Ghost in The Shell: A classic film of Japanese sci-fi animation with universal themes

Author's Notes
I reviewed the first film in the Ghost in the Shell saga, picking apart the plot and attempting to find out why it's become such a classic.

There’s always something ominous about seeing post-apocalyptic, futuristic worlds — even if it’s just on a screen. Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊) plays on this unsettling emotion, cultivating a society in which humans coexist with and, in some cases, are co-inhabited by cyborgs.

Based on a comic of the same name by Shirow Masamune, this 1996 flick was an instant hit, praised for its masterful blending of traditional cell animation with its more modern digital counterpart. The film, which takes place after World War III, follows Major Motoko Kusanagi (草薙素子) and her second-in-command Batou (バトー), who is more cyborg than human, as they track and chase an elusive hacker known only as the Puppet Master, a mysterious entity that has made a game out of commandeering the ghosts of partially human cybernetic organisms.

Joining them is Detective Togusa, who is not cybernetically augmented, and an old school cop. He is originally from the violent crimes division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (警視庁捜査一課) and the only detective in the squad with a wife and children. All three detectives are part of a national police agency, modeled after the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, and are detectives in the mysterious Public Security Investigations Section Nine. (公安9課)

Though Ghost in the Shell is set in a realm where even the simplest everyday things have become computer-run, mechanized, and dehumanized to some extent, the story itself retains themes that will be familiar to human viewers, especially nowadays. Throughout its 80-minute runtime, Kusanagi finds herself — or perhaps, itself — facing a somewhat existential identity crisis, one that is inevitable in a world where it is possible to manipulate an organism’s memories, to rewrite their personal history.

Admittedly, the idea of humanity versus machinery isn’t an entirely new one, so what makes this movie worth watching is its presentation of an age-old question: Will it ever be possible to emulate true humanity through technology? In the moments that Kusanagi appears to pause and think — as a non-modified human would — the answer seems clear. Mere seconds later, though, it disappears again, blending in with the beautiful but somehow haunting music that is the movie’s soundtrack, leaving the question hanging. In some ways, it’s not Kusanagi’s behaviour, but the film’s orchestral score that serves as the jarring reminder of just how delicate humanity is.

However existential and universal as the film’s main theme may be, subtle details peppered throughout make it difficult to overlook its political overtones. Produced at the tail end of the Cold War, right after the burst of the Japanese economic bubble, the story recalls the rueful sentiments of a society on the verge of decline. Through impressive animation that leaves no detail overlooked, Masamune depicts an Asian society that has remained prosperous, despite the downfall of its other first-world counterparts.

It’s hard not to love the film on a purely artistic level, even if its political overtones and philosophical questions that are a shade overwhelming at times. It has a slightly predictable plot and two too many musical montages, but it is a fascinating film in many ways and a quintessential Japanese anime, well worth seeing if you love a good science fiction flick with stunning visuals.