By Drew D. / May 19th, 2022
|Title||Ghost in the Shell (1995)|
|Produced By||Production I.G|
|Original Release Date||November 18, 1995 (JP)
December 8, 1995 (ENG)
Ghost in the Shell has been a mainstay in the cyberpunk genre for decades, defined by its distinct themes of physical augmentation, as well as the inter-connectivity and interweaving of the mind with a digital landscape, and the emphases regarding the soul that the series’ many interpretations introduce. Captivating and intriguing, to think Ghost in the Shell has been igniting our imaginations and continues to have us ponder those more philosophical questions posed since the debut manga back in 1989, is nothing short of extraordinary. The manga managed to lay a foundation of profound concepts and thought, along with plenty of style, action, and tone that defines Ghost in the Shell’s particular brand of cyberpunk. And from the manga came the franchise’s first animation in the form of the 1995 film adaption of the same name. Whether it was my previous knowledge and interactions with the franchise, or perhaps it was purely nostalgia, I had regarded Ghost in the Shell (1995) rather highly. Years later, I find myself wanting to know if this film adaptation remains as truly magnificent as I once believed it to be.
Major Motoko Kusanagi leads the task force for special operations Public Security Section 9, a department that handles digital and traditional national security and counter-terrorism. From digital theft and manipulation, to espionage, to military level incursions, Section 9 is responsible for investigating and neutralizing the most dangerous of digital and real-world threats. An entity only known as The Puppet Master is one such threat, and one that captures Kusanagi’s intrigue. Considered to be a genius hacker, The Puppet Master is able to hack the very ghosts of individuals and through these “ghost-hacks,” controls several individuals to commit digital and real-world crimes on their behalf. However, what starts as a string of crimes leads to a hostile discourse regarding the definitions and purposes of life and existence in this digitally amalgamated world.
This series has always excelled at posing questions and making its audience think through its core themes, and Ghost in the Shell (1995) is no exception, as the philosophical play here is in full force. The concepts surrounding technological augmentation of the body and mind definitely spur the imagination, as do the possibilities that arise when blurring the lines of what constitutes life. Those overlaying themes all serve to engage, which they do so capably.
Having said that, the actual delivery of these themes through the film’s story, as well as its participating characters, is surprisingly weak; weaker than I recalled. In truth, there is little in the way of plot development. Putting my prior knowledge and experience with the series aside, I came to realize that plot points are more thrown at you throughout the film rather than given proper introduction and depth. Details regarding those themes, too, are actually quite limited and receive hardly any genuine development. It’s mostly left up to the viewer to extract the deeper meanings behind what’s being portrayed. On top of that, there are a number of wordless scenes that depict reflection into oneself and other symbolism that, again, is left entirely up to the viewer to interpret.
What I believe is the fatal flaw here is that the film fails to ever establish a proper foundation for its story. Right from the start, the film begins with a hardly-pertinent discussion between different parties and soon spirals into a gun fight. Then it’s just action sequences and inner-reflection on Motoko’s part with story fragments, in the form of bits of dialogue, banter and leaps in logic, haphazardly jammed in between. The result is an incoherent, vague story, unable to spark interest or bring together the themes and animation the film inarguably prioritized and relies upon instead. Lastly, for those completely unfamiliar with the series, given all of the shortcomings I’ve discussed, I can certainly see the film failing to provide enough immersion or coherence for newcomer viewers to consider it an appealing watch.
Character development is also lacking, as we never receive much more than each character’s base personalities. Kusanagi is the overly-capable heroine with an existential crisis. Batou is the partner and a dialogue partner. The rest of the cast simply serve to move the story along to its next objective and that’s it. As far as actual development, we get glimmers of Kusanagi’s and Batou’s personalities through a half-philosophical conversation, but really nothing more. None of the humorous banter that’s in the manga. None of the personal conversations. Zero opening up. There isn’t even any fleshing out of the existential crisis Kusanagi supposedly has throughout the film.
