Ghost in the Shell (Andrew Osmond)

ghost in the Shell cover
Cover Illustration by Chris Malbon

Since its release in 1995, Ghost in the Shell has, ironically enough, taken on a life of its own becoming a long running animated franchise expanding far beyond the borders of the original manga by Appleseed’s Masamune Shirow. Anime expert Andrew Osmond attempts to chart this unexpected legacy by looking specifically at the 1995 film with comparisons to its sequel Innocence, “upgraded” 2.0 re-release, and recent American live action adaptation with brief asides to its TV anime incarnations Stand Alone Complex and Arise.

Beginning with the film’s transition from a niche interest release in its home country to an international breakout hit, Osmond attributes much of Ghost in the Shell’s ongoing (overseas) popularity to its association (rightly or wrongly) with The Matrix. The Matrix picks up on the classic, noir-tinged trope of the stealthy female hacker in the gun toting Trinity but, as Osmond points out, the similarities largely end with the poster. Trinity, unlike Kusanagi, is soon relegated to a traditionally female supporting role whereas Kusanagi remains very much in the lead as the commander of Section 9.

Osmond then goes on to question the film’s relationship to the landmark sci-fi noir Blade Runner as well as to the cyberpunk subgenre to which it is so often attributed. Ghost in the Shell, despite sharing many thematic and aesthetic similarities, according to Osmond, differs from Blade Runner in its positive female focus rather than the noir-tinged male world of Scott’s retro-futuristic city. Osmond’s central disagreement with the cyberpunk designation is that Ghost in the Shell lacks the punk attitude usually so essential to the genre. Gibson’s Neuromancer, the iconic cyberpunk text, was indeed influenced by mid-80s punk centring on a group of youthful outsiders, but Kusanagi and Section 9 are the authority against which cyberpunk youth is often trying to rebel. Osmond argues that Akira, despite its lack of cyberspace, fits the label better because of its much more recognisably “punk” milieu of motorcycle gangs and rebellious youth. Ghost’s association with the genre, Osmond states, has more to do with its later association with the Matrix (which may not even really be cyberpunk itself) rather than any essential part of its own nature.

What Ghost in the Shell does share with the world of cyberpunk, is its generally gloomy world view influenced by classic noir, hardboiled fiction. In keeping with this, Kusanagi, as argued above, is less a Trinity-style action heroine later sidelined in favour of a male hero than a solitary detective, caught, like Deckard, inside a web of existential questioning provoked by her own dualities.

As laid out in Chapter 3, Oshii’s first contribution to the Ghost in the Shell adaptation was to raise the tone – the “cute” Kusanagi of the manga with her oversize boobs and childlike appearance was redesigned in keeping with Oshii’s more serious intentions which replaced Shirow’s goofier approach with something altogether more mature and in that regard “naturalistic”. Osmond argues that this crucial decision perhaps alienated Japanese anime fans who preferred manga-esque aesthetics, but helped to gain traction overseas precisely because it lacked the hyperfeminine character designs which had come to define Japanese animation in even in other “arthouse” leaning anime such as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. 

Osmond links this same sensibility back to the film’s methods of production which involved an unprecedented investment from a foreign distributor – Manga Entertainment, which had been founded in the wake of Akira and on the assumption that there must be other explosive, adult orientated animation waiting to be discovered. Finding out that animation featuring Akira’s lavish production values was not as plentiful as hoped (or at least, the ones in the realms of affordability), Manga decided to get into producing the content they needed themselves. Though Osmond is clear that Manga did not particularly influence the film’s production beyond creative controls including storyboard approval, poster design, and music requests, their desire was for another well produced, “mature” anime with an “auteur” aesthetic to follow in Akira’s footsteps (which it eventually did). On the film’s completion, Manga’s American CEO suggested that the film was more comprehensible to Western fans because of the already familiar science fiction tropes, even going so far as to label it “an intelligent, animated Blade Runner.”

Looking more deeply into the film’s creative process, Osmond profiles the contributions not only of the film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, but also the influence of his long term screenwriter Kazunori Ito and the later involvement of composer Kenji Kawai, before finding space to spotlight individual animators whose work often goes unappreciated, as well as reflecting on the role of the (poor quality) English dub on the film’s immediate reception. Following a comprehensive overview of the franchise’s creation which was, so it seems, born with the 1995 film, Osmond ends with a few words (and lengthy review) of the recent Hollywood live action adaptation which he views as an entertaining if less thoughtful entry into the franchise. Like its heroine, Ghost in the Shell lives on in many forms and the announcement of a new, CGI addition to the franchise directed by Kenji Kamiyama – director of the most successful spin-off Stand Alone Complex, and Space Captain Harlock’s Shinji Aramaki, proves the net is vast indeed.

