Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

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Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is wonderful. And I’ll be the first to say that Ghost in the Shell: Arise is… not. I’m another who’s been pretty underwhelmed as of late, but this new movie, aptly named but perhaps with an expiry date to the title, not unlike 2010: The Year We Make Contact, has made me very interested in the future of Ghost in the Shell.

Because for a while it was dark days, as dark as it can get for an anime fan, I suppose. When I was a young man, I came to Ghost in the Shell after Solid State Society but before Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and so I felt like I missed everything. It would be years before a new property, and while I always hoped for more of what I liked the most, it was okay if it was over. But it’s not, not even close, because Ghost in the Shell is one of the most popular anime titles in America, and that’s always confounded me beyond the usual petty desire for our favorite things to be unpopular and a cause to fight for online. Ghost in the Shell is so damn weird sometimes — how is it a mainstream property?

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I think that a lot of people like Ghost in the Shell, in the way that people like Law & Order, but it’s nobody’s favorite thing — it’s too genre, it’s too police procedural. That’s also why I like Ghost in the Shell, for the police part, but I love Ghost in the Shell for everything else.

And that ‘everything else’ hasn’t really been on display for Arise, which was the new thing, to round it back. And then you also have the specter of the American adaptation with Scarlett Johansson — not my first choice, but not because she’s white — and so with these less-than-stellar editions, the worry goes double, because Ghost in the Shell as a franchise is an undefined thing. Arise isn’t called a reboot in the way the Eva Rebuild movies might be (marketing-wise, but apparently those are sequels?), because Ghost in the Shell is always new and different. And so, each new and different version will define the series in the precious minds of newcomers.

I do have some minor anxiety about that American live-action adaptation, because like, my dad is gonna learn what Ghost in the Shell is, and it won’t be cool for him, it’ll be some Jason Bourne-ass PG-13 action movie. Or Lucy 2. (2 Lucy 2 Goosey)

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So I’m greatly relieved that Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is being responsible, in this regard, and I’m hearing myself now, but this is the only property I’ll ever be a fanboy about. It’s a strangely nice feeling. I kind of like being a fan of something.

I saw some talk online about this movie, and fellow fans were beginning to suspect that this newest Ghost in the Shell is meant to be more accessible, dealing with less mature themes than the Oshii movies or even the Stand Alone Complex series. I had that suspicion about halfway through the movie but it changed into something else, and what made me think of it was really only the art style. Because essentially the Arise rendition of Ghost in the Shell looks like an updated version of the Oshii movies, but it talks like Stand Alone Complex. So with the OVAs, you had the coldness and the complexity both.

But The New Movie adds a dose of humor, which may play into the comparative immaturity (which is to say — it’s a PG-13 film, but then again so was Innocence, so keep that in mind when you take the kiddos to the theatre to… miss this movie by now), but I think that the updated look is updated by appearing more traditionally anime. More Japanese, you might say, in many respects, where if the Major from Stand Alone Complex was ever kicking ass in high heels, it was not the plan, or it was a consequence of clandestine recon (saving the Chinese kid, guarding Chief Daido). For Arise’s Major, it’s the default. She runs and jumps and lands down hard on these heels, which is crazy if you know how much force can be contained under that heel, given the shift of a woman’s body weight onto that one point.

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BAM!

The entirety of Section 9 is dressed up in black plug suits, like Gantz or something, and the entire world is incredibly vivid and colorful, unlike the dark, muted worlds of the dark and muted movies, or the slightly futuristic but very grounded Japan of the show. We might say it’s a modern look, a post-Space Dandy look, to keep in competition with our Jojos and our Kill la Kills.

Talk about bridging the gap between the old and paving a new road. In terms of the story though? Well, I’ve only seen this movie once, and I never understand any Ghost in the Shell the first time through, but there appeared to be the proper balance.

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And the proper balance here is the Ghost in the Shell formula, my favorite formula yet for science-fiction media. In Stand Alone Complex, it was exemplified perfectly, where you have this political thriller framework that would sometimes, not oftentimes, peak with intense action scenes, and the action scenes appeal to me as someone who’s having philosophical trouble with the very idea of action scenes. But these sequences combine paramilitary law enforcement like 24 or Tom Clancy with cyberpunk like William Gibson, and none of the uncomfortable right-wing ideology of the former, with maybe a little bit of the left-wing, let’s say, Canadian open-mindedness of the latter. It is science-fiction after all, which in projecting the future, tends not to be socially moderate.

