Ghost in the Shell, the biggest anime movie of 1995, combines stunning animation and cutting-edge computer graphics with the talents of some of Japan's top anime names. The result is a film that rival's Katsuhiro Otomo's classic Akira in sheer exhilaration.
Ghost in the Shell is the product of several huge names, a credit list strong enough to guarantee instant success. The movie is based on the manga by Masamune (Dominion Tank Police, Appleseed) Shirow and directed by Mamoru (Patlabor, Urusei Yatsura) Oshii. Other contributors are screen writer Kazunori Ito, who has worked with Oshii in the past, and musician Kenji Kawai. The movie offers a vastly improved version of the standard Shirow vision of a high-tech, violent future with a few upstanding heroes pressed with the responsibility of preventing disaster. The film also strikes me as very William Gibson-esque in its cyberpunk flow and use of the Net as a diving platform for human-computer interactions. Gibson is the author of Neuromancer and is widely considered to be the father of cyberpunk.
According to The Right Stuf International, an anime catalog company, "Ghost in the Shell continues to break all the [video sales] records; expect this to become the best selling anime title before the year is out (it's rapidly approaching the Akira mark)." The quote speaks for itself. The movie enjoyed a limited theatrical release in the U.S. and is thought to be the first truly international anime movie. It is also the most expensive anime of all time, running production costs up to 400 million yen.
Set in Tokyo in 2029, the movie follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, the leader of "Shell Squad," a special operations group under Section 9 (a government secret service organization) that deals with Net crimes. Kusanagi is a cyborg whose only remaining original organic cells are pieces of her brain. She is joined by the cyborg Bateau and a recent recruit, the mostly-human Togusa, an ex-cop.
The title of the movie, Ghost in the Shell, comes from questions surrounding how human a cyborg is, if not what makes a human altogether. A person's "shell" is their physical body while their "ghost" is their consciousness, a quality that becomes increasingly ambiguous as the movie progresses. Kusanagi, who is so heavily modified that little but her ghost remains, ponders what is left of her humanity, questions which the movie promotes.
The multiple plot lines twist and turn, and the double-crossings become confusing, but the basic gist follows Shell Squad as they attempt to capture a shadowy Net-terrorist, the "Puppet Master," a hacker so skilled he can break directly into a person's mind and manipulate them to suit his aims, a crime appropriately called "ghost hacking." At the same time, they must deal with interference from the paramilitary forces of Section 6, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the climax, Shell Squad comes into conflict against Section 6, with the Puppet Master and his own plans drawing them together. The final denouncement of truth is complex and deep, and it sets the ground for a new beginning.
Though primarily an action/suspense movie, Ghost in the Shell has a deep philosophical side. Kusanagi's musings about what makes a human offer serious questions for the viewer and subtly tie her to the Puppet Master, whose own true nature is a vast question itself. Though set in 2029, the movie is just beyond current times, provoking the viewer to wonder what awaits us tomorrow. Even Kusanagi wonders, "What we are able to do now was an impossibility a few years ago. What will the future hold?" (Not quite a direct quote, but close.)
In addition to the violence mixed with science fiction philosophy, Ghost in the Shell is also an artistic movie. Twice in the film, long animated sequences run where the characters move about, with no sound except for the haunting music. At the same time, the up-to-the-nanosecond computer graphics are a new standard for film, blended seamlessly with the anime to create a movie unlike any seen before.
Ghost in the Shell is easily one of the best anime I have ever seen, and it deserves its comparison to Akira. In my opinion, it is the best of Shirow's work, brought to life with stunning visuals, music, and a multi-faceted story. There is a relatively small amount of blood and gore, but if you're easily offended, beware of the copious amount of non-sexual nudity. Against any argument, Ghost in the Shell is a superior movie. You feel the characters come alive; the cool but doubting Kusanagi, the rough yet sensitive Bateau, Togusa, the nice guy who loves his revolver, and the enigmatic, magnetic Puppet Master himself. The computer graphics flow in a green electron slide. The detailed, realisitic animation fascinates while the score becomes haunting. The film is superior to all of its contemporaries in almost every respect. It is truly a major event for otaku and non-otaku alike, and it sets new standards for the anime story-telling medium. And if nothing here strikes your interest, try this quote from the movie on for size: "I am a new life born in a sea of information..." Enjoy!