It is not in the nature of a classic to be perfect. It is in the nature of a classic to be groundbreaking, seminal, influential, unforgettable. In the light of those achievements, formal perfection isn't required. All that matters is how the work in question has made its mark, whether for good or ill. Ghost in the Shell has left its deepest marks not across anime generally as something to be modeled after and inspired by (Evangelion is arguably the 900-pound gorilla there, at least as far as the 1990s go), but in the expectations a certain portion of anime fandom has for anime generally: Why can't it all be this good? But that's as unfair to Ghost in the Shell as it is to the rest of anime, and to the rest of anime fandom. As accomplished as Ghost is, it's still only a high-water mark for a single, rather narrow way in which anime can work. But all the same, what a high-water mark it is, for anime and for cinema generally.
Most science fiction is less about the future we're likely to inhabit than it is about the world we inhabit right now. Ghost in the Shell managed, and manages, to do both of those things: its vision of 2029 is not absurdly different from ours, but different in credible ways. It's dated most poorly in ways that are cosmetic — e.g., the back-of-the-neck connectors sported by the cyberneticized characters, which appeared "futuristic" then and seem merely clunky now. And as a Mamoru Oshii production, it's at least as much about the insular conceits of its director (memory, personality, dreamtime meditations on same) than it is about its professed story, which may shut a lot of viewers out from the git-go. But in all the ways that matter, Ghost approaches timelessness all the more with each passing year.
Crimes of the future
Welcome to 2030, in a Japan that has somehow survived another world war, where despite the ever-freer flow of information "countries and races are not yet obsolete". Thus it falls to Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the rest of the covert ops government team known as Section 9, to wage war by other means as necessary. Said wetwork apparently includes political assassination, as per Ghost's now-classic opening sequence where Kusanagi, clad only in a way-too-skintight bodysuit, bungee-dives down the side of a building, delivers a few well-placed bullets into the head of a diplomat trying to smuggle a classified programmer out of Japan, and — in a shot now immortalized as one of the movie's signature images — disappears into thin air with the wave of a hand over her face.
Such derring-do is second nature to her, thanks to Kusanagi being a human brain (in the movie's terminology, a "ghost") with a cyborg body — most likely the very one we see being lovingly instantiated under the movie's opening credits. She and the rest of her crew are on the tail of a world-class hacker known as the Puppet Master, with a rap sheet that includes "stock manipulation, illegal information gathering, political engineering" — in other words, many of the same things Section 9 itself might be engaged in at any one point.
Moral superiority isn't their game, though; results are. To that end she and two of her closest cohorts in Section 9 — the hulking, heavily-cyberized Batou, and the relatively human, buttoned-down ex-cop Togusa — stage a manhunt for a man they believe to be the Puppet Master. After a chase and a shoot-out, one where either one of the participants might be invisible at any given moment, the truth is revealed: their gunman was nothing more than a common criminal whose mind had been wiped and used as a pawn. Likewise, the bagman for the operation was a garbage collector suffering from a similar case of mental hijacking.
Few human hackers could pull off something that cold-blooded, and as it turns out the Puppet Master they seek isn't even human to begin with. Call it by its original name: Project 2501, an emergent digital sentience that escaped its original container and wants political asylum. What's more, it seeks to evolve further, and it senses that this may only be possible by fusing with a human mind. And when another government agency launches a siege against Section 9 and steals the Puppet Master's android shell, it's Kusanagi who goes after it. What was once just another mission has become for her a doorway to a new realm of experience, one she has only wondered about but never acted on until now.
A hole in the Ghost
It's been said that science fiction is a fiction of ideas, and Ghost in the Shell is if nothing else a font of ideas. I'm looking back over the notes I scribbled during my two recent rewatchings of the film, and the list threatens to become the outline for a book: the definition of living things, especially in an artificial medium such as a computer ("Isn't your DNA just a self-preserving program?" Project 2501 taunts at one point); the sovereignty of pure intelligences; the relationship of the body and the mind to the individual; the way the Buddhist concept of the composite no-self and the Christian notion of the absolute self comment on and illuminate each other; and on and on.
