Ghost in The Shell (攻殻機動隊): A classic film of Japanese sci-fi animation with universal themes

reviewed by Amy Seaman

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. (Editor’s note: It was a seminal film in Japanese animation, a genre now commonly known as anime, and the inspiration for the film The Matrix. The movie covers classic science fiction themes such as : What is humanity? Can computers achieve sentience? What makes our identities: our memories and/or are experiences or the sum total of our life decisions? Who are we if our memories themselves can be manipulated and restructured?)

Ghost In The Shell is classic of Japanese Anime and was the inspiration for The Matrix

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.

5 thoughts on “Ghost in The Shell (攻殻機動隊): A classic film of Japanese sci-fi animation with universal themes”

  1. Ghost in the Shell toped the video sales charts in the US when it first came out. A first for any anime.

    Kenji Kawai did the soundtrack, as he has for many other films directed by Mamoru Oshii. The two of them make a good pair as Oshii’s films often have long portions without dialogue that are opportunities for music to set the tone.

  2. If you thought GITS the movie had political overtones, the animation series are worse. China is a force to be reckoned with and deeply distrusted, Korea is basically a “data center”, and basically all the Western countries are mere shells of what they are today. The USA has split into two factions, one siding with a Russian / Canadian / northern USA alliance and the other basically the “deep south” as a war-like aggressor empire, even named the “US Empire.” The last one is particularly played upon in two major arcs, dealing with thorny issues like “why does Japan still rely on the Empire (remnant of the USA) for security?”

    It’s always a mix of typical and hackneyed (and lest it be passed up, ignorant) anti-Americanism that gets in the way of good storytelling, but thankfully real issues do arise and typically the result is pro-Japanese (don’t want to give away too many spoilers).

  3. I don’t see the portrayal of Imperial Americana in the Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex TV series as hackneyed and ignorant anti-Americanism. Much of the portrayal is sadly similar to our foreign policy of interventionism of the entire post war period. This includes military intervention in Latin America, which show up twice in showing some of the background of the characters in the series. The CIA goons in the TV series could have walked out of many US movies about covert operations.

    As for pro-Japanese the Japanese politicians and bureaucrats don’t come out shining, in fact some are painted as corrupt and easy to buy, others as willing to give too much power to another state (the US) or even murderers and terrorists.

    As for the countries being shells of what they are today there is little in the series to indicate that. What we do see is London and Berlin looking pretty good and all we see of the US is actions by Imperial Americana. In fact some of the backstory you mention would only be familiar to the readers of the Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed manga as they are not explicitly stated in the TV shows.

    I suggest you take a second look at the TV shows.

    BTW in the Appleseed manga we find out that Imperial Americana has as its capital Austin Texas.

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