Ghost in the Shell
directed by Mamoru Oshii
(Manga Entertainment, 1996)

Ghost in the Shell is the English title of the anime adaptation of Masamune Shirow's manga series Kokaku Kidotai. It is a cyberpunk story about a full-replacement cyborg (as in, the only part of her original flesh body left is her brain) special agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and her fellow agents tracking down a mysterious adept hacker called the Puppet Master.

Ghost in the Shell is much more than that, though. While the original manga (Japanese comic) series is a dozen or so issues, the film clocks in under ninety minutes, yet nonetheless conveys the core themes and concepts of the source material. The genre of cyberpunk, being about the near future (most of it, like Ghost in the Shell, is set in the first half or so of the 21st century), is one that explores the ramifications of technology and what it means to us on philosophical and even spiritual levels. Ghost in the Shell takes a hard look at what how we define what human is, and what life is, but, as in all good cyberpunk, it leaves the answer up to the viewer.

The plot is deceptively complex, and it's a movie that stands up to repeated viewing, as watching it again and again reveals new layers of character motivation, and the subtle touches of characterization. The dialogue is well thought-out, and even characters that are only onscreen for a short time are still more than cardboard cutouts, amazingly enough. We come face to face with both the wonders that near-future technological innovations may bring us, and the horrors. Fundamentally, the question is asked: what makes us human? And what is it that can, in the end, cause us to cease to be human?

From a technical standpoint, Ghost in the Shell stands out from the pack of animated films, Japanese and American alike. The traditional, hand-drawn animation is fluid and natural, and the hand-drawn elements look and feel solid, in the same way that rotoscoped animation conveys a lifelike feel to the characters' movements, but without rotoscoping's stiffness and lack of energy. The shadows have an almost liquid quality, flowing around figures and enhancing the impression of depth and solidity. There's computer-generated animation as well, and it's blended perfectly with the traditional animation, since it's only used for a Predator-like invisibility effect and for computer displays and holograms, as far as I've ever been able to determine. The music is haunting and powerful, and all of these elements combine to give Ghost in the Shell a unique and memorable atmosphere.

I highly recommend Ghost in the Shell. Commanding visuals, compelling characters, and a complex, involved story make for an experience you won't soon forget. And, as a tip, I recommend the subtitled version over the dubbed version, both as a general rule in Japanese animation and for Ghost in the Shell specifically. While dubbing works fairly well from other European languages to English, for the most part, Japanese is a very different language, and synching English words to Japanese mouth movements often produces either overly loquacious or somewhat stilted dialogue, and is often awkward. Also, the subtitled VHS version retains its theatrical 16:9 aspect ration, and moves the picture to the top of the screen, using the leftover black space at the bottom for the subtitles, so that they don't obscure the picture. I have to commend Manga Entertainment for that decision.

[ by Sean Simpson ]

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