Take Blade Runner and draw a line from the 80s replicant noir to the 90s non-consensual machine-induced hallucinations of The Matrix. Somewhere on that line there’s a node, running backwards and forwards, channeling its influences and distributing them back out again, recombining them into a fearsome future hurtling toward us like a heavy calibre bullet. That perfect coalescing point is Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), the cyberpunk anime classic that had tremendous influence on the Wachowski brothers, Steven Spielberg A.I. and Minority Report, and James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s the film that kicks off TIFF’s retrospective Techno/Human: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, and boy does it pack a punch.
Cameron called Ghost in the Shell “a stunning work of speculative fiction,” and he isn’t wrong. Based on a Japanese manga of the same name, Ghost in the Shell draws heavily on author William Gibson’s vision of artificial intelligences inhabiting the net and humans modified to be cyborgs that can barely keep pace with them. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of a cyborg assault team working for the secretive Section 9 in a dystopian near-future Hong Kong. Tasked with tracking an elusive hacker known as the Puppet Master, Kusanagi’s kinetically choreographed arrests only lead her to people who have had their memories erased and new ones implanted. They call the process “ghost-hacