Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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“Majors in stunning visuals; minors in everything else.”

I really wanted to like this. Seriously, this had the potential to be thoroughly kick-ass, innovative and visually stunning, in a way never before seen in action heroine cinema. However, the end result is only somewhat kick-ass, and might have felt more innovative. if Ghost in the Shell hadn’t already been strip-mined for ideas over the past two decades, as noted over the weekend, by everyone from James Cameron to the Wachowskis. Rather than pushing the imagination envelope further, Sanders and the film’s script seems content to coast along on the original ideas, and these are no longer as cutting-edge as they need to be.

The story still concerns the Major (Johansson), here the marginal survivor of a terrorist attack, who has her brain transplanted into an entirely artificial body by the Hanka Robotics corporation. She has become the top operative of a government security group Section 9, working alongside somewhat-cyberized Batou (Asbæk) and the still entirely human Togusa, under the command of Aramaki (Kitano). Hanka becomes the target of a series of cyber-terrorist attacks, investigated by the Major, despite experiencing “glitches” of audio-visual hallucinations. The culprit is revealed to be a hacker known as Kuze (Pitt). Turns out he has more than a slight connection to the Major, being in possession of disturbing information about her origin, as well as her life before becoming a full-body cyborg.

The story has a very clever approach to the whole “whitewashing” controversy: at least initially, rather than Motoko Kusanagi, she has been reinvented by Hanka Robotics as Mira Killian, who give her a whole new set of memories, which may or may not be accurate. It’s this quest for her real identity which drives the plot, containing more than a few echoes of Robocop. And that’s an illustration of the main problem here: it feels less like anything cutting edge, than a conglomeration of elements taken from films which has gone before. That half of these stole from the animated Ghost, doesn’t help the live-action version much.

There are are some aspects which work. It looks lovely, and I can’t say I felt shortchanged by having gone to the cinema to see it: though even here, it’s like Blade Runner with less rain and more daylight. The cast are good too. Johansson has the correct deadpan approach, Asbæk is ideal for the hulking Batou and Kitano knocks it out of the park, as the most bad-ass bureaucrat you’ve ever seen [this will be absolutely no surprise if you’ve seen classic Kitano films such as Violent Cop]. However, in action, it only works in intermittent moments, such as the raid against the hacked geisha robots, or the battle against the spider-tank – the latter certainly lives up to expectations from the other versions.

The aspect which did work better than in the animation was the blurred line between humans and cyborgs, which is more striking when you have real people involved. There’s one scene, for instance, where Kuze is talking to the Major, and he simply reaches out and lifts a quarter-panel of her face off. It’s a startling image; truth be told, perhaps too startling, as I spent the rest of the scene thinking, “SCARLETT JOHANSSON IS MISSING PART OF HER HEAD!” rather than about the conversation between the two characters. I’ve also heard a number of people say this was a case where 3D genuinely improved the experience – we saw it in 2D, in deference to Chris’s motion sickness, which ended 3D viewing for us at Avatar.

At a brisk 106 minutes, it doesn’t hang around, though the story appears to shift gears at about the half-way point, and becomes more focused and driven. It’s still barely able to scratch the surface of the universe: having watched four movies, 52 TV episodes and four hour-long OVAs over the past couple of months, I was painfully aware of how much was going on that had to be utterly discarded here – yet they still found time to include a number of scenes e.g. the water fight, which felt inserted, purely as homages to the original material. Did appreciate the way languages were completely fluid: Aramaki spoke all his lines in Japanese, yet the Major was entirely in English, as if this was as much a stylistic choice as the shape of your “shell.”

Unfortunately, it looks like this will likely be one and done for the franchise, with the film being crushed at the North American box-office by – pardon me while I throw up – Baby Boss. If the makers are to recoup their investment, it will need to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and perform well in overseas markets. [RE: TFC has now taken 11x as much in foreign markets as it did in the US/Canada] Action heroine fans will be hoping for better results on June 2, when Wonder Woman opens.

Dir: Rupert Sanders
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano

The Ghost in the Shell universe

Science-fiction writers largely whiffed on predicting the Internet: as a sweeping generalization, they were too busy with rocket ships and flying cars to see the biggest change in human society since the invention of the internal combustion engine. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), which began in 1984, is a rare example which saw how the interconnectedness of people and things would become an everyday part of life, for better and worse. But one of the more accurate projections of our networked future was a Japanese manga series, first published in 1989: Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, which has been powerfully influential since, from The Matrix through to HBO’s Westworld.

