Ghost in the Shell – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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In the year 2029, a vast electronic network that permeates every aspect of life has interconnected the world. That same network also becomes a battlefield for Tokyo’s Section Nine security force, which has been charged with apprehending the master hacker known only as the Puppet Master. Spearheading the investigation is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who — like many in her department — is a cyborg officer, far more powerful than her human appearance would suggest. And yet as the Puppet Master, who is even capable of hacking human minds, leaves a trail of victims robbed of their memories, Kusanagi ponders the very nature of her existence.

With the global sophistication of the Internet and its most recent addition of social networking, we live in a world with an ever increasing and evolving technological landscape. What this does to us as a species concerning the future is certainly up for speculation, with numerous science fiction authors and directors already offering up interpretations as to what it will all culminate towards. Where do the boundaries of such superior technology begin or end? What are the hazards of such technology within the hands of people who wish to do harm? How are we to effectively implement this technology for the betterment of mankind? These were all questions raised within Masamune Shirow’s original manga, but are consolidated within the animated adaptation by director Mamoru Oshii.

For the uninitiated, Ghost in the Shell vividly explores the relationship between humanity and machinery and proceeds to bring us to attention of this philosophical dilemma, which is seemingly becoming more realized within in our own time. This philosophical predicament permeates through the existence of artificial intelligence, a concept that is given thorough examination in the film. The film’s characters, more specifically Major Kusanagi and The Puppet Master, give ample testimonies to the questioning of artificial traits versus human traits, which eventually culminates in the argument for what a “soul” actually entails—and how such a premise can exist within the realm of a technological entity. Given the adherence towards technology within the film, Oshii steadily establishes the notion of what being “human” actually pertains to as well—which is a profound question given the contextual environment in which the film takes place.

This concept, while explored within the realm of other animated series, is done quite uniquely here considering the film’s questioning of such behavior from the perspective of a cyborg rather than a human. This approach opens up the dialogue considerably given that it offers the viewer a look into a world where artificial intelligence begin to ponder their own self-awareness. The blurred notion of human versus cyborg is heavily elevated as a discussion point within the film, speculating that a transcendence of both is needed order to achieve ultimate true freedom, in which the boundless and expanding net is the only catalyst. Regardless of these elements, the film mainly focuses on how two individuals—the Puppet Master and Motoko Kusanagi—delegate and arrive at such a state free from the bondage of their once biological and robotic bearings. While the narrative structure of the film’s opening portion might suggest a wide scope of cyber terrorism and political intrigue quite early in the film, it eventually narrows down to a more personal one of self-discovery. While this juxtaposition might seem somewhat of a surprise at first, it provides the film with a more personal take on the issue of identity within a society that relies primarily on that of interconnectivity to thrive.

Throughout the film there are various events that expound upon the individual and identity. Whether through the garbage man who discovers his lack of association with his “true” family,  the hacker who explicitly has no memory of who he actually is, and even Motoko Kusanagi, who sees a body double of herself in one of the film’s most moving sequences, the film consistently elaborates upon not knowing one’s identity. In a future where artificial bodies are manufactured, cybernetic implants are commonplace, and even coercing of memories can take place, the seemingly sacred boundary of autonomy is devastatingly crossed. While the main antagonist of the film, The Pupper Master, is seen firstly as a formidable foe with no regard towards the individuals he manipulates for personal gain, the film presents a difficult measurement as to how we should perceive his actions. While the governmental authorities wish to get rid of him for lack of discrepancy on their part, we slowly begin to reason with his philosophy towards advocating his own freedom. We see that he ultimately realizes the dire situation he’s in and the opportunity he can gain from it, effectively acknowledging that he is aware of his “ghost”. This major theme is shown considerably throughout the film, which eventually formulates into a motion for transcending one’s “shell” in order to elevate one’s consciousness.

The use of “ghosts” in relation to humanities conception of “souls”, gives familiarity to us as viewers to perhaps understand the cordial association between man and machine. This reflection of self-awareness is effectively conveyed throughout the film, giving way to situations that question the ethical standards of what truly constitutes being human. This works exceptionally well in Ghost in the Shell because it promotes the film through these ideals, expertly weaving a tale of human consciousness amidst the world of artificial intelligence. The realization of self-awareness—again attributed to the likeliness of a soul here—is where the film truly shines in presenting a dilemma not easily addressed, and most certainly not easily answered. The ending of the film delivers a particularly powerful statement regarding this notion, a notion that concurrently involves both technology and information within its ever-evolving state.

And while the film is adherent towards exploring the realm of philosophy—which can certainly be appreciated by specific individuals when viewing—I can see the film being somewhat confusing to the individual solely viewing it as a work of conventional entertainment. While Ghost in the Shell certainly does entertain in the most standard way through its vivid action sequences, the film mostly relies on a unique combination of both action and introspective sequences to promote its plot. Those looking for simply bustling sequences filled with chase and mayhem will certainly find some of that here, but it’s neither the film’s primary focus nor ultimate goal. With heavy precedence put upon the discernment of identity in the film’s latter portion, those looking for an action-filled conclusion will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, those looking for an intelligent foray, many we’ll be surprised to see how this film ultimately develops.

Those familiar with the manga version will certainly notice some striking differences between it and the film adaptation. While these changes do remain for the most part ineffective towards the original concept, they do provide enough substance to make the film stand out as a more efficient telling of the conflictions of the net and identity. The decision to move the film’s setting from the eccentric metropolitan of Tokyo envisioned in the manga towards the heavily cultured backdrop of Hong Kong is certainly well established here. Considering the increasing influence of China within our modern world—especially within the area of economical prominence—it certainly seems befitting to move the film’s setting to this vast cultural epicenter. The entanglement of the city streets, neon lights, and massive population perfectly reflects upon the intangible state of the net itself, therein providing an excellent opportunity to correlate the similarities between the two. With the backdrop of identifying one’s own place within this system, it certainly brings about a sense of complexity within civilization—a complexity that isn’t truly comprehended nor fully controlled, effectively becoming a force unto itself.

And with the animation of the film being done by Production I.G., it’s certainly visually impressive as film, giving viewers some very absorbing animation sequences. There are many memorable moments within the film that are truly remarkable; from the strikingly detailed opening sequence to the shocking final confrontation, each scene is painstakingly detailed and shows the incredible effort put forth by the animators. Another interesting aspect of the film is the sound. Produced by composer Kenji Kawai, it’s minimalistic in its composition, but adequately reflects the introspective nature of the film. The use of chants and heavy percussions give hints to this, and it resonates with the surrounding atmosphere that the film displays.

Overall, Ghost in the Shell is an exceptionally well made and I believe important film. It offers an introspective and philosophically stimulating message that questions the ethical standards in which we base our human identity and also examines the continuously growing ocean of information that surround us. While never one to provide easy answers within his films, Oshii fervently ponders the collective state of humanity once we essentially create artificial constructs that rival our own state of being. Difficult subject material for sure, but Oshii presents it in such a fashion that is as entertaining as it is philosophically pertinent. Perhaps objectively fashionable as tale concerning humanity and technology, its discourse on finding one’s place within a limitless system is truly engaging. Coupled with a distinctive visual element as well as musical score, the film appropriately handles itself in a very high regard. For this, and many other technical achievements, it’s a film that will resonant well with a more segmented audience, but its certainly one of the most profound animated films to have come out in quite some time. Given the best existentialist films, Ghost in the Shell is certainly one of significant importance with the realm of Japanese animation—and perhaps more importantly, a shining example in how intelligent the medium can be.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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