It’s a Classic: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995)

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Just a whisper.  I hear it in my ghost”

Ghost in the Shell 95

‘Ghost in the Shell’ – a true anime classic (image credit: Kodansha/Bandai Visual/Manga Entertainment, used for illustrative purposes only).

 

Year:  1995

Starring (voices – original Japanese cast):  Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Ohki, Iemasa Kayumi

Director:  Mamoru Oshii / Written by:  Kazunori Ito

What’s it about?

In a future where technology and humanity have become intertwined and cyberterrorism runs rampant, counter-operative Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team investigate a new threat that emerges from cyberspace…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is an essential classic of the genre and a standout piece of science fiction cinema that fuses elements of RoboCop and Blade Runner (and in turn becoming influential itself – The Matrix trilogy being a good example) with an enigmatic and cerebral tale of humanity’s inseparable relationship with technology.

Taking place in the year 2029, where technology has advanced to a point that the human brain – and one’s essence, or ‘ghost’ with it – can be transplanted into an artificial body, Ghost in the Shell is a futuristic ‘cyberpunk’ thriller that focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg and lead operative of the counter-cyberterrorism organisation known as Public Security Section 9 (her teammates comprising loyal right-hand, Batou) who become tasked with investigating the appearance of a suspected super-hacker going by the name of ‘Puppet Master’.  As the case unfolds and with the discovery that the Puppet Master is actually a sentient form of Artificial Intelligence, Kusanagi begins to question the meaning of existence and whether this new form of life is a threat or a link in the next step of human evolution.

Like a lot of anime, Ghost in the Shell has a ponderous, existential quality to it (made all the more evocative by Kenji Kawai’s beautiful music score) with dense, philosophical dialogue that may make the film’s concepts difficult to grasp initially.  It’s best approached with an open mind and a willingness to simply surrender and be captivated by the mesmerising nature of Ghost in the Shell and the ideas it poses about the evolution of technology, human existence and the blurring of the line between the two.

Almost a quarter of a century on and the animation for Ghost in the Shell continues to astonish, the level of detail and craftsmanship produced with precision and great care.  Whilst there’s an awful lot that can be achieved today with CGI, it’s a reminder that this – now sadly underutilised – art form can yield equal, even superior results.  The characters are believable and realistic, the technology design intriguing and the cityscapes as intricate as they are expansive.  Complementing all this is the fluid and visceral action, which, though ultraviolent, is executed with energy and skill, providing numerous exciting moments (the highlight of which is undoubtedly the climactic battle between Kusanagi and a heavily armoured tank) that outshine some of the more overly noisy, endless world-crumbling set-pieces seen in various simple-minded popcorn blockbusters of today.

The success of Ghost in the Shell has resulted in a popular franchise that beyond manga and video games has spawned not only a sequel (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, released in 2004) but further iterations in television and original video animations (known as ‘OVA’) including the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series.  An inferior live action feature film starring Scarlett Johansson was also released last year.  Its themes becoming more relevant than ever, Ghost in the Shell is likely to endure and be revisited and reinterpreted for some time to come.

Standout moment

Intersected by the opening credits, we witness the ‘birth’ of the Major as her android body is created…or is it just a dream?

Geek fact!

The voice cast for the English language version of Ghost in the Shell includes Richard Epcar as Batou, who would go on to voice the character in both the sequel, Innocence and the Stand Alone Complex series.

If you like this then watch…

Akira : that ‘other’ cyberpunk classic that formed part of the western ‘Japanimation’ craze of the 1990s, Akira follows the rise of a dangerously powerful psychokinetic teenager amidst the biker-gang torn streets of post-World War III Japan.

Patlabor 2 : also directed by Mamoru Oshii, the second Patlabor film is a complex and politically charged tale in which a mecha police unit fight to uncover a conspiracy as Japan verges on civil war.

TV Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ – series premiere

A Blade Runner for the smaller screen? 

Spoiler-free review

 

Altered Carbo 1-01

Joel Kinnaman stars in the dazzling and intriguing Netflix Original ‘Altered Carbon’.

Starring:  Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Kristin Lehman, Will Yun Lee, Chris Conner

Series created by:  Laeta Kalogridis (based on the novel by Richard Morgan)

Written by:  Laeta Kalogridis / Episode directed by:  Miguel Sapochnik

What’s it about?

250 years after his death, Takeshi Kovacs awakens in a new body to find he’s been enlisted to solve the murder of a wealthy industrialist…

Episode review

A Netflix Original, Altered Carbon is an intriguing and stylish piece of dystopic cyberpunk science fiction that takes themes of identity and society and infuses them into a futuristic murder mystery that, in its first episode – titled “Out of the Past” – gently absorbs the viewer into this rich and visually astonishing world.  It’d be fair to cite that for seasoned fans of classic SF, Altered Carbon doesn’t necessarily offer anything completely new and original – the lavish, expansive cityscapes, existential ponderings and societal examinations are well worn tropes that have been represented in various cinematic classics including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but it’s more a case of homage and acknowledged appreciation than outright uninventive riff.

