Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 Japanese animated science-fiction techno-thriller film based upon the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. The film was written by Kazunori Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii; it is a Japanese-British co-production, and is one of the works, if not the single most prominent work, that led to the modern popularization of Japanese animation, known as anime, in Western culture. Anime experienced a surge of popularity back in the 1960’s with Speed Racer and Astro Boy, but it didn’t stick. Since the advent of the internet, however, anime has become progressively more and more popular outside Japan, with many appreciating the various art styles and dramatic flair that can be found in many animes. Ghost in the Shell, however, is considered to be the one that started the surge, and has remained immensely popular, even in the two decades since its release.
Ghost in the Shell takes place in 2029. The world is interconnected and many people have become cyborgs with prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, with many possessing fully cybernetic brains, with their “ghost” being an individual’s personality and memories, hence “Ghost in the Shell.” The film follows Major Motoko Kusanagi of Public Security Section 9. She is one of few people with a fully cybernetic body, with no real human parts to speak of aside from her “ghost.” Section 9 is an elite cybercrime and intelligence organization on the hunt for a mysterious hacker known only as “The Puppet Master.” The Puppet Master apparently possesses the ability to ghost hack: hack into individuals and take over their body without their knowledge. Considered a very dangerous individual for obvious reasons, the film follows the hunt for The Puppet Master while The Major and Section 9 are drawn into a vast and far-reaching political conspiracy.
Ghost in the Shell features top-notch animation, which was created using a unique process called Digitally Generated Animation, a combination of traditional cel animation, computer graphics, and audio that is entered as digital data. It was the goal of animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo to depict film movements realistically. In fact, the animation team performed extensive research into firearms and bullet physics, noting, for example, that a bullet will create a spark upon striking metal, but will not do the same against stone or rock. The team also made character movement seem more realistic; The Major’s movements seem much more mechanical than her more human counterparts.
The most interesting part of Ghost in the Shell is the world itself. Set in an unnamed, post-World War III Japanese city, it almost feels like a real place. The characters in the story interact so fluidly and naturally with everything around them that you sort of almost forget you’re watching a science-fiction film, somewhat akin to the world of Blade Runner, which this film seems to draw from in terms of its “futuristic but natural-feeling” setting. Due to the setting feeling so organic and real, that makes the extremely deep themes explored by the film’s plot easier to digest.
Ghost in the Shell’s most striking aspect is its exploration of extremely deep ideas wrapped up in what would seem on the surface to be a straightforward techno-thriller. This film, however, is so much more than that. Through it’s main character, the film presents an intelligent discussion on what exactly it means to be human. The Major’s body is entirely machine, so what makes her human? Is it her brain, her personality? Is she human at all? What defines humanity? Is it something physical like organs, or is it simply sentience? These questions are the driving force of the entire film, and the whole film drives these ideas home in a flawless manner.
*Please keep in mind that I watched this film in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the voice acting in the dubbed version leaves much to be desired, and I would recommend the original audio*
Another question the film sees fit to ask is a question about the nature of reality. There is a point wherein The Puppet Master uses a normal truck driver as a puppet and a patsy to get him to ghost hack government officials. The Puppet Master does this by implanting false memories about a wife and kids that he doesn’t have.
Ghost in the Shell is an excellent and well-made anime film with enough entertainment to go around even if the philosophical questions do not interest you, but it is hard to deny that the philosophical questions are what permeates through the most. Ghost in the Shell has explicitly influenced many filmmakers and their techniques. Most notably, this film is a favorite of the Wachowski Siblings, being a very large influence in their 1999 magnum opus The Matrix, which borrows a lot thematically and stylistically from this 1995 film. The opening credits to The Matrix were directly inspired by Ghost in the Shell.
For several reasons, most notably the film’s philosophical intellect, as well as just being a generally very well-made film, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, works of anime ever made. Its influence can be seen even outside of Japan in several Western productions. Its influence is the reason for the entire medium of anime being repopularized in Western countries. With gorgeous animation, a fully-realized world, interesting characters, and an interesting plot to boot, Ghost in the Shell is an excellent film that I would recommend to anyone, not just anime fans.