Ghost in the Shell
September 14th, 2011
(Anime Abandon opening, then we fade in on a more…upbeat Sage.)
Sage: There are a handful of shows and movies that are agreed upon by old-school anime fans as seminal classics. Among these elite few anime is the 1995 film (holds up the subject) Ghost in the Shell.
(Cut to the film with the soundtrack cut “Nightstalker” in the background.)
Sage (VO): I’m gonna operate on the logic that the majority of viewers watching this review have seen this movie and need no summary of the plot, so I’ll be going along this review in a non-linear fashion. Still, in the interest of keeping everyone on the same page, I should at least provide a small synopsis.
Ghost in the Shell is the story of a cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi. Set in a futuristic Hong Kong where Motoko is part of a Japanese government agency dubbed “Section 9” that fights cybernetic crime. The story follows her and the other members’ attempts to apprehend a mysterious hacker that goes by the codename of “The Puppet Master.” The title of the film—Ghost in the Shell—is a reference to in-universe terminology: “ghost” roughly meaning “soul,” and “shell” meaning the case that protects the cyborg’s brain.
Sage: That’s basically the gist of the plot, but there is a lot more going on with Motoko and her close ally and friend, Batou.
(Cut to the scene on Batou’s boat where he recovers Motoko from her dive.)
Sage (VO): The story basically focuses on the nature of humanity and how far—or close—does one have to go to stop being human, and also examines the question of whether or not self-awareness constitutes true intelligence, given that it can be artificially replicated. It was a film that treated its viewers as mature, learned adults, and that simply was not the case for nearly every single anime that was localized during the time.
Sage (cringing a bit): But…in all likelihood, the sole reason why a lot of us saw this film was because there were boobs on the cover.
(Cut to the scene of Motoko’s finished creation from the beginning of the film.)
Sage (VO): Of course, speaking for myself and being 13, I wasn’t exactly thinking with the most developed of minds. But it’s the truth: horniness basically goaded me into watching an artful, challenging and visually stunning film.
Sage: So if there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s that if you want teenage boys to watch thoughtful programming, slap a pair of tits on the cover. OK, all joking aside, Ghost in the Shell really is a landmark film not only in the sense of Japanese animation history, but also on a personal level. I love this film! So much so in fact, that I own this film on UMD! (Holds up the Ghost in the Shell UMD, then looks over at it) And I don’t even own a PSP!
(Cut to the chase scene with the man that tries to outrun Section 9.)
Sage (VO): It’s easily one of my favorite science-fiction films of all time, along with A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner. And in some cases, it’s also one of my favorite films of all time. I’d be hard-pressed to find a film more jaw-droppingly gorgeous and atmospheric. You could teach an editing class with this film on how to attune sound with visuals and vice-versa. As a visual experience, Ghost in the Shell may be second to none in anime. But…
(Quick cut back to Sage as he finishes his thought)
Sage: As a story…it’s not that good…?
(Sage cringes and covers his ears as a chorus of boos rain down on him, and we cut to a shot of the White House with what I assume to be President Obama’s inauguration speech in 2008.)
Sage: Come on! Let me explain a little before you launch into your hate!
(As Sage cringes away from the boos, we cut back to the film—the Puppet Master scene, to be precise.)
Sage (VO): Even after I professed my love for this movie, I still can’t get around the fact that the actual story being told is needlessly bogged down with ham-handed philosophical dialogue that would’ve felt more natural if it was literally shoehorned in.
(Cut to Motoko’s philosophical speech on the boat.)
Motoko: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries!
Sage: Dammit Motoko, I just asked if you wanted sausage on the pizza or not!
Sage (VO): The film also isn’t immune to your usual inconsistent voice acting that was pretty prevalent at the time. Richard Epcar’s Batou was fairly solid throughout the film, but Mimi Woods’ monotonous delivery as Motoko became a chore to sit through, even if that was the intent.
Sage: The visual design and motif of Motoko’s character may have been that of an inhuman automaton, but filtering that same concept through the voice acting is only going to make the actors sound bored and stilted.
(Cut to a scene from the end of the movie.)
Motoko: Batou, remember the words I spoke in another voice on the boat that night? I understand it now, and there are even more words that go with the passage. These words are: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways. And now I can say these things without help in my own voice.”
(Cut to a different scene, with the soundtrack cut “Ghostdive.”)
