Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is a film that I still find myself getting lost within as the film absorbs myself into its own world. It’s worth noting that the film is influential upon later science fiction works such as The Wachowskis’ The Matrix and there’s a count to which it carries its own importance for how it brought recognition towards anime films in the West alongside Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. While both films are absolutely stunning in their own regards, I favour Ghost in the Shell not only on the count that it was one of the earliest memories I went beyond the films of Studio Ghibli when exploring anime but the sort of style to which it had carried was one that had always appealed to me more. Philosophical cyberpunk animation that pays its own dues towards other earlier science fiction works while remaining big on its own: you can count me in.
Our focus is on a Major going by the name of Motoko Kusanagi. The film is set in Tokyo during the year of 2029, where the whole world has been overrun by a vast network that controls every aspect of life. All we know of Major is whom she has become at the very moment when we are watching her. She is a part of this network, now living her life within a shell that grants her superhuman strength and she is assigned to capture an elusive hacker otherwise known as the Puppet Master. With the manner in which Ghost in the Shell is being told, it would be easy for one to assume that it would be nothing more than a simple animated cyberpunk film akin to Akira but there’s another level to which I find this one more exciting than the latter even if I carry a great fondness of said feature. In the guise of what could easily pass off as an animated science fiction action fare, what’s presented goes beyond such.
The film’s setting is one among many things that highlights the significance of Ghost in the Shell‘s social commentary. The environment to which it is set in is one that is infused with technology all around almost in an invasive manner. In this fast-developing world, “shells” now have the ability to possess her own consciousness and Motoko Kusanagi (if that really is her name) finds control against the way the system runs and is now searching for her own past self. Our knowledge of the Major’s life is only limited to whom she was as she lives right now as a shell. As technology’s influence has run rampant in this society, it ends up becoming whom we are and we lose our own identity. But there’s a beauty to this search that runs rampant, it would be found within how the rate of which Mamoru Oshii unfolds this story plays much like newfound memories being restored. Oshii’s film questions the extent to which we know we let technology run our lives, so much to that point that we don’t allow our lives to become our own anymore.
The philosophy of a piece like Ghost in the Shell is absolutely incredible, for amidst scenes that can look just like any ordinary animated action sequence there is still something of a much greater significance arising. In the world of Ghost in the Shell, there’s great ambiguity that surrounds who Major Motoko Kusanagi really is: because there’s no clarity ever presented but perhaps that happens to be the film’s greatest asset for the identity she carries of “Motoko Kusanagi” is a completely assumed one. If anything ever made the Major a compelling figure, it would be the fact that only she knows who she really is and her own discovery for identity brings out intrigue. The way we see Major is that she is a cyborg within a female body, but prior to this she had a life as someone else, so what exactly has led her to the way of life which she lives at the very moment? Perhaps it could have been a choice made at her own free will but inside of a world that is overrun by technological advancement, maybe there’s a regression coming out as a result of this society she lives in amidst the political turmoil of the time.
I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the animation but it’s a fairly obvious area to cover because after all, it has only aged spectacularly over all these years. Every small scene detail, whether it be from the actions of shattering glass to the colours of the backgrounds, are always presenting something to grab the viewer’s eye as it moves along – throwing back to the elaborate worlds of Blade Runner in a way. Just the matter to which it is all put together is something of a greater beauty because it can pan out in the manner to which the best neo-noir films would do so, but it’s in how they utilize their background where more arises. There’s no doubt that for some Ghost in the Shell is set to provide a disorienting experience, but I would only imagine that would be how Mamoru Oshii intended for such an environment to feel especially in a world where everything feels lost.
Maybe I don’t fully understand Ghost in the Shell just yet but I don’t know how a story like this can be told better in any other way, for it still blows my mind upon rewatches as it did for me when I first saw it. Beneath many beautifully animated action sequences and its cyberpunk atmosphere comes one of the most stunning works of self-reflection to hit the screen during its own time. It starts simply at the notion that we have a lot to learn about the world that it is set within, but the greater beauty to a film like Ghost in the Shell is the fact that we aren’t sure of what we have been seeing anymore. But it also catches me how well does Ghost in the Shell manage to fit into the political turmoil of its own era, but the beauty of how everything unfolds is something that I have mentioned prior: it all tells itself in a manner akin to faded memories as they come back to one’s mind. It flies by at a rather short length of 82 minutes, but long periods of reflection are set to come afterward.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Manga Entertainment.
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Screenplay by Kazunori Ito, from the manga by Masamune Shirow
Produced by Yoshimasa Mizuo, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
Starring Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Iemasa Kayumi
Release Year: 1995
Running Time: 82 minutes