In anticipation of the new live-action entry into the “Ghost in the Shell” universe starring Scarlett Johansson, let’s take a look back at the original animated film from Mamoru Oshii and examine what makes it such a classic.
The film is based on a manga written in 1989 by Masamune Shirow. The story is set in the near future, in a world in which humans and technology have begun to converge. Nationalities and countries have become nearly obsolete.
In this cyberpunk world, the human consciousness is known as a “ghost.” Many people have replaced various limbs with robotics and some have even replaced their entire bodies.
“Ghost in the Shell” follows a woman named Major Motoko Kusanagi, a police team leader and human-cyborg hybrid, as she attempts to hunt down a dangerous hacker known as “The Puppet Master.”
The film was released at a time when Japanese animation was just beginning to creep into the American market. The film proved to be highly influential in American entertainment and even legitimized the medium for some people.
“The Matrix” is a prime example of American entertainment that took inspiration from “Ghost in the Shell.” Both films begin with the iconic green text scrolling down the screen. They also both include a digital world which characters can enter by plugging wires into the back of their heads.
In “Ghost in the Shell,” this digital world is known as “the net."
The net is far more vast than the internet which exists in our world today. Characters can interact with the environment in this digital world. In fact, the world is so advanced that life can only be created and exist within “the net.”
This situation is where we find the antagonist of the film. The Puppet Master is a sentient life form that was somehow born within “the net,” in the sea of information as it describes itself.
While the film dives deep into philosophical discussion of the convergence of human life and technology — what makes a life human — and mortality, this film can be enjoyed at a pure entertainment level. The story works as a sci-fi detective noir film that pulls the audience into the mystery.
The film is filled with iconic action scenes. If you’re a big sci-fi fan, even if you have not seen “Ghost in the Shell,” chances are you’ve seen the infamous water fight scene or something inspired by it. The animation of the various battles Kusanagi finds herself in is always fluid and gorgeous to watch.
For a viewer who simply enjoys good animation, this is an excellent film. The quality of animation is one of the film’s great strengths.
The characters in the film are likeable and well-written, and despite having only an 83-minute runtime, the film does an excellent job of developing them. Throughout the film, Kusanagi struggles with her identity. Despite having a human brain and consciousness, her body is made up entirely of cybernetics. She continually struggles with her existence as a human.
There is a disconnect between Kusanagi and her society, and this disconnect is expressed in a brilliant way through the visual design of the character. There is a kind of “uncanny valley” effect about Kusanagi, which makes it difficult to connect with her as an audience, perhaps making us a part of the society that she feels isolated from.
This plays into the central question of the film: What does does it mean to be human?
The film raises difficult questions about the definition of humanity. The answer to this question has puzzled philosophers for centuries, but “Ghost in the Shell” complicates the question even further by raising the possibility of a digital yet sentient life form.
The film explores the differences between man and technology and what could happen if the two began to merge. Could something digital which was created by humans be a human itself? For a film that is barely long enough to be feature-length, “Ghost in the Shell” masterfully explores these difficult questions.
But “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t give its audience any answers to these questions. Instead, they are left for the audience to ponder and respond to. However, Roger Ebert described the film as “too complex and murky to reach a large audience” in his 1996 review.
Personally, it took a handful of viewings until I could confidently understand the ideas presented in “Ghost in the Shell” becaue of the film’s density.
In a world that is becoming increasingly technology dependent, “Ghost in the Shell” has not lost any relevance since its release 22 years ago. In fact, it may have become even more relevant over the years.
The entertaining action, masterful animation, memorable characters and soundtrack and the deeper philosophical questions combine, making “Ghost in the Shell” a lasting film whose influence is still felt today in American entertainment and perhaps one of the greatest animated films ever created.
The new film has a lot to live up to. Going into this film, I predict that anyone expecting a very introspective, philosophical work similar to the original film will be disappointed.
I predict that the new film will be a great popcorn action movie that captures the action of the original film and expands on the beautiful visuals, but doesn’t become as thought provoking. I believe if it tries to emulate the feeling of the original, chances are it won’t succeed.
From what we’ve seen in the trailers for the film, it will be taking a more action-centric route. I believe that this is a great direction for the film, and perhaps the film will be able to introduce a larger audience to an excellent series of films they may not have been previously aware of.