Ghost In The Shell, more than anything else, questions what it really means to be human. What makes us human? What makes us feel and think the way we do? Are we individuals, or merely components of a larger whole? All these questions are personified in the character of Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg eager to learn the truths of her existence through questions, explorations, and soul-searching (if she even has a soul).
She lives in the distant future, in a nameless city that’s always under construction and drenched in rain. It’s a gloomy place, and the people who live there are equally gloomy. She is the leader of a police assault team, and her partners, Batou and Ishikawa, are also cyborgs. Their mental energy exists as “ghosts”, living in manufactured bodies known as “shells”, which give them superhuman abilities and the power to communicate telepathically. For Batou, his transformation to becoming a full-fledged human being is almost complete, and he provides an insightful contrast to the desperately inquisitive nature of Motoko.
Their team is assigned the special task of hunting down a cyber-hacker known only as The Puppet Master, who uses his savvy to pervade government details and top secret files. As with any Japanese anime movie that’s based off a manga series, the story is deceptive, and proves to be much more complex. Here, the trio, through their hunt for this elusive villain, discovers facts about life and about themselves that prompt philosophical questions that relate back to Motoko’s own idea about what makes her a machine. We find out towards the end of the movie that even cyborgs have the desire to reproduce and have offspring, probably not in the same way that humans do, but the desire to propagate through information is still there.
I have not read the manga series off which this movie is based, but I get the feeling that no manga adaptation can truly be captured within the span of one film. Look at “Death Note”. That’s a thirty-seven episode series that evolved into two films. Ghost In The Shell does have a sequel, but even this first one seems a little rushed. It plunges us right into the thick of things without really explaining what we’re doing there, or why we’re meant to be witnessing the things we witness.
It uses complex and alien jargon — and makes references to factions — that exist only in the world of the cyborgs. It makes no effort to explain this strange world, or why the police force has recruited cyborgs in the first place. Some reviews have said that Shell is a good introduction to Japanese anime for those who have never been exposed to it. I disagree. It’s good in introducing the kinetic style and visual aesthetics of the art form, but its story is one that requires its viewer to have read the manga, or at least to have had some prior knowledge about it.
I’m not one of those people, so I found myself struggling to catch up with terminologies that whizzed by.
But the movie is visually kinetic and engaging, as are all anime films. Director Mamoru Oshii is stingy with his action sequences, but when he treats us to one, they are stylishly choreographed. Take for example the scene in which Motoko takes down a hacker on the outskirts of the city, in a flooded spillway. She activates her “thermoptic camouflage” and becomes invisible. As she flips the hacker, and kicks and punches him, all we see is his body flying through the air, water kicked up in the process.
Shell works as a piece of futuristic art, where humans and cyborgs have crossed paths, and have blurred the line between real and synthetic. We have spent our lives questioning the value of our existence. Now, machines are doing the same. Shell tells the story of what happens when two smarter-than-average machines strive for more meaning in their lives. But it doesn’t work as a convincing narrative, because it lost me early on and I had to work extra hard to get back on track. Thinking is good during a movie, but not at the expense of comprehension.
Best Moment | The above mentioned fight between Motoko and the hacker. It’s nothing special, but to me, it’s the film’s most visually engaging fight.
Worst Moment | Dr. Willis’ cybertronic hands extending into numerous wiggling tentacles.