Fresh Eyes: Ghost in the Shell (1995)
In this edition of Fresh Eyes, Managing Editor Matt Curione makes a guest appearance in order to look at the landmark 1995 anime film, Ghost in the Shell.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, released in 1995, has long been a cornerstone of modern anime. Having grown up not being the biggest fan of the medium just for the fact that the sheer amount can seem daunting, Ghost in the Shell has long been a cinematic blind spot for me. I had always heard how groundbreaking it was in regards to its themes and animation style, and with the new controversy laden, Scarlett Johansson starring live-action version premiering this weekend, I figured it was time to finally take the plunge.
Going in I knew very little about this picture other than the reputation it has garnered over the decades. Essentially a philosophical tone poem concerning what makes a human "human" and the intricacies that lie therein, Ghost in the Shell is rightfully hailed as an important entry for the sci-fi genre. The question however, is if it's a good movie on top of all that. Perhaps it was the close to two decades of this film being hyped up for me, or more likely a second viewing is necessary, but Ghost in the Shell left me as cold and confused as a cyborg on an operating table.
From the opening sequence, the audience is thrown right into the action as Major, a cyborg government agent is conducting a black op. Her mission, which she achieves in gruesome fashion, is to eliminate a foreign diplomat. The gore on display during the action sequences are straight out of a horror film, as people are ripped to shreds by blazes of gunfire. Major, although a cyborg, takes her job very seriously, and along with her team, are tasked with taking down the elusive Puppet Master. This Puppet Master is a brilliant hacker that's been decimating government programs and is about to gain access to the upper echelons of the mainframe. Clearly, this cannot stand.
What follows are a series of monologues performed by both Major and her partner Batou, a hulking, cybernetically enhanced bruiser. They spend minutes at a time questioning existence, the meaning of life, and the place of humanity in a cybernetic world. These overall thought-provoking scenes, while interesting, are a real drag on the pacing of the film. Perhaps if they were staged in a different way, and not almost static characters reciting what seem to be a philosophy professor's syllabus, I would've been more receptive to what was being said. In their current state, the words just tended to gloss over me as wordy psycho-babble. I'm sure these monologues worked better in the original manga, which I fully intend on reading in the coming weeks.
Luckily the action is able to lift Ghost in the Shell into the stratosphere when it occurs. From the aforementioned assassination of a diplomat to a thrilling chase through a dingy sewer system, Oshii, above all else, proves himself and a vivid stylist of action cinema. Gunfights that are inventive enough to be memorable standouts will satisfy those who, like myself, were raised on Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 film, Akira. I'll admit that I more than likely watched Ghost in the Shell with blinders on, as every anime I've seen over the years inevitibly gets compared to Otomo's masterpiece. Both based on manga and featured condensed versions of their original stories, Akira just has a better flow than Ghost in the Shell. In Otomo's film, something is always happening, whereas in Ghost, the film tends to grind to a halt for minutes at a time, which caused me to lose interest.
My current misgivings aside, I fully intend to revisit Ghost in the Shell as soon as possible. Amazing at times but with a strange ability to be incredibly dull, it's an interesting, well made picture above all else. I would never tell someone to not watch a film, but I would hope that they knew what they're getting into, and I hope that those seeing this 1995 original for the first time go in with measured expectations.