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Ghost in the Shell 25th anniversary retrospective

Ghost in the Shell 25th anniversary retrospective
Dan Barnett
Written by Dan Barnett on 11 Sep 2020

Dan first encountered anime at the ripe old age of six with a VHS copy of Laputa. Ten years later he re-discovered it in Robotech and overnight a DVD collection was born.

One of the weird things about getting older is realising just how long ago so many of the big moments in popular culture actually occurred. For example, did you realise that it's now been 25 years - a quarter of a century- since the release of Mamoru Oshii's seminal film Ghost in the Shell, adapting the classic manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow.


The film follows Motoko Kusanagi aka The Major, a cyborg operative of Section 9 - a mostly secret black and cyber-ops unit working for the Japanese government. During the film section 9 is tasked with hunting down a hacker known as the Puppetmaster thanks to his MO of hacking into peoples cybernetically enhanced brains and editing their memories to make them do their bidding. The case will cause the already philosophically inclined Major to fully question the nature of her own ghost.


Watching the film again now the influence it has had over the last 25 years of science fiction are unquestionable. Far from just inspiring a variety of sequel films and series, including the spectacular Stand Alone Complex, you can see the impact everywhere from the similarly introspective plot of Ex Machina to the vast quantity of concepts and visuals that were lifted wholesale and plugged into the Matrix movies.

The reason for this is primarily that Ghost in the Shell is one of the first anime films to truly start to find a wider mainstream audience in the West thanks largely to it being a Britsh-Japanese co-production between a trio of the biggest names in anime production (Bandai, Kodansha and Production IG) and none-other than Manga Entertainment.


Many faces of Motoko


As for why it was deserving of the critical praise it received and why it's legacy has lasted so long, well, watching the film makes it obvious! Unlike many other older classics, Ghost in the Shell pretty much fully holds up today.  The CGI is from the early 90s after all and it doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny, especially with modern players happily upscaling things though it is used sparingly. There are also more than a few areas where a more savvy viewer can spot that long still shots go on rather longer than is strictly required for artistic merit and are clearly being used to shave corners under a tight budget (though $10 million seems pretty good when even Ghibli's offering for the same year, Whisper of the Heart was only made for $6.5 million).

However, apart from this there is so much that remains spectacular. Take for example the unquestionably iconic opening which finds the Major perched atop a skyscraper listening to radio chatter before removing her overcoat and jumping off nude into the vast chasm of a Blade Runner-esque city and vanishing into thin air. It's everything that's needed to draw in the audience - beautiful, tense and stunning. It’s so strong a moment that the franchise has tried to copy it on at least two or three other occasions but have never quite done it justice again. The remaining film delicately balances the action and philosophical  aspects of it's story though it does trim out most of the more whimsical and comedic aspects of Shirow's original work.


The film is unquestionably director Maoru Oshii’s magnum opus pulling together elements of the visual language of Western and Japanese science fiction and combining them into the most enduring version of the cyber-punk aesthetic. Meanwhile the whole thing is backed up by the incredible score of Kenji Kawai. Whilst his work on Ghost in the Shell would later be rather upstaged  by Yoko Kanno’s work on Stand Alone Complex, what he achieves here is absolutely enthralling with the crowning glory being the utterly haunting vocal melody that plays over the films opening credits.


Some works just cannot hold-up in the modern world. Things like the Graphic novel of Watchmen and the original King Kong find themselves left rather adrift as the culture extracts what made them originally groundbreaking and recycles it into other forms leaving little more than a memory and brand recognition. Ghost in the Shell however, is one of those iconic works that still endures and whilst on every viewing you’ll spot something familiar, something you’ve seen again and again, the film is more than happy to display just why its elements are so strong and why they’ll continue to be so enduring.

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