In fact, what should be the driving force for Kusanagi’s character; an individual who questions her own existence due to her augmentations, inter-weaved with the Puppet Master’s own existence and his outlooks over what constitutes life and its purposes; is never directly addressed nor developed accordingly. Instead, Kusanagi remains a person of few words, idly staring at her reflection at times, until the latter twenty minutes of the film. Then, Kusanagi’s personality sees a rapid, dramatic change towards obsession. I realize that her fascination, perhaps to a point of obsession, crossed with her own existential crisis, is what drives her actions late in the film. Yet, to say she becomes obsessed is just too much of a stretch, as that aspect of her character is never developed to a believable point. Similar are her actions, as her style transforms from calculated to full-on reckless too quickly, contrasting with her behaviors and character seen in the majority of the film. To put it simply, in the final acts, her character is jarringly, and poorly, rewritten from capable and cool-headed to a reckless idiot. And this is all to convince the viewers, that she now, suddenly, must feed an obsession-laced need to find something that only her counterpart in the film supposedly can offer her. Without any real details or development, Kusanagi ultimately comes off as nothing more than a plot device to move the film to its end. Therefore, and as brusque as it is to say, the story is a resultant novelty at best, let down by its overly-convenient heroine and one-dimensional supporting cast. I am fully aware that this is not only a striking departure from the majority opinion of the film, but is also a significant change to my own opinion when I first watched it so long ago.
Leaving story and characters behind, Ghost in the Shell (1995) possessed many aesthetic strengths that still hold up today. Starting with perhaps its greatest pro, the film’s animation remains strong, even after all this time. It’s still fluid and energetic, able to hook and hold any viewer. From the big, attention-grabbers like the fight sequences and the destruction, to the more subtle, yet complex sequences, such as Kusanagi altering parts in her rifle, the animation remains the most praiseworthy contribution to the overall experience. Equally impressive is the artistry of the backgrounds and supplemental scenes, depicting a convincing clash between technological advancement and the gritty, worn-down aspects of the locations and people that have suffered or been left behind by that prosperity. That dismal style in the art only helps to bring much needed mood to the film. Similarly strong are the sound effects that further contribute to establishing the tones and moods of its scenes. Those sound effects, as well as the ambient noises throughout the B-roll, are exceptional, bringing plenty of needed immersion with them.
Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on Ghost in the Shell (1995), making certain flaws more evident and interpretations feel more dated. The visuals aren’t sharp, given the limitations to animation technology back then, and this has only become more apparent now. The scenes are grainy and the upscale efforts can only do so much. Having said that, most of the visual’s subtle details, thankfully, haven’t been lost. Another victim of time, however, are the depictions of the film world’s futuristic, fictional technologies. They simply haven’t aged well, which I suppose is an inevitability for most interpretations of fictional technology given enough time. Lastly, yet not a fault of time, I found the soundtrack to be rather underwhelming. For one, there aren’t many tracks to begin with, which may have been a wise choice, given the strength of the ambience and sound effects. What music is there, though, is grating at its worst, unmemorable at its best. Perhaps it’s because I really can’t say I found the music to benefit any particular scene. I would notice a new track playing for a time, but I found myself naturally dismissing it as the scenes went on. If anything, this soundtrack makes me appreciate Yoko Kanno’s contributions to S.A.C just a bit more now. Taken in their entirety, the aesthetics have their strengths, which remain praiseworthy for what they continue to offer, however the shortcomings, I fear, will only become more perceivable as time goes on.
Viewing Ghost in the Shell (1995) on its own, while pushing aside all of my previous experiences with the series, most definitely changed my opinion. As a film, it interests and entertains to an extent, but fails to satisfyingly immerse. Its themes and aesthetics are its strong points, yet not so strong as to carry it. Its story is shallow and its characters are unmemorable, cons that are far too detrimental to the overall production. As an adaptation, it truly lets down its source material, especially since its manga source succeeds in these very areas. I will admit that previous fanboying and nostalgia had kept Ghost in the Shell (1995) high on my favorites list, yet having come back with a clear mind and the resolve to review this impartially, I must rate this lower than I had ever expected. Does it still intrigue and make you think? Yes. Is it still an action-packed lark across an interlaced scape of flesh, code, and hardware? Of course. Will I probably return to it, being the cyberpunk and Ghost in the Shell fanboy that I am? Probably. As an entry point into the franchise, it’s just too difficult of a recommendation. However, if one were to read the original manga or watch Stand Alone Complex, which I would recommend as an entry point, and then return to this film, you may then come to appreciate the few, yet brilliant, charms of this film.
1995animeCyberpunkGhost in the Shellghost in the shell (1995)ghost in the shell 1Production I.GReviewTBT