Following a violent and bloody opening, we’re transported 250 years into the future as the ‘terrorist’ (as he’s perceived at this point at least) Takeshi Kovacs is ‘re-sleeved’ into a new body – introducing series lead Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop, Suicide Squad) – thanks to bureaucrat Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) who wishes to enlist Kovacs to investigate his ‘murder’ 48 hours prior.  You see, in the world of Altered Carbon the human personality is digitally stored in a ‘cortical stack’ that can be transferred to a new body and Bancroft has survived thanks to a regular backup of his stack to an orbiting satellite…albeit any memory of his ‘death’ lost due to the murder being conveniently timed before the next backup.  This appears to form the central narrative of the series and “Out of the Past” plays out as more of a tease for what is to come, instead serving to establish the main players of Altered Carbon together with its visual aesthetics and the ideas it wishes to emulate, the notion of the human body as something that’s disposable, like an old mobile phone, proving the most evocative (and the re-sleeving of a seven year old girl into the body of a middle-aged woman the most alarming).

Initially, a little attention is required as Altered Carbon makes efforts to explain its future jargon with terminology akin to Ron Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica but it’s soon easy to grasp if one focuses on the more or less self-explanatory basics of ‘stacks’ and ‘sleeves’ and the concept of the ‘Protectorate’ as a state or ruling entity.

In terms of the cast, Joel Kinnaman is clearly the focal point and does a decent job of presenting a weary and brooding (yet darkly comic) persona uninterested in redemption and second chances, instead favouring a blast of excess before going back on ice for an indefinite period.  The supporting characters are a little sketchy to begin with, with a particular air of mystery and ambiguity surrounding James Purefoy’s Bancroft (together with his wife and son) who draws the suspicions of Police Lieutenant Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose presence facilitates some of the establishing exposition.  With this being merely the opening chapter, it’s surely a given that the series will delve more deeply into the characters as the story progresses across this ten episode first season.

The bottom line:  Slickly presented and with some substance to go with its style, Altered Carbon opens with an interesting and visually absorbing premiere.

All ten episodes of Altered Carbon season 1 are available to stream now on Netflix.

Film Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

An empty shell or a captivating experience? 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusa Samal

Directed by: Rupert Sanders / Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger / 107 minutes

What’s it about?

In a future where technology has advanced to incredible heights, a cyber security operative known as ‘Major’ – a cyborg marrying a human brain with an artificial body – investigates a wave of hackings by a mysterious terrorist named Kuze…

In review

Based on Shirow Masamune’s iconic manga “The Ghost in the Shell” and owing far more to director Mamoru Oshii’s classic 1995 anime, the live action version of Ghost in the Shell received a lukewarm reception, amidst controversies of ‘whitewashing’, upon its theatrical release earlier this year.  Now that the dust has settled, is Ghost in the Shell a worthy adaptation of the popular Japanese property?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning, the vast, futuristic cityscapes juxtaposed against the grimy, seedy backstreets creating an immersive ‘cyberpunk’ Blade Runner-esque environment, complemented by the film’s deftly executed action sequences and production design that are extremely faithful to the original source material and the subsequent anime.  Therein lies part of the problem though, Ghost in the Shell is constructed with so much reverence to, most specifically Oshii’s anime (through which most will no doubt be familiar with the franchise) that it fails to emerge from the shadows and form an identity of its own.  It certainly doesn’t help that the script is a little drab and predictable with long stretches of almost purposeless ponderousness that at points can make you feel every minute of the – compared to most modern blockbusters – relatively slight running time.  It tries hard to evoke the mesmerising qualities, mystery and atmospherics of the beloved anime but just doesn’t have the same effect and the recreation of several iconic scenes, whilst laudable (and the opening birthing or ‘shelling’ sequence is certainly beautifully realised) are too numerous and will likely leave fans wanting to turn to the anime instead.

It’s well known that Ghost in the Shell’s reception was blighted by criticisms of whitewashing in its casting, which is a little unfair as a more multicultural troupe of actors is evident.  As ‘Major’ (fans will note the lack of ‘the’), Scarlett Johansson is a reasonably effective, if uninspired choice for the lead role, her slightly robotic movements and mechanical delivery injected with just the right amount of subtle humanity to carry it all off.  She’s mostly supported by Pilou Asbaek’s Batou but also shares a decent amount of screen time with ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as the cantankerous chief, Aramaki and gets to flesh out some character in her exchanges with Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche.  To be perfectly honest, partly due to the lightweight script, the cast as a whole rarely rise above being functional and subservient to the striking visuals, sure the character of ‘Major’ (that lack of ‘the’ sounding clumsy and awkward) is intentionally detached and cipher-like but those familiar with Oshii’s adaptation (and indeed the amazing Stand Alone Complex series) will be disappointed at how small an impact Asbaek’s Batou makes and that the rest of the characters are so unmemorable in comparison to their animated versions – whether that be voiced by their original Japanese cast or the English dub performers.

When it comes down to it, Ghost in the Shell does have its moments – mainly during its action sequences, but even then it still comes off as being a little too generic and maybe even a little pretentious and far too derivative and reverential for its own good.

The bottom line:  A disappointing adaptation of the much loved manga, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell fails to match the brilliance of the 1995 anime and to become a compelling endeavour of its own, it may be worth a look if only out of curiosity and for an appreciation of some commendable visuals.

Ghost in the Shell is available to own and to rent via home video and on demand formats now.

GitS 2017

Scarlett Johansson bursts into action in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.