But what I find most striking about the movie is not in its wealth of ideas, but in its lack of something else — the movie's general emotional sterility. This is not the same as a movie being about such things, or having characters who are emotionally detached. Too often, there are times in the film when we should care about the people involved, when we need to care about them, and instead we only admire the craftsmanship used to depict them.
To explain that away as part of the film's general plan is, I think, to ignore how it's symptomatic of something Oshii has always struggled with in his films. Oshii is an impressive thinker and an even more impressive visualizer (his movies never look boring), but he has also labored to fill his films with great and ponderous swaths of emotion. It's difficult to watch something like Angel's Egg and not feel tears welling up without quite knowing why. But Oshii has always been hamstrung at evoking specific emotions felt by specific characters, and that shortcoming puts a hole in the heart of this movie right where it least needs one.
Most specifically, it lacks with the way the film deals with Kusanagi. Her feelings about the Puppet Master, and how they relate back to her own sense of self, are alluded to, discussed, and even dramatized — look at the way she rips herself in half when trying to enter the enemy tank where it's kept! — but somehow not quite felt. If anything, we feel far more of Batou's perplexity and frustration, and maybe also his own inchoate feelings for Kusanagi, than we feel anything from Kusanagi's herself — and while again that may have been a deliberate strategy on the movie's part, it still has the net effect of leaving us out in the cold. It's hard to feel anything for a character who has been deliberately painted as a cipher. Oshii then has to resort to symbolism — e.g., at one point the image of a descending angel — to make up the difference, to provide proxies for the emotions we normally would feel vicariously through a character. Ghost wants to be a postmodern spiritual experience of sorts, but there's no such thing as depersonalized spirituality.
It also doesn't help that there are many times when the movie's discussions of individuality, identity, memory, evolution, etc. seem less like Shirow's story, or Shirow's characters, than they do just Oshii himself doing his thing. Example: the idea that 2501 and Kusanagi are mirror images, destined to be halves of a whole, ought to be more compelling stuff — but it's described (by 2501) entirely in terms of airy abstractions, and not terms of anything specific the two might share. And that's not just a trait of 2501 as a character, but one of Oshii himself — by the way he assembles all this material and how he deploys it. Oshii's tendency is to have a story embody its profundity by having his characters stand around and talk about the profundity of it all, as Batou and Kusanagi do at various points. Even if you haven't already been exposed to this sort of thing in Oshii's other films, it's still hard not to feel one's eyes rolling when Kusanagi wonders if she never really existed in the first place.
I wonder how much of this circularity is rooted in Oshii's fascination for things that have profound emotional depths for him, but aren't specific enough for most anyone else — including his own characters — to connect with. (We grieve less at the idea of memory being ephemeral as we do forgetting, say, the face of the first person we ever kissed.) There have been enough times (e.g., The Sky Crawlers) when Oshii made such things work well enough to convince me he has far more heart than a cinematic technocrat like Stanley Kubrick — and I say this as a fan of that man's work — but far too often I labor in vain to feel that heart beating, let alone hear it. I can hear it beating here, but still only distantly, and that hurts. In the end, the only thing Oshii really seems to believe in, the only thing he has to communicate to an audience, is the permanence and inscrutability of his own obsessions, no matter what guise they appear in. Oshii is anime's most lavish solipsist.
All that glitters
What is striking, though, is how despite all this icy remove, the film still works as well as it does. Some of that iciness lifts, again, on successive viewings (although, I admit, that predicates wanting to see the film more than once), and what was abstract and intellectual becomes bracing and even sly. I particularly like the way Oshii works a great many thematically related visuals into the film, as long as he isn't trying too hard. When he cuts away from a cluster of showroom dummies to Project 2501's artificial body standing on a highway, it's amusing, even when it's crashingly obvious in retrospect.
