A megacity and metaphysics, ultra violence and super humans; all very memorable, but the most indelible impression made by Ghost in the Shell (1995) is of its restraint. It may seem unearned praise for a film that often delivers its message by having the characters discuss matters of existential inquiry at length, but the film is lean in so many other ways precisely to allow the possibility of these dialogues. At 82 minutes total running time, Ghost in the Shell is certainly not bloated. It is a film of big ideas that it runs at head first, not giving a damn if we think it a pretentious bore. It is exceptional for its surety of purpose, for how sparingly it doles out the action and spectacle usually associated with its genre, and for the coolly distant tone it maintains even when the action is on screen.
There are no heroes and no unequivocal villains in this world, only opposing groups of extraordinarily competent people directed by shady intra-governmental power brokers. The operatives of Section 9 act on orders without complaint about the moral fluidity of their superiors or the corruption of the system. All this positions the film as cynical and somewhat realist, aware of realpolitik and the wetwork involved in its implementation. Upon this rigid framework the film builds toward ideas that cannot be dramatised easily in a visual medium; transhumanism poses a tricky representational problem for cinema and its obsession with the face as the locus of individuality. Later on in the film, director Mamoru Oshii employs some interesting tactics for challenging this obsession, but first he must address another problematic aspect of representation that he has inherited from his source material.
The Ghost in the Shell (1) is originally a manga created by Masamune Shirow. An ensemble cast of characters is headed by the female cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, whom her creator pens with an ogling male gaze and blasé sexism. She is treated alternately as a decorative object and a masturbatory fantasy, typical of female characters in seinen manga primarily marketed to adolescent males. In the anime adaptation Oshii transforms Motoko from sexed-up poppet to serious-minded protagonist. Her beauty is chiselled, her gaze eerie. She reacts with indifference to her colleague Batou’s gauche affection and her body is clearly coded as unobtainable – feminine but not necessarily female, and in any case not existing to pander to male needs and desires.
The film is not coy about showing us this body. Within seconds of being introduced to her we see full frontal nudity, which is partly a neutralising tactic intended to render the subsequent nudity unremarkable and partly an intentional provocation of the audience. She may be classically beautiful but she is rendered as a white slab of synthetic meat that defies us to be aroused. In lieu of titillation we are offered morbid fascination. The film is eager to demonstrate all the ways humans and cyborgs can be dismantled and otherwise unpacked. Violence done to the body is ferocious and shocking. Depicted in a curiously clinical manner throughout the film, in death the body becomes a dissection study in which every sinew, vein, structure and joint explodes onto the screen for examination.
The ensemble cast of the manga is mostly reduced to bit players whose role is to deliver some plot-relevant detail and then disappear. That reduction in scope creates the space necessary for a presence unique to the film adaptation: Oshii’s version of New Port City, a thinly disguised recreation of Hong Kong. The psychogeography of this setting is so strong that the city constitutes a character in of itself. Allusions to Hong Kong abound: high-rise apartments and dingy concrete back alleys bristling with signage, low flying aircraft that recall the approach to Kai Tak Airport, the safe house perched on a hillside that resembles Victoria Peak. The urban environment as depicted in the film’s midpoint intermission falls into three categories: property, machinery, and people. Motoko looks on and wonders which category she fits into.
When finally she comes face to face with the Puppet Master, the mysterious emergent intelligence that has been cyber-stalking her and with whom she has become obsessed, both he and Motoko lie broken and immobile. With Batou’s help, their brains are wired together so that sensory input and vocal output flow between them. The Puppet Master makes his proposition to Motoko and Oshii begins delicately to separate her personality from her physical manifestation: the Puppet Master speaks by using the vocal centre in Motoko’s body; she engages his visual field and looks at herself using his eyes; he turns her own gaze back onto him/her. So far as cinematic language is concerned, their two identities are already thoroughly intermingled by the time the Puppet Master proposes they merge consciousnesses.
Death rains upon them, but in the denouement we learn that Motoko’s severed head has been salvaged intact. When she wakes from her ordeal she announces to Batou that she is, contrary to appearances, not the person she was before. She may retain her likeness but her soul has not remained constant within. Ghost in the Shell maintains to the end its inimitable tension between an efficient and procedural plot, tersely concluded by Batou, and the indescribable transfiguration that has happened to Motoko. She goes forth to explore the net and we have only the vaguest notion why. She is simply beyond our ken.