A cyborg policewoman and her partner hunt a mysterious and powerful hacker called the Puppet Master.
I remember watching “Ghost in the Shell” for the first time when I was a 12-year-old kid, and though the convoluted plot lost me about 10 minutes in, its cyberpunk, neo-noir, psychedelic visuals have haunted me since. Now, 22 years after the original’s release, Scarlett Johansson is about to don the cybernetic suit in Rupert Sanders’ live-action Hollywood remake. An acquaintance of mine in the animation world worked on the 2002 TV spin-off, “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”; she recently expressed much excitement about the new film from the director of “Snow White and the Huntsman.” While I totally get her involvement in the project, I can’t say I share her enthusiasm. Hence my joy at the opportunity to re-watch the original feature, in its full remastered glory, packaged in a beautiful Mondo Steelbook® case.
A line out of something I saw the other week stuck with me: “How does one define sanity in an unstable society?” Released at the peak of the mid-1990s cyberpunk craze, “Ghost in the Shell,” based on the popular manga series by Shirow Masamune, poses similar questions, with a “Matrix”-like twist: “What defines a human in a society that has the ability to replicate us? Is it our soul? At what point, exactly, does a machine become sentient?” Those themes crystallized in front of me two decades later, unnoticed by my distracted, adolescent mind (which was more focused on the exposed flesh in the film). The plot is still murky, yet the visuals hold up, and most importantly, the themes that starkly shine through the murk – those of human nature, artificial intelligence, existentialism, immigration/deportation, hacking, invasion of personal freedom and disregard for basic human rights – are still relevant – particularly so! – in 2017. Watch Mr. Sanders gloss over them with a thick coat of bombastic thrills (okay, perhaps I am pre-judging a bit harshly here – let’s give ScarJo a chance.)
The film starts with the iconic shot of the gorgeous cyborg, Motoko a.k.a. The Major, undressing herself and leaping backward off a skyscraper, all stealth-like in her “optical camouflage,” to assassinate a crooked diplomat. A visceral-but-brief bloodbath ensues – followed by a Matrix-like credit sequence (there is a reason why I keep bringing up the Wachowskis’ flick, it’s so freakin’ heavily indebted to “Ghost”). We see the cyborg dismantled and reassembled, the eerie visuals complemented by Kenji Kawai’s genuinely unnerving score that combines tribal, choir, trip-hop and even gothic elements to great effect.
Daisuke Aramaki, the Chief of Public Security, assigns his cyborg agents to “ghost-hack government officials.” Our hero Motoko’s new task is to hunt down a crooked politician. While the suspicion falls on Mares, a prominent public figure, Motoko – or her “ghost” (her consciousness) – believes the chain of corruption ultimately leads to a mysterious entity, referred to as the Puppet Master. “Wanted internationally for stock price manipulation, information gathering, political maneuvering, terrorism, cyber brain ethics violation, and several other crimes,” the Puppet Master seems to be pulling the government’s strings – until it becomes Motoko’s mission to cut them. With me so far?
An investigation begins, led by the “command center,” communicating with Motoko through an apparatus, which in itself resembles a pair of strings, plugged into the back of her neck. This allows her to do nifty things, like access “a wide range of information and a network,” track down a moving target – basically making her the ultimate GPS. She and her infatuated partner Batou encounter suicidal cyborgs and question their own past and mortality – until the Puppet Master slips right through their fingers. Twist upon twist leads to a final showdown, Motoko subjected to the ultimate temptation, a fusion of cyborgs that would spawn a God-like entity. In other words, Motoko’s own strings prove binding, and Geppetto may have to go down.
Like I said, the plot may be needlessly complicated (the cyber-talk especially gets monotonous, and fast), but it’s the strong characterizations, themes, and imagery that power the story along. There’s a melancholy to the proceedings, an apocalyptic current running through the narrative as if it’s all futile anyway (including trying to figure out the minute plot details). The stunning animation goes a long way in conveying that sense of decay: synthetic skin flaking off; a vacuum-cleaner-like machine, pumping tech/coding directly into a young female cyborg’s brain; Motoko diving into the tangerine depths of a lake; a melancholic interlude that portrays the segregated, broken city; Motoko facing off against a giant, crab-tank… Those large, expressive eyes, so prominent in Japanese animation, accentuate each flicker of emotion, infusing the cyborgs with life. The backgrounds, fluid character motions, and intense action sequences have all aged remarkably well, proving again that hand-drawn animation is timeless.
Though I watched the subtitled version and can’t speak to the accuracy of the translation, I can certainly attest to its sporadic lyricism, wit, and insight. “Your brain has a lot of noise,” Motoko is told. “I’m on my period,” she replies nonchalantly, before unplugging the cords from the back of her neck. “Life is like a node, born out of the flow of information,” the Puppet Master Himself explains at one point. “Would you ghost-hack your wife to find out how she feels?” a character asks another. “For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face,” Motoko’s “ghost” whispers to Batou on a boat. Lines such as, “I’m not interested in other people’s photos,” are particularly resonant in a world where invasion of privacy is so commonplace.
A futuristic take on “Frankenstein” of sorts, “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t match Katsuhiro Otomo’s equally-convoluted “Akira”’s scale and epic nature. It’s not as poignant as Isao Takahata’s brilliant meditation on war, “Grave of the Fireflies.” It lacks the magic and searing emotion of Studio Ghibli’s output, or the otherworldliness – and plain trippiness! – of Satoshi Kon’s oeuvre. So yes, one could make a good argument that there are better entry points into the anime world than Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell.”
Yet none of those films are getting a live-action Hollywood remake. This “Ghost” has clearly implanted itself into our collective consciousness, not unlike the hacked minds it depicts.
“Ghost In The Shell” will be available on Blu-ray in Limited Steelbook Packaging with Exclusive Mondo Artwork March 14th