So the action scenes are just as much about futuristic tactics as hand-to-hand or guns blazing combat, which sounds like the back-of-the-box for an awesome RPG video-game, but to my personal devastation I’ve never played one of those Ghost in the Shell games, just Deus Ex: Human Revolution (an even trade, I suspect). That’s why this movie opening with a hostage rescue is perfect, because it isn’t something you can just steamroll through like Arnold on the hilltop with the M60. It’s a team effort, and for the most part, each member of the team has their unique role.

And of course then you drop in the MVP onto the team, and that’s the Major, who I’ve confessed my love for many a time on this podcast, but she is absolutely my favorite character in scifi, just a fascinating character who is endlessly entertaining to watch. If you heard my hackles on the prior episode, you can probably guess why this character is so great.

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The glorious return of that rectangle she puts on her eyes — what is that?

But I took exception to how she was portrayed in Arise, particularly early on. She had an arch nemesis for the first time in the entire franchise, someone who was an actual physical threat, and that’s a needless addition to the milieu that has miraculously gone on this long without such a thing. And then her design, which is bordering on caricature, it’s impossible not to draw a line to earlier anime, going back to that earlier point.

She looks like she’s about 5’2”, which is fine, because the Major is always short, but she’s got this really young look that along with her stature comes off more like Balot from Mardock Scramble, who’s supposed to be about fourteen years old. But there are a few shots in this movie that struck me and made me realize what they were going for in concept — the Major’s face is basically identical to that of the original 1995 movie, as opposed to the manga or Stand Alone Complex style, the more relatable and sexy look.

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I think when I realized that that’s what they were going for, an updated 1995 version, that was the primer for this movie winning me back, so to speak. The anchor for the positivity in this movie is the Major, she’s the end all be all, if she doesn’t work, the whole of it doesn’t work, and she really works in this movie.

By the time she’s confronting the suits at the Treaty Review Department, and she’s just sitting there with her scary blank face and the guy’s trying to explain himself and the Major doesn’t say anything, and then the guy nervously explains more — that’s excellent. I feel like the key cornerstones of her characterization are physical supremacy, prowess in tactics and hacking, mystery, confidence, and intimidation. One of the things that Stand Alone Complex did that the two Oshii movies did not were give the Major an aura where she is at once the most accepted piece among law enforcement personnel, but also something so chilly and transcendent. I feel like there were moments where regular people would be kind of taken aback by the Major, and in reality, encountering someone like that would be somewhat shocking because she’d looked like a Real Doll, but she could like, kill you.

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So they definitely captured that in this movie, where people are afraid of the Major again, and that makes sense because this is basically the end of her origin story. Like the Punisher, who we’ll be talking about this Monday, he becomes the Punisher at the end of one movie, but the origin was kind of a slog.

In retrospect, I understand why origin stories were so popular among filmmakers before the year 2008, advent of the modern superhero adaptation, because doing a comic book movie wasn’t in vogue back then, so you might as well tell a good story, and the only recognizable story when you’re flipping through the comics as a stranger to them, was the origin. So we get Superman Returns and Batman Begins and even The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, though both of those were origin stories for more complicated reasons.

For Ghost in the Shell, the appeal of the origin story is that we’ve only ever had hints of the Major’s past, and unreliable hints at that, and only in the show. In the opening credits of Stand Alone Complex, the bizarre CG set to the amazing song by Origa and Yoko Kanno, “Inner Universe,” a song I’ve now heard probably one hundred times and it hasn’t gotten old, the Major has a dream about breaking a doll in her hand by squeezing it, and then she talks about that in Episode 2.

You hear later, in the episode, “Missing Hearts,” that the Major became a full cyborg around the age of six, and this isn’t spoken directly, but close enough. And that’s pretty much all the details of the Major as a young woman until 2nd Gig, which is when things get really obfuscated, storytelling-wise.

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The Major has a connection to the ostensible villain, Hideo Kuze, where it is strongly implied, but never explicitly said, that he was the first person she ever loved. And I say ‘person,’ and not ‘boy,’ because we don’t even know the Major’s sexuality. In the manga she’s bisexual, and there are hints in Stand Alone Complex that it leans more toward homosexuality, with her nurse friend Kurutan, who bristles at all the things the Major can do with the updated body…

There’s a lot we don’t know, and that’s why some fans are so hungry for 3rd Gig, maybe just as much for a Ghost in the Shell 3, just to know more about this version of the Major, because we’ve had so many hints. And so the crew for Arise, who are both creators and fans of the franchise, that origin would be explored in a more traditional way.

