Reviews of The Ghost in the Shell (1989) and related work

The Ghost in the Shell (1989)

Shirō Masamune (writer-artist).

References here: “Silent Möbius” (1991), “New Dominion Tank Police” (1993).

cyberpunk fiction Japanese production sequential art

Ghost in the Shell (1995) IMDb

Oshii Mamoru (director).

A rapidly growing city on an artificial island in the area of Hong Kong, 2029 CE. Traditional society has begun to dissolve with the advent of ever more invasive electronic communications. A hacker brainwashes cyborgs through the net, masking out their true memories, making them act as pawns in intercorporate crimes. Section 9 of a fractionalized Public Peace Department is on this hacker’s trail.

The Section’s chief operative retains only one biological component and has begun to question the nature of her existence. Her traditional mental complexity qualifies her as the possessor of a “ghost”, a secular, operationalized term for what used to be called a soul, but what does that matter? When she discovers that the hacker she is chasing isn’t human, and that it seeks her, she risks everything to communicate.

Pure cyberpunk: Extrapolative near-future science fiction in the vein of William Gibson, in an animated feature.

Unlike the FMV cuts from Exact’s 1997 PlayStation 1 game, this filming is not very faithful to Shirō’s original. The Japanese title was a better fit for that original, on account of the spider tanks commanded by its protagonists. Incidentally, the 1997 FMVs, this film and the Stand Alone Complex (2002) leg of the franchise were all produced by Production I.G. Only this film—an international co-production with 50% of its budget coming from US Manga Entertainment—and its sequel were directed by Oshii, loosely based on a few chapters of the comic.

This film is prefigured by Blue Thunder (1983), Gall Force: Earth Chapter (1989), “Silent Möbius” (1991) and many others, but only vaguely. It’s a creative landmark, some of Oshii’s densest work at almost half the length of Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie 2 (1993). It marries the contemplative style and temps mort of L’Eclisse (1962) to a techno-thriller genuinely concerned with the future, and this is not easy. It’s possibly the greatest masterpiece of cyberpunk film in the world.

As with Gibson—note the Armitage/Corto-puppet parallel—the science is only selectively credible. There is frivolous use of androids and invisibility for example, yet remarkably ineffective targeting of weapons and archaic keyboards. The quotes from 1 Corinthians 13 add little. On a script level the treatment of brain-computer interfaces is better than that of manufactured superhuman slaves in Blade Runner (1982), but not by much; it’s roughly on a level with Gibson’s quasi-visual cyberspace.

References here: En betraktelse av A Silent Voice, Gundress (1999), Avalon (2001), Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2001), Japanorama (2002), I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Pacific Rim (2013), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Violet Evergarden (2018), Upgrade (2018).

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture

‣‣ Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) IMDb

Suzuki Toshio (producer), Oshii Mamoru (writer-director).

Three years later. Bateau is despondent after the disappearance of Kusanagi. He and Togusa investigate a line of androids who are going insane. The powerful interests therefore opposing the Section can hack its brains.

Animated feature. More surreal. This film develops the theme of technologically forced phenomenological emphasis, present in the original, using insecure perceptions. Androids, discussed at length here, were also visible in the original: the girls in Aramaki’s op centre. Excessive use of both CGI and overt intertextuality, combined with a comparative lack of originality and realism. Based on chapter 6 of the original manga.

References here: Westworld (2016).

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002) IMDb

Shirō Masamune (cooperation).

Near-future Japan, especially New Port City (Niihama-shi) near Nagasaki. Stand-alone chapters (often treating emerging social problems) are mixed with the coherent story of the Laughing Man, a young genius and cyberterrorist.

TV series. Modernized cyberpunk with a lot of criminal investigation. Closer to its manga basis than Oshii’s films, but set in another universe where Tachikoma replace the manga’s and PlayStation game’s Fuchikoma, and where the Puppet Master never meets Kusanagi. Naturally, a lot of other stuff is altered, and many storylines are original. There is no significant overlap with the films, and no Oshii involvement.

The show seems to try to emulate Oshii’s style of direction, but a pay-per-view TV budget means more static shots and less realistic designs, especially for poor Kusanagi who wears a swimsuit and has hideous hair. The CGI is often flawed, particularly the cars, and elements of the hastily finished opening from episode 3 onwards.

From the point of view of a literary cyberpunk fan, this is an odd beast, falling somewhere between a 1980s retrofuture and a more contemporary extrapolative effort. Of course it would be absurd to show increased overcrowding in the near future of Japan, barring disasters, but there are also no brooding cityscapes, no punk attitude, no great cultural or social change. As a serious modernization, it’s not very good: Where then are the depletion of aquifers, the energy crisis, the changes in diet, and so on? The Tachikoma are pathetically pitched for comedy, and the writing is often opaque. The very clear use of disconnected stand-alone stories and the final reset hurt believability. Add to this the choice of Kanno’s progressive pop-rock instead of something like Kawai’s transcendent soundtracks, and quite a lot of the series turns out only so-so.

References here: Ghost in the Shell (1995).

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture series

‣‣ Tachikoma Specials (2002)

The Tachikoma hang out in virtual space. Their activities are often tied to the corresponding SAC episode’s plot.

One small spoof per episode of the SAC series, distributed with the series on DVD. There is one moment of brilliance: The musical in episode 25.

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture

‣‣ Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG (2004) IMDb

Section 9 is reconstituted two years after its nominal destruction, because of a new terrorist threat in connection with large numbers of refugees from World Wars 3 and 4.

TV series. GIG as in a musical “gig” or the gig economy.

This is slightly more classical cyberpunk, including both a peripheral apocalyptic event—old Tokyo under water with general upheaval—and political themes, probably in reaction to the murder and robbery of a Japanese family of four in Fukuoka perpetrated by Chinese students, as well as other real-world events which helped reignite a fear of foreigners around the time of the production.

The Tachikomas return, despite what happened to the last batch, and a relatively huge amount of background info on the Section’s members is provided, including scenes from the Major’s childhood and from one of the wars.

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture series

‣‣ Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society (2006) IMDb

After another two years, Togusa is a senior member of the greatly expanded Section 9, now playing Kusanagi’s role after she went solo. Their paths converge in the investigation of a transcendent hacker who has something to do with a device providing automated medical care for the elderly in their homes. That device has the side effect of practically inducing a coma, but perhaps the mind is simply elsewhere?

Animated feature. SAC handles the shift in format remarkably well, but other than the appropriate adaptations (including more smooth vehicle animation) there is little difference, hence little commonality with Oshii. The hacker is called the Puppet Master, but the specific term is kugutsu mawashi as opposed to ningyoutsukai, which is what they call the Puppet Master in Oshii’s first film.

animation cyberpunk fiction Japanese production moving picture