Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Although Mamoru Oshii is one of the greatest anime directors of all time, his reputation among anime fans remains divisive. He’s perhaps the only anime director to have had well-rounded cinema education; his favorites include Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrzej Wajda, Jeray Kawalerowicz, Andrej Munk, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Federico Fellini. These influences are reflected in his films and have unfortunately limited his appeal. Oshii works in the slow and deliberate mode, often alienating the fanboy crowd. He frequently disregards the source material he adapts for his own interpretations of their setting and characters. His audience is the international film community, those with the stomach for abstract, patience-defying cinema. He’s one of the few anime directors where academic film analysis and flowery poeticisms are appropriate. This is probably the main reason for Oshii’s relative marginalization – the audience simply wasn’t right.

Though I’m a big fan of Angel’s Egg and Gosenzosama Banbanzai!, Ghost in the Shell is easily Oshii’s best work and the capstone to his entire career. It’s a shame, then, that both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. Before going into the ideas of the movie, however, it’s worth addressing two major aspects of Oshii’s direction:

1) The cinematography- long takes, slow pans, etc. Despite being a cyberpunk police thriller on the surface, Oshii’s direction is indebted to the European arthouse tradition. Impassive characters, spacious pacing, a lack of emotional identification…this all serves to invoke a pervasive neutrality throughout the film. Though GITS is allegorical scifi focused on the present day, Oshii has no ‘message’ to deliver. The society he depicts isn’t meant to be good or evil, just that it is. The intent is to provoke questions, not answer them.

2) The use of dialogue. The characters in GITS speak in highly philosophical terms, sometimes dropping concepts that seem out of reach for the average police procedural. There’s an irony that the SAC TV series is far worse in this respect, with characters speaking in a constant declarative tone devoid of ambiguity, but rarely faces similar criticism. At least at his worst Oshii still delivers in terms of evocative imagery, but Oshii has said that in GITS he used dialogue as “texture”, not purely to make a point. This connects him with the European modernist school of filmmaking, Godard et al, where there’s a tendency to depict language as impotent, able to describe the world but never affect it. The society of GITS has rendered many old concepts obsolete so naturally trying to understand life through them would feel alien and strange.

Since I watch a wide diversity of films from all over the world, the above doesn’t phase me much. And anyone trying to make a serious case against GITS would have to say the same. So the main point of contention around GITS should be the ideas. The most common misconception about GITS is that it’s some Blade Runner-esque meditation on AI, whether robotic intelligence can be ‘real’, but that reading is upside down. Where Blade Runner shows how technology becomes human, GITS proceeds in the opposite direction, showing humanity evolving into machines. The title Ghost in the Shell is a reference to Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Descartes’s mind/body dichotomy, the term “Ghost in the machine” used as a pejorative against Descartes’s system. Crudely put, Ryle critiqued the lack of a mechanism for the interaction between mind and body in the Cartesian worldview, and GITS confronts this issue head-on. Made in the mid 90s, Oshii was responding to the rise of the internet and globalization, but in our modern age where smart phones and interconnectedness have profoundly transformed day-to-day life the suggestions in GITS take on even greater weight.

I want to go through and analyze the different ways Oshii expounds on these ideas throughout the movie:

We start with multilingual radio chatter over a 3D map of the city. The numbers in the above screencap matchcut to what are presumably the helicopters they’re representing. Right off the bat Oshii is introducing the idea of interchangeability into the story. As in the Patlabor films, Oshii uses video monitors (and their implied simplifications) as the ideal means of representing modern society. Oshii deserves special praise for how varied and interesting he makes the monitors in his films look. Our protagonist, Major Kusanagi, is busting a diplomat. Rather than have her assume the moral high ground in the eyes of the audience, her first appearance is punctuated with the brutal murder of her target, his head vividly exploding into machine parts and viscera. It’s gruesome, and similar sights make it hard for the audience to fully ally themselves with the officers in Section 9 (Oshii’s politics prevent him from ever siding with the state), but it raises the first of many questions: Should the sight of murder disturb us if the body can be easily rebuilt, consciousness in-tact? The scene ends with the famous shot of Kusanagi turning on her invisible camo, dissolving into the surrounding city. Even in the movie’s few bursts of action, Oshii maintains his uniform contemplative tone.

This leads into the legendary credits sequence, the birth of a robotic body complete with birth water and a placenta. In the world of GITS, any part of the human body can be replaced by a machine analog, yet without consciousness the body cannot function so this opening ‘birth’ has a hint of irony to it since the body being formed is technically dead. The body looks identical to Kusanagi’s but as we later see the design is not unique so it’s unclear whether what we’re seeing is Kusanagi’s ‘birth’ or someone else’s. As if to tease this ambiguity further, the shot after the credits is Kusanagi waking up, looking as if she’s been dreaming. Furthermore, the jump from this robotic womb to an nondescript box-like apartment can’t be taken as arbitrary; it’s one of many signs that aspects of our modern living are already mechanical in nature, cyborg bodies or not.

Next, the chief of Section 9, Kusanagi’s unit, is approached by a representative of the higher-ranking Section 6 about apprehending a political figure of a 3rd world republic. We learn that taking out the diplomat was requested from the same source. The world of GITS is international both in its economics and politics – Oshii modeled the city after Hong Kong – yet traditional ideological motivation is drained from these encounters. As the opening murder of the diplomat demonstrates, there’s no nobility to Kusanagi’s profession. Policing, as with everything else, is a business. In fact, we could go further and suggest that the flow of data in the world’s vast information network is a metaphor for the global flow of capital. Ditto for the many scenes of cars on roads, usually shot from above in a way that resembles a blood vein. Traffic, whether caused by cars, boats, or pedestrians, is one of the central conceits of the film.

And what better profession to handle this wide range of traffic than policework? After dealing with the whitest of white collar criminals, Section 9 pursues the polar opposite, a garbage man and his accomplice. In an exciting set-piece moment, Kusanagi and her partner Batoh try to track down the accomplice, who’s using the same invisible camo Kusanagi used at the beginning. As with his camo, his armor-piercing submachine ammo is state of the art. Everything in GITS is either new or obsolete, the old is discarded in service of the new. When the criminal is chased into an abandoned part of the city, the vista that greets us seems to confirm this: high rises growing out of the surrounding slums.

Both the criminal and the garbage man have had their memories altered by a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. This is the first hint of the rather unsettling theme that the ‘ghost’ is indistinguishable with the material of the body (Kusanagi at one point says she “feels it in her ghost” as one might say they feel it their gut). GITS is based on an extreme materialism, where memories, ideas, and experiences are able to be replicated, bought, and exchanged and have no unique being of their own. GITS presents a world where mind/body dichotomy doesn’t exist or is at least slowly becoming irrelevant. Everything is the body, all of human experience can be reduced to matter. As Batoh states “Even simulated experiences exist as information, and are simultaneous reality” with real, lived experiences only a “drop in the bucket”.

We segue into a scene of Kusanagi diving. In a parallel to the intro, she is ‘born’ out of the water after breaking through her reflection. Reflections are a common image in Oshii’s films but here they’re in nearly every scene. Besides embodying this idea of interchangeability and infinite substitution, reflections are a great means of representing the Cartesian dichotomy, the reflection as the ‘body’ and the subject perceiving it as the ‘mind’. Kusanagi explains that if she and Batoh left Section 9 they’d have to forfeit their cybernetic bodies, which Section 9 legally owns, and that to a certain extent, flesh or metal, her body defines her as a person. And yet she states she’s “confined within boundaries”, with the implication that the body is a restriction on her consciousness (“When I float back to the surface, I imagine I’m becoming someone else”). Kusanagi is rare in that she has had her entire body turned into a machine but it still isn’t enough. She needs to ‘transcend’, a concept which contradicts the strict materialism of GITS’s world.

