Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー, SABU, 2019)

“Don’t any of you have basic empathy for people?” asks a ghost of the living in SABU’s confrontation of the Showa-era legacy and contemporary ennui, Dancing Mary (ダンシング・マリー). As the hero is repeatedly told, there’s a difference between living and being alive and it just might be that the dead are the ones making the most of their time while the rest of us coast along not really paying attention to the things that really matter while life passes us by. 

Take Fujimoto (NAOTO), for instance. He became a civil servant because it’s an easy, steady job with an OK salary where you don’t actually have to do anything very taxing. He didn’t get into this because he wanted to improve the lives of citizens, he just wants to do his 9 to 5 and then go home but even then he doesn’t seem to do much other than skateboarding, literally coasting through his life. All that changes when his desk buddy has some kind of breakdown after being put in charge of the demolition of a disused dancehall which is said to be haunted and has already had a similar effect on half the town’s self-proclaimed spiritual mediums. Stories of all powerful ghost “Dancing Mary” are already plaguing the area leaving the civil servants desperate for a solution and considering turning to the most Showa-era of remedies, a yakuza-backed construction firm. 

Fujimoto, meanwhile, ends up going in another direction after overhearing a teacher complaining about a Carrie-esque student who can read minds and talk to the dead. Mie (Aina Yamada) has problems of her own, seemingly having no family and mercilessly bullied even while desperately trying to blend in and be “normal”. When Fujimoto finds her she appears to have attempted suicide, but while sitting with her at the hospital he finds himself interrogated by nosy old ladies who demand to know what it is he thinks he’s doing with his life. Where your average auntie might be satisfied to hear a young man making the sensible choice to take a steady government paycheque, these two are having none of it. They accuse him of being a hypocrite, soullessly taking money for nothing while ignoring the needs of citizens. Nothing is chance, they insist, everything is inevitable but by living resolutely in the moment the future can be changed. The old ladies each have terminal cancer and are not expecting to leave the hospital but they’re living their best lives while they can. Everyone has their purpose, what’s yours? they ask, but Fujimoto has no answer for them. 

Thanks to Mie, Fujimoto learns that Mary is rooted to the dance hall because she’s waiting for her one true love, Johnny, a missing hillbilly rocker. As the old ladies had tried to tell him, Fujimoto’s problem is that he cannot see the ghosts in the world around him which is as much about choice as it is about ability. Literally taking him by the hand, Mie guides him through a world of abandoned spirits from Edo-era samurai to melancholy post-war suicides but it’s not until he’s rescued from Showa-era thugs by the ghost of a homeless man he himself is partly responsible for that he starts to see the big picture. The dancehall, Mary’s hauntingly romantic relic of a bygone era, is to be torn down to build another soulless shopping and entertainment complex. The homeless man died alone and forgotten after he was moved on from the place he was living so that it could be “redeveloped”. Fujimoto is supposed to be a civil servant, but all he’s ever done is move things on, pass the buck, and refuse his responsibility.  

While Mie is encouraged by the two old ladies to embrace her difference, resolving not to allow herself to be bullied hiding in the shadows but to use her powers for good, Fujimoto remains unconvinced, preferring to be “laidback”. His problem is that he’s never taken anything seriously and in that sense has never really been “alive” in the way that Mary and Johnny are “alive” while dead in the enduring quality of their decades-long, unresolved romance. After a few lessons from a pre-war yakuza (Ryo Ishibashi) about the importance of giri/ninjo and a more careful observation of the world around him Fujimoto is awakened to what it is to live, discovering a new purpose and vitality but nonetheless finding it a little inconvenient. “I don’t get life”, he exclaims walking away from dull conventionality towards something more meaningful and finally perhaps alive. 


Dancing Mary was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

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?)