The Genius of Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is often praised for the wrong reasons. Ghost in the Shell is not a masterpiece of film because it is a masterpiece of writing but because it is a masterpiece of film. The dialogue is fairly simple, even Motoko and 2501 discussing the nature of humanity never becomes too complex. Too many people focus on the philosophical nature of the dialogue and miss the essence of the film.
This film relies on the credibility of a single scene in the climax and the purpose of the movie up to this point has been to sell this moment to the viewer. Near the film’s end, Motoko and 2501 give these lines to one another, shortly after 2501 reveals his plan to merge the two of them into a new living consciousness.
‘Why did you pick me?’
‘Because we are more alike than you realise.’
This is the critical moment. If the film hasn’t done enough to reinforce this concept, it will seem as if 2501 has picked Motoko for his plan, because she is the protagonist, because it is what the plot demanded and it will seem forced. If the film tries to reinforce this concept too powerfully in the scenes leading up to it, then it risks giving away and ending and spoiling the entire production. If the film waits until after this line is given to preserve the surprise and then tries to explain the revelation, it will also feel forced, albeit with an attempted explanation. Instead Oshii spends the entire film making parallels between the two characters, but always subliminally.
‘Why did you transfer a guy like me from the police force?’
‘Because we need a guy like you. Except for the slight brain augmentation, your body’s almost completely human…No matter how excellent, identical systems have faults. Overspecialize and you breed in weakness’
‘But you can leave a copy of yourself.’
‘There is a possibility that a single virus could destroy an entire set of systems and copies do not give rise to variety and originality.’
This is how Motoko thinks about her team. It has a better chance of survival with a human variable. She has a better chance of survival with a human variable. Project 2501 thinks in the same way. He wants to merge with Motoko because he thinks the human variable will increase his chances of survival and the survival of his virtual offspring. In this way Oshii directly and intentionally mirrors the thought processes of Motoko and 2501.
In each of the scenes pictured, Motoko and 2501 give a speech on humanity. The camera is pointed directly at them. Their face is flat and expressionless but at the height of the speech becomes more expressive. It is also worth noting that in the first scene 2501 is watching Motoko give her speech and that in the second scene Motoko watches 2501 give his.
Both Motoko and 2501 share problems of individuality and identity. Both of the character’s have their humanity doubted and both of them are presented with the possibility of being copied. Motoko , after doubting whether she really has a human brain, comes across a cybernetic body exactly like hers and it is never made clear to the audience whether this is an automaton or a human.
The title screen shows the words ‘Ghost in the Shell’ formed by many tiny pieces coming together. The movement stops. When a rough image is built, the words are then smoothed out. This subtly hints at the creation of Motoko’s body the audience is about to witness. When Motoko’s body is being created the chanting music is a Japanese wedding song setting up the concept of the merge from the beginning of the film.
Just before the merge 2501 speaks out of Motoko’s mouth. This is the culmination of their similarity and elegantly directs the audience to merge Motoko and 2501 before it has even taken place.
The events of the film are shot and presented to the audience in the same way that its two pivotal characters view the world around them. It is shot in a way which reinforces their personalities and helps characterize them. This takes full advantage of the medium of film.
Both Motoko and 2501 are characterized as god-like. They are the absolute best; skilled, determined and collected in the face of danger. It is for this reason that they take on an indifferent tone. They are above everything. They are cold and direct. Similarly, the film is cold and direct about the aspects typical of an action movie. From the opening the audience is presented with violence, nudity, hacking, car chases and explosions and all of it is presented indifferently. Motoko jumps away from a background explosion without a sound effect or matched-up piece of music. The film has a loud, long and clear soundtrack and it is clearly a conscious choice to present these action-typical scenes with silence.
The first time Motoko is shown she sits atop a tall building, overlooking the busy city of Niihama below her. She is processing traffic through her cyberbrain, Batou contacts her and is surprised that she is able to discern his message amongst the chatter of the city. She disconnects the wires from her neck, stands and prepares for an assassination. This scene captures the essence of Motoko’s character: skillful, indifferent, god-like. She is looking down at the rest of us. This continues throughout the film; Motoko is constantly presented as being above everything else in her scenes. Watching the city. Chasing the ghost-hacked man from the rooftops. Listening to 2501 on the balcony.
When Motoko awakens to her new body, she reacts with a combination of apathy and distaste. Motoko and her apartment are silhouetted in this scene stressing the detachment Motoko feels to the world. Both 2501 and Motoko have a habit of not caring about about whether they are naked or not in front of others, despite Batou’s attempts at covering Motoko with his jacket. They both seem to think that their bodies do not matter; they have transcended the physical form, both literally and philosophically.
The entire film reinforces its critical moment with a finesse rarely seen in cinema. It does this whilst also influencing the audience’s emotions to match those of its protagonists. In short, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a masterpiece of film.