It was not Shirow’s first foray into the interface between man (or, more frequently, woman) and machine. He began in 1983 with Black Magic (made into Black Magic M-66), which preceded The Terminator in its story of a journalist trying to save a young woman from a relentless android. This was followed two years later by Appleseed, a series which according to Wikipedia, “merges elements of the cyberpunk and mecha genres with a heavy dose of politics, philosophy, and sociology.” Sound familiar? 1986’s Dominion then introduced readers to the fictional setting of Newport City, which would also become the home for Major Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist of Ghost in the Shell.

The world

It is the near future. The world has become highly information-intensive, with a vast corporate network covering the planet, electrons and light pulsing through it. But the nation-state and ethnic groups still survive. And on the edge of Asia, in a strange corporate conglomerate-state called ‘Japan’…

So opens Ghost in the Shell. First published as a serial in Young Magazine, it began in April 1989, and was set, at that point, forty years in the future. By this point, technology has advanced to a level where every aspect of humanity, physical or mental, can be augmented by prosthetic devices. Almost everyone has taken advantage of at least a few upgrades. Some, such as Kusanagi, have embraced the concept to such extent they have entirely artificial bodies in addition to a “cyberbrain”. This enhanced version of the organ can be transferred at will between physical forms, and allows direct connection into information networks.

However, these innovations are not without their downside. If something is networked, it can be hacked. And if it can be hacked, it will be hacked, leading to potentially lethal acts of cyber-terrorism. These can be deadly, not only to the direct target – for if you can take over someone’s brain, they can then be used as your “puppet,” to commit further crimes. The hacker can even implant false memories into the victim, covering their tracks. Such sophisticated criminals require equally sophisticated law-enforcement, and this is where Section 9 come in. Led by Major Kusanagi, and operating under the watchful gaze of bureaucrat Daisuke Aramaki, they have the freedom of action necessary to tackle the most difficult cases.

It’s not just technology that has changed from the current time. Between now and then, there have been two further world wars: the third was nuclear, and the fourth was not. The net result has been the break-up of several world powers into smaller fragments. Most notably, the United States of America split off two sections, leaving only nine states behind. The American Empire occupies the South and East, while the Russo-American Alliance controls the West coast and North-East corridor. This seems eerily prescient too, with some in California currently contemplating secession. Let’s hope the American Empire’s bloody and brutal invasion of Mexico, included in the future world here, does not come to pass as well.

Japan, however, survived the two global conflicts relatively well, and has developed into a superpower. While some areas were hit with nuclear weapons in WW3, “radiation scrubbing” technology was developed, which meant these were not long-term wastelands and could be rebuilt relatively quickly. It remains a democracy, though as the opening text suggests, it’s an occasionally fragile one, with pressures from interested parties – in particular corporations – creating a dynamic tension between the needs of business and individuals. As a result of the wars, there are also a significant number of refugees from other Asian countries, which cause tension and represent a serious political powder-keg.

The Major

The heroine has had almost as many forms as there have been adaptations of the manga. Which is not a problem, because this is a universe where, if you want, you can change your body as often as your socks. It’s also why the criticisms of “whitewashing” leveled at the film for casting Scarlett Johansson never made any sense to me. Kusanagi can take any shape she wants, because her body is entirely artificial. The Major has described herself as nothing more than a fist sized clump of brain cells, without her robotic body. How she looks is purely an aesthetic choice. And, let’s face it: if I were a woman, and could look like anyone I wanted, ScarJo would be a more likely selection than most.

However, the differences are not limited to how she appears: indeed, in some incarnations (Ghost in the Shell 2), she has abandoned entirely any definitive physical semblance. The Major’s personality is also subject to variation: the anime version is a great deal more stoic than the manga one, where she appears to have come to a fairly happy place with regard to her situation. In the films, she worries frequently about whether or not she is still human – and what that even means. Another aspect which separates her from most of her contemporaries in Section 9, is that she went through full cyberization at a very early stage in her life. Although the details are murky (and also vary, depending on the adaptation), it appears she has been living an entirely artificial life, virtually for as long as she can remember.

