Millennial Malaise 10: Ghost in the Shell

In which memory is not reality

Talking about anime online is equivalent to walking into a field of anthills and wildly swinging a baseball bat about. You’re bound to hit on something while simultaneously upsetting large groups of people.

For folks in the west, anime serves as this weird cultural divide. A form of entertainment that inspires equal amounts of rapid obsession and exasperated revulsion. I personally cannot divine exactly why that is, but if I could make a guess I would say that it has something to do with smuggling content not expected in the medium of animation to a western audience. In America animation is not viewed as a medium of expression, but rather mostly a genre of movie. In a film landscape dominated by the work of Disney/Bluth/Dreamworks/Pixar it’s hard to imagine cartoons as anything other than fun entertainments for the whole family. There are of course exceptions to this, Bakshi being the biggest example in the world of features and TV animation being more flexible in tone and content. But for an American toon watcher the mold seems fairly set for what to expect from an animated flick, and the ones that break the mold (like Bakshi’s work) seem to be an intentional violation of work aimed at children.

Anime completely throws off these boxes and provides an entire spectrum of tonal range for a viewer to engage with. There are still plenty of films aimed squarely at children, but there are also films for adolescents and adults as well, every box is checked for the astute anime viewer. For a western audience this meant they could finally see animated films tackle subjects that were inconceivable to achieve in a western production. Yes of course this includes lots of sex and violence, but also deep philosophical inquiries, dense political thrillers, and abstract science fiction films. A medium known for being for kids could suddenly open up into a whole realm of possibility.

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Combine this with how anime came to the west (programmed at weird times on late night TV as filler, trickling into video stores in expensive bootlegs, tapes being traded over online message boards) and you have laid the groundwork for fascination and obsession. And 1995’s Ghost in the Shell rests at the perfect confluence of these trends and ideas to become one of the defining features of the 90s. A work of aesthetic wonder and philosophical vigor that also allows the viewer to indulge in grandiose action and gratuitous sex appeal. The high wire act of brutal and stylish violence with deep ruminations on the nature of being helped lay the groundwork for many of the sci-fi films that appeared at the turn of the millennia.

Shell itself feels like a natural progression from the works of cyberpunk in the 80s that helped popularize the genre and the aesthetics associated with it. The story is a robot based mystery in the vein of Blade Runner, the visuals and sound deftly pull from the Akira playbook without lifting directly; replicating the unique ticks that make that film special. Director Mamoru Oshii synthesizes the the successes of the past into a much more deliberate and elegiac vision of the genre. Opting for extended periods of static conversation, philosophical monologuing, or impressionistic landscapes.

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In this vision we follow a group of cybernetically enhanced police officers lead by the reserved but ruthless Major Kusanagi. With the help of her brutal assistant Batou the group hunts down a hacker named The Puppetmaster who can break into the minds of humans and alter their memories. While the investigation goes down Kusanagi begins to question what makes her different from a fully automated being like a machine and a living and breathing human. These struggles ultimately lead her to confront The Puppetmaster who reveals that he is not human, but instead a rogue computer program that has gained full sentience. The Puppetmaster believes that to become fully alive one must be able to reproduce and die, and offers to merge with Kusanagi to become a new being. The Major agrees, and the two form a new whole life form that is neither fully human, nor fully machine, but some new form of consciousness.

This plot description leaves out a lot. Despite it’s slim 82 minute run time, Ghost in the Shell is staggeringly dense. Throwing narrative swerves, political intrigue, world building, and musings on the nature humanity all into a heady stew spiced with spouts of grotesque body horror and ultra-violence. And most of what’s here pretty effectively explores questions surrounding the relationship between technology and man. Does life derive from the ability to properly reproduce and die? Does memory define what it means to be human? Does it still define us when our memories can be changed?At what point does humanity end and technology begin when it can be fully integrated into the form of a person? It’s fascinating stuff, and the fact that it sits alongside pure action, without rejecting either part of its identity, is where the crux of obsession comes from.

