Do You Hear A Whisper In Your Ghost?
Ghost in the Shell. © Manga Entertainment.
"In the near future ... the advance of computerization ... has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups." This is the opening text of Mamoru Oshii's (Patlabor I & II, Twillight Q.) incredible new animated feature, Ghost in the Shell. The year is 2029, and if you prefer you may trade in your body for a cybernetic one. Of course you may keep a few original cels from your brain and hopefully some of the memories you've spent a lifetime storing. This is how the world has become. After surviving World Wars III and IV, a few changes have altered the way humans existed after thousands of years of genetic evolution. Man and machine have become one and now the machine part craves for independence of being human.
Not since Akira has an animated feature from Japan (Japanimation) delivered such eye widening visuals and thought challenging content. Inspired by the manga created by Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Dominion), it is reportedly the most expensive anime created at approximately $US10 million. Ghost features credits for things like "Weapon Design," as well as an international lineup of executive producers led by UK's Manga Entertainment. It is a shame that, at this writing, Ghost has no major distributor in the US.
Daring You to Follow Along
In New York, the principles of Anime Crash, a growing chain of retail stores devoted to all things anime and manga, and participants in helping to bring Ghost wider exposure in the States, said Miramax was set to handle Ghost distribution domestically but passed at the last hour. And this is where the chink in the shell of Ghost is found. The narrative and multiple plots are extremely challenging. The story opens near the end and the end closes at the beginning. The film almost dares you to follow along.
And if you luckily possess the ability of advanced comprehension, you will be derailed by a character's unexpectedly long monologue so rich in observation and obtuse thinking, you will find your mind spinning for 10 minutes attempting to figure it out. This is what could have been the factor behind Miramax deciding to pass on Ghost (It should be kept in mind that Miramax is a Disney company and I cannot remember the last time Disney promoted an animated feature other than its own. Recall the recent rerelease of The Lion King? Ask yourself what other animated feature was opening that month. Historically, there were two Alice In Wonderland animated films, but you only know about one of them.)
The challenging narrative is something I respect and ultimately frown on. Ghost deserves a wide release. It is far more entertaining than most of what comes out of Hollywood. Yet the author and director chose to alienate Western audiences in most part by accepting to stand behind the film as a visual tour de force. I certainly wouldn't want to compromise artistic vision, but if the concept is to broaden the understanding of Japanese culture, an effective area to impress a market is in filmmaking. The plot does kick in midway through the film, but if you do not get the story the first time, maybe you'll have to see it again and maybe again. If spending your afternoons at the movie theater is not possible, then you may have to accept the film as eye candy. And what candy it is.
Programming of a cyborg from Ghost in the Shell. © Manga Entertainment. The birth of Motoko--Ghost in the Shell © Manga Entertainment.
The Noise in Her Head
The film begins with a computer generated, multileveled grid of a section of a city and the viewer is completely immersed in the grid by flying through it and around it. Motoko Kusanagi is a high level officer with Section 9 (the security police) engaged in surveillance high on top a skyscraper roof. In the back of her neck are four ports in which she could jack into any computer network. Motoko also has a cybernetic body. The noise she hears in her head during this opening sequence is very important in the arc of the main plot. When the order to move in is given, Motoko stands, disrobes revealing a beautifully slender and athletic body (reminding one of a naked Barbie doll with smaller breasts), and with outstretched arms backdives off the roof. When the mission is concluded, the next time you see Motoko, you don't. It is one of the most exciting opening sequences in cinema today.
The opening sequence reveals all the ingredients that will make up the next 75 minutes. Ghost combines traditional hand drawn, 2D and 3D animation. All the mediums are neatly balanced and integrated in a way that tells you something new is going on here but doesn't distract from the important stuff, the characters. Granted mixed media technology is not new to animation, but what is notable is the execution and the mastery of the craft. Art direction, the ability to showcase detail and stage passive or active action, and lead one's eye through color and composition is a tenet of high art. Look at the paintings of Vermeer or Rembrandt and all will be revealed. The opening titles are an excellent example of art direction. Witness how a cybernetic body is manufactured while Japanese drums beat behind an angelic chorus of female vocals. Here you are led visually as well as audibly.
Ghost feels more like a live-action movie than what one is accustomed to think animated features look like. The animation is not based on the style that evolved out of years of exploration by the artists who created the classic Disney films. It more closely resembles how humans really move and the way the Japanese interpret human movement, slightly stiff and restrained, but deliberate. It is very understandable, knowing how formal Japanese culture is, that distractions like eye popping special effects, outrageous characters and stories, hyperunrealistic action and long legged, Western styled women reign.
The Real Celebrities
The real celebrities in Japan are not the Hollywood imports but the creators of manga, and it is the only area where a woman is as equal as a man. We may never see fluid squash and stretch from anime, but when was the last time you tried tap dancing when you felt constrained spiritually? It cannot be done. There are many shots where live action seemed to inspire movement and tone. An early scene shows Motoko waking in the dark and sitting up, opening the blinds to let the light in. She is groggy with thought and slightly lethargic. The feeling was beyond animated. It is a wonderful hybrid that Ralph Bakshi felt somewhere in his bones but was never able to transmit onto the screen.
