Review: Ghost in the Shell Movie Collection (Blu-Ray)

Ghost in the Shell and its sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence have been released together in a single package for nostalgic fans and newcomers alike to experience. The original cyberpunk classic is well placed alongside other animated cult classics like Akira for its polished visuals, powerful soundtrack, and the way the themes and questions the film presents stick to the corners of your mind long after the last viewing. The original Ghost in the Shell films tell the stories of individuals living in a future where body modifications to improve the performance of the human mind and body are common and artificial intelligence has attained consciousness. With the presence of a “ghost” (generally described in the same manner as the human soul) being the only thing separating human consciousness from the artificial, Major Motoko Kusanagi occupies an interesting position as a human consciousness within an augmented full-body prosthesis. Working within Section 9, a law-enforcement division of the Japanese Government, Major and her partner Batou work to combat the various cyber-related crimes that exist in this kind of future. Their work leads them to uncover interesting implications for the evolutionary progress of an augmented humanity and the implications and use of artificial sentience.

The original 1995 Ghost in the Shell is an intriguing time capsule. It oozes 90s anime style and substance with a dedication to atmosphere and a narrative that emphasises an important snapshot of someone’s life rather than an origin tale. Of course, the cel animation is gorgeous and nostalgic, using colour palettes that perfectly illustrate still nights and midday heat, and that is alive with shifting cells and an incredible attention to detail and substance. I’m particularly a big fan of the neon-esque lighting that is often used in landscape shots or to silhouette characters with such harsh whites that it looks like the animation cels are literally burning. The action set pieces are exciting both in set-up and execution, with a great sequence of the Major and Batou hunting down a perp that involves a car chase, a pursuit through a busy market an excellent confrontation on the water. These sequences are particularly enjoyable because the action has palpable weight behind every strike and movement the characters make thanks to the superb animation, and each scene is intense but grounded and relevant to the stakes of the narrative.

Ghost in the Shell is a film with a focused narrative that achieves the difficult art of throwing the viewer into an unfamiliar world headfirst while still making it accessible and understandable. It has a simple but engaging structure, with the officers from Sector 9 attempting to locate and capture the Puppet Master, an unknown mastermind who hacks into the cyberbrains of others and uses them to commit crimes. The film moves fixatedly towards this goal, with small but meaningful encounters between the Major, Batou and others while building up to the final conclusion. Speaking of, the Major and Batou have great chemistry, and the film manages to make it feel like there is a rich history behind their relationship without resorting to unnecessary exposition. Sci-fi generally gets a bad rap for being inapproachable because of its concepts and setting, but Ghost in the Shell utilises a focused narrative with a small but memorable cast of characters, and made the story intrinsically personal to the Major and her struggles regarding her humanity and the meaning of sentience. There’s substance there, but whether you engage with the Ghost in the Shell as a thought piece on what it means to be sentient or as a neat film with excellent cinematography and action set pieces, there’s something there for most viewers to enjoy.

While Ghost in the Shell stuck with me and had me considering the contents of the film long after the credits rolled, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is a bland sequel that caused me to retroactively like its predecessor less. Several years after the events of Ghost in the Shell, Batou investigates a string of murders carried out by doll-like sex robots with illegal ‘ghosts’ with his new partner, Togusa. What begins as a police procedural with an engaging premise quickly devolves into a film that lacks a conclusive direction and thus fails to be engaging. Batou is far less charismatic and interesting, which the narrative points out is due to his increased cybernetic enhancements, but this never feels adequately addressed in any meaningful way. He feels stuck in place emotionally and as a character, and it is incredibly disappointing after the first film made him so interesting with very little perceivable effort.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence lacks the clinical focus of the first film, and while there is some nice down time with Batou and his basset hound Gabriel (the star of the film in my opinion), this lack of focus does the sequel no favours. Instead, it results in a dense narrative that tries to be a mystery story but lacks any rewarding progression and feels empty. The film also struggles to offer any meaningful commentary that doesn’t feel like bloated or unnecessary navel-gazing. It seems more interested in expositing unnecessary dialogue without saying anything actually interesting or valuable than actually exploring the mystery it has set up. The only times I personally felt invested in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was when Gabriel graced the film with his presence or the brief moment when the Major was on screen and Batou became slightly more likable in the presence of his old partner. This film is even more disappointing because it had the bones of a really engaging narrative and questions – what does it mean to create sex robots, imbue them with consciousness and then sell them? What really defines a human when so much of what we used to consider human is being replaced with cybernetic enhancements? Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was so close to something – the horror and the mystery were there, but it’s just bogged down by exposition without substance that isn’t communicated in a meaningful way. Also, the animation has not aged nearly as well as the original film, with CG animation peppered throughout that looks like the lower end of the PS2 era graphics rather than anything that belongs in a big budget animated film.

The Ghost in the Shell Movie Collection was a mixed bag for me, but not one that I regret experiencing. The original Ghost in the Shell is a fascinating piece of cinema, and I’ll admit that even though its sequel disappointed me, the premise and some aspects of the narrative have merit. The world of these films feels effortless in the best way and the Major and the person she becomes is one of the most fascinating protagonists I’ve come across in animation. It’s not surprising that the Ghost in the Shell films have managed to remain in the public consciousness for so long, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.

Radness scale:

©1995 • 2008 Shirow Masamune/KODANSHA • BANDAI VISUAL • MANGA ENTERTAINMENT. All Rights Reserved.