This leads into the most remarkable scene of the film. In a tour de force 3 minutes Oshii shows us every idea covered up till now and introduces a few more. Of particular note is Kusanagi seeing a woman in a cafe with the same body as her before turning her head towards a building under construction, a brief but poetically charged moment. The film often tries to intimate us with individual gaze, usually taking the form of first person POV shots although here a simple eyeline match, but the second half of the film complicates this by having the boundaries between one subjectivity and another unclear. Detritus of outdated technology are scattered in the river, the screen is plastered with reflections and video screens, and brief shots of fashion mannequins connect the development of GITS’s mechanical subjectivity with the present day (ie conspicuous consumption and broader economic changes prefigure GITS’s world, clothing a clever metaphor for the gradual colonization of the body). The sequence ends with a shot of the mannequins stripped of their clothes, a symbol for the ghost without its shell.

A car hits a naked woman on the highway. The woman turns out to be the infamous Puppet Master, an intelligence without an original body. The developments in the second half have led some viewers to mistake the film as a meditation of whether AI can replicate human consciousness. On the contrary, even with the Puppet Master’s introduction the focus is still squarely on Kusanagi. After learning that the Puppet Master is without an original body, we’re given a scene of Kusanagi venting her existential angst to Batoh. In the world of GITS, the Puppet Master is a singularity that humanity might feasibly reach. He’s a philosophical problem, complicating the systems the film set in place in the first half. He only matters inasmuch Kusanagi matters.

The Puppet Master believes that humans are already machines, arguing that DNA is code and science has failed to provide an adequate definition of what constitutes humanity. The film has already flirted with this line of reasoning; when Kusanagi says that Ishikawa was selected to join Section 9 because machines are prone to error and “Overspecialize and you breed in weakness”, her statements necessarily beg the question “Isn’t that true of the human body now?”. And when Batoh asks Aramaki whether they can fully trust the mechanics who manage their cybernetic bodies, Aramaki shrugs and says that “they’re only human”. The second half of the film throws the ambiguities and uncertainties introduced thus far into sharp relief.

The Puppet Master was the side effect of a project by Section 6, yet another iteration in hacking technology that spun out of control. The Puppet Master is the key to Kusanagi’s earlier comment about “boundaries” and will provide a means for her to transcend them. As with the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, the conventions of GITS’s genre correspond to the spiritual development of the protagonist, where solving the mystery of the crime corresponds to Kusanagi resolving her own personal struggle. She chases the Puppet Master into an abandoned museum, the only example of classical architecture and antiquity seen in the film. She duels with a spider-like tank, blowing apart the surrounding fossils and a tree of life display in the process (probably the most obvious of the film’s images but since it’s the film’s emotional climax it’s excusable).

After destroying her body in the process of fighting the tank, Kusanagi dives into the Puppet Master’s consciousness. Through their conversation we learn a few interesting facts: when the Puppet Master started gaining self-awareness, Section 6 tried to “confine” him to a physical body. He is an intelligent life form but lacks the ability to reproduce like living organisms, worrying that a copy wouldn’t be a certain guarantee for survival. Echoing Kusanari’s comment towards the beginning of the film, the Puppet Master stresses the importance of diversity. He proposes that he and Kusanagi merge, a sort of mechanical analog to sexual reproduction, in order to produce something new, the only reason he created a body for himself in the first place.

The Puppet Master isn’t merely an AI – he’s a higher lifeform. He exerts god-like power over the networks of information that normal humans can only partially control. This isn’t a cliche story about an AI trying to become human; he doesn’t even want a body, he only needs one temporarily. Like the Christian God, he’s come from above to impregnate a human woman to bear his offspring (Oshii, who was once religious but suffered a crisis of faith, can’t avoid an Abrahamic reference like this). The film even associates him with angelic imagery.

