"Ghost in the Shell"

How a team of animators made this action feature faster, louder and more kinetic.

By Max Garrone
Published April 17, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Ghost in the Shell"
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Starring the voices of Mimi Woods, Richard George, William Fredrick, Abe Lasser
Polygram Filmed Entertainment; anamporphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: "The Making of Ghost in the Shell" and production notes

In 1995, "Ghost in the Shell" was a groundbreaking feature-length film, taking technical precision and plotting straight from Hollywood action films and realistically reproducing them with animation. Unfortunately, the filmmakers also insisted on a high-minded reason for all the action. The film, full of hyperreal, gee-whiz action sequences, often devolves into heavy-handed lectures about existence.

At its heart, "Ghost in the Shell" is an anime retelling of "Blade Runner." In the year 2029, Hong Kong's Section 9 security police pursue a mysterious hacker named the Puppet Master. The police heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg physically indistinguishable from a complete human. She's started to ask questions about her existence; she knows that she's a human, but so much of her body has become mechanized that she's beginning to wonder about what difference it makes.

Motoko's day job provides plenty of distractions. She uses invisible suits to assassinate diplomats, or chases the Puppet Master through alleyways. Yet she's still not satisfied. Everything changes when she comes face to face with the Puppet Master. He tells her that he's actually a sentient government program designed to cruise the Net and collect information on potential enemies. Somewhere along the way, however, he's become self-aware, and has been searching for a body ever since. The government wants him back, but he won't go quietly. Instead, he wants to meld with Motoko, the most mechanical human.

Either the plot is a mismatch for a fun film or the film is just terrific window dressing for a horribly flawed plot. Still, every little detail is perfect, from the scenes of invisible assassins, visible only by their shadows, or the raucous cityscape where every window seems occupied. The action is so kinetic in such unfamiliar ways that your eyes can't rest. At the same time, the filmmakers take their theme -- the existential dilemma of human and artificial intelligence -- too seriously without ever developing its nuance.

The extras section provides a step-by-step gloss on animation and computer graphics techniques and "A Guide to Ghost in the Shell," a set of character biographies and production details that read like marketing copy. A special, bulleted list explains why the film is important: "1. High-speed, high energy action, 2. High quality, 3. Super reality SF, 4. Anime worldwide." In a sense, that sums up the attitude of the film: faster, louder, more kinetic realism. If the filmmakers had stayed loyal to their own program, they wouldn't have forced their viewers to think about how badly they executed their ideas.

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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