Let’s talk about sex. Shirow has had a reputation as a bit of a lech, since virtually the start of his career. It’s an aspect which seems to have increased in his work over time; while he has almost abandoned linear story-telling, his latest artwork book is called Greaseberries, and is about what it sounds like. But even relatively early, content was controversially removed from the Japanese version of the manga, for its original American release: pages which depict the Major’s sideline, involving sex software called “Endorno.” [For the curious. You’re welcome! NSFW, obviously] Many of the Major’s costume choices also seem to come from Stripper Couture R Us, even if somewhat required by the plot, e.g. that skin-tight bodysuit is really necessary for her thermo-optical camouflage. Honest! Just don’t ask why her head doesn’t need it…

Yet curiously, actual fornication is largely missing from the Shell universe, particularly in the animated versions. Perhaps it’s the result of Kusanagi’s cybernetic nature, with her body just a tool for the job? Indeed, love is equally notable by its near-absence. Actually, this is among the things which I find most refreshing about her as a heroine: she’s not defined at all by traditionally feminine conceits like romantic relationships or family values. These tend to get shoehorned in far too often to action heroines, and most of the time (I admit, there are some exceptions), do little more than bring proceedings to a grinding halt, and get in the way of the fun stuff. This diversion of energy isn’t a problem with the Major: she had little or no interest in affairs of the heart. “Career oriented” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The influences

The 1995 movie of Ghost in the Shell is not the first large-budget attempt at putting the “cyberpunk” world on the big screen. It was beaten to the punch, by a few months, by Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of a William Gibson short story, starring Keanu Reeves. The less said about it, probably the better, though coincidentally, Takeshi Kitano is in both it and the live-action Ghost. I’ll just leave you this sentence from another review: “After Henry Rollins is crucified by a fundamentalist Christian assassin played by Dolph Lundgren whose catchphrase is “Jesus time!” (AWESOME), Keanu and his sidekick Jane eventually hook up with the Lo-Teks, a gang of outlaws in the ruins of Newark led by Ice T and a cybernetic dolphin.” Yeah, Unsurprisingly, it was a critical flop then, and hasn’t exactly improved with age.

The reviews at the time of release for Ghost were stellar in comparison, though still mixed. It’s one of those films whose impact and relevance only becomes apparent over time. Like Blade Runner, you wake up one morning and suddenly go, “Holy shit, we’re living in that movie.” Okay, we may not quite yet be seeing the cyberization seen in Ghost; yet we’re getting there, in terms of the amount of time people spend interfaced into virtual worlds, from Facebook to Netflix. Consider this: 1989, when the original comic was published, was the same year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Even by 1995, there were less than forty million users of the Internet world-wide, the majority in the United States, and just 23,500 websites. [Working eight hours a day, you could spend a minute on every website, and see the entire Internet in under seven weeks.] The relevant figures in 2017: 3.77 billion users and about a billion sites.

The film-makers who have acknowledged its influence include virtually all the heavy hitters of genre cinema: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and, most obviously, the Wachowski brothers sisters siblings. When they pitched their idea for The Matrix to their producers, they showed them the Ghost in the Shell movie and said, “We want to do that for real.” Spielberg would make AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, reflecting ideas explored in Ghost, and his studio, Dreamworks, are behind the live-action version, having bought the rights all the way back in April 2009. Cameron provided a glowing quote for the DVD release, and the transference of personalities seen in Avatar seems to bear a debt to Shirow’s creation.

It’s a two-way street, naturally. Ghost was influenced by what had gone before, and it’s also notable for being a rare anime film co-funded by Japan and Western companies. The results straddle cultures and have stood the test of time better than most of its contemporaries, animated or live-action. It will be interesting to see whether the latest version proves to be so well-regarded and influential, more than two decades after it comes out.

Related posts

The art of Masamune Shirow

Note: some of the images below are not safe for work.

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

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“Not be confused with the old movie.”

Really, that was the best name they could come up with? Oh, well. “A rose by any other name…” Released in Japan in June 2015, more or less on the 20th anniversary of the “not-so-new movie”, I guess, it’s the most recent incarnation of the animated universe. This is more or less a direct follow-on from the Arise series, following up on the “Firestarter” arc, the name for both a wizard-class hacker and the virus they have created. As such, you’d definitely fare better if you’ve seen that series first, since (as we’ll see) it has enough issues with new plot elements, and doesn’t bother with much explanation about any pre-existing ones.  This feature is also using the same redesigned character designs, and with the Major (Sakamoto) operating in conjunction with Section 9 and Aramaki (Juku), rather than under his direct control.