Kusanagi wakes up in a replacement body and Batoh tells her the diplomatic situation “ends in a draw” (as with any political action in Oshii’s films, the end is always stasis). After some chitchat, Kusanagi states that neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master exist anymore. An enigmatic series of shots bracket this scene. At first we start here looking at Kusanagi in a child’s body

But then the shot is reversed.

A reverse shot? Was the first shot from a first person perspective and what we saw was a mirror? Plausible, except later in the scene

Clearly there’s an actual room back there and not a mirror. Was that the Puppet Master, and his presence is only visible to Kusanagi? A continuation of the doubling theme?

The film ends with the Kusanagi hybrid looking on the horizon, a long pan stretching over the city. She smiles for the first and only time in the film. She’s finally transcended. A surprisingly idealist ending for a film with such firm roots in materialism. But can we call it idealism? After all, god-like though he may be, the Puppet Master was originally formed from physical material. The central question of the film, where does the mind end and the body begin and how do they interact, is what philosophers of mind like Gilbert Ryle seek to answer and by making these boundaries permeable and fluid Oshii winds up with something far less Cartesian than the initial impression might suggest. And that smile is such a perfect note to end on: Is Kusanagi’s transcendence (and god-like superiority) a good thing? The film gives us no proper mooring to make that judgement, it’s all on the viewer to decide. Oshii has spent the entire film convincing us that this end point is an eventual possibility and leaves us to deal with that fact.

Some miscellaneous notes:

1) Animal imagery crops up here and there. Besides the obvious example of Mitsuo Iso’s spider tank, the two appearances of planes in the film, black and featureless, tend to look like birds.

2) Despite the doll-like faces and casual nudity, GITS has been praised by feminist critics for its unconventional treatment of the body. Kusanagi jokes that it’s her “time of the month” in the cold open despite lacking reproductive organs. The Puppet Master is referred to as a man and has a masculine voice but resides in a woman’s body. In fact, the Puppet Master exemplifies this new form of identity; no race, no gender, no class. I always found it funny how Batoh and Kusanagi flirt even though it could never result in sex.

All in all, a magnificent film, an unparalleled achievement in world animation. In the realm of feature film animation, only Feherlofia can compete. The best film in Oshii’s career, seamlessly combining his political, religious, philosophical, and artistic interests into a lean 80 minutes. Quite possibly the greatest anime ever made.


About tamerlane

World animation guy for Wave Motion Cannon. Not a professional animator or involved in the business in any way. All of my research comes from secondary sources so if you notice a mistake, please let me know.
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6 Responses to Ghost in the Shell (1995)

  1. This has always been my go-to answer for “favorite anime” since I first rented it nearly two decades ago, kickstarting my anime fandom. I haven’t found a better answer, even though I now have to append “the first movie from 1995” to it. (“Not Stand Alone Complex? Don’t think I’ve seen that one!”)

    Your review is so thorough that I can only reiterate the qualities you’ve mentioned. Its use of disembodying philosophical dialog is particularly effective in this Oshii flick because it aligns with its theme of transcendence. Its blend of anime storytelling (constant symbolism & juxtaposition, catharsis, action scenes) and Euro arthouse is pulled off especially well, creating functional pulp entertainment that transcends it if audiences allow. On that note, it creatively repurposes the genre’s gore & nudity, realigning them to its themes in a subtle subversion. And finally its juxtaposition of cyberpunk and spirituality in its presentation is memorable, beautiful Kenji Kawai score and all.

    It also makes me nostalgic for Production I.G’s golden era of filmmaking which GitS represents. I accept that styles have shifted from detail-mad realism to a more elegant expressionism, but still, this type of anime production is vanishingly rare these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. merakih says:

    can I have your permission to translate your post into arabic?


  3. The Jovian says:

    Great analysis. Do you like Innocence as well?


  4. Anders Bateva says:

    I watched the movie years ago, and don’t liked it, because it was not though-provoking as I expected. Now, unfortunately, I’m sure it’s “questions” are irrelevant to me.


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