“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”
– Edsger Dijkstra
There are few constants in the universe, and even less so in the subjective realm of entertainment. But for anime fandom there is something of a constant for many fans of a certain vintage, the closest thing to a unifying bedrock for yesterday’s fandom: the rental shelves of the local video store. Whether it was a dusty mom and pop shop or a corporate chain covered in bright yellows and blues, the rental store was a near-universal hub for anime content in the 1990s. In the era before Toonami, cheap home releases, and ubiquitous streaming, the selection at a rental store was a primary delivery system for anime. Since there were few titles to choose from, naturally the most exemplary or provocative titles filtered to the top of collective consciousness. It might be tempting for modern fandom to dismiss these titles as relics of another era, products of their time whose popularity was more due to limited selection rather than any intrinsic greatness. Such skepticism is not unwarranted, as calling a work “One of the best films of the fifteen available at the time!” is scant praise indeed. But some of these titles stand out regardless of the number of other options to choose from.
One such work is Ghost in the Shell. The 1995 film, based on Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga and directed by Mamuro Oshii, was released in the U.S. in June of 1996 and is one of the most important works in the medium both then and now. Amongst its peers it has unrivaled notoriety in western fandom save for perhaps Ninja Scroll, and in many ways the original Ghost in the Shell film is a foundational text – a necessary viewing that served as a central column for understanding anime and western fandom. It underscores not only the artistic potential of anime, but its keen ability to penetrate fan consciousness and change expectations for what animation is capable of. While the film is highly revered by many of fandom’s old guard, its longevity is owed to more than pure nostalgia. The qualities that made it popular once upon a time are a certainly a veritable rogue’s gallery of the usual suspects: kinetic action sequences, superbly-crafted visuals, visceral titillation, a gritty lived-in setting, and lovingly-detailed mechanical designs. But it is the more ephemeral qualities which have given Ghost the kind of continued relevance few of its contemporaries still possess – themes of transhumanism and over-digitization, cyber-terrorism and political espionage, and fundamental questions over what it means to be human.
For many popular works of the 1980s and 1990s, the label of ‘science fiction’ is used in a way that puts more emphasis on the fiction than the science. In truth, most of these fictional worlds are using their settings as an excuse to do away with the rules of reality entirely, and engage in ridiculous flights of fancy. There is another subset of science fiction that attempts to hone in on what really could potentially happen – often referred to as “hard sci-fi” – that features attempts at seeing what technological and societal changes might lie ahead for the human race. Often times such exercises become comically incorrect as the years go by, but Ghost in the Shell is remarkably astute in its observations. Body modification, instant communication, technology outpacing human intellect, life-like human/machine interactions – these are events which not only might come to pass, but are in fact occurring in the here and now. What is most impressive is not simply that Ghost in the Shell purports one or two of these possibilities, but that so many of them are interwoven into the essential fabric of the story; rather than off-hand references or throwaway scenes, Ghost puts front and center a world where humankind’s technological achievements have outstripped its creators, leaving us with all the old questions in a brand new world.
Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is certainly an enjoyable experience purely as a piece of entertainment. It is no great secret that the film provides plenty of sensory delights that fall into a more traditional mold: explosions light up the screen while high-velocity rounds make realistic impacts in a variety of materials, computer displays and the inner workings of firearms alike are rendered with a precision that never fails to impress, and of course the major’s optical camouflage conveniently works best when she is completely bereft of clothing. No discussion of Ghost’s visibility in fandom would be complete without pointing out the VHS box art. It features dark shades, a detailed handgun, and voluptuous breasts, a one-stop masterclass in attracting the attention of any passerby – including the author, long before he cared about much else that anime had to offer.
More than that, the film is a technical achievement that has stood the test of time. The quality of work that Production I.G. put into this film resulted in a work that not only stunned in 1995, but continues to impress into the modern day. In fact, the film’s potent mixture of artistry and detail done with (primarily) hand-drawn animation has aged like a fine wine in an era where digital animation has supplanted traditional methods. Ghost possess mature direction and some of the most iconic cinematography in the entire medium – with scenes such as the Major sitting in front of glass, her battle with the spider tank, and her drop off the skyscraper standing out as some of anime’s most memorable moments, perhaps only rivaled by Akira’s bike slide.
Oshii’s direction is truly some of his finest output, showing his flair for subtle moments and demonstrating how visual language speaks as strongly as any written dialogue; whether it is the Major staring through her own reflection at a man whose memories were falsified, or the staging of a hand-to-hand sequence in ankle-deep water with only one visible combatant where each movement is denoted by the subtle ripples and flickers of optical camouflage. It is no small feat that the world of Ghost in the Shell feels sufficiently developed and immersive, given how much of the dialogue is concerned with procedural technobabble and metaphysical pondering, and this is owed to the director’s talents.