The main incident under investigation is the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister, blown up with a briefcase bomb, during a meeting. That’s the simple synopsis. The more accurate one would involve a complex and tangled web of government departments and their intersection with elements of the military-industrial complex. It’s a alphabet soup blitzkrieg of acronyms: MOD, MOC, DFA. Or was it MFA? Either way, it becomes awfully hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom, for the sake of which alliance. Perhaps it makes more sense if you have a pre-existing awareness of the intricacies of the Japanese federal bureaucracy. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching your head and/or yawning for significant chunks of this.

Which is a shame, as there are some aspects which are still enjoyable. I particularly liked the idea that the head villainess actually uses the same make and model of prosthetic body as Major Kusanagi, so in effect she is hunting her own doppelganger. This ties together with more information on her childhood, in a cybernetic orphanage, which is being run for purposes that are very far from charitable. There is more of a sense of team here. The Major refers to her colleagues as “parts,” something they take to mean they’re expendable – or it could actually be high praise, given the nature of her existence. It’s symptomatic of the ambivalence about technology that has been present throughout, over a period now spanning two decades.

The action is as impressive as it was in Arise, with a number of show-stopping set-pieces, pitting Kusanagi and her team against a range of opponents, from near-human to entirely artificial. There are also surprisingly poignant moments, such as their questioning of a former active-duty soldier whose job is now to receive the last words of his colleagues. This renewed his purpose in life, after he had been left behind to wallow in his obsolete prosthetic body. But these elements just make the murky plotting all the more frustrating, and I can’t help suspecting the writers confused obscurity with depth.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star: Maaya Sakamoto, Ikkyuu Juku, Kenichirou Matsuda, Tarusuke Shingaki

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

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“Shellfishly indulgent.”

This is largely included purely for completeness: if this had been a stand-alone film, it likely wouldn’t have qualified, not reaching the mandatory minimum quota of action heroineness. For in this sequel, Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) has abandoned even her artificial physical form, for life entirely inside the Internet. Her presence in this is therefore more spiritual, with Batou (Yamadera) referring to her as his “guardian angel”, and her impact is more felt than seen – particularly in its ramification for Batou, whose degree of cybernetic enhancement is not much lower than hers. She only returns to a tangible persona in the final scene, where Batou has to take on a near-endless stream of combat-reprogrammed sex robots. My, that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing…

So this is much more Batou’s story, as he and the much-less enhanced Togusa (Ōki) investigate Section 9’s latest case. In it, the “gynoid” sex robots created by tech company LOCUS SOLUS, are involved in a series of their owners’ deaths, which have been covered up and settled quietly, out of court. Section 9 are brought in, over concerns the incidents are a prelude to a cyber-attack by terrorists. Instead, they discover human “ghosts” are being implanted into the gynoids, to make them more realistic. It eventually turns out LOCUS SOLUS, from their floating headquarters (conveniently in international water) have been kidnapping young girls, in order to repeatedly copy the victim’s personality into their robots – a process which eventually drives the source insane.

It’s quite a trip for Batou and Togusa to get there, however. They have to handle a very pissed-off Yakuza gang, whose boss was one of the gynoid victims – they don’t respond well to Batou’s style of investigation, shall we say. Then there’s Kim, an ex-military hacker who can hack the pair’s cyber-brain, and twist the reality they experience into a pretzel. This is where the mix of animation styles is perhaps at its best: Oshii opts neither for pure CGI nor traditional hand-drawn, instead combining them in a way that uses the strengths of each to good effect.

But it probably is too damn cerebral for its own good. Per Wikipedia, “quotations in the film come from Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, the Old Testament, Meiji-era critic Saitō Ryokuu, Richard Dawkins, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of Man a Machine.” This is a common problem for Oshii: see Avalon or Garm Wars, for other examples of his work which also struggle to hold up under the philosophical weight he throws onto genre fare.