Sage (VO): Finally, the ending suffers from a complete anti-climax. I don’t wanna go into spoilers for the few who haven’t seen it, but I can say the ending just feels…abrupt and wholly unsatisfying. Mulling it over, I think it’s because there really isn’t a centralized conflict. At least, not a tangible one.
Yes, Motoko is tasked with finding the Puppet Master, but the more the story progresses, the more this urgency becomes muted. The narrative focus shifts away from catching the Puppet Master for legal reasons, and becomes more about Motoko’s own pursuit for answers to her own metaphysical questions. In this sense, the conflict at once becomes personal…but hollow. The purely abstract motivations that drive Motoko are more difficult to relate to than the professional motivation of capturing a criminal.
Sage: I dunno, maybe if we were cyborgs, we would be more emotionally invested in the conflict…and since we’re already examining hypothetical situations that will never happen…I want a robo-dick.
(Cut back to the Puppet Master scene.)
Sage (VO): Still I don’t want to come off like I’m just here to bash on the film. I said that I loved Ghost in the Shell, and I truly mean it, even with the clunky philosophical dialogue. I’d rather a film lose its sense of verisimilitude for the sake of being intellectually engaging than keeping it real and low-brow. Generally speaking, at least.
Sage: I’m aware that sometimes a film needs to let go a sense of narrative realism in order to properly frame a metaphorical theme or mise en scene, but there’s just no letting go of the fact that a film feels…pretentious when it does that.
(Cut back to the Puppet Master scene again, and then to the final fight)
Sage (VO): Director Mamoru Oshii is known for valuing imagery over narrative and character development. While there is an argument for film being a largely visual experience, this over-emphasis can lead to moments of extraneous pap. During the final climactic fight, for example, Motoko is seen dodging a tank’s gunfire. The tank keeps on firing upwards at the wall, stopping just short of blowing away the word “hominis.” What we are seeing is a bas-relief of several binomial names of fish in the form of a tree.
(Arrow points to “pristis,” and then to “raja.”)
There’s the genus name for the sawfish, for instance, and the one for skatefish. Hominis is the subspecies name for many a pest and bacterium. But it’s also a Latin root word for “human,” specifically, man in a general form. The metaphorical meaning behind the tank, or machinery destroying every other species except for man, becomes kind of pointless when you realize that the only reason that the bas-relief was even there in the first place, was so that it can have that scene. All things considered, that wall relief is out of place considering the setting.
Sage: It’s this need to make a statement through a forced symbolic metaphor that really drives home the feeling that Oshii is a really pretentious director…but for some reason, this doesn’t bother me as much as I think it should.
(Cut back to the tank fight and the soundtrack cut “Floating Museum.”)
Sage (VO): Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the movie that I can let go of some of these hangups. The film is focused heavily on imagery and metaphor, so if it needs to eschew some slight details like this, then I find it begrudgingly acceptable. It’s at least presented well and the metaphor isn’t immediately obvious…though I do wish they didn’t have to make that sacrifice in the first place.
Sage: Thankfully though, the film doesn’t sacrifice anything of the story when it comes to its subtle, feminist treatise on identity.
Sage (VO): I would argue that the film’s feminist message far outweighs what it has to say about the human condition and technology in terms of intellectual sustenance, mainly because of anime’s background.
Sage (cringing a bit): Let’s face it, anime has a history of not having the most…progressive view of women…
(Cut to a shot of the Mad Bull 34 VHS cover)
Sage: So to see an anime take a more thoughtful and critical approach to how society views women’s bodies as little more than ornamental amusement is truly groundbreaking.
(Cut back to Motoko’s diving scene. Music changes to the soundtrack cut “Resurrection III - Reincarnation”)
Sage (VO): Ghost in the Shell manages to say everything it needs to about the objectification of women without having a single line of dialogue dedicated to it. By relying on visuals and literally making Motoko’s body an object of metal and wires, the film takes this misogynistic view and lays it within a new context to better show the inherent absurdity. There are several scenes where Motoko is nude, for example, but they are never meant to infer eroticism. There are two scenes that perfectly demonstrate this: one towards the beginning, and one towards the end.
We open with completely sterile and clinical shots of Motoko’s robotic body being constructed. This scene was meant to parallel not only a type of birth, what with many shots of Motoko in a kind of fetal position, but also, oddly enough, a type of marriage. The choir singing in the background a type of marital charm in order to ward off evil spirits during a wedding. This can be seen as a kind of union of sorts between Motoko’s brain—or Ghost—and her robotic body—or Shell. Or between herself and—
(Sage promptly cuts himself off with coughing in a smash cut back to him)
Sage (through coughs): Sorry, sorry. I forgot I said no spoilers.
