I'm reviewing the first anime movie. That's all for today. I don't imagine I'll watch the 2017 Hollywood remake, I haven't read the original manga and in general I'm not a fan of the franchise. The 2015 series (Arise: Alternative Architecture) put me off it. I'd been going to discard my Ghost in the Shell DVDs, but then I decided that I might as well at least watch the films first. They're famous. It wouldn't take that long. Maybe I'd just got on the wrong side of the 1995 film when I got bored and turned it off last time?
I did like it better this time, in fact. I made it through, at least, and I might even not discard this DVD. Mind you, I think it helped that I'd watched Arise: Alternative Architecture. I recognised the characters. I still didn't find them particularly interesting people, but at least I could put names to faces.
All things considered, I think it's a decent film. Chilly and distancing, but quite impressive on its own specific terms. It's watchable despite the characters because it's being carried by its plot, ideas and philosophy. A film can do that. Television, not so much. This is the most famous and important cyberpunk anime, despite some pretty heavyweight competition. (Anime and cyberpunk went hand in hand for decades.) What's more, it's actually quite good it it. This is a thoughtful, well-made exploration of the classical cyberpunk themes that's nonetheless doing the William Gibson trick of getting more and more relevant every year. The idea of someone's cyber-brain getting hacked is getting ever more plausible, for instance, with the real-life "internet of things" meaning that hackers are quite likely to be recruiting your washing machine, car and TV into a virtual bot system without you ever realising. The questions this film is asking are feeling more and more valid. It feels fresh, unless perhaps you're super-sensitive to things that remind you a bit of Blade Runner.
Talking about the visuals for a moment, though, to me the film created a Japan that's slightly surprising in anime. It's an intense, detailed urban environment with signs everywhere, lots of people and the kind of production values that a TV show can't afford. Lots of anime is great at evoking rural Japan, for instance. This, on the other hand, is full-on Tokyo... or, more accurately, Hong Kong.
Let's talk about its world. It's the year 2029 and people are becoming cyborgs. You can upgrade yourself. You can buy strength and brains at the click of a credit card, plus a photographic memory, infra-red vision and an internet connection. You can be hacked, yes, but so can an ordinary flesh-and-blood person. We're all just data. Brains are flesh computers. Anyone's memories can be rewritten. (The way to protect yourself against that is to ask specific questions, e.g. what's your wife's maiden name, or the year you got married.) The only downside of becoming a Cyberman is the ongoing expense of upgrades and maintenance. The government will pay the bills if your upgrade was military, but if that's the case then they'll take back all their property if you ever stop working for them. That's both your cybernetics and your memories.
Our protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who seems to have mislaid her personality. She doesn't show emotion. She's focused on her job. She's indifferent to her own nudity (which is shown frequently) and she's almost indistinguishable from a military assault unit. (Apparently she's funnier and livelier in Masamune's manga, though. No drug-fuelled lesbian orgies for Oshii.) However there is one surprising angle to this Kusanagi, which is that she seems insecure about by the nature of her own existence. She worries at it. She's far enough from humanity that she keeps questioning her individuality and asking existential questions about the difference between cyborgs and ordinary people. I liked this. That introspection, for me, turns her into a character. It makes the film a thought piece, despite all the action scenes, nudity, machine-guns and exploding heads. What happens at the end is an extrapolation of this. I'm not surprised to hear that the Hollywood remake replaced the finale with action scenes, but for me this film's philosophising was what made it watchable.
At the same time, though, it's also a pretty full-on action film. It introduces Kusanagi as she jumps off a building naked in order to shoot someone's head off. (She strips in order to use her invisibility camouflage. However when a man goes invisible, he doesn't strip.)
The comparatively thin cast includes Kusanagi's cyborg colleague Batou (who likes her), her boss Aramaki (who's dour and all business) and no childlike spider tanks. (Admittedly there is a spider tank near the end of the film, but alas it has no dialogue and no personality. Lots of bullets, though. Don't go near it.) This is appalling because I love the childlike spider tanks, which can be found in various franchise iterations, each time with a different name that ends in -koma. (Fuchikoma, Tachikoma, Uchikoma and Logicoma.) It should be illegal to make Ghost in the Shell without childlike spider tanks.
The plot's fast and furious, though. We have blood-chilling international politics, cynical inter-departmental rivalry and people getting killed at the drop of a hat. There's cyber-detective work and a chase scene where both the chaser and chasee are capable of turning invisible (and of punching through walls).
In short, it's very Mamoru Oshii. He's well known for often straying heavily from the source material in his adaptations, e.g. Urusei Yatsura 2 and Patlabor. He's described his approach to directing as the opposite of what he calls Hollywood formula, so he sees the most important aspect as visuals, followed by story and then finally character. I can see that. Frankly, I think he turned Ghost in the Shell into a cold franchise. However I also think it's more accessible than what I've seen of its other anime instalments and it also happens to be a Mamoru Oshii film that you could believe was a mainstream commercial hit. Urusei Yatsura 2, in contrast, is an acid trip. It's striking, but it's not something you'd recommend to random people in the street.
It works. It's dark and philosophical, yet also brutal and violent. It's driven both by its bloodstained plot and by its still-relevant ideas, e.g. the horror of implanted memories. "Do I exist? Am I a copy?" (Driven by its characters, you say? Naaah.) I liked it more than I'd expected. It's kind of weird to realise that you're watching something from 1995 that's so current and uncompromising that it feels as if it was made tomorrow.