Ghost in the Shell is a film that excels in so many areas it’s almost unfair. A cyberpunk story that is more compelling and thoughtful than many of it’s more sprawling and heavy counterparts, a piece of animation that still holds up as one of the finest works to come out of Japan, and a beast of an action film that moves along at an elegant clip clocking in at under 90 minutes. The film does what it needs to do, does it all superbly, and ends before overstaying its welcome.
And for a film with such control and restraint, it begins at 11: Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanka) stands atop a building, strips, jumps off, and turns invisible midair. It only gets weirder from there. What follows is a plot to discover an international hacker who has made their way to Tokyo. Soon larger government forces are involved, hinting at a global conspiracy to hide the existence of this hacker.
Most people’s point of reference for this film will be The Matrix, a popular sci-fi flick that cribs liberally from Ghost in the Shell. Scenes and shots are often directly transplanted into The Matrix and certain ideas and themes are reworked. But the Wachowskis misidentify why the philosophical underpinnings work in Ghost in the Shell.
The ideas of Ghost in the Shell drive the drama of the Major grappling with her own sense of self and identity while The Matrix falls into the safe tropes of the hero’s journey arc and uses the philosophical exposition more as thematic set dressing for a big-budget kung-fu film with lots of gunfights in between and a sprinkling of cyberpunk.
I compare the two films because the reason why Ghost in the Shell is so much shorter is because exposition comes as we get to know the characters. Deep musings happen over a couple of cyborgs drinking beer, not a flashy demonstration of visual effects and world-building. These moments are as much about who the characters are and what they want as they are about grappling with the larger themes of personhood and transhumanist ideas. Ghost in the Shell understands cyberpunk because cyberpunk is about making the fantasy of blending human and machine mundane.
That’s why Major spends so much of the film naked. It initially feels gratuitous, but the film never leers at her body or even presents her as a sexual being. There’s no romance, no lust, not even a suggestion that the Major has a sense of being a human woman anymore. To the Major, her body is simply a tool that now functions as a crime-stopping device. It may have the aesthetic beauty of the female form, but beneath the skin it’s cold steel, simply a casing for something perhaps more machine than man. The skin is simply a casing for what lies beneath.
What is alluring is the intricate animation. This is a film that stands among the most well-regarded anime films, spoken in the same breath as films such as Akira and Spirited Away. It still stands up as a top notch piece of animation and shows how at the height of hand-drawn animation a level of fidelity and detail could be achieved and expressed that few animated films have achieved since. The attention to both the detail of the machinery and the movements of bodies shows a dedication to a sense of realism while also understanding when to break the bounds for stylized effect.
Probably the best demonstration of this scene is the iconic fight in the water, a great demonstration of both the augmented abilities of cyborgs as well as the animator’s ability to create a sense of fluid motion and movement while one character is invisible. It’s a fantastic sequence that stands as one of the finest moments of animation in any film.
And as fantastic as all these elements are, they’re secondary to how Ghost in the Shell plays as a transcendent piece of sci-fi storytelling. A good sci-fi story uses technology to expose ideas about the human condition but Ghost in the Shell also ponders the nature of what personhood will look like in a world where we have the potential to become disembodied. At what point do we lose ourselves as we begin to inhabit something that no longer feels human.
It’s a compelling question, one that wonders at the real possibilities of transhumanism and disembodiment in a technological age where everything in the human body is replaceable. It speaks to the idea of a human soul but also wonders about the importance of the body and what might be lost along the way. Like the best works of art, the film’s not presumptuous to give us quick and easy answers, only to ask us to ponder difficult questions.
© James Blake Ewing 2021