(Cut back to the opening credits scene, with Motoko’s creation)
Sage (VO): We see the meticulous and complicated machinery underneath what could otherwise pass for a regular human, reducing the human form—and in this specific case, the female form—to its most barest of elements. Underneath the alluring form of Motoko’s body—and in a tangental sense, the everyday female body—is the non-erotic reality: the machinery that keeps both alive. What would be bone, muscle and sinew is instead metal, rubber and wiring.
Sage: When we see the procedure complete, Motoko is standing idle, and very much nude. She’s bare-breasted, wind is sweeping her hair to and fro, but it’s difficult to see her as an erotic and lustful figure when we’ve seen her without hair, skin and eyes. We are conditioned to see her not as a woman—let alone a person—but as an object of infinite complexity.
(Cut back to the creation scene)
Sage (VO): Also, despite Motoko having no genitalia, she does have breasts, complete with areola and nipple. Structurally, they are superfluous. Why would her schematics—obviously designed to maintain efficiency and integrity—allow for breasts? It’s not for feeding young, as the lack of a vagina clearly indicates an inability to reproduce. The only logical reason is so that others can identify her as female. Perhaps Motoko herself needs to have breasts to remind herself that she was, and still is, female.
Sage: Or it could just be that Mamoru Oshii wanted to have a pair of tits on-screen. Personally, I’m hoping for the former.
(Cut to a boat scene where Motoko is seeing women that look like her.)
Sage (VO): In Motoko’s position, it is difficult for her to identify herself as human, let alone a woman. Perhaps this way, she can internalize this physiological difference and establish an identity. But by relying on this purely cosmetic distinction, does it perpetuate the long and demeaning societal habit of defining women by their outward appearance?
Sage: The film doesn’t pretend to answer these questions, but it does force us to think about our own views on gender relations: the frivolous differences, the unfairness, the (the music abruptly stops)…OK, you got me, I just wanted to talk about tits for a few minutes!
(Cut to the tank scene once again)
Sage (VO): The other scene, the one towards the end, is once again the armored tank battle. Motoko removes her heavy trench coat, revealing her skintight stealth suit. Under the cloak of invisibility, she leaps above the tank and attempts to pull the hatch off. Even with her enhanced cybernetic strength, though, she is unable to lift through it, deciding to go all-out, and push her body to the breaking point. Her body shifts from its normal slender and taut figure, to an overly-muscled and masculine frame. It’s still not enough, however, as her body finally gives in and breaks apart. She is sent tumbling down the tank, broken and helpless.
Sage: Her body is completely ravaged, and her suit has split apart. We’ve seen her being built, and now we’ve come full circle to seeing her being broken and vulnerable.
(Cut back to the scene)
Sage (VO): It is only by the grace of Batou’s timely involvement does Motoko survive the encounter. Though her body is damaged beyond immediate repair, she remains alive. We learn it’s not her body—her physical presence—that defines her: it’s her will. Her determination to pursue what she wants, even to the detriment of her own health and well-being. The Shell may be broken, but the Ghost remains.
Sage: This is where it becomes difficult to fully expound upon this revelation without going into heavy spoiler territory. Basically, Motoko lets go of the body that she identifies herself with to pursue an…alternative. She no longer has to use any physical means to identify herself with. It’s not the Shell that defines Motoko Kusanagi. It’s her Ghost.
Sage (VO): There are many other themes of Ghost in the Shell that I haven’t brought up. Mainly because if I were to, this video would stretch on to feature-length. But also because I want to give the people that haven’t seen it the impetus and desire to sit themselves down, and watch it for themselves, and extrapolate their own views on the film.
Sage (holding up the DVD): Word to the wise, see the original, non-Special Edition version of this movie. Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is basically the same movie, only repackaged and with needless CGI.
(Cut to the final scene of the movie, with Motoko looking over the city)
Sage (VO): To be perfectly frank, I feel the new edition takes away from the original more than it adds to it. The recolored images make everything look too warm and it loses that cold edge that suited the feel of the film.
Sage: Well, hopefully I’ve done what I set out to do and some of you decide to give Ghost in the Shell a watch. I know this episode has been outside of the norm, but if I can get just one person to watch this film, then I think it was worth it. (With resignation in his voice) But don’t worry, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled schlock-fest with our next episode…and heads up…it’s gonna be a little saucy…
(Sage holds up next episode’s subject. Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. He gives it a knowing look.)
Sage: ’Til next time.