Published on August 2nd, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Ghost in the Shell 
Summary: Gorgeous animation, quality voice acting and a cutting-edge plot make this required viewing for lovers of visual storytelling. This sci-fi classic has a surprisingly positive view of advanced technology.
R | 83 mins.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Screenplay: Kazunori Ito (based on Masamune Shiro’s manga)
Starring: Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar, Tom Wyner (English dub voices)
Production Studio: Production I.G.
Distribution: Shochiku (Japan), Manga Entertainment (Intl.)
When it comes to anime, I’m hardly an expert. My experiences are limited mostly to mainstream favorites like Akira, Pokemon (yes, I count it!), and the trippy FLCL. But I know a great film when I see one.
Anime has never truly caught on in the American cinema landscape, which means we Yanks are typically exposed only to the absolute best of the genre. In Tokyo, I’m sure there are loads of dreadful anime pictures cranked out each year, but the titles that get buzz over here are typically the best of the best. Such was the case with 1995’s Ghost in the Shell.
Based on Masamune Shiro’s 1989 manga, this film paints a somewhat cold picture of the world — but unlike many of its contemporaries, not an altogether dystopian view of it. Ghost in the Shell is set in an unnamed Asian country, with its chief setting only identified as New Port City. The film is set in a world where everyone is connected by technology. Sound familiar? Shiro should obviously be given credit for seeing the future.
This movie shows the world as a vibrant place, which I view as a departure from the typical cold portrayal of a technologically advanced world. One beautifully calming sequence showcases the city itself and turns the setting into its own character. New Port City is filled with average, ordinary citizens of whom we catch glimpses only a few times in the film, but our plot follows a woman is anything but ordinary.
Ghost in the Shell follows a cyborg police officer named Major Motoko Kusanagi and her (mostly) human colleagues as they attempt to find a rogue hacker known as “The Puppet Master”. Hacking crimes are a common occurrence in movies set in the “near future”, but this criminal is unique as it appears to be a cyborg who possesses its own “ghost.” In the parlance of this movie, “ghost” basically refers to the soul and “shell” to the body.
Much intrigue and mystery surround the origin and purpose of The Puppet Master, leading another government agency to attempt its capture for its own selfish priorities. That’s a very nutshell version of Ghost in the Shell‘s layered storyline, but I didn’t find the film’s plot to be difficult to follow.
As with many sci-fi stories, Ghost in the Shell carries its own unique terminology. For instance, rather than computers as we know them being hacked, it’s human brains that are directly tapped into by cyber criminals. Close watchers of Ghost in the Shell will notice many visual and narrative similarities to The Matrix — so many, in fact, that I feel the Wachowskis should have co-credited Shiro with their 1999 blockbuster.
Like The Matrix, in this film’s world, people have ports in the back of their necks which they use to hook into various systems, including cars. Also, the term “ghost” can easily be substituted for “soul”, as it seems to be what separates humans from machines. But unlike The Matrix, this film is wholly set in the real world, where people still seem to have some control over their machines. Technology is not demonized in Ghost in the Shell.
The Major is a complicated character, who was once human but sold her shell to the government in return for never-ending life and superhuman physical abilities. Her ghost is referenced numerous times as merely a faint whisper in her own head. Director Mamoru Ishii asks his audience to identify with the isolation felt by the film’s cyborg characters. The Major’s feelings of hope for a new life are brought to light in a dramatically satisfying scene following an evening swim, an action which her friend Batou reminds her could be deadly due to the weight of her cybernetic shell.
This chance at death turns out to be the entire reason the Major enjoys swimming. It’s the only act that makes her feel afraid anymore.
The opening action sequence and credits of Ghost in the Shell are among the most memorable I’ve ever seen. If you have any reservations about watching a Japanese sci-fi anime flick, the outstanding artwork mixed with Kenji Kawai’s eclectic score will have you locked in after the first ten minutes. Filmgoers with a slightly more perverted interest in cinema will also be enticed to stick around because this film gives us many generous views of the Major’s flawless physical form. But beyond thrilling action and beautifully drawn nudity, this is heavy filmmaking that proves what animation is capable of on a meaningful level.
Ghost in the Shell addresses several lofty themes, including the pros and cons of technological dependency and the theory that evolution is a requisite for survival. But if you boil the entire thing down, the film’s message is about the difficulty of keeping one’s identity in a world where the entire population is connected. The film opens with a title card informing us that computerization has “not yet wiped out nations and ethic groups,” yet the wording tells us this may be inevitable. By the end credits, we find out technology is not to be feared but embraced, as regression isn’t a solution.
If you find yourself wondering why this review sounds like a perfect 5-star rating, chalk most of it up to me stupidly watching the English overdub. The voice actor portraying the Major sounded stiff. I understand her character is literally a robot, but if the technology is that good you would think they could manufacture a less robotic-sounding voice. Her performance kept me at arm’s length while the visual presentation sucked me right in.
If you like sci-fi genre stories that feature a more optimistic look at where society is headed, Ghost in the Shell will be a favorite of yours. Let’s just pray that Hollywood stays away from trying to make a live-action version of this masterpiece.