Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, a sci-fi manga originally published back in 1989, was the inspiration behind the 1995 anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii. He and his Patlabor alumni take the Gibson-esque cyberpunk aspects of the setting they enjoyed most, ditching the humor and much of the character of the graphic novel. Interestingly, Shirow’s first experimentation with digital media was mirrored by that of the film’s production, which utilized what were at that time revolutionary digital visual effects. The result is a stark, more realistic vision of the future than that presented by Shirow, but one still over-run by problems emerging from society’s new interconnectedness with technology.
What could be called the internet 3.0 is ubiquitous. The main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi of Public Security Section 9, is a cyborg who’s body is on loan from the government. She connects to the network through wires in her spinal cord, accessing information directly with her consciousness – her ghost. Like a computer program, ghosts can be hacked turning otherwise normal or modified humans into walking puppets. Simulated experiences - implanted false memories for example – are used as a template to control whole patterns of behavior so a hacker need not take direct control. The story centers around the exploits of an enigmatic hacker pulling strings on a multinational scale known only as the Puppet Master who may or may not be human.
The film made an impact when it was released, not unlike that of Akira when it hit the international film circuit. It’s a difficult science fiction film of the sort Hollywood cannot make: dense without explanation; and much too hard to follow for the average movie-goer. For those well-versed in cyberpunk lore there isn’t anything too new or groundbreaking. It’s the excellent art direction based on the gritty, overcrowded streets of Hong Kong and Kenji Kawai’s haunting musical score that lifted this above the typical cyberpunk fare, putting to shame its contemporaries like Johnny Mnemonic. It so redefined the cyberpunk aesthetic that many consider it the primary source of inspiration for the Wachowski Brother’s sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix (an assertion with which I’m inclined to agree).
There can be no question that Ghost in the Shell is an important film, a kind of spiritual successor to Blade Runner, which thankfully stands apart from Shirow’s graphic novel. The two are quite different, and can be enjoyed for their own quirks and qualities. Unfortunately, there is a GITS 2.0 (renewal) version of the film made to take advantage of advances in CGI. Scenes from the original have been altered or outright replaced with computer graphics. As a fan of the original film, I see this renewal as completely unnecessary – but if you’re interested you can see comparison screen captures here.
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