Ghost in the Shell is one of the longest standing franchises in the world. The original manga was written in 1989 and with the Western live-action film arriving in cinemas on March 30th I thought I’d look back and see how the original film stands up. The franchise has encompassed everything from anime series, movies, and video games but the 1995 film is where it achieved true recognition for the cyber-punk classic it is. Ghost in the Shell is set in 2029 where all of humanity are connected by the Net, a cyberspace easily accessible through cybernetic brain enhancements. The story follows that of cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi and her fellow agents in Section 9. Section 9 are a clandestine government agency, the problem solvers sent in to deal with terrorists and secret diplomatic incidents. The film begins with Section 9 dealing with a rogue hacker known as the Puppet Master who can switch bodies at will, hack into government programs and erase peoples’ memories. The Major herself has her own agenda in this neo-Tokyo filled with cybernetically augmented humans, dangerous criminals, devastating poverty, and rampant corruption.
Twenty-two years on and Ghost in the Shell still looks phenomenal. Production I. G, the production studio that would go on to make the other Ghost in the Shell films and series, does a stand-out job of conveying the hellscape of the near future through cel and CG animation. Rickety slums rise high enough to block out the sun, the Net is a haven for black market dealers while the rich entertain themselves with sex robots and clones of domestic pets. The detailed animation is often grungy, sometimes sublime and occasionally grotesque. Instead of blood and gore people die in explosions of synthetic muscles, titanium bones and cooling fluid. The fingers of systems analysts split into dozens of spidery digits at a moment’s notice. Everyone has Matrix style ports in their necks. No wonder the Wachowski siblings cited the film as an influence.
The story by Kazunori Itō based off Masamune Shirow’s original manga is filled with existential dread. The very title Ghost in the Shell alludes to a human soul trapped in a corporeal form. The shells are robotic bodies with a human brain at the centre of them. But inside the brain is something more. What makes us human is the key question the film asks. Is it our own flesh and blood? Is it our brain? Or is it something more, something unquantifiable? Can everything we do be boiled down to a soul? Like any great film, Ghost in the Shell only meditates on these themes. It provides no answers and only asks questions. It is up to us, the viewers, to decide whether technology is good or bad for us and whether our thoughts or a spiritual essence guides our actions.
Ghost in the Shell was the leader in a renaissance in Japanese anime. Along with other thought-provoking sci-fi classics such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop; Ghost in the Shell revitalised a flagging industry and made it a heavyweight on the global media scene. Through its innovative animation, captivating story and hypnotising soundtrack Ghost in the Shell gave us plenty of reason to hope for as well as fear the future. Andrew Carroll