Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell [1995] has had a lasting impact on the American film industry. Its fusion of high philosophy mixed with artistically rendered action sequences became source material for the Wachowski Siblings’ Matrix trilogy and eventually spawned a successful film and television franchise in Japan. With its heady exploration of identity, memory, and the ethical grey areas of cybernetics and our dependence on technology, Ghost in the Shell is a classic that will entertain casual viewers while challenging those that want to dive deep into the realms of philosophy and technology.

Taking place in the not-so-distant future, Ghost in the Shell follows Major Motoko Kusanagi as she and her security unit, Section 9, track down the mysterious hacker, Puppet Master, known for hacking and controlling people through cybernetic brain implants that have become as common in the future as computers are today. Kusanagi and Section 9 soon learn that things are more complicated than they initially realized, forcing Kusanagi to confront her ambivalent feelings she has towards her own cybernetic body and whether or not she is real.

The storytelling of Ghost in the Shell is not for those that want things laid out in expositional monologues. Almost all of the monologues are dedicated towards philosophical discussion about memories, identity, and the definition of life and procreation. It’s refreshing to dive into a story that assumes the audience can keep up with the characters as they navigate the world without being reminded through dialogue what’s going on. That said, the tendency of characters to engage in philosophical discussion can be jarring as few people tend to dive into deep discussion. It can be difficult to keep up with the vast and deep references characters make to texts and philosophers without an already established background. Thankfully, Oshii includes reflective moments to help the audience digest the heavier content.

Like Miyazaki Hayao of Studio Ghibli, Oshii’s inclusion of landscapes lends a zen-like quality to Ghost in the Shell’s pace. The quiet moments of cityscape allow the viewers the opportunity to not only get a better sense of the world Kusanagi and Section 9 live in, but also allow the audience time to process some of the film’s heavier and faster-paced moments. One of the best moments happens as Kusanagi goes scuba diving and floats just below the pristine surface of the water, which acts like an ephemeral mirror that can be passed through. Unlike the modern trend of relying on hand-held shots to give a sense of urgency and danger, many of the action shots are static or at least smooth in their motion. This allows Oshii to add meaning and additional context to shots, such as when the camera pans up a bullet-riddled evolutionary tree, ending on the Homo sapiens branch. Oshii focuses on the meaning and significance of the violence rather than allowing it to be action for the sake of action. This was one of the many influences Ghost in the Shell exerted on films like The Matrix.

Not everything about Ghost in the Shell has aged well. Though they don’t detract from the overall quality of the story, it can be distracting to watch characters dive into the digital realm. The lens distortion available at the time was not the highest quality, especially when paired with a sound effect that sounds like a sci-fi kazoo. Thankfully these moments are rare in the film and are offset by a timeless soundtrack composed by Kawai Kenji that features traditional Japanese choirs and instrumentation. Though the traditional music is at odds with the futuristic setting, it lends a timelessness to the story of characters struggling with identity.

Though Ghost in the Shell is showing its age in the special effects department, it’s storytelling and pacing are paired with strong cinematography that elevates the story at every moment instead of merely serving dialog and plot. The film’s ambitious attempt to ask questions about what our future relationship with technology prove that a serious film is equally at home in the animated realm as it is in the live action realm.

Here's what you can look forward to as we dive into Ghost in the Shell this week:

  • Deep look into how the film relates to Japanese culture
  • Dissenting opinion in a First Viewing
  • A look at how the film's future tech has come true
  • Related Review of Wachowski produced The Animatrix
  • And more!