“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.” – Motoko Kusanagi
On November 18th, 1995, the world of both film and animation was changed forever. It’s not really known what the staff of Production I.G. were expecting with the reception of their latest animated film, nor how director Mamoru Oshii was expecting from his latest project. All anyone knows is that after its release in Japan and internationally through Manga Entertainment in the summer of 1996, everyone in the circles of film and Japanese animation would come to know and respect this futuristic cyberpunk feature as Ghost in the Shell. And on the eve of its 20th anniversary, it is still remembered to this day.
Ghost in the Shell ranked #1 on the Billboard’s top releases in the summer of 1996, and remains high on both film and animated films lists to this day. Ghost in the Shell was also responsible for the next wave of anime fandom in the mid 1990’s, which thanks to proper distribution of anime titles in video rental stores as well as stores that sold anime tapes, the film was able to captivate audiences that decided to check it out. Both becoming popular in the United Kingdom and the United States during the boom of the techno and electronic music scene, Ghost in the Shell found home on the tops of television sets across both continents, including the land where it came from.
Ghost in the Shell is also the film that was an inspiration to the Wachowski brothers film series The Matrix (along with some aspects of Megazone 23 from what I can gather), and came out during the 90’s fascination with cyberpunk dystopian futures. Films like Johnny Mnemonic, Lawnmower Man, and Strange Days are just a few films that touched on or immersed themselves into the cyberpunk world. Ghost in the Shell wasn’t an original film idea, but the film was an adaptation from Masamune Shirow manga, which Shirow gave director Mamoru Oshii full creative control over his property being adapted to the big screen. The film had such a major impact, that you can say when people talk about Ghost in the Shell, they mostly discuss everything but the manga series it’s derived from.
I first saw Ghost in the Shell sometime back in my high school days, which most of my weekends were filled with renting anime DVD’s and VHS tapes from the local Blockbuster Video. I would have it planned out to watch my movies late Friday nights before I would go to bed, and be enticed by what the animated world had to show me through the rented DVD inside my Playstation 2. I remember Ghost in the Shell not having a huge impact on me, and most of the films underlying meanings went over my 16 year old head, but I seem to understand that according to the internet at the time, the film had a lot of depth than what I took from my first showing. Sometime later, I decided to own Ghost in the Shell on DVD and the 2.0 Blu-ray in my collection, because that seemed to be what an “essential” anime fans collection should have. It wasn’t until I saw the movie again last spring for my Contemporary Art class assignment that I absorbed more from the film. This also helped that reading Brian Ruh book about Mamoru Oshii pieced the connections together, and even came up with some of my own.
The simple plot of Ghost in the Shell is this; a tough cybernetic woman must stop someone who exist on the internet because they’re causing havoc among government agencies in New Port City and must be stopped. Again, that’s the simple plot of the film, which isn’t all that simple. To go much deeper, this is a film that explores the psychological, societal and humanistic understanding of what makes people human, and if someone is artificially human, do they really count as a person?
The main star of Ghost in the Shell is our “tough cybernetic woman” by the identity of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a person who’s identity, or “ghost,” exist in a human body, or “shell.” Of course there is a price for existing in her shell, because her shell is not owned by her, but by the agency she is employed too, named Section 9. Kusanagi also isn’t alone in her predicament, because her partner Batou is one in the same, and they both have bodies made up of mostly if not fully of cybernetic limbs. Both Kusunagi and Batou work for Section 9, which deal in cybernetic criminal activities, which range from terrorist plots to political issues. A man named Aramaki is the head of the organization, and it’s his job to keep Section 9 functioning, and to keep his people alive at all cost.
The films antagonist is someone who exist on the internet by the name “The Puppet Master.” The Puppet Master is a being that has no shell, but is able to control or alter other people through the net by hijacking chosen people physical identities, and even to go as far as to use the shell of a female body to host his ghost in for a period of time. The Puppet Master solid identity illustrates to the viewer that they outward physical appearance of people isn’t what truly identifies a person, but it is what makes up their personality, history, ideas, and character. Between The Puppet Master and Kusanagi, this was all under the control of what Mamoru Oshii wanted to share with his audience.
Oshii is a complex person, since he has many ideas and philosophies about life and the world around him that he wants the public to understand in the films he directs. Oshii began to stretch out his creative muscles in the second Urusei Yatsura film Beautiful Dreamer, which underlined the theme of reality and dreams, and what exists as real or not to the human perception. His later works like Angel’s Egg covered his thoughts on his understanding and philosophy of the Bible, and he also brings in elements of biblical scripture into the Mobile Police Patlabor films by further underlying thematic elements of the antagonist motives. There are certain things that Oshii puts in his films that he later can’t even remember why he did it in the first place, but wants to leave it up to the viewer to interpret what he is trying to say in their own way. Ghost in the Shell this time explores elements of how do you truly define someone as human, and how can someone determine those elements.
To attempt to make this write up spoiler free for those who have not seen the film, I will mention just a handful of Oshii thematic elements that are present in his film. One of which is how the use of the Bassett Hound is used in the film, which seem to be a transition to a characters loneliness and isolation in life for being partly human and the effects of what it can bring. Another is the conversation between Batou and Kusunagi on a boat, discussing what it means to be truly human, all the while Kusunagi contemplating her leaving Section 9. In the final battle at the end of the film, I advise to pay attention to one scene involving the Tree of Life as a hail of bullets desecrate it except for the very top. This isn’t to spot things visually to get an blatant easter egg, but to see a message of what isn’t being shown to you that you must figure out.
In the question of being human, Oshii also brings in the theme of human augmentation, because in a sense, cybernetics is just that. Oshii brings into question to the audience if a person has cybernetics, does it make them more or less human than before? When it comes to human argumentation outside of the film, the artist known as Stelarc has spent his time from the 90’s too today making human augmentation as an art form, which can make people think of what is considered being truly human to begin with. In the timeline of this film, mankind is so used to being augmented as a form of adapting and surviving that the moral issue of being augmented isn’t even something to debate or discuss. So in Oshii case of a future where this very thing is going to happen, it again brings up the question of what does it mean to be human? Of course, it will help you to check out Ruh book all about Oshii films, since it helped me see the things or at least grasp and understanding of what you can’t see through a first showing.
Ghost in the Shell has since spun off to make a sequel film, video games, OVA’s, television series, a movie based off the television series, other manga, and a new film to celebrate its release 20 years ago. Each of its spin-offs are their own unique take on the world of Ghost in the Shell. The Stand Alone Complex TV series seems to be the most popular with modern anime fans, as it was shown on the Adult Swim late night schedule for a few years. So far the latest rumors of “potential-anime-to-live-action-adaptations” is an upcoming Ghost in the Shell film with Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusunagi. But hey, until there is a leaked script and a director tied to it, don’t bother in attempting to have your hopes high on this one. As long as there is the existence of a need to watch more Ghost in the Shell, and that the original creators are still alive, there will be more Ghost in the Shell to come.
When I see a new show or movie that comes out that fans make a gigantic fuss over to instantly title it “The Greatest Anime EVER!,” I for one have to sit back and see how long it can hold the attention of not only anime fans, but the general audience that can watch it and say something positive about the film. Let’s be honest here; not a lot of anime can hold up well or be that well remembered 20 years down the road of time. It says volumes that a good portion of people who like or enjoy Japanese animation can say that titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell still hold up decades later. So, if you by chance have found this article on the vast Google search engine and you like what I wrote about this Oshii film, check it out for either the first time or with new eyes 20 years later. If anime desire is to remain how it is today, then that is what will limit anime…