Another shot that has caused some debate is one where two government officials are riding down a glass elevator with their backs toward the camera while having a 20 second (film time) conversation. The only movement is the panning background and a sliver of jaw moving on one of the characters. The big question is why? The shot shouts, "Look at me!" What could the director, Mamoru Oshii, be trying to say? Surrounded by action heavy scenes, it could be that he was sharing his feelings with his audience. In a display of directorial freedom, we could have witnessed a deliberate recession of craft. What is it like to have dramatic action, but not be able to express it through movement? Animation is so much about the ability to express freedom without limitations. Given a clean sheet of paper, how would you express motion? That would depend on several factors.
One factor is how you interpret your environment. Ever go abroad and discover new things and appropriate only what you can? Acceptance of diversity will inspire and the lack of acceptance will limit. This is echoed through Motoko herself during a chase scene. "If we all reacted the same we'd be predictable. And there's more than one way to view a situation. What's true for the group is also true for the individual. It's simple. Overspecialize and you breed in weakness. It's slow death." Certainly the overwhelming social codes of behavior and public conduct have long been the issues explored by Japan's influential creators.
Individualism and Personal Destiny
The feelings of individualism and personal destiny are strong undercurrents in Ghost. All the leading characters are fighting for it, or fighting to understand how they fit in with the big picture. The argument is raised about the importance of being human and is clearly answered. When cyborgs begin wanting a destiny and, more important, want to make the decisions that will create their destinies, the desire to be held or kissed or loved is not one of them. And that is what being human is about.
Clearly to have the ability to jump 50 floors above the ground, become invisible and have a perfect body that only requires yearly tune ups is attractive. But if tenderness through the grasp of a baby's tiny fingers cannot be experienced, I'd rather expire with the dinosaurs than trade my human shell for one made by MegaTech, with a corporate logo etched under the foot and a warranty. Shirow and Oshii do suggest that the cyborgs of Ghost have feelings and desires. They can be subtly caring and have pure feelings of dedication and devotion. They have transcended the complexities of human needs and self-gratification. Yes, it is true that the cyborgs want, but they were originally created to perform so the hybrid would be a new species of individual, one that cannot succumb to emotional manipulation.
During the final scene, Bateau, Motoko's partner in the security police, leans over her destroyed shell and the two of them continue a conversation. Although her shell is no longer functional, Motoko's robotised brain is and that is the part that Bateau recognizes. It suggests the higher belief that the spirit or soul does exist outside the human body that confines it, of reincarnation and the hope of an afterlife. Many of the same themes are found throughout history, especially in Egypt during the age of the Pharaohs.
Not surprisingly the translation of Ghost into the English language version is very adequate. There are a few voices that sound remarkably like Don Knotts and Casey Kasem. The actor who voices Motoko, Mimi Woods, is very believable and satisfactorily appealing. She is able to convey a detached emotionalism and yet at the same time add a hint of melancholy that makes her sympathetic. It also doesn't hurt to see a cyborg go scuba diving in a frog suit as a means of meditating. The film's sound design is very even and well balanced.
Motoko, the main character in Ghost in the Shell. © Manga Entertainment. The surreal vision of director, Masamune Shirow. © Manga Entertainment.
In an attempt to broaden the film's appeal in the West, the producers commissioned Brian Eno and U2 to contribute a tune which turns up over the end credit crawl. The original soundtrack was composed and performed by Kenji Kawai. And I recommend you purchase the CD--pricey since it is an import, but what a treat. Throughout the film there are transitional scenes that are several minutes long and linger on: rain falling on city streets or a passing barge floating a consumer product advertisement or naked mannequins waiting to be dressed in a showroom window. Over these visuals pound the eerie percussion and meditative synthesized keyboards that inspire you to sit back and float away as you are lured into a cinematic hallucinogenic. Here the use of traditional native music is embraced and the original soundtrack features 11 tracks that echo a spiritual and transcendental awareness or desire. Interestingly, the Eno/U2 cut does not appear on the Japanese soundtrack.
The Puppet Master
For clarity sake, 'Ghost' is the term used for the stored memories, real and manufactured, that are placed in cyborg machinery to make them more human. 'Shell' are the bodies the machinery are housed in. The main plot is about a program titled 2501 "The Puppet Master" designed to hack into foreign network systems for the use of manipulation for economic or military advantage. When the program begins to develop its own sense of self, it designs a hugely elaborate plan to free itself from its originators and create a new, more advanced species that do not require any human limitations ultimately. When the agency responsible for the Puppet Master tries to retrieve the wayward program by any means necessary, the Security Police get involved with Motoko taking the lead.
In the end, all the characters fighting each other, or fighting to defeat the presumed enemy, were all puppets under the Puppet Master. The program manipulated its way through various individuals one at a time until the final outcome was achieved. When the merging of The Puppet Master and Motoko is completed, the new individual stands overlooking a huge metropolis like a virus about to be released into a computer hard drive and all hard drives connected to it.
It is a not too happy an ending. The evolution of man rests in man's ability to overcome limitations. And the survival of man rests in man's ability to limit his hunger for evolution. It is a genetic program for man to move forward. But whether technology holds the key to the future of man, the question remains to what outcome. As the cyborgs in Ghost are tormented about their destinies, so humans face the same predicament. If we are in fact masters of our own destiny, why are there so many lost souls struggling to find their way amidst a sea of limitations?
John R. Dilworth is a New York based independent filmmaker whose recent short animated film, The Chicken From Outer Space, was nominated for an Academy Award.