Ghost in the Shell


I’ll get this out of the way first: the soul is the ghost and the body is the shell. The title is a reference to Arthur Koestler’s book The Ghost in the Machine, which itself refers to a term coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe the duality of mind and body. The writer and illustrator Masamune Shirow borrowed and altered the phrase for his serialized 1989 manga Mobile Armored Riot Police, which bore the subtitle “The Ghost in the Shell.” I haven’t read the manga, but the animated feature it inspired is positively heady with ideas. Ghost in the Shell is a cop movie about robots with human souls. It’s science-fiction about the human rights of artificial intelligence. And it’s a fantasy about a sexy cyborg who knows how to use a gun. It’s all of those things, and it’s a disquisition on human consciousness, a meditation on urban loneliness, and also, maybe, a poem about unrequited love. It’s extraordinary.

Ghost in the Shell is dense with intrigue, and while I’ve always found the specifics elusive (it’s one of those movies that dumps truckloads of exposition on you in conversations between otherwise nondescript characters), the main throughline follows mostly cybernetic Major Motoku Kusanagi (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka in the Japanese-language version and Mimi Woods in English) and her only partially enhanced partner, Batou (Akio Ōtsuka/Richard Epcar). The two are tracking the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi/Tom Wyner), an anonymous adversary who “ghost-hacks” victims, implanting them with false memories in order to manipulate them from afar. The Puppet Master proves hard to track down; like the serial killer in Se7en, released the same year, this slippery mastermind finally arrives on the scene unexpectedly, essentially surrendering to the police.

The story, though, barely matters. Ghost in the Shell is remarkable in the same ways Blade Runner is remarkable. It features main characters who are troubled by the status of their consciousness–their present-day selves are defined by the memories of experiences that determine their personalities, and those memories are always at some risk of being lost forever. The picture introduces big ideas about sentience and free will and then leaves you to stew in them as Kenji Kawai’s wildly evocative score plays over futuristic but weirdly familiar cityscapes. There’s a scene a half-hour in where Batou and Kusunagi go boating so she can scuba-dive in the ocean water off the coast of New Port City, an island metropolis based on Hong Kong, where the action takes place. Instead of discussing the case, the two of them talk about what it means to be human. She asks him how much of his body is original, rather than cybernetic; he asks her if she’s drunk. She responds by describing how the artificial components of a cyborg body can immediately metabolize alcohol–the ultimate buzzkill.

Batou suggests they’ve both sold their souls to their government keepers, but Kusunagi points out that they can resign any time they like, if they agree to let the state reclaim their synthetic components–and their memories along with them. And then Kusunagi delivers a monologue, straight to camera, about the composition of her body and mind: her face, her voice, her feelings about her future, the wealth of information her cybernetic brain accesses via the Internet. She declares, as the cityscape seems to press in from behind her, that the defining presence of her consciousness is also a confining force that establishes the boundaries her mind can operate within. And then, in a genuinely creepy flourish, both Batou and Kusunagi hear a disembodied voice (her voice) narrate a verse from First Corinthians, the one about looking “through a glass darkly,” unable to discern the true nature of the world, from which Bergman took the title of his famous film about the lopsided relationship between humans and God.

The ensuing spectacle stops the narrative dead for an impressionistic interlude. This dialogue-free, three-and-a-half-minute segment of film is a bold gambit for auteur-driven anime, especially for anime as story-heavy as this. Instead of learning more about the hunt for the Puppet Master, we get a multiplicity of views of New Port City–buildings under construction surrounded by shells of prickly scaffolding, raindrops creating concentric rings in puddles of standing water, shop-window displays and multiplicities of advertising billboards, even a sad-eyed basset hound–as seen by Kusunagi. In a shot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miyazaki film, a group of children carrying yellow umbrellas runs across the bottom of the screen, dwarfed by the apartment buildings and skyscrapers that tower above and behind them. In a sequence I like to believe Oshii lifted from The Double Life of Véronique, Kusunagi sees her doppelgänger through a cafe window as she sails by slowly on a water taxi; it’s the only time during the film when she looks genuinely alarmed. When Kieslowski’s Weronika glimpsed her own double through the window of a moving bus, it felt spiritual, like an out-of-body experience. Oshii’s Kusunagi, though, has only spotted another cyborg that shares her physical shell–an apparently unwelcome reminder of her not-humanness.