But there are just as many other images that don't seem heavy-handed, either in the moment or on re-examination. When he shows us Kusanagi rising to the surface of a body of water to disturb her own reflection from underneath, it resonates all the more after Project 2501's speech about she and it being halves that must join. (It also helps that the artificial body 2501 inhabits has a face of the same general design as her own.) When Kusanagi renders herself invisible in the magnificent opening sequence, it's a kind of thematic foreshadowing for the end of the film, where she vanishes entirely for real a la the existentialist ending of La Femme Nikita, released five years earlier.
And then there's the stuff that just looks beautiful and gloomy — the city at night in the rain, or the cavernous interior of the museum-cum-expo space where Kusanagi engages, in another dazzling scene, in a blistering shootout with an implacable six-legged tank. Look fast there for a creepy, immensely effective little moment where blood runs out of the tank after Batou shoots it: easy to forget how inside that shell there remains something vulnerable and mortal.
Ghost never lacks for things to dazzle the viewer with, but on balance that dazzle feels integral and vital to the film — a way for the movie to embody what it's about, not just a matter of Oshii showing off. The way the electronic and real worlds interpenetrate is made explicit for us right in the movie's virtuoso opening shots, where both the symbols for two aircraft and the digital city map they're flying over are replaced by their real-world counterparts. Even when Oshii is being a show-off, it's engaging, as when Kusanagi and Batou chase one of their men on foot through a Kowloon-like district, and the bristling intensity of the chase is put in stark contrast with the moody, wrecked city around them.
The only time this moodiness becomes tedious instead of atmospheric is when Oshii stops everything dead in the middle of the film for a rainy-city-in-the-evening travelogue. But even that works, thanks in part to Kenji Kawai's keening, elegiac score — a personal favorite of mine — and because of how successfully it hearkens back to similar interludes from movies like Michael Mann's Thief. (Perhaps a big part of why it works as well as it does here is because at that point in his career Oshii hadn't yet abused the idea too much.)
Adaptation, mutation, selection
I suspect much of this imagery can be traced to Oshii and his team, rather than Masamune Shirow, creator of the manga from which the franchise has been derived. Here, movie and comic resemble each other as little as Blade Runner resembled its own source material, Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. As Brian Ruh noted in his monograph on Oshii, Stray Dog of Anime, this was OK by Shirow: he gave Oshii free reign to rework the story in his image. Barely a third of the original plot survives, and just about none of Shirow's nerdy, chirpy humor, too: the only character who has any discernible bounce to their personality in the film is Batou. Much of the overtly political plotting and subtext was either dropped entirely, or turned into gap-filler between scenes. (Oshii's interests in politics have been largely subordinate to his more personal obsessions, anyway.)
I'm not too sure how much of a gateway Ghost was into manga for English-language readers, although like a lot of Dark Horse's 1990s-era manga productions, it did show up as a series of monthlies, so I imagine it had to have turned at least a few heads away from the folks picking up their copies of Detective Comics and Spider-Man. (I know my own head was turned by the monthlies of Shirow's own Orion when that showed up, even if I couldn't puzzle together the faintest inkling what that story was supposed to be about.) What I don't doubt is Ghost (the movie)'s status as a prime gateway for many Westerners into anime generally. Like AKIRA, it stood in such stark contrast to so many other things at the time — both domestic and Japanese — that it seemed like a natural way to entice the unwitting.
Was that wise? The very fact that Ghost — and AKIRA, come to think of it — are such maverick productions makes me wonder if using them as "gateway drugs" wasn't misleading, since there was so little else in anime at the time (or even since!) that lived up to the same degree of promise. But I can't argue with the idea that showing someone Ghost worked well as one of the few easy ways Western audiences could experience anime, and experience one of its most ambitious and artistically accomplished examples to boot, in an age of relatively limited access — just as long as everyone understood they were seeing the exception and not the rule.
