Truth time: I’m not a regular viewer of anime. However, over the years I’ve had many anime-fan friends who all highly spoke of the original mid-1990s cartoon version of ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ so after some friendly cajoling – and interest on the property in general being a bit higher after the recent flopped live-action American cinematic version – I finally dove in and made ‘Ghost in the Shell’ one of maybe five anime films I’ve actually seen from beginning to end.
In the year 2029, most humans have some amount of cybernetic enhancements. Some of those people are being hacked into by an elusive criminal nicknamed the Puppet Master, who is able to access the human “ghost” (think a cybernetic version of one’s soul) and manipulate his victims into doing his bidding. The case is taken over by a government agency named Section 6, and its lead agents Kusanagi and Batou soon find themselves tangled in a web of intrigue that challenges the very notions of humanity and person-hood.
Frankly, this is anime for the thinking person. Yes, the stereotypical anime tropes like giant guns and animated nudity are still in play here, but it’s mostly in service of a compelling tale of a trans-humanist identity crisis. Nerdy? Yes. Interesting enough to keep me in front of the TV? Absolutely. They couldn’t have gotten my attention any better if they’d included a $20 bill in the DVD case (spoiler alert: they did not include a $20 bill in the DVD case).
It’s hard enough to judge a sense of real-life “actuality” in any science fiction movie… but this is an animated, Japanese science fiction movie about cyborgs and SENTIENT ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, for crying out loud. Yes, we live in a tech-heavy world today (and did, to an extent, back in the ’90s as well), but if there were any more far-fetched sci-fi gadgets used in this movie, the creators would be hard-pressed to find a spot to squeeze them in. That said, the movie does a pretty good job of earning most of the hyper-advanced technology shown, and to be honest, what was far-fetched in 1995 seems much more plausible in 2018. Things like dynamic camouflage and Batou’s and Kusanagi’s cybernetic enhancements are shown early on in a prologue sequence, giving us time to get used to the movie’s world before the story really gets started. Overall, the payoff for buying into the future presented by the film is worth the suspension of disbelief, and that’s what really matters most.
The story suffers from being condensed from a 350-page manga into barely 80 minutes—plot turns happen abruptly and awkwardly, and there’s barely any time for the audience to absorb the philosophical moments before we’re jerked back into another action sequence. I can understand why the “talky” parts need to be tempered by action scenes, but the transitions are artless and the balance between talking and action favors action too much. Also – the voice acting is, for whatever reason, unbelievably awful. The translation doesn’t do the actors any favors— it’s extremely literal and over-explanatory — but everyone’s delivery sounds like a disinterested recitation rather than words said by (mostly) human people living in a moment. I’ve read that the ‘Ghost in the Shell 2.0’ re-release of the film does upgrade the voice acting but at the expense of one very important moment that I can’t really describe and still preserve the spoiler. No matter which version you watch, the acting seriously detracts from the overall experience.
Even if you aren’t a fan of anime as an art style, you can’t ignore that this movie is beautiful. Using a then-revolutionary blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ makes its scenery come to life with well-drawn characters and tremendously detailed backgrounds. Nothing looks photorealistic, of course – this is still heavily-stylized anime – but the set pieces look so natural and lived-in that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a cartoon, much less one made in the infancy of modern CGI. It’s hard to say better than that.
‘Ghost in the Shell’ is anime for people who don’t like or don’t know much about anime. In the wrong hands, this could have been either a brainless action flick or a post-graduate lecture on technology and identity. While the hands behind ‘Ghost in the Shell’ weren’t perfect, they were right enough to put this movie on everyone’s “must see” list.