Review: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Director: Mamoru Oshii
Screenplay: Kazunori Itō
Producers: Yoshimaza Mizuo, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
Starring: Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar
Distributor: Shochiku Co. Ltd., Manga Entertainment/Starz Media

In today’s day and age, within the American anime subculture, there are few titles that exist as, and are regarded as, evergreen staples that all fans can agree upon and consider timeless classics. But back in 1995, things were a little bit different. In 1995, the state of American anime subculture existed and thrived solely on bottom-barrel OVAs and fan-sub tape trading, save for a few big-name releases from either Pioneer, ADV Films, Central Park Media, or even Manga Entertainment, the kings of schlocky OVA releases. It was all about boobs and blood, and if you could combine the two, then you’d hit pay dirt from starved anime fans across the country just looking to get their fix at the accessible price of only $25 per VHS tape – or $30, if it’s subtitled. And sure enough, Manga Entertainment made a LOT of money by selling supreme schlock such as Angel Cop and Mad Bull 34, so what do you do with all of that excess revenue? You team up with some bigwigs in Japan to make a movie based on one of Shirow Masamune’s manga series a reality, and with it, the start of the mid-90s anime renaissance in America began. This film was the turning point for the anime industry in the US, and it just so happened to be one of the most influential and downright important films, anime or otherwise, ever made: Ghost in the Shell. And seeing how this series has been put into the public eye, once again, I’m going to dedicate the month of March to talking about all four of its films, leading to… the live-action film. But, for now, let’s go back to 1995 and see where it all began… again.

The year is 2029. The world has seen a vast rise in technological advancements, with many citizens becoming cyberized with their consciousnesses, or “ghosts,” being put into robotic bodies, or “shells.” One such case is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Mimi Woods), the de-facto leader of a counter-terrorist action group known as Public Security Section 9, who, along with her colleagues Batou (Richard Epcar), Togusa (Christopher Joyce), and their boss, Chief Aramaki (William Frederick Knight), have been tasked with investigating a hacker known as the Puppetmaster (Tom Wyner). As the story unfolds, though, the case grows more and more complex, with many questions being raised over the concepts of existentialism, humanism, and reality itself, both on a broad spectrum and within the Major herself. That, in and of itself, is the basis of the film’s plot, and for me to go further along would mean venturing into spoiler territory, so I’ll cap off the plot synopsis there and go along with some more points about the film.

Based on Masamune’s manga of the same name, the film took a much more serious approach than the manga, which, admittedly, had a lot of unnecessary comedic and sexual relief. Now, I’m sure we’ve all fantasized about the Major having a lesbian threesome out in public daylight, but seeing it in the manga? That’s a point where you’ve been given too much. The approach that was taken by director Oshii and writer Itō for this film is centered more around themes of existentialism and identity, most notably centered around the main character of the film, Major Motoko Kusanagi. These are points that have been made before me, primarily by one Bennett  White in his Anime Abandon review series, but they are still well worth mentioning: the film has several small shots where Motoko is nude, but they’re not presented as sexualized scenes, instead showing how her body, or shell, is crafted, at the start of the film, and formed with her mental presence and mind, or ghost, put into said body, as well as said body being torn apart, toward the end of the film, showing an example of the duality of humanity: creation and destruction.

She is, from top to bottom, a cyborg with no traits of human elements to be found, so why does she have a female body, when her fellow officers are all male, be it human or cyborg? If the body Motoko is housing is unable to reproduce, then why have it be a female body, to begin with? Is it a point for everyone else in the story, and we in the audience, to identify Motoko as female? Or is it a point for Motoko to have her own presence of self-identity? These kinds of introspective questions are what add a larger layer of depth to the film’s story, and to its benefit rather than to its detriment. These are the kinds of plot elements that were put in by the overseer of the film, Mamoru Oshii, who has become known for focusing more on existentialist themes and imagery rather than character and story. But if I’m being honest, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, in this case; the film does a very solid job of trying to balance the existentialist and humanist themes with the overarching story, even if the former outweighs the latter in certain scenes. I will be honest and say that these elements do border on the side of pretentiousness, but that’s more of an argument that would be better categorized as “your mileage may vary.”

But to put it in shorter terms, it all boils down to a simple question: which is more defining, their ghost or their shell?

The animation on display is quite strong, but also rather dated. This was during the early days of Production I.G., as well as their early days of utilizing computer-generated animation, so don’t expect it to be on-par with higher-budget animated films. Per the official production report of the film, Production I.G. utilized a process called “digitally generated animation,” or DGA, which combined cel animation, CG animation, and digital audio data; one notable scene of said process is early on in the film, where the Major is disappearing with thermo-optical camouflage into the background of the cityscape. The style of animation on display really does add to the overall presentation of the film, complete with its darker color scheme and character designs, which were purposely made more “mature” – especially with the Major – than those of the original manga. And trust me, that was a big positive in the film’s favor. Of course, given the time when this film was produced, a bit of ultra-violent gore is sprinkled in, here and there, with some scenes of our gun-toting civil servants protecting and serving; it’s not for the more squeamish of audiences, but it doesn’t permeate too long to the point of self-awareness.

As for the music, the score by Kenji Kawai is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic anime film scores, with the most notable track being the opening theme of the film, “Making of a Cyborg,” with its Japanese chorus and traditional percussion. Interestingly enough, though, the ending theme for the English release of the film, “Passengers,” was written by music artists Brian Eno and Bono, from the band U2. I’ll keep it short and say that this happened because of some business connections on the end of Manga Entertainment. The main soundtrack, though, is phenomenal, and for those who have access, the entire OST is available on Apple Music for your ears to enjoy.

Sure enough, since this was put out in the mid-90s by Manga Entertainment, there’s some superfluous language to be found in some scenes that, honestly, feels a bit out of place when compared to everything else. But I suppose they were well in their right to do so, considering they fronted quite a bit of cash for the production and rollout of this film, which does mean Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese-American-British co-production, and the biggest and most successful co-production, by far. (Remember, Manga Entertainment was founded in the UK.) And seeing how this is, arguably, the biggest title Manga Entertainment has ever released, this film has been the subject of many home video releases: the original VHS was released in 1996, with its contemporary DVD being released in 1998, followed by a 2-DVD special edition release in 2004. And of course, it’s been released on Blu-ray twice, the first in 2009 being the “Ghost in the Shell 2.0” Lucas-job that Oshii oversaw, and the second being the most recent 2014 Blu-ray, which has improved video (despite the present window-boxing) and audio, but is very bare-bones with extra content, meaning there’s none to be found. The good thing about it, though, is that the recent Blu-ray release is really affordable.

With the power of 22 years’ worth of hindsight, it’s easy to see that some of the visual aspects of this film haven’t aged too spectacularly. But the story aspect remains as strong as it was back in 1995; there’s always something new to discover, after each subsequent viewing, whether it’s finding a subtle detail during the chase in the streets of pseudo-Hong Kong, or hearing more of the sarcastic banter that Batou and the Major share with one another, or finding another piece of the existentialist puzzle that Oshii put into the movie. It’s still a must-see film, whether you’re an anime fan or a cinephile, or somewhere in between, and it’s one that has earned its accolades and praise, most notably from acclaimed filmmakers James Cameron and the Wachowski siblings. If you haven’t yet, check it out and see for yourself, you won’t be disappointed. Although it might take 2 viewings to really internalize everything.

Verdict: Buy it. Ghost in the Shell is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital HD from Manga Entertainment/Anchor Bay Entertainment.

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