After years plus of hearing about it, then finally seeing the footage, it felt like time to go ahead and look back at a personal favorite. Masamune Shirow's seminal cyberpunk manga, Ghost In The Shell (Koukaku Kidotai) has become something of a huge recurrent presence in my life as a multimedia franchise that seems primed to become a comics creation destined to have a shelf life long beyond its own origins. Starting as an ultra-nerdy, often silly, obsessively detailed vision of future Japan, Ghost quickly became noteworthy for both its incredible visuals, and outright daunting text covering everything from the nature of life as a cyborg, terrorism, political intrigue, state indifference, and the pliability of reality in the realm of global networks. It's almost satirical nature, only rivaled by its own ravenous need for sharing virtually every nugget of Shirow's love for exploring dense materials.
It seems that turning to a similarly obsessed mind in the anime world, might just be a marriage made in the stars.
Enter anime author, Mamoru Oshii, who's films had since the 1980s become an artful tug of war between blockbuster necessity and his own personal need to dive beyond the events on screen. His most recent piece being the politicallly daunting and sober PATLABOR 2, Oshii seemed ready to at last let go of his origins as a helmer of occasionally personal and quirky animated comedies once and for all. When word came out that he would be undertaking bringing Ghost to cartoon life, there certainly was a buzz throughout news net circles. This is also soon after his endeavors had led him closer and closer into working between animated and live action, which include the films Red Spectacles, and Talking Head. Both films which blur the line between narrative storytelling, and his own curiosity about the nature of his work. Increasingly introspective, Oshii's works were becoming reknowned for being equally as visually enticing, and ponderous. So it seemed like a merging of authors with diverging forms of obsession might make for a fascinating combination. But could this make for a successful film?
What we expected, was pretty much exactly what we got when Ghost In The Shell was finally let out of the box. An 80 plus minute voyage through a far more grounded rendition of Shirow's world, coupled with the director's penchant for feminine proxies for himself, created something of a global event, not only for fans of Japanese animation, but cinema as well. The secret? Possibly the use of then increasingly popular use of virtual reality, dystopian atmosphere, and a near elegaic tone that filmed science fiction of that decade certainly found itself lacking. By taking what was in many ways dense, yet borderline sarcastic, and turning it into a haunted piece of thoughtful worldbuilding, Ghost became something of a companion piece to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. A deeply layered, yet muted examination of free will in a universe where the body no longer has a definitive role.
Told through the eyes of Public Security Section 9's ultra advanced leader, Motoko Kusanagi(known to her unit colleagues as "Major"), the film version of Ghost begins as a procedural, but quickly becomes a poem on sentience and purpose.
Juggling between procedural technothriller, and introspective dream concerning individual agency in a world where our lives are increasingly tethered to our technology, Oshii's adaptation is as commercial as the increasingly exploratory auteur was going to be post-Patlabor 2. Action scenes give way to existential debates on personally owned boats after a scuba dive. The nature of cybercrime has undertaken frightening new dimensions when it becomes clear that anyone with an augmented brain is susceptible to being "ghost hacked". Meaning entire memories can be fabricated in the name of manipulating others to commit crimes against their will. The revelations of the film ebb closer to intimate when it is later explained that the central perpetrator of these crimes is but a gambit designed to be controlled by corporate and government interests, now sentient, and eager for release from its limited digital form. It is here that the possibility of transcendence beyond form is introduced, and the film version of Ghost takes on a more melancholy, spiritual tone. As Kusanagi's dilemma of self reaches a crescendo by her meeting face to face with her quarry, the onus is on that of the audience to question why it is they do what they do, and what one can do to better define themselves through virtue of action. Years of doing the state's morally grey work isn't even touched upon. There is little to no judgment to be had regarding the Major's life. But it is clear that her crisis of self is a palpable one. One that could so easily be shared with that of the film's director.
Still a leap away from Masamune Shirow's more comedic and passive anarchy, the film raises the gravitas without a single wink. The rainsoaked streets of Hong Kong, the sad eyes of what would become an ever present avatar in Oshii's films, a Bassett Hound, and the glare of high powered light off of weathered walls and wet concrete. The feel of the film as a whole borders on the funereal. Which is further complimented by Kenji Kawaii's absolutely haunting score. Echoing an ancient east where the borders between the tangible and spiritual worlds seemed so much thinner, Oshii's Ghost films imply a renewed bond by way of humanity's almost instinctive need to mimic this fabric. We may not get a pulse pounding action drama regarding life in an ever treacherous technological landscape, but what we do get is a somber, thoughtful meditation on what it means to maintain one's humanity when our will to detach overrides a will to connect.
If anything, the legacy of Ghost In The Shell, in the west is fraught with the occasional misunderstanding. Not to mention some lingering orientalism that was ever present in the 1990s. Embers of a past still obsessed with the image of a tech monolith known as Japan. The world of Kusanagi and Section 9, is that of a nation recovering from great international calamity, only rendered more dangerous due to the ever blurring line between sentient humans and machines. Treated as matter of fact, the post-singularity world of the film is one that never feels to far removed from possibility. In many ways, transcending that of Scott's vision twenty-three years prior. It feels both lived in, and frighteningly possible. Especially in how we are granted a window often with a cold sense of the mundane. Yet there is a liveliness through Hiromasa Ogura's incredible background paintings, and tangible weight through Hiroyuki Okiura's realistic character designs. Made at the beginning of a style that was just beginning to take hold; a concerted effort to portray animation as live action film. And as such, there's a magnetic pull within the film, allowing the viewer to not merely sit passively, but to absorb themselves into the world Oshii and company have fashioned.
Twenty two years later, the power of what remains Oshii's most popular film overseas lingers in so many films that have come in its wake. Maybe not to the level that Otomo's AKIRA casts a huge shadow, but still creeping in the background like a specter ever reminding us how easily two mediums can indeed trade places. When stacked alongside the ever-commonly used flag post in the Wachowski's Matrix, Ghost remains the more transformative of the two. My relationship with that film has morphed greatly, and is more indicative of all things that most enraptured me in 1990s pop culture. While Ghost, continues to grant new perspectives and questions with each viewing. It's a testament to both the vision of a reclusive visionary, and a perpetually pensive filmmaker with more on his mind that pretty women with firearms. There is a haunted soul behind every frame of Ghost In The Shell, and its one that continues to infer that even blockbusters are capable of demanding more of their audience. Still a future worth fighting for.