Look, I’m not averse to intellectual concepts in film. But when it comes to action film, they need to be a garnish rather than the main ingredient – something to tickle the higher parts of the brain, while the lizard areas enjoy the spectacle and gratuitous violence. While those latter aspects are present, it comes with indigestible lumps of philosophy, that I would rather had been present in lesser quantity, if not left out of the dish entirely.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Atsuko Tanaka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex

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“We need to go deeper…”

Despite the critical and commercial success of the original film, it took a while for anything further to emerge from the GitS universe. Over the seven years after the movie, the only adapted media to be released was a 1997 video-game. This hiatus came to an end in October 2002 when Stand Alone Complex took the air on Japanese satellite station  SKY PerfecTV!. This was a 26-part series, each episode lasting 25 minutes, and was followed in 2004 by S.A.C. 2nd GIG, which had the same format. In turn, the first season was adapted into both a feature-length version, The Laughing Man, and two manga volumes, while the second was also edited down into a feature-length edition, Individual Eleven.

The main advantage the TV series offers over the movie should be apparent: it has much greater scope at which to explore the world of cyberbrain networks, information warfare, and their resulting impact on society and humanity. This is particularly apparent early on in the first series. There does eventually develop an ongoing story arc, focusing on the search for an elite hacker (the “Laughing Man”, who takes inspiration from a J.D. Salinger short story) who is trying to expose a conspiracy between the government and cyber-medical companies. But the series also has episodes that don’t advance this at all, exploring other aspects of life in the technologically advanced society which is 2030’s Japan.

It can also be pretty damn cerebral at times. Even the titlular concept, the “Stand Alone Complex”, is not easy for the viewer to wrap their head around. It’s a little bit like the notion of copycat incidents – except, in the case of the Stand Alone Complex, the original didn’t take place, or at least not in the way perceived by those who copy it. It’s probably easiest to provide an example: “Slender Man”. This was a supposed supernatural creature, belief in which reportedly caused two 12-year-old girls to stab another, a ritual designed to impress Slender Man. But the urban legend in question was actually a piece of fiction, created wholesale by a Internet forum user. This idea informs both seasons, with reality and perceived reality both triggering subsequent actions. It’s sometimes way above my head, that’s for sure.

Another result of the extra room is an approach which occasionally becomes meandering to the point of irritation. On the other hand, you can only admire a show which is confident enough in its own abilities, to have an episode which takes place, almost in its entirety, in an Internet chat room. Another ongoing thread is the growing self-awareness of the Tachikomas, independent AI tanks employed by Section 9. These feature in little vignettes at the end of every episode in the first season. To be honest, I initially found their squeaky little voices fairly irritating and fast-forwarded as soon as the final credits rolled. However, they did redeem themselves with a surprising bit of altruism at the end of the series, and were considerably more tolerable in the second season.

Compared to the movie, the animation is a little less fluid – as you’d expect, given the constraints of cost and time. The budget was reportedly $300,000 per episode, compared to $10 million for the film: so the entire first season, running nine hours or so (excluding credits), still cost less than the 80-minute movie, even allowing for seven years of inflation. The style is also a little different, with the character designs more closely resembling the original manga. This is perhaps most apparent in the look of Major Kusanagi. For the TV version seems quite enthusiastic in the area of fan service, with some of her costumes looking as if she’d just rolled out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, rather than those typically worn by a public servant – see below for an example!

While the feature focused directly on the Major and her quest for identity, the series also uses its greater freedom to become more of an ensemble piece. The Major is clearly still the leader and boss, with skills that surpass everyone else – they defer to her, and it’s entirely understandable. But over the course of these 52 episodes, the spotlight turns at one point onto just about everyone else, from her hulking second-in-command, former Army Ranger Batou, through to Togusa, the member of Section 9 who has undergone the least amount of cybernetic enhancement. This allows it to explore their history. For example, the (somewhat notorious, due to its graphic violence) “Jungle Cruise” episode, had Batou hunting down an ex-military colleague who has become a serial killer.

The second season, while still having some individual episodes, has an interesting main thread which has become particularly relevant in the light of subsequent geo-political events. A refugee crisis has broken out, leading to a large influx of displaced people to Japan, causing tension between them and the locals. A charismatic refugee leader, Kuze, has sprung up, leading a movement demanding autonomy for the island where they are being housed. A right-wing group within the government, led by creepy intelligence officer Goda, seeks to exploit the tension by “false flagging” a nuclear incident as a refugee terrorist act, allowing the group to stage effectively a military coup. While originally inspired by the Japanese reaction to 9/11, it’s easy to see parallels to the current world situation here.

