To get in you in the mood for our recently announced animation competition Andrez bergen has put together this look at the Ghost in the Shell series.
What other nation in the world annihilates its own capital as much as Japan tends to? Think of all the times Tokyo’s been trashed, caned, victimized and atomized – from the big bang at the beginning of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) to nearly every single Godzilla flick etched out by Japan’s workhorse production house Toho Co.
Both the manga and the first anime interpretation of Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊, Kokaku Kidotai) continued this trend, setting the scene some time after World War 5. The twist here was that Tokyo was a city that had revived itself and embraced a slick, somewhat violent sci-fi futurism. Yet while the manga pages drawn by Masamune Shirow were also quirky, a good chuckle and occasionally hentai (perverted), the first anime movie of Ghost in the Shell, released in 1995, was darker, a tad more cerebral and the most innovative post-cyberpunk anime since Akira. Some, like me, say it’s even better.
Ostensibly the story of a public security anti-terrorist squad (Section 9) coming to grips with an unknown force who is “ghost-hacking” into cyborgs’ brains and souls, Ghost in the Shell drifted into a philosophical treatise on the nature of humanity and its relationship with technology. If any one movie was responsible for impacting upon the latent psyches of the Warchowski brothers before they produced The Matrix, this was it. The movie may have been drafted by manga-ka Shirow and co-scripted by Kazunori Ito, but the director here was one Mamoru Oshii.
While Hayao Miyazaki (of Spirited Away, Ponyo and The Castle of Cagoliostro notoriety) juxtaposes concerns with the environment over a strange blend of whimsy, humour, adversity and triumph of the spirit, Oshii’s films are often dark, bleak and caustic with a resounding reliance upon technology; even so there is humour here if you look closely enough. “I’ve always liked humorous movies and gags,” Oshii told me in 2006 for an interview in the Daily Yoimiuri after he unveiled the zany Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters.
“But in Japan it seems that the audience prefers serious movies. I’d love to make a big budget comedy movie, but the current Japanese film industry would hardly allow such a project.” What Oshii and Miyazaki do share is a predilection for tales in which there is no specifically “bad” character – even the perceived villains often struggle for something they think is right. But whereas in Miyazaki’s realm this means good intentions, in Oshii’s it’s a need to know the unknown, to succeed at any costs, and often inspired by baser qualities. In Ghost in the Shell and its equally powerful sequel Innocence (2004) Oshii is at the height of these subversive, mind-bending powers. They’re as as visually stunning as they are philosophically bewildering. After all, characters in Oshii’s movies have a hankering for citing Jean-Paul Sartre as much as they proffer up obscure references from the Old Testament.
“I think that Innocence will remain a movie understood by a very limited number of people,” Oshii said back in 2004 when I interviewed him about the sequel. Even so he had the benefit of two superb scores by Kenji Kawai for both movies. “I haven’t thought about using any other composer but Kenji,” Oshii confided in a tone that was somewhat reverential. “I like the Ghost in the Shell movies basically because I like sci-fi animation,” says DJ/producer Ko Kimura. “The story behind Ghost in the Shell is really intriguing and the graphics are gorgeous – if you see it a second or third time, you’ll find new facets within the two movies again and again. For its graphics I’d say Innocence is one of the best anime movies made in Japan.” Renowned fellow Japanese DJs Tatsuya Oe (aka Captain Funk) and Jin Hiyama agree. “The first Ghost in the Shell may be an old movie, but this is our future, our world. Innocence took it further: we taste life but have no choices,” Hiyama muses. “I think this has always been my own theme too.”
“Ghost in the Shell is the magnum opus of my master Mamoru Oshii,” anime director Kenji Kamiyama quipped in deferential fashion when I asked him for his favourite movies a couple of years back. Kamiyama is no slouch himself, having directed the spin-off TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, along with another essential Production I.G series, Eden of the East. He was also an animation and sequence director on Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998) and wrote the script for Blood: The Last Vampire (2000). “The first Ghost in the Shell movie is the movie that depicted the big bang of that new infrastructure that we now know as the Internet, from an almost prophetic standpoint,” Kamiyama explains, “and for thi reason it should be regarded as a monument in the whole sci-fi genre.”
Andrez Bergen is senior editor of Impact magazine in the UK. He’s a long-term writer on Japanese pop culture, music, anime, movies and weird stuff who has covered the space since 2001. Andrez also runs Tokyo-based IF? Records, makes music as Little Nobody, writes a personal blog called JapaneseCultureGoNow!, and can be found on Twitter @andreziffy