19. Ghost in the Shell


When Mamoru Oshii makes a blockbuster blowup scifi action movie, it looks like Patlabor 2, where detectives look out over the ocean and philosophize. When he’s full force Mamoru Oshii, it looks like Angel’s Egg. So when Oshii is handed down another preexisting series, it comes out looking like the perfect fusion of the Oshii dichotomy, which is… a narrow gap.

He was ready to direct Jin-Roh, but took Ghost in the Shell. Later, in 1999, Jin-Roh would be directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, the most accessible in the Kerberos Saga, and one of the best Oshii projects ever made. Ghost in the Shell might be the most quintessential, but you could make that argument for each and every Oshii movie, from Uresei Yatsura 2 to Fast Food Grifters, I imagine.

Released in 1995, it tells the story of Section 9, a top level government police agency with high clearance and autonomy and everything that’s scary about dystopia. More specifically, it’s the story of the Major Motoko Kusanagi, field commander for Section 9. She and the team are assigned to track down the elusive cyberhacker, the Puppet Master, who’s been able to remotely implant false memories into unwitting subjects and have them carry out his or her bidding, which is usually terrorism.

The Puppet Master storyline first appeared in the manga, made its wide showing here, and was repeated again in Solid State Society. It’s so popular because it really does speak to a lot that’s going on with the character The Major. We might look at the rest of the series, in all its myriad forms as the everyday goings-on of this character, but this story takes the elements of her character and works with them specifically, such that we see greater interconnectedness.

The reason why media franchises sometimes don’t work, or even more specifically, sequels — is because the world was designed around the story, designed to best accentuate or reflect or facilitate the needs of the story. To occupy that narrowly defined habitat with another story requires a new kind of creativity that works against great adversity. Ghost in the Shell has managed to find other stories that work in the universe, and for my money, the Individual Eleven storyline is my favorite, but the Puppet Master case does accentuate, reflect, and facilitate an exploration of both the Major, and the idea of the ‘Ghost in the Shell.’

That being, the man-machine interface, or perhaps, the stand alone complex. Perchance, the human-error processor. The ghost in the shell refers to the mind inside some kind of body — not only do we have to broaden the term beyond mind and body, because the body is no longer a defined thing, we also get this idea of the ghost, asking what our mind really is. If the biology of our brains can be separated from the biology, what do we extract to put inside a robot body? What are we really? Our purest selves? The ghosts, that whisper, that which are too pure even for us?

The reason why the Ghost in the Shell franchise works, I think, is because what Masamune Shirow did was set up a scenario where questions could be answered later on. Because the idea of the ghost in the shell is open-ended. And yet, the story of each piece is not necessarily about finding that answer. Not directly, anyway. It’s about these hardcore police procedurals and shooting cyborgs. In the Puppet Master storyline, however, the ghost in the shell is more directly explored.

The Puppet Master becomes a foil for the Major, and a legend is born. In the meantime, we have beautifully rendered images, Batou and Togusa chasing terrorists in a flooding Newport City, a very wet slum that speaks to physical decay. This is a daylight film, where Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is all night and noir. The light is cast on the real, even as it shrinks away from human understanding and perception.

It is composed and still, meditative and rhythmic. The original Ghost in the Shell maximized the potential of the manga, producing for the world a vision that I will always cherish.

5 thoughts on “19. Ghost in the Shell

  1. When I first watched this movie, it was on a whim on Superbowl night as I had not interest in watching the game with my roommates. I thought it was hella interesting, but was turned off by the nudity at first as my knee-jerk reaction was that it was completely gratuitous. A couple of online readings and another watch-through later and I fell in love with the movie. It’s a perfect package of gorgeous animation, style, atmosphere, theme, action and story engagement. Been a bit shy about checking out the various anime series, as they’ve not appeared to be as interesting. I love the Yoko Kanno scores and have several tracks on my iPhone. I’ve also glanced through the manga, but the ’95 movie’s by far my favorite take on the franchise.

    1. The Oshii take is definitely unique, and each approach by the franchise’s various creators have been wildly divergent — I for example really love the TV series, but have no stomach for the new OVAs.

      With this one in particular, it really is a perfect movie, one whose artistry threatens to distract from the big picture — painstaking beauty. Not an easy one to outright dismiss for its female representation as I have now twice over on the show.

      Maybe it’s jumping the gun, but what’s your take on the sequel, or other Oshii movies?

  2. I have to say I’ve really not seen much else…aside from Patlabor a long time ago, to which I’ve little memories of. I’ve heard (and read!) that Jin-Roh is very good so I’m interested in seeing that.

    1. Jin-Roh is excellent, and beautifully animated too, the closest to Akira we got, in that one regard. He’s definitely an interesting filmmaker, one of my favorites, but sometimes you’ll stumble upon some truly boring weirdness

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