1 Year 100 Reviews — Ghost in the Shell [1995]

When I first saw the cover art for the movie Ghost in the Shell (1995), I rolled my eyes. Because the cover art depicts the main character nearly naked, I dismissed the movie as being little more than hentai. At this point I was already somewhat familiar with the TV series spinoff of this movie, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I figured the movie would be similar to the show but overloaded with fan service. For those who don’t know, fan service is when artistic depictions of women are drawn in order to sexualize the character and arouse the presumably male audience. For plenty of examples, go to the tumblr Escher Girls; it is fantastic in its horribleness.

Anyway, it took me a long time to finally sit down and watch this movie that has such an astounding reputation behind it. What immediately shocked me about Ghost in the Shell was how incredibly layered the entire experience is. Every scene, every image, every musical chord is carefully chosen and impressively realized. Before I get too far into discussing the incredible achievement that this movie is, let me get some review stuff out of the way.

The story of Ghost in the Shell goes like this: in the year 2029 the world is so inculcated with technology that the distinction between organic and synthetic is beginning to dissipate. Because of this emergence in technology, Japan has created a special ops unit, Section 9, which is dedicated to cyber-crime as it relates to synthetic organisms. The head of the special ops team, Motoko Kusanagi, is a fully-synthetic android with a human’s consciousness implanted within. While she is not entirely unique for having a purely synthetic “Shell”, hers is the most technologically advanced version that exists. While going about their regular business of stopping cyber-crime they stumble upon a hacker terrorist who goes by the name of the Puppet Master. In chasing down this hacker, who is capable of altering a person’s Ghost (i.e. their consciousness), Kusanagi starts to unravel a major conspiracy and delve into the existential crisis of what it means to be human, yourself, and alive.

I loved this movie, but it is slow at times and requires a deep understanding of Japanese culture, especially as it pertains to storytelling. This is not a movie I would recommend to newcomers to the world of anime. If you do decide to watch it, try to find some retrospective online that discusses the themes and imagery of this film. It is a goldmine of theory and interpretation.

Ghost in the Shell is absolutely a piece of art. This movie is one of the most seminal pieces of Japanese cinema. Much like how Blade Runner changed the way we do science fiction in the West, Ghost in the Shell was equally influential over all sci-fi in the East. If I could describe this movie in one word, it would be “layered”. On the surface, Ghost in the Shell is a story about a police force fighting a cyber-terrorist and uncovering a conspiracy. A layer deeper and you see that every scene, every plot point, creates scenarios where some sort of philosophical conundrum is presented. Just as every sequence builds to the plot’s climax, each philosophical query builds toward the movie’s thematic climax. A layer deeper still, you see that the visuals all support and add to these themes. Deeper still, the dialogue choices, music, and cinematography add even more to all of the above. You could spend an entire article just talking about and dissecting the opening sequence of the movie and how it foreshadows the entire film’s themes while providing exposition about the origin of the main character.

Every aspect of this movie has enormous potential for debate. I have seen thoughtful discussions online about why it is Kusanagi has nipples. While fan service is the easiest explanation, nothing about the way she is depicted would suggest that. In fact, the body Kusanagi inhabits was built without genitals, which is curious. That means the inclusion of nipples was a conscious one. I do not wish to speculate why it would be that way (for I have already typed the word nipple more times than I would care to), the topic is best suited for someone more skilled at symbolic interpretation than I am.

In order to talk further about this movie, I would have to start getting into spoilers. So, for now, I will leave the discussion here. But, seriously, if you have not seen it yet and love sci-fi anime, then go watch this movie. If you are in filmmaking and want to understand cinematic storytelling and powerful use of imagery, watch this movie. If you are not interested in any of the things I listed above, then maybe don’t worry about watching this movie. Otherwise, what are you waiting for?