Kawai’s music for the film, which highlights this segment, features a show-stopping synthesis of Bulgarian folk-singing styles (think “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 2“, if you know that album) executed by Japanese singers over thundering, echoing drumbeats. I hate to compare it to the Vangelis score for Blade Runner because, aside from the New Age-y feel and the fact that it’s set to near-future metropolitan imagery, it’s really only superficially similar, but it serves the same function. Just as Vangelis’s music powerfully fills the aural spaces left empty when Harrison Ford’s VO narration was removed from reissues of Blade Runner, Kawai’s melancholy chorale enhances Oshii’s images of urban alienation. The look of Ghost in the Shell was something new, too, combining traditional cel animation with experimental computer-graphics techniques and still-new nonlinear editing systems to execute a complex, layered aesthetic that suggested depth without negating the special handmade quality of 2D animation. The results are remarkable. There’s a lot about anime that I just don’t get, but I get this.

Ghost in the Shell has held up fine over the years. Better than fine, actually. Some viewers have found in it an interesting consideration of transgender issues, preoccupied as it is with the idea of human consciousness as a kind of spirit embedded in a physical machine that may not be a perfect match. I’ve seen Kusunagi described as an “androgynous” figure, which is a little hard for me to swallow, given that she’s deliberately drawn with large breasts and a shapely ass. Then again, when she suits up she becomes a soldier of indeterminate gender, and a scene in the film’s climactic action sequence reveals her to be completely jacked, rippling with enormous muscles as she tries to pry open an armoured tank. Kusunagi really can do anything a man can do, and then some. One thing she can’t do, however, is reproduce. And there’s another theme underlying Ghost in the Shell, which wants to know: what good is it for you to evolve into a new version of yourself if your humanity goes extinct in the process?

There’s more. Partway through the film, a software tool that has become sentient requests political asylum, comparing its own viral qualities to the replicative nature of human DNA. To make this application in person, the AI, which is essentially agender, has occupied its own female cyborg body, a pale blonde counterpart to Kusunagi. (Hanging from an overhead apparatus, its nude torso torn in half so that wires, tubes, and musculature hang out through the body’s midsection, it reminded me of the Indonesian Leyak, an undead vampire that victimizes pregnant women.) Eventually, it approaches Kusunagi with a proposition: it wants to merge with her so that it can reproduce over the ‘net, explaining that her biological status would ensure genetic variation in their offspring as opposed to bit-perfect copies. That variance would guarantee, the AI says, that a hereditary version of itself endures even once the original is deleted. After the AI makes this proposal, Oshii cuts to a two-shot of their faces, aligned on their noses, one seen in profile in the foreground and the other turned towards camera in the background. I understood this as a direct reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which is about a merger of sorts between two women, one of them representing humanity, the other God. I see the influence of Tarkovsky, too, in the huge, wet, cathedral-like space where this evolutionary negotiation takes place. In return for her cooperation, the AI promises Kusunagi unfettered access to the vastness of an otherwise inaccessible network. “Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you,” the AI says. She believes him.

The 2017 live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell came under criticism mainly for casting Scarlett Johansson, instead of a Japanese actress, in the role of Kusanagi. Fair enough (though to be honest, I was more upset that the film had the good sense to cast Beat Takeshi and then barely used him). The project was, alas, misbegotten from the start, not just because Ghost in the Shell already had a live-action remake, more or less (it was called The Matrix), but also because the Hollywood model had no interest in engaging in the shambolic philosophical discourse that made the animated original special, if a bit impenetrable. Times being what they are, not even the original film’s habit of displaying Kusunagi’s apparently nude body from a variety of angles made the transition to the remake. (I say “apparently” because there’s some debate about the nature of the “therm-optic” camouflage that allows her to become invisible; suffice it to say, if she’s wearing anything in these sequences, it’s a thoroughly transparent layer.) In the 1990s, overt sex appeal was considered a marketing hook; these days, it’s widely derided by anime aficionados as “fan service.” So Johansson donned a generic white skinsuit that emphasized the cybernetic material’s plasticity rather than fleshiness, which seems to me like a mistake.

