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.

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kazuya Nomura, 2015)

Ghost in the Sell new movieMasamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell burst onto the scene in 1989 and instantly became a genre classic. Mamoru Oshii then adapted the manga into a much lauded anime movie in 1995 which almost came to define cyberpunk animation even if it emerged towards the end of the genre’s heyday. A sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence followed in 2004 as well as a TV anime spin-off Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Now with the 20th anniversary of the original animated movie, the series has yet again been adapted into a series of entirely new anime OVAs under the name of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kokaku Kidotai – Shin Gekijoban) is the big screen outing of this latest incarnation scripted by Tow Ubukata who also produced the very GITS influenced Mardock Scramble.

Following on from the Arise OVAs, we find Major Motoko Kusanagi at the head of her gang of cybernetically enhanced former soldiers operating as security consultants with a special focus on cyber crime. Still outside the government aegis, Kusanagi has managed to wangle herself some extra funding and official patronage when she’s brought in to handle a sensitive hostage situation as seven disgruntled soldiers take a number of hostages inside a financial institution.

Though Kusanagi & co have the situation well in hand, they are about to have the rug pulled from under them firstly by the reappearance of the Firestarter virus which corrupts the memories stored on an infected cyberbrain wreaking havoc with their new captives, and then secondly as the hostage situation itself turns out to be a high level diversionary tactic designed to provide cover for the assassination of the prime minister. Kusanagi and her team quickly discover there’s far more going on here than they could ever have imagined and soon enough Kusanagi herself becomes the centre of a hi-tec conspiracy.

Like the Arise OVAs which preceded it, The New Movie maintains a much heavier focus on action set pieces than the philosophical contemplations that made Ghost in the Shell such an important entry in the cyberpunk catalogue. Though the ideas are not entirely absent, they are presented as background much more than an essential component of the series.

That said, the film does touch on some quite prescient issues firstly with the role of the soldiers which highlights the pressures ordinary rank and file officers are under when they see their service has not been valued and they’re about to be sold out by the country they risked their lives to protect. They are also, apparently, not well cared for by military authorities who kit them out with second grade equipment which they then also fail to maintain leaving many of their number literarily falling apart as their components become “obsolete”.

Ironically enough, Kusanagi also thinks of her team as component “parts” in a well functioning machine. She congratulates herself by praising them as a prime selection which she has been lucky to find – they need to look after themselves because a replacement component would be a hard thing to come by. However, if they begin to malfunction in some way, she will “purge” them rather than allow them to corrupt the rest of her system. This way of thinking seems cold to some members of the team, particularly to Togusa who’s the least “enhanced” among them. Raised by the military, Kusanagi is a born leader but not one to whom warm words come easily so this, actually rather apt, metaphor is as close as she will allow herself to get in letting the guys know that they each have their specific place within her grand plan. Though she needs them to perform as expected, they are important to her on both a personal and professional level.

This is where we’ve been heading with Arise – the origin story of Section 9 as it comes to be in the original movie, and of Kusanagi herself. Unsurprisingly the conspiracy turns out to have a lot to do with the Major’s own past and a few buried “ghosts” which must be exorcised in order to move forward. This extended metaphor is played out in the somewhat contrived final fight which sees Kusanagi facing off against a villain using an identical cyberbody which means she is fighting “herself” in a way, but nevertheless, it is a victory of the reclaimed self (even if that same “self” is about to undergo yet more existential battles in adventures to come).

The new character design and animation style have begun to seem more familiar by this point, though despite the stellar work of Production I.G the New Movie never quite reaches the aesthetic heights of the iconic original. This is only further brought out by the frequent homages to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell including the final scene which is almost a carbon copy of the original film’s opening (thematically fitting as it is). The action scenes, however, are extremely impressive and display innovative animation techniques which make fantastic use of the latest animation technology. Another exciting, action packed outing for Major Kusanagi and her guys, the New Movie doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its namesake but nevertheless proves a thrilling cyberpunk infused adventure and a fitting bridge between the Arise series and the landmark 1995 movie.

Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is also available in the UK from Manga Entertainment (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer (why is it so hard to find a trailer for the Japanese language track with English subtitles for these?)