No list of Ghost in the Shell’s technical achievements would be complete without mentioning its soundtrack. Kenji Kawai’s contributions to this film are, in a word, remarkable. The mixture of haunting vocals and anachronistic instrumentation elevate the driving futuristic beats to something truly unique. Few would argue that it is a score perfectly wedded to the work for which it was composed. It would have been all too easy for Kawai to throw some synth over a bit of rhythmic percussion – like so many other dystopian techno-future works – and call it a day. Instead, he blessed Ghost in the Shell with a soundtrack that defies expectation without feeling trite or needlessly experimental.
But the raw entertainment value and comprehensive technical achievements are only one facet of the film’s success.
What has truly made Ghost in the Shell a perennial favorite is its profound ruminations on complex themes. The central concern of the film is to ask meaningful questions about what it means to be human in a rapidly changing world. While anime has always had a propensity for tackling more serious topics than other forms of animation, the skill with which the creative team explores its thematic elements is the unique factor that elevates Ghost from “historical footnote” to “enduring classic.” One of the film’s primary themes is the question of whether there is an intangible quality to human beings, a sort of numinous other that goes beyond the quantifiable physical components. Does the body have a unique soul, something more than pure biological complexity? Can a machine have a mind, a sentience apart from its manufactured processes? In its own strange way the film’s potency seems to answer this question, because it is precisely these thematic elements that make the work more than the sum of its parts.
Most notable is that the film asks fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In a future where people can modify their entire physical form to nearly any desirable shape, what is beauty? In a time when computers can think independently, what is it that makes mankind unique? If memory is merely a function of storage, what is the truth of experience? These open-ended musings on essential questions of identity, and how they relate to the ability to freely modify body and psyche, were mostly just forward-thinking science fiction in 1995. Yet with every year they become increasingly relevant. Oshii’s work challenges us to be more Socratic in our approach, to stop taking for granted oft-used terms like “humanity” and truly dig into what they mean.
In a deft bit of film-making, Ghost in the Shell manages to attain a perfect duality in its answer to the above questions. Far too many self-styled intellectual works wallow in their own self-importance, ending up being little more than protracted navel-gazing paired with trippy imagery that feels listless or incoherent. Another subset of these works plant their flag on certain answers to these questions that feel shallow, random, or end up quickly dating themselves as cultural mores change with intervening years. But Ghost in the Shell skillfully finds a middle ground that feels genuine. The Major finds her answer to these existential questions through the events in the film, providing some sense of meaning and closure. However, it does not fully reveal the specifics of her decision, nor does it necessarily frame them as correct or superior to other opinions. The film provides closure for the character within the text, validating the audience investment in watching the story in the first place; while at the same time leaving out any overt stance on how these questions should be answered in the real world, thereby allowing viewers to wrestle with these struggles well after the film has stopped rolling.
The sheer excellence of Oshii’s work has made later adaptations a dicey proposition. While most of the follow-up films, OVAs, and series have been of at least competent, few have reached quite the same lofts heights as the 1995 version. Perhaps this is because the thematic and philosophical elements were not only well-executed, they were remarkably prescient. The search for identity in a world where everything about human nature is malleable; finding solid footing when information is so accessible that it is both everything and nothing; knowing what is real when the distinction between synthetic and organic has eroded to mere semantics; the function of law enforcement when digital weapons cause more mayhem than physical implements. Ghost in the Shell wrestled with these questions over two decades ago, and given that many of these ideas have shifted from interesting hypothetical quandaries to actual headline news it only underscores the importance of these themes. Oshii’s vision was more than future-proofed, it was practically a message from our future selves. The challenge then for any further iteration, remake, or re-imagining of Ghost is to look that much further into the future, to see what lies around the next corner of humankind’s struggle – both with ourselves and the tools crafted by our very hands. More than perhaps any other anime franchise, understanding what makes Ghost in the Shell unique is that it takes more than a typical rehash, remake, or remix to do it justice. Any attempt to make good on Ghost in the Shell‘s true message has to take into account that it never existed in the “then” or the “now” but in the when – a place right at the cusp of time’s horizon, where technological potential and human deficiency teeter on a knife’s edge.
If the reader might allow a somewhat belabored metaphor: these powerful thematic elements are akin to the ghost of the film, the intangible soul in a finely crafted shell of technical entertainment. This kind of depth gives it a longevity that most anime lacks, and truly elevates what otherwise could have been just another “anime scifi flick” into a class of its own. Many oldtaku favorites of the 80s and 90s are lauded for their technical prowess or pure enjoyment factor, but few manage to achieve emotional and intellectual relevance in the way that Oshii’s film does. If there were an anime equivalent to masterpiece theater, then surely this film would be one of the first in the queue. Ghost in the Shell has more than a long shelf life – it has a life all its own.