The visibility of Kusunagi’s body serves an interesting purpose by demonstrating that sexualization, in the world of the film, is a non-issue. She spends a large portion of her time visibly naked, yet no one seems to take note, least of all her. There are no leering glances, no stage-whispered asides about her fuckability. Only Batou, the tough guy who won’t tell her he loves her because it wouldn’t matter a lick if he did, seems distracted by her nudity. When she beats the hell out of a recalcitrant suspect in a shallow pool, it’s Batou who wraps his jacket around her shoulders to cover her. On the boat, after Kusunagi goes diving, she strips out of her scuba gear in his view, and he looks away. And at the end of the film, as Kusunagi opts to merge with a totally artificial intelligence, it’s Batou, pounding beers that will never intoxicate him, who facilitates her desired evolution despite knowing it will mean the death of their relationship. “You can stay as long as you like,” he promises, just before she heads for the door. Of all Ghost in the Shell‘s characters, it’s poor, chivalrous Batou, with his hulking, chiselled musculature, who’s a little too tender for these times.

Any modern transfer of Ghost in the Shell is going to present a challenge. The very circumstances of the film’s making–all of the elements were digitized and assembled in computers before being written out to 35mm celluloid on a film recorder at whatever level of quality was possible in the mid-1990s–limit the clarity of the final output. While it would theoretically be possible to return to all of the original analog elements–assuming they still exist–and rescan them at higher resolutions for a remastered version, the process would be incredibly painstaking and almost certainly cost-prohibitive. What we have instead seems to be a 4K scan of one of the film elements used in the original photochemical print-making process, perhaps an interpositive. While a 1080p HD transfer can resolve more information than a 480p DVD, I’m skeptical that this new UHD version brings any more measurable detail to the party, and a cursory A/B comparison of the new UHD disc with the included Blu-ray didn’t reveal any. There is, on the other hand, an increase in perceived detail, thanks to the contrast boost provided by HDR (I reviewed the Dolby Vision version), which seems to give the image extra depth and definition. That’s a welcome bonus, since the image is soft by nature, and Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to get any sharper than this.

Welcome, too, is the disc’s faithful reproduction of the film’s very unusual look, characterized by the deliberate use of diffusion techniques to give some shots a milky, even smeary haze. What may be missing in pure detail is somewhat made up for by Dolby Vision’s accurate representation of the picture’s muted but sometimes complex colour schemes, which can now extend farther into the highlights of the image. The biggest complaint I have has to do with the zealous use of digital noise-reduction techniques in an attempt to scrub out film grain. Ghost in the Shell has long been the victim of aggressive denoising; the original VHS and DVD versions were rife with hideous ghosting artifacts created by anti-noise software that was confused by the lines of the film’s animation. The result here is that the cels are impressively grain-free, except when they’re not; some shots were clearly processed in a way that blends grain temporally across multiple frames, giving the backgrounds a weird texture, like an uneven layer of paint drying in time-lapse. (This happens because dust and scratches, when they appear, are averaged out across multiple frames, creating a blended appearance that changes subtly over time.) Word from those in the know is that this is the same transfer used for an earlier UHD version out of Japan, so Lionsgate had little say in the matter one way or the other.

Dolby Atmos mixes are available for both English- and Japanese-language versions of the film (the tracks are in 5.1 TrueHD on the BD), with a number of minor differences between the two. I listened to the entire Japanese track with a 7.1 speaker configuration and then sampled the English track for comparison’s sake; I was surprised to find that while both were full of highly directional sound effects, the location of different effects in the sound field varied between the two. Neither seemed to be more active than the other in terms of directionality–they’re just variations on the same engaging multichannel soundscape. A Japanese 2.0 PCM track also graces both the UHD and BD versions. As for the subtitles, they track the audio. If you’re listening to the English-language option, you get “dubtitles” that translate the English dub. If you switch to Japanese-language dialogue, you see a more detailed and, I assume, somewhat more accurate translation. My ears perked up early on, when Batou tells Kusunagi, “There’s a lot of static in your brain,” and she deadpans, “It’s that time of the month.” That joke, underscoring the film’s themes of human-ness and reproduction and which I had never heard before, was replaced by “must be a loose wire” for the English-language release. That’s not simply a more concise translation; it undermines the film’s subtext. Later, when Kusunagi’s explaining the disparate elements that make up her consciousness, she specifically calls attention to her ability to interface with the ‘net: “There’s the expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access.” The English line is substantially more opaque: “I collect information to use in my own way,” which could mean, you know, anything. I highly recommend watching the Japanese audio with English subtitles, though anime remains the one realm of hardcore cinephilia where fans can say things like, “I don’t like to read movies” without getting laughed out of the room.