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Ghost in the Shell is as much of an action movie as it a treatise on the nature of life. It’s spectacle is never played as second fiddle to its ideas or morals. Oshii is reverent to the conceptual work being played, while also being meticulous in the creation of his set-pieces. One of the reasons Shell has maintained for so long is because of its mesmerizing and striking iconography. The Major’s naked flight down a skyscraper, a chase through the sign dense streets of the city ending with a skirmish on reflective water, the limbs of The Major flying apart as she tries to force open a tank, a long and elegiac montage of rain sweeping across the metropolis as late afternoon morphs into night. These moments make the world lush and emotional even when our main characters talk in technology based jargon with flat affectations. You feel the city and why Kusanagi and The Puppetmaster are pushing for greater understanding. In every frame there is some ineffable spark that seems just barely out of reach.

But here is where the whole thing starts to crumble. As good as the set-pieces and philosophy are, they don’t quite mix together. This isn’t a chocolate and peanut butter situation, but instead courses of a meal that alternate between thrilling spectacle and meditative rumination. This transforms a rather short movie into one that feels somewhat choppy and inconsistently paced. With many scenes featuring a static shot of unmoving characters as they explicate backstory or philosophy to one another without shifting or reacting until the scene concludes.

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Now this might make me sound like a bit of yahoo demanding for more explosions, but I wish these chunks of talk were more dynamic or integrated with the action. As they are they feel like niches especially carved out to converse about the big picture. It’s like a philosophy professor doing a cool dance before standing completely still to deliver his lecture.You know he cares deeply about each thing independently, but doesn’t quite know how to put them together. The action is the action, and the philosophy is the philosophy, and in Shell never the twain shall truly meet. They don’t feel like two different movies, but the same movie struggling to find a way to properly voice itself.

This idea of the heady sci-fi story as thrilling action piece clearly lays the structure for work to come, especially in The Matrix. You can feel The Wachowskis watching Shell and cackling with delight at the realization that they don’t have to separate their grand postulations about the universe and kick ass fight scenes, but in fact let the two different parts inform each other. This framework has been carried forward, even slipping its tendrils into stuff like Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road, where awe inducing spectacle harmonizes with big “what ifs” being presented. Unfortunately this leads to a little of the luster coming off of Ghost in the Shell itself. What made it so gobsmacking and unique in the 90s has influenced so much of mainstream of blockbuster filmmaking that a bit of the shock of excitement can never be fully recovered. As much as I liked the tone and world of Shell I couldn’t help feeling like I had experienced it before.

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Another problem is that while Shell is most certainly a thoughtful and mature piece of animation, it still falls into some of the regressive tropes that plague anime. Here that manifests in the nudity, which quickly shifts from seeming artistic to just plain perverted by the end of the credits. Kusanagi’s breasts and butt are meticulously rendered and hyper focused upon whenever she relieves herself of her clothes (which is often). And by the end there feels like no way to justify this choice other than people wanted to look at a naked lady fly through the air and ogle at her moving flesh.

And this is why I brought up the issue of bumbling into anime earlier. I’m girding myself for reams of comments saying that the static frames of non-responsive philosophizing is what’s so great about Shell, or how the Major’s nudity is an integral function of questioning her humanity. But I just can’t quite make that final jump to embracing everything that Shell puts forward. It’s unquestionably an influential and visionary piece of filmmaking, but sometimes vision fades as people incorporate your breakthroughs into more varied pieces of art.

Odds and Ends

  • It was hard to pull screens for this that featured The Major not naked while also in an action scene.
  • Outside of the Blade Runner and Akira pulls Oshii likes to dig up Bergman a lot. Especially this shot which is ripped right out of Persona.Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 10.54.53 PM
  • Despite my handwringing about anime there is a lot of it that I really like. The Studio Ghibli canon, Satoshi Kon’s filmography, and Akira being obvious standouts. It’s just that sometimes the community around anime can grow so noxious and defensive that it is hard to fully engage with.
  • The score by Kenji Kawai is magnificent.

As always follow me on twitter to hear me bemoan the state of Smarch weather and check out this letterboxd list for possible upcoming films.

Next week Matrix month continues with a project that literally provides some of the same structure as the Wachowski’s breakthrough. It’s 1998’s sci-fi noir Dark City.