Skip to main content

There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost.

Ghost in the Shell
(1995)

(SPOILERS) I’ve never been much of an anime buff. I dutifully watched Akira, which didn’t impress me all that much, and I caught at least some – or that should probably be quite enough – of Legend of the Overfiend on its first (British) TV screening. Ghost in the Shell was something of an exception, however, wearing its ideas on its cybernetic chin and as stylish as it was cerebral. Revisiting it as a prelude to the release of its US live-action remake, the visual aesthetic remains as indelible, but most notable is how strongly it has been both influenced and influential.


On the debit side are Blade Runner – enormously so – but also Robocop. You can see the former most superficially on a design level, in its used-future cityscapes and the willingness to engage in ambient longueurs between scenes or action. This is an animated movie with an active interest in distilling mood and melancholy. If Ghost in the Shell is unable to go quite as far as Blade Runner, that’s partly because it misses the latter’s eschewing of over-verbalised ruminations on the nature of humanity. Sir Ridders’ film gave just enough to enable tone and performance to do the heavy lifting. Of course, here there’s a much denser backstory to be explained, with its cybernetically-enhanced humans, full cyborg bodies (the ghost being the soul in a manufactured shell) and the development of AI. The consequence being that the picture gets bogged down in its own wordy exposition at times.


Motoko: Perhaps the real me died a long time ago. And I’m a replicant made with a cyborg body and a computer brain. Or maybe there never was a real “me” to begin with.

But it does mean that Ghost in the Shell has a distinctive enough palate of ideas to differentiate it from being a mere Blade Runner imitator; we’re more concerned with Major Motoko Kusanagi’s ruminations on what it means to be human than the AI’s, although that does come into play later, when the Puppet Master is given voice. Indeed, the up and down and back and forth on the subject here, for a 22-year-old film, has renewed currency with Elon Musk’s raving intent to merge the human brain with AI (and, given the way these things tend to happen by stealth, I use raving more to imply that he’s a deranged mentalist than that his transhumanist “vision” is unlikely to happen in due course).


Regarding the veracity of her identity, Motoko speculates “Maybe all full replacement cyborgs start wondering like this”, further observing “I believe I exist based on what my environment tells me”. And, in an environment where everyone has implants and anyone can be hijacked with fake memories (“Your family exists only in your mind” one hacking victim is told), Ghost in the Shell provides a too-plausible harbinger of what might not be as far round the corner as we like to think.


After all, much of the motivation here is already common currency. The mysterious Project 2501 was created “for industrial espionage and data manipulation”, which in the current age of passively complicit mass observation and the suggestions of intelligence services’ capability of faking foreign governments’ intelligence services’ hacking abilities seems like an entirely credible baseline incentive.


The argument of the AI itself, pertaining to what it wants, is much more ambivalent and less threatening than envisaged by the prophets of doom of a Musk-scented future. All it wants, like Roy Batty, is to have the same opportunities as a bona fide human (one amusing line finds the AI demand “As an autonomous life form, I request political asylum”), and “To be human is to continually change”; thus, he proposes merging with the Major (so able to die when her physical brain dies) such that “You will bear my offspring in the net itself and I will achieve death”.


The Major appears to have few qualms about this, and Ghost in the Shell is generally sharper in reflecting our stealth reliance of gadgetry (once we have handheld items for every purpose, the next step is guiding us to a point where we casually accept their implantation) than the more profound impact of entirely surrendered physicality. Indeed, focussed as it is on more abstract philosophising, it’s approach is almost clinical. As such, there are notable comparisons to be made with Robocop. Apart from the obvious visual signposting – the action sequence finale, in which Motoko fights the walking tank is a straight lift from Murphy’s set-to with the ED209, which is further riffed on in his fight with Robocop 2 – Ghost in the Shell fails to come to grips with the effect of the ruination or loss of the physical body. In Robocop’s case, this resonates through swift, bold, but highly effective strokes as Murphy returns to his family home, now for sale, and flips out as he is beset by memories of the life of love and warmth to which he can never return. His later use of baby food for target practice further underlines his emotional and physical emasculation. Contrastingly, Motoko betrays unnerving acceptance of her flesh and blood-deprived state.


And yet, being what it is, deriving from a genre based at least substantially on titillating teenage boys, Ghost in the Shell is all about the body, specifically the female body. The picture obliquely signals Motoko’s barrenness in the Puppet Master’s mutually beneficial offer (apparently, there’s an earlier reference to her menstrual cycle, which doesn’t survive in the subtitled version), but most of the time she is singularly identified through parading around in sheer, flesh-coloured body stockings (and thigh socks), or further, flashing her cybernetic breasts (but, no doubt a knock-on from Japanese censorship rules, she is effectively absent genitalia). Also along these lines is the fetishisation of dismemberment, leaving isolated, immobilised, displayed female torsos; one might argue it’s simply there to emphasise the indifference of the replaceable body, but there’s a persistent to the male gaze that suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, such elements rather serve to highlight the anime’s shortcomings in terms of emotional range, an area the US remake, more overtly positioned towards exploring, also fails to capture.


As far as influences go, the Wachowski sisters really are cap in hand to Oshii (“We wanna do that for real” they told producer Joel Silver, which might explain the lukewarm reception of someone doing Ghost in the Shell itself for real 18 years later – it had already been done), with such elements as The Matrix’s computer-generated green-on-black computer coding and the plug-ins into the backs of characters’ necks. They took the next step of depicting a malevolent AI (to humans, at least), of course, and structured their tale around a more classically defined hero narrative. And The Matrix isn’t, really, so much about what it means to be human, or even so much what it means to be diminished as a human, and much more concerned with the nature of reality. Little since Ghost in the Shell has really made strides in addressing the former theme, and less still has done so with acumen (A.I. Artificial Intelligence succeeds to an extent). Perhaps we’ll need to wait for Blade Runner 2049 for the conversation to come full circle. Fingers crossed.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…