Almost twenty years have gone by since then, and Ghost in the Shell has gone from being one of a privileged few titles to one among a staggeringly broad palette. The snob in me wants to bemoan all this: isn't it unfair that many of their first experiences with anime aren't something as challenging and brilliant as Ghost in the Shell, but instead something like Sword Art Online (forgive me, I'm being arbitrary)?
But the other half of me knows better than to think of such a state as nothing but bad news. A movie, and a franchise, like Ghost in the Shell doesn't deserve to have an audience paraded indiscriminately in front of it just for the sake of being able to say they were there. It holds up well enough after twenty-five years that it deserves the audiences it gets, and gets the audience it deserves.
The "2.0" remix, and beyond
Unfortunately, if Oshii had had his way entirely, the newer generation of viewers might never have been able to see Ghost as the earlier generations had seen it. When George Lucas reissued the original Star Wars trilogy with newly remastered special effects — as well as a good deal of other gratuitous tinkering — both fans and casual viewers were nauseated by the way an artist could second-guess his own work, levying "improvements" on it that improved nothing of real importance. I never expected Oshii to pull the same stunt with Ghost in the Shell, but pull it he did with the infamous "2.0" version of the film. Nothing Oshii did approached the idiocity of Han Solo not shooting first, but it's still just as misguided.
On the good side, the 2.0 version of Ghost enjoyed a badly-needed remastering and restoration; on the bad side, its color palette was tweaked in the process. The cool, industrial blue-gray of the film was replaced with a more rotogravure brown, something meant I guess to evoke the nostalgia of lost memory. On the worst possible side, though, was the replacement of many original animated sequences — the opening and closing in particular — with newly rendered CGI, a move as pointless as putting chrome fins on a Model T Ford.
It is bad enough that the old and new material clashed stylistically, like wearing a gaudy plaid jacket over a sober navy blue shirt. What's worse is how such tinkering destroys one of the most important qualities of the film: the fact that it was a product of its moment in time, and the way the movie looked and felt, with its mix of old-school digital effects and analog hand-drawn imagery, was an inseparable part of that. It even breaks the movie thematically: replacing the hand-drawn airships of the opening shot with CGI just takes the great visual metaphor (virtual to actual) created by that opening shot — one as great as the thrown bone turning into the satellite in 2001, or the Christ statue being flown over Rome by helicopter in La Dolce Vita — and turns it into a leaden literalism.
I take exception to the way such things can be ruined, if only because Ghost is built on top of them. The whole movie's philosophy, after all, is about the way living things and information turn into each other and arise from each other. Beyond a certain point, there is no "artificial" intelligence; everything that exhibits the traits of a living, thinking being is alive and aware, no matter what medium it happens to exist in. Hence the title, but the shell is at least as important as the ghost that inhabits it: it's the shell that others (themselves shell-bound) that others respond to first, react to most directly. And when we do find ways to liberate ourselves from those containers — or allow others to occupy it freely — that is the logical endpoint for a species that is only too eager to turn everything it encounters, itself included, into "mere" information. It stands to reason that all the things that make us "us" are next in line to be so digitized, manipulated, and objectified. But some might not shrink from that.
That's what Kusanagi finds herself becoming at the end of the film — not an individual, and not a hybrid borne of her merger with Project 2501, but a process incarnate, one borne of all that she and 2501 both were. Where is she to go from there? That's not only her question anymore, but all of ours — and not just at this particular moment in time, when the possibilities of fusing human and machine intelligence grow ever closer, but in every moment through human history when we embraced some irreversible change. Add fire to the human race and you have a new human race; likewise, add machines and machine intelligence, and you have something that is no less post-human. Add Kusanagi to the Puppet Master, and what ghost hatches from that shell? From what little we see, a creature of curiosity and intelligence, and — I hope — of compassion as well. It had better be, for all our sakes.