And yet, the origin is more about the formation of Section 9, which by the way is painstakingly slow, but in The New Movie we have some images of the Major as a kid, the mention that she never had a body and was always owned in a sense, and we even learn a little about her parents. On a similar note, Commander Shepard actually has a mother, name of Hannah, but only if you’re a Spacer, which is what I choose because one time she said “You got a problem with Spacers,” but I didn’t see that in this most recent playthrough. And in this most recent playthrough her name was Joanna Shepard, so Hannah named her daughter Joanna?

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More Mass Effect, always more

So ultimately, the Major’s origin story just meant that she wasn’t fully the Major as we know her — until now. She pulls some pretty sweet moves in this movie, including one that recalls the Crab Man fight from Innocence, with an exploding arm but with the addition of some mild S&M domination. Not since the naked fights of the 1995 film has there been such a bizarre conflation of violence and sex. Not to say it’s as explicit as the first movie, but there’s a good bit of violence here.

Like with Snowpiercer, there’s something of a fetish for removing arms in general, where you don’t even notice the last few times it happens. That’s one way to express the man-machine interface, though there are more overt methods, all related to the cyberpunk body horror that Ghost in the Shell does so well, but more so in these theatrical varieties.

Arms being chopped off and faces being ripped off are just the punctuation to the action, which is so good in this movie, that amazing blend of the Ghost in the Shell elements. However, like I was saying earlier, what makes Stand Alone Complex so great is how the action was an extension of the politics breaking down, but because I have no sense of what the story is in this movie, it’s tough to say whether or not there’s a good enough context to take the action from great on its own, to phenomenal as part of a working whole. That’ll be for a rewatch or two to decide.

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And then the second consideration is how this movie works structurally, which we might say is Appleseed-esque, those CG movies that open with incredible action scenes and then have basically nothing until the end, and even the end is only so good (the first Appleseed’s best action scene is in the middle, and the spider-tank scene is great, so this is more about Ex Machina and maybe Vexille). The hostage rescue in the beginning of the movie is perfect Ghost in the Shell, when that formula clicks together so satisfyingly, just like the episode “Reembody,” which opens 2nd Gig.

Then there’s a pretty cool scene on a ship in the middle, and then there’s a sadly truncated final battle, which was looking to be the best action scene in the movie until a spider-tank bursts through a wall. This might be part of why the movie feels so long, because as it goes on, the confusing in-between parts lengthen, and as somebody who slept through the first three Arise OVAs, I had no illusions about following the plot.

This movie may have had pacing issues, because I was convinced it was drawing to a close about three times. That owes to me not understanding the story, so it’s definitely not a case like American Mary, but if you’re more of a, let’s say, casual fan, somebody who knows anime and understands how historic the 1995 film is, and so saw this movie because of that, you may not have as good a time as me, because I really like just being lost in that world.

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And that’s something I’ve only ever felt with Stand Alone Complex, because the worlds of the Oshii Ghost in the Shell are horrifying, whether it’s the decay of rainy Hong Kong or the darkness of Batou’s eternal night, and then the world of Shirow’s manga is ugly and crudely violent. I’ve said before that Stand Alone Complex doesn’t really present an escapist world because you can be hacked at any minute and commit some terrible crime, which is also what happens in The New Movie, but I think it would be worth it. Just don’t be somebody politically important, or a garbageman.

As soon as this movie was over I wanted to finish up Ghost in the Shell: Arise, because again I haven’t seen Border 4, but I wanted to spend more time in that world. That’s really the last thing I expected from this vision of Ghost in the Shell, and it makes me feel foolish, first of all because after all my griping, it turned out good, and then second, maybe it’s good because now it’s like the old Ghost in the Shell, in a meaningful way? Am I doomed to never like anything that strays from the path?