Ghost in the Shell is available now published by Arrow Books.

Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji (Tom Mes)

unchained melody cover
Cover art by Nathanael Marsh

For a figure now so iconic and enduring, it’s strange that a comprehensive study of the cinematic career of Meiko Kaji (in English, at least) has been so long coming. Tom Mes’ wonderfully titled Unchained Melody seeks to rectify this unfortunate situation with a wide ranging examination not only of Kaji’s screen persona(s) but also of the changing nature of the industry which at times supported and frustrated her, as well as the various directors through whom she was able grow and change as an actress. The picture which emerges most strongly through Mes’ book is of a woman who was often as defiant as the characters who came to define her in the public eye, but necessarily so for, unlike some of her contemporaries, her goal was always a betterment of her craft and she would, therefore, be ruthless in pursuing it.

After beginning with the personal in a prologue detailing a meeting with the woman herself in 2006, Mes wisely moves on from biographical detail to focus on Kaji’s film career as it progressed from miscasting as Nikkatsu’s particular brand of cutesy girl-next-door, to her reign as queen of outlaw cool in the youth crazy 1970s and the inevitable cooling down as time moved on. It is, however, in least in Mes’ view and in the way Kaji herself seems to describe it to him not a story of decline and fall but of personal choice.

The Japanese studio system, like that of Hollywood, could be rigid and unforgiving. In many ways it’s an odd comparison, but the dilemma Kaji finds herself in is much the same as that experienced by Hollywood’s own defiant woman, Bette Davis, who successfully managed to push her otherwise overbearing managers into giving her the kind of work which she felt she deserved but was being denied. Nikkatsu’s output was star based rather than director led, meaning they had a steady stream of cardboard cut out headliners they could slot into the project the marketing department was busy dreaming up. This is naturally disadvantageous to an aspiring actress whose interest is craft rather than stardom.

Mes, as kindly as he can, contrasts Kaji’s fortunes with an early co-star, Sayuri Yoshinaga who continues to be a tentpole star – perhaps the only female actress of her age to be so. Yoshinaga, well known both as an actress and singer, has played things quite differently, capitalising on an image which is the very opposite of Kaji’s – that essential small town wholesomeness that Kaji had so much trouble with at Nikkatsu. Still playing roles well below her physical age – most notably as a frequent mother figure in the films of veteran commercial director Yoji Yamada, Yoshinaga has certainly had a long and very successful career, but, as Mes implies, not the kind of career Kaji would have wanted.

Rather than capitalising on her new found stardom after the twin hits of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion, Kaji opts for challenging roles rather leading ones. Mes uses this as a jumping off point to profile some of the directors who helped to shape her career from her big break in Nikkatsu’s groovy youth series Stray Cat Rock which gave her a lasting relationship with Yasuharu Hasebe (who returned to direct the last in the Scorpion series), and Toshiya Fujita who further helped to create her image with Lady Snowblood, as well as the lesser known director of the Scorpion films Shunya Ito, the better known Kinji Fukasaku, and the provocative Yasuzo Masumura for whom Kaji produced one of her most surprising cameos as a kindly village woman in Lullaby of the Earth. In addition to giving an impression of how these various directors fit into Kaji’s ongoing development as an actress, these brief digressions also help to situate it within the fracturing world of ‘70s Japanese cinema in which the death of the studio system had created a gaping void into which slipped the commercial filmmaker’s baser instincts.

Where other books on cinema might hold back, Mes is also keen to highlight Kaji’s long career in television in which she often found the kinds of challenging roles unavailable in the cinema. A brief resurgence in international interest following Tarantino’s Kill Bill which cited her as a clear influence and used two of Kaji’s iconic theme tunes might have led to a cinematic comeback but it was sadly not to be, and, truth be told those challenging roles for older actresses are still few and far between. Still, Kaji’s counter cultural cool endures and if there’s one thing that Mes’ book makes plain, it’s that this essentially defiant quality extends past her screen image to the woman herself who was not prepared to be bound by the way that others chose to see her but continued to fight for the right to define herself, not as a star in someone else’s image, but as an actress.

Unchained Melody: The Films Of Meiko Kaji is published by Arrow Books 11th September, 2017.