My first watch of Ghost in the Shell was about as pure a viewing as you can get. Despite hearing about it throughout my college career, I remained totally oblivious to it. Anime was never something I gravitated toward. My only experience with it was Miyazaki’s oeuvre, which has basically nothing in common with Oshii’s movie. So I dove into this seminal piece of cyberpunk head-first and completely blind.
I don’t really know what I expected, but I wanted to make an effort to be open-minded, leaving any preconceived notions about what anime is or isn’t at the door. I wanted to be able to roll with it, whatever happened, and to meet the film on its own terms. With all this in the forefront of my mind, I still somehow spent chunks of the movie feeling like I was missing something.
I wanted to understand the world I was digging into, but I constantly felt like I was missing a piece of the puzzle. The overarching themes, the basic premise, sure, I had that down no problem, but anything beyond that and I wondered if knowing the manga inside and out was a prerequisite for loving this movie. I was getting hung up on details without being able to tell which of them were essential to the story and which were superfluous. Was I supposed to understand the difference between the Sections? Should I have been able to follow the Puppet Master’s plan without question? I finished watching it and wondered if it was possible to watch a movie incorrectly because I was pretty sure I’d just done it.
Another barrier I found myself running into was my natural dislike of anime-style animation. I know, I know, I know—what about my whole open-minded mentality, right? Fair enough, but the large eyes, the angular faces, the mix of hyperrealism and cartoonishness—they all happen to be things that I just don’t particularly like. It’s also the reason I’d typically avoided anime in the past. Something about the hallmarks of that visual style just don’t appeal to me.
Granted, Ghost in the Shell is a far cry from something like Sailor Moon or Pokemon. I don’t mean to conflate the two. I could still appreciate the art from a technical standpoint. The detailing in every background is impeccable and everything had a really cinematic quality to it. That said, I’d put my feelings this way: my ability to understand the importance and artistry of a Botticelli or a da Vinci has no bearing on the fact that I’d rather stare at Magritte any day.
Finally, I found the use of nudity in the film not just confusing, but problematic. It’s undeniable that Oshii and presumably Masamune Shirow are doing more than including nudity for nudity’s sake. Motoko’s nakedness is more often invisible than visible and her purposeful lack of genitalia (something seen within the first few minutes) work to complicate things. The problem was that I didn’t know what to make of these odd and interesting details, when the camera was so clearly relishing in her nudity.
Multiple slow pans look her up and down from head to toe, like we’re looking through the eyes of some lecherous peeping tom. The camera lingers over her breasts time and again, giving the audience time to drink it all in in a way that felt overtly sexual, like it was some sort of money shot. If I was having a hard time getting into the movie before, then these scenes certainly didn’t make it any easier.
But despite seemingly everything about the movie keeping me at arm’s length, I still felt like I understood why it’s amassed such a cult following. The art might not be my style, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. The philosophical questions it’s interested in—what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a soul? What is technology’s role in our lives and what should it be?—are well worth exploring. The world it created is something that feels unique and its mark on pop culture still resonates today.
So I can happily admit defeat here. Ghost in the Shell might have earned a place in the canon, but it’s just not for me.