Well, like Adam J., I never asked for something that strayed from the path, and yet at the same time, I was getting pretty tired of the Togusa Mateba retread. I get it, the Major, you handpicked Togusa because he’s not a cyborg and overspecialization leads to death. Got it, got it. But what I did like with Togusa was that interplay between his nervous anxiety and the Major’s icy mysteriousness. I don’t know how accurate the dub was to the original script, but I definitely laughed when Ishikawa told the Major that Togusa wanted to punch her in the face, and she just glances over at him and he’s like, oh come on, does that even sound like something I’d say?

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The whole theatre had a good rhythm in terms of being a laugh track — there were some chortles at overly serious moments in the dub, which is not quite on par with Stand Alone Complex, one of the industry’s best alongside Cowboy Bebop, but it strangely improves over the course of the film. But mostly there were a lot of reactions to the humor in the movie, and that part worked out surprisingly well, considering how comedy usually translates as it glides over the Pacific Ocean.

The members of the Major’s team are more flawed and human than they’ve ever been, and with two interesting exceptions, they’re all a bunch of jackasses. Saito is a borderline psychotic killer, Ishikawa makes prods at the other members remotely, and even Togusa becomes a whiner, mostly in response to everybody else. And yet, Batou is really level-headed and not quick to judgment or inappropriate jokes like usual. And it might be because he’s never around the Major this time around, which again is because of the origin story thing.

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And then there’s Pazu, who is a radical departure from the ever-frowning depiction in Stand Alone Complex, a patient and agreeable employee of the Major who seems to think she’s pretty rad despite his first encounter with her back in Border 1. He became my favorite Section 9 member, where before it was Saito because he was the badass with the eyepatch.

So that’s a great improvement that’s really only born fruit with this movie, because beforehand, the dickishness of the team felt like it was wasting time. So the team is finally pretty good, and that works toward the escapism element that for me is the ultimate takeaway.

This year has been really eye-opening because it’s introduced to me the concept of slice of life. Just the way some people don’t like open world games, like myself, we need to be swaddled and have linear, designed paths, for the longest time I always assumed I needed stories to be focused 100% of the time — theme, character, story, theme, character, story, combine when necessary.

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Don’t understand what you’re talking about. Love your voice though

This all comes from learning about why people like Citizen Kane so much, and part of the reason is because they say that every frame has meaning, there isn’t a shot that is gratuitous. So shouldn’t that be the way every movie is? When we read Shakespeare and poetry in high school, we go line by line.

But then there’s that idea of setups and payoffs. Unless you’re being incredibly economical, sometimes the setup won’t be so heavy, won’t feel so relevant to the main story. My example here is very recent, it’s the “Nashville” episode of Master of None, which so far is my top episode of television in 2015, even above “Person to Person.” Watching it, I was slowly coming to the realization that the creators of the show are telling a story without conflict, which, to go back to high school, is something we’re told doesn’t exist. It was very impressive, and very sweet, entertaining in a pleasant way.

Of course, eventually there is conflict, but it’s hardly traditional. So what this means is that to the greater plot, “Nashville” could’ve depicted anything — it’s arbitrary, and that’s the opposite approach to the whole Citizen Kane, designed frames thing. It’s slice of life, it’s just people having episodes of their lives, rather than of television, and the idea is that it can be very immersive — you’re seeing dimensions of characters that you’re not usually allowed.

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It’s something that television is suited for, where you can have episodes about seemingly nothing, warming you to these characters in a laidback way, and that’s the vision for Ghost in the Shell I had while watching this movie. If the future of Ghost in the Shell is this, but as a series, we could potentially have that, the way so many television series already do, and Stand Alone Complex for the most part did not, because the plot was so complicated. But it did have its moments, and so at the very least I’ll look forward to the return of those moments.

And yet, to the movie itself, maybe a big part of why it was such a pleasant surprise was because it was a welcome promise, more than a great film. I do think it’s a great film, where Arise was a good OVA, but as a fan, I’m always thinking about what’s next, because that’s part of being a fan is being greedy. There’s so much Ghost in the Shell that I haven’t experienced, like the compilation movies and the manga and the novels, and yet I’m sitting here like, ‘what else do you got?’

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I won’t spoil the ending because it’s a total fan service moment and might be fun for you. It was fun for me because I knew what was happening with the first line of dialogue in the scene, I was like that’s straight out of the manga! My memory is… good? And there was some chatter behind me in the theatre, people being like, ‘is this?’ And indeed it was, but not nearly as brutal as the first or second time. Still good though, and possibly a signal of new beginnings. I can’t wait!

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