The year is 2029, the world is made borderless by the net; augmented humans who live in virtual environments. Watched over by law enforcement agents that are able to download themselves into super-powered, crime busting mecha. The ultimate secret agent of the future is not human, has no physical body and can travel freely through the information highways of the world. Hacking and manipulating whatever, whomever and whenever required…
In my recent review for Akira, I claimed that it set a sci-fi benchmark that Hollywood has failed to match. It wasn’t a one-off though and it is a point anime has continued to prove, especially with Ghost In The Shell to the point of a specific example. Released in 1995, the theme of the story bears some resemblance to 1999’s The Matrix. And so this film has always been my favourite stick to beat the overrated Wachowski’s with! If you like pure action, there are few films better than The Matrix, but a lot of people held it up as brilliant sci-fi to rival Bladerunner, especially as the producers weren’t shy about Ghost being an influence. Actually, in comparison to the challenging and sublime Ghost, The Matrix is nothing more than a clumsy gimmick.
It’s a political story, with perhaps very vague echoes of Robocop. The main character, Major Kusanagi is a cyborg and a brilliantly effective agent, but she contemplates the possibility of having a soul, or a “ghost” and worries how much of her is natural or just a result of AI programming. She works for Section Nine who are investigating The Puppet Master. Although they argue about how it’s possible, it is likely he is just a ghost with no physical form himself, hacking into various shells and networks as a form of cyber terrorism.
While it isn’t as epic as the ambitious Akira, nor animated quite so brilliantly (it does have its moments though), it does share that earlier films skill for balancing gorgeous, wide open cinematic action with an incisive sci-fi plot. In fact, this focused, tightly plotted story is arguably better. It has a nostalgic poignancy that gives the film a soul, smartly mirroring the story of cyborgs wrestling with a conscience. The haunting theme adds another layer. And I was being picky about the animation only to demonstrate the difference with Akira, but actually the attention to detail is incredible, something only recently matched by people like Pixar.
It can’t match Akira‘s confident pacing. A couple of scenes are a bit talky and suffer from the static anime style Akira avoided, but there are several moments that are achingly beautiful. Especially when the Major goes diving and drifts weightlessly to the surface, embodying the emotional struggle she has with being whatever it is she is. Another example is the frequent nudity from the Major or even the damaged cyborg “shell” they find. It sounds strange to point it out, but it’s done with a tasteful obvious quality that live action could never pull off and it suits the story without being in any way gratuitous (the Major’s partner, also almost all cyborg, claims he doesn’t understand why she wishes to do things like diving, but then ironically catches himself staring at her body, revealing his own very human qualities).
It is very difficult to describe the atmosphere of this brilliant film and give it justice. It amused me when I watched this again that there is a quote from James Cameron on the sleeve, rightly praising Ghost for its “literary excellence” and another from the original Empire magazine review, saying that this is “the kind of film Cameron would make if Disney let him” (indeed he has often mentioned another manga, Battle Angel Alita, on his wishlist). Ironic that now, some years later, Cameron’s Avatar is The Matrix of its day with most people agreeing the story is derivative. Sounds exactly like the film Disney would have made! I wonder if Avatar‘s Japanese poster has got quotes from Mamoru Oshii on it?
Avoid the Blu-Ray, “2.0” version. Although the transfer is superb, they have gone as far as replacing some key sequences with cgi and it looks horrible and jars. Strangely, you are far better sticking with the DVD.