A question posed throughout all of human history, one possibly more insightful and more relevant than the meaning of life, deals with that of humanity.
What makes a human being? Is it our body? Our intellect? Our consciousness? What makes man any different from a machine performing functions? Could a machine be more human than a human? The list goes on and on, and there’s still no definitive answer to the question - but it certainly gets us to think, doesn’t it? In 1995, an anime readdressed this question using cyborgs.
Science fiction often asks this question, as well as its other related issues, and much of this discussion began in the popularly writings of Isaac Asimov. Ghost in the Shell, produced by Production I. G. and premiering in 1995, introduced us to a world where the line between human and machine is no longer distinct, and many people have upgraded to cybernetic bodies.
We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi of the security force Section 9, as she and her team track down a dangerous hacker known as the Puppet Master. At the same time, Kusanagi questions her existence as a cyborg and seeks to discover what it means to be truly human. Ghost in the Shell was a breakthrough in animation, blending cel and computer animation, as well as in the international arena, being among the first anime to be shown extensively in North America, and even being an influence for the Wachowski brothers in creating The Matrix. So, what makes it such a great film? Well, lets go over that in what will by my first essay of my Ghost in the Shell marathon:
The plot, adapted from the manga and made to fit into the length of a feature film, runs as a sort of typical cop/action movie; you’ve got your group of cops, your bad guy, throw in a few chase and fight scenes, and ultimately lead up to the climatic fight before resolving the conflict; oh, and your protagonist usually has some inner conflict to resolve by the end as well. Yeah, take all of this, add cyborgs, make it an anime, and you’ve got yourself Ghost in the Shell. However, the film does take a few twists of this story archetype, and makes a few liberties of its own, particularly with the ending, but also with a few of the scenes where it address the big question: what makes a human being?
The entire plot is pretty much a metaphor for this question, and there are scenes where they address it directly and where they address it very indirectly; the latter addressing is the more notable, and where composer Kenji Kawai gets to have the most fun. Sometimes the music within a scene is more than enough to deliver not only the emotion of the scene, but also to help get the audience to think about the big question, even without dialogue. The beautiful thing about it, though, is that neither the plot nor the human theme seem to be a second thought for the progression of the film; it doesn’t feel like the question was thrown into the plot at the end to appear smarter. Both the plot and this overarching theme are complementary to each other, and one would suffer without the other, resulting in the overall impact of the film to remain strong and intact.
The other amazing aspect of the movie which only complements the amazing plot and thematic elements is the animation. It’s a little dated now, but can still compete with a great deal of animation today. Like I stated earlier, Ghost in the Shell was among the first in anime to seamlessly blend cel and computer animation within a single work, next to such films as Macross Plus: Movie Edition. Other than that, it has that very raw, rough, 90s element to which makes it feel much more real, one of the areas in which a lot of animation today seems to fall short in.
Lastly, the characters seal the deal in creating the world of Ghost in the Shell. It’s difficult to capture important character elements in a feature length film, especially when adapting those characters from much longer works; in this case, a manga. The Ghost in the Shell film manages to keep all these characters true to their originals while cutting out a great deal of development. It doesn’t bore you with explaining why the characters are why they are, and instead shows you through their actions (another element that is disappearing modern animation). In fact, it does this with the not only the characters, but with the setting as well; when thrust into this alien world of cybernetics, brain hacking, and secret agencies, you’d expect a modern anime to give you a prologue to explain it. This, in true 90s fashion, ignores your questions and lets you think about it for yourself while it shows you; it does this with the characters too, which really elevates the experience as a viewer.
Overall, Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of science fiction animation. The plot handling, the thematic issues, the animation, the characters, and the truly 90s style of doing things all work together symbiotically. A must-see for all anime and science fiction fans alike, though not entirely suited for children due to adults themes and brief nudity. Ghost in the Shell easily deserves a 9/10, and is a great way to start my Ghost in the Shell marathon, where I will be viewing and reviewing the entire Ghost in the Shell anime franchise (since I need to anyways). Until my review of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, I’ll see you around!