Leading the extra features is a running audio commentary teaming Mary Claypool, who wrote the script for the English dub, animation producer Eric Calderon (an interested observer who didn’t work on the film), actor Richard Epcar, and animation critic and historian Charles Solomon. (This track was recorded with all of its contributors participating remotely, apparently during the COVID-19 crisis.) Talk about “fan service”–everyone here loves the movie a lot. Maybe a little too much, though they are all experts in anime in a way that I am not. Solomon, meanwhile, brings a bit of literary scholarship to the room, opining on how the work of Murakami and Mishima relates philosophically to Ghost in the Shell. Still, I feel other claims that go unchallenged are suspect. At one point, Epcar claims that Ghost in the Shell was, improbably, the best-selling videotape of 1996 in the U.S., and nobody ever calls him on it. (According to the January 11, 1997 issue of BILLBOARD, the top-selling video of 1996 was BabeGhost in the Shell placed 19th, falling in between Casper and Disney’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves–a respectable showing, yet not the cultural phenomenon Epcar suggests.) Later, as the credits roll, Calderon comments that Kawai’s music has “changed so much from the middle to the end” of the movie–but the end-title music we hear as he speaks is actually a track from the U2/Brian Eno side project Passengers that was added to the English-language version. Although I consider this an error on his part, the Japanese version of the film should end with one more Kawai piece. Unfortunately, the audio on the Japanese track here is the same as on the English, suggesting either an oversight or perhaps a music-rights issue.

Most of the same crew, excepting Solomon, are featured in “Accessing Section 9: 25 Years into the Future” (19 mins.), a featurette that also contains observations from Les E. Claypool III, billed as “supervising sound editor” (he apparently beefed up the Japanese crew’s original FX work), Tokyopop founder Stu Levy, ANIME NEWS NETWORK editor at large Justin Sevakis, writer Northrop Davis, and actor William Knight, who plays the official Aramaki in the movie. Mary Claypool remembers that she was given only two weeks to write the English dialogue and takes credit for improvising a fan-favourite line near the end of the film. Hao Li, the CEO of a startup called Pinscreen, spends the last three minutes fretting about the appearance of Ghost in the Shell‘s technology in the real world. “It’s almost not a movie you watch. It’s a movie you study, and think about,” he says, as if that’s a good thing.

Next up is “Landscapes & Dreamscapes: The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell” (11 mins.), a highly informative interview with Stefan Riekeles, an expert in anime architecture who demonstrates his intimate familiarity with the movie’s artwork. He dismisses the film’s convoluted story as “a kind of superficial hook to get people into the world” before identifying Oshii as the first director to ever location-scout an anime movie. He describes the work of location photographer Haruhiko Higami, who shot Hong Kong reference photos in black-and-white, as well as that of art director Hiromasa Ogura, who took shots specifically for colour reference. Because the climate in Hong Kong was so warm and humid, Ogura’s camera lens would fog up as soon as he went outside; the results were so compelling that that foggy look was incorporated into the texture of the actual film. Also on the UHD BD are two trailers. In the first one (1:37), presented in native HD, an excitable narrator promises cutting-edge sci-fi entertainment for “young adult audiences;” it feels like an industry promo. The second (1:49) is in Japanese with no subtitles.

The rest of the extras are exclusive to the accompanying BD. “Production Report” (27 mins.) is a vintage EPK-style making-of designed like something you might have expected to watch from a CD-ROM in the mid-1990s. Smaller windows are laid out inside a 4×3 frame, one of them displaying relevant scenes from the movie and the other showing one in a long series of talking-head interviews. On-screen text identifies the speakers and spells out the questions each is responding to. The whole thing has been upres’d to 1080p. It’s a little goofy and superficial, but there are long segments dedicated to aspects of the production process that really were groundbreaking at the time. Among the highlights are Kenji Kawai’s discussion of his score (including a translation of the lyrics from the chorale portions), as well as a very brief interview with Oshii himself. The piece follows the film through its premiere at the 1995 Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival, and checks in briefly with the cast and crew afterwards. “Of all my films,” says Oshii, “this was, surprisingly, easier to watch.” Finally, “Digital Works” (30 mins.) is an SD Japanese-language featurette made at 1.33:1 with burned-in English subtitles, again upres’d to 1080p. It goes into even more detail on the film’s production workflow and features a good demonstration of how varying levels of diffusion were added when the original animation plates were photographed, and how CAD drafting software was used to recreate some of the artists’ designs in 3D. It’s not uninteresting if you care about how animation is made, though be aware that the then-emerging digital processes it depicts would be considered hopelessly rudimentary today.