Partly due to this, I’m curious to see how much of the series ends up present in the live-action film. The very first episode includes a hostage situation involving android geisha, which is a part of the trailers we’ve seen. As mentioned, each series was edited down into a feature-length compilation, so could be the basis for the 2017 story – though as I haven’t bothered with those, I can’t comment on how coherent the results ended up. But other aspects of the trailers appear to come from the original movie, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a combination, drawing from multiple elements of the GitS universe. It’ll probably be based more on “what looks cool?” rather than narrative sense!

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, William Frederick Knight

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society
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“Solid State Survivors.”

A rather clunky title for an OAV (original animation video), which came out in September 2006, about 18 months after the end of season two. It’s also two years after the events depicted, with Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) having quit her job as Section 9, and largely dropped off the grid. Batou (Ōtsuka) has taken over her position as S9’s top field operative, with Togusa (Yamadera) the. After a series of suicides exposes a plot for a bioterror attack, the group is on the hunt for a hacker called the Puppeteer, apparently behind it. But the investigation finds the apparent attack was almost a diversion, and uncovers a massive child abduction ring that may be responsible for as many as 20,000 kidnappings.

Even by the standards of a series which has always waxed philosophical, this has some pretty deep constructs. For example, the Puppeteer is described by the Major as a “rhizome”. Wikipedia tells me this is a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project. It is what Deleuze calls an “image of thought,” based on the botanical rhizome, that apprehends multiplicities. Well, glad we’ve cleared that up, then. Fortunately, you don’t really need to understand any of this: basically just think of of it as an example of a computer network becoming self-aware, and acting on its own behalf. Everything beyond that, feels a bit like extracts from a paper by a college student who wants you to know how deep they are.

It’s somewhat better when not vanishing up its own philosophical backside. Probably the best sequence has Togusa becoming the victim of a brain-hack and compelled to make a terrible choice: hand his own daughter over to the Puppeteer, to become one of the abductees (with his memory then wiped) or kill himself. It’s a chilling sequence, and also marks the return of the Major to work with Section 9. She has been carrying out her own investigation, free from the restrictions inevitably resulting out of her official role. It turns out to be connected to the aging of Japanese society – a major problem now, and likely to be worse by the late 2030’s when this is set.

It looks pretty slick, with a budget definitely on the high-end for video animation, and there’s no need to have seen the TV series, for this to make sense. But it’s largely forgettable stuff, and the significant absence of the Major, particularly in the first half, weakens proceedings considerably, robbing it of the universe’s most memorable character.

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Osamu Saka

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera

Watch ScarJo kick ass in the first five minutes of Ghost in the Shell

There will be a lot of Ghost in the Shell coming up this week on the site. Beginning on Monday, we’ll be reviewing the various animated incarnations of the universe, taking us through to next weekend, when we’ll be covering its entire world on Saturday, and then the new movie with Scarlet Johansson will be reviewed on Sunday. Hey, that’s the biggest action-heroine film since, certainly, the end of the Hunger Games franchise, and it’s a creation which has been hugely influential on SF since the manga version first came out in 1989. It’s amazing how accurate its prediction of the future, where everyone and everything is connected and interfaced, has proven – considering that at the time of its original release, the Internet was in its absolute infancy.

Anyway, the studio had released the opening five minutes, which depict the Major’s first action, after terrorists attack a business meeting. It answers some questions which you were perhaps asking after watching the trailer, such as her character’s oddly nipple-less appearance. Turns out she’s not naked, but wearing a skinsuit that provides optical camo, allowing her effectively to vanish. But my main takeaway is how goddamn gorgeous the whole thing looks. I know that’s what you’d expect – for all the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman, from the same director, it was beautiful to look at. Still, even by those standards, this is a neon-drenched, all-you-can-eat buffet of visual stunnery. It certainly looks like every penny of the budget is up on the screen – combine this with a live-action rendition of one of the iconic action heroine of  Japanese animation, and that’s good enough for me.

So, I’m looking forward to seeing it on the largest screen possible, while stuffing my face with popcorn. And in the immortal words of D-Generation X, if you’re not down with that, we got two words for ya…