not more than Shirow; the movie is billed with Oshii's name on the poster rather than Shirow's. In fact, the illustrations, styles, backdrops, staging of the shots are so distinctive that viewers of The Matrix movies knew immediately that Larry and Andy Wachoski had stolen verbatim from Ghost in the Shell; as a result, Oshii refuses to speak to them, to this day.
Oshii compressed and changed the story from the source manga, giving it more darkness and focus than the manga. The Major looks to be older than in the original manga, where the characters are depicted in a more giddy manner and in less dark stories (though they are still profoundly philosophical). In exchange, he gives a richness that was lacking in the manga. Details are well thought out, new machines and situations are understandable and intuitively acceptable to the audience. Other than the hotness of the Major's body, there is nothing erotic about the movie, but it is very, very cool.
The movie storyline is very well written. The story unfolds in a complex arc, intertwined with other bits of data, deepening the mystery, building the tension to the startling conclusion. It leaves you with interesting thoughts and wanting much, much more.
The movie is beautifully drawn and drafted. It borrows from art history to convey such things as bleakness, or rain, or the night. The illustration style reflects the cold, emotional and tragic content of the tale being told and yet is rich in detail and is almost like sensory overload if you "dive" deep enough into a scene. The backdrops are treated in hyper-surreal / impressionistic, oil-painting / pen-and-ink styles, while the characters are rendered in a more abstract drawing style which happen to be lit and shaded beautifully for a seamless effect. The combination really works well and things glow and throb.
The use of color and line is excellent guns are guns, humans are humans (even if they are cybernetic), walls are walls, the 'net is depicted as you'd expect the 'net to look if you were tumbling through it. The staging and shots are designed for impact and to tell the tale there is no waste or frivolity in what is shown or not shown. Even that long sequence in the middle showing the rain falling in the garish nightscape of the city is essential, as well as the evidence of Oshii's artistic genius. This is a high-quality, expensive undertaking; nothing is obviously computer-animated. In most films, the presence of a computer-generated image or movement is a distracting weakness (like the ballroom dance scene in Beauty and the Beast). This movie is instead noted for it's skillful computer rendering and integration with conventional cel animation. It's truly a gorgeous thing to behold for fans of animated production processes.
The Japanese actors are superb. The voice acting matches what you'd expect to hear from these characters, meaning the quality of the voices tell you a lot about the character, even if they don't say much. They do much more than simply talking. Pauses, inflection, volume are all used with a deep understanding of the characters and situations. This is really acting through the voice the inverted essence of silent movies.
Unfortunately, the English-language voice acting is mediocre at best, or rotten at it's worst. In the case of Major Kusanagi the starring role the part was played by Mimi Woods, and she TOTALLY sucks. She depicts the Major as a "whiney brat" in the Fran Drescher sense, but entirely lacking in humor or emotion. Woods's Major comes off as not troubled, responsible, a leader of a crack investigation, infiltration, information team; she comes off as a terminally pre-menstrual pain. The other voices are less sucky; in fact, I might have thought they were better if they were not working in context with this Mimi Woods.
A note about voice acting in animé in animated features, the actor will usually voice the part, then the animator will match the movement and length of the speech to the actor. This can be done crudely like in some cheaply made children's shows, or with great attention to detail like in Shrek. But if you are performing to the translation, the actors must match the animation, not the other way around. They have to stop talking when the animation stops talking, not when they finish the line, so lines are often rewritten and adapted on the fly. This is called "matching lipflap" and there are very few actors who can do this work, thus you tend to see the same names popping up from feature to feature. This is also why many foreign film versions have similar voices ... foreigners translating American films have to dub and match lipflap, too. But I still don't understand why hire a voice like Mimi Wood's for a role which her voice absolutely does not match.
The music was atmospheric, dramatic, and very "Asian" in feel -- not Japanese, not Chinese, not Korean, etc. It was like a composite of what one might have experienced in music appreciation class, so it's not so far out that it's exotic and distracting. Come to think of it, "Hong Kong" is how I might describe the locale for the place where Ghost in the Shell is taking place, and the music reflects that sort of "Asian locus" concept. It even has some sung elements that reminded us of "Duel of the Fates," too. (This predates Episode I, however.)
So, the rating for the original Japanese with subtitles is Death Star ... the dubbed version in English deserves no more than an Interdictor for the stinky voice acting and casting. Thus the compromised rating of "Super Star Destroyer." Get the Japanese language version and deal with the subtitles you'll want to watch this movie more than once anyway. The translation in the subtitles is often better than the dub, too, since subtitles are not restricted by lipflap. And again, you are free from the icky voice acting in English!
Screenshots from www.production-ig.com and www.production-ig.co.jp
Posters and cover art from www.amazon.com
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