Anime review: Ghost in the Shell

Among the classic anime that I wanted to watch this year was Ghost in the Shell, a film that is well-known for inspiring the Matrix films, but has earned a strong fan following all its own. So strong, in fact, that the Ghost in the Shell story has since expanded into one sequel film, two seasons of Stand Alone Complex, and a few more films tied into that series. Taking into account how important many considered the original Ghost in the Shell to be to the anime medium for the day of its release, as well as my own fascination with the sci-fi genre, it seemed quite clear that this film would be a must-watch for me.

Ghost in the Shell is set in a futuristic city where practically every human is part machine, thanks to the ghost system that allows for instant brainwave communications. The story follows the three squadmates Motoko Kusanagi, Batou, and Ishikawa, as they try to unravel the mystery of someone or something known as the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master is hacking into the ghosts of various people and causing them to act on its behalf, hacking into terminals and affecting other people in turn. To that end, the first half of the film is very much as suspenseful detective caper, with frequent chase scenes providing the action.

The story only ever concerns itself with one major theme, which is the concept of where man and machine are distinguishable from one another. It's not a wildly original theme, considering how many science fiction works prior to Ghost in the Shell concerned themselves with the same questions raised herein. It is good that Ghost in the Shell maintains its focus throughout - it explores this idea almost exclusively through the eyes of the three main characters, and as such the film provides a very clear sense of their experiences with the issues raised regarding it. But in turn, there are practically no other true characters to speak of. Anyone else that makes an appearance in the film - save for the Puppet Master - is simply a plot device wearing a face. None of the "minor characters" see any development, and most only earn a few minutes of screen time.

The soundtrack is not particularly memorable, though its style rings very close to the company of Akira, another prominent sci-fi anime classic, as both utilize a combination of old orient sounds with industrial techno music. The animation is really impressive when Kusanagi and Batou head to the outskirts of town. The attention to detail and vivid colors in that scene are very pleasing to the eyes. When they return to the city center, however, blue and grey skyscrapers don't exactly present the most exciting backdrop.

Characters move very fluidly during fight scenes and chases. But during conversation, they are stoic and stiff. On the one hand, this makes sense, given the fact that Kusanagi and Batou are largely comprised of robotic parts. But their blank stares and basic open-close jaw motions prove quite boring after a while. There is also a lot of nudity throughout the film, which rarely feels cohesive with the direction of the plot. There's no symbolism associated with it like in Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's nudity for the sake of coming across as edgy.

While the aforementioned theme of the increasingly blurred lines between man and machine proves easily the best part of Ghost in the Shell, its presentation does not hold a candle to the way in which other works like I, Robot or even The Matrix approach it. Ghost in the Shell covers familiar ideas, and only at their most basic levels. The film also leaves nearly every question it raises unanswered. Just when Kusanagi's story is getting really good, the film comes to an abrupt halt. As a concept, Ghost in the Shell is kind of cool. As a full-fledged film, Ghost in the Shell is incomplete and behind the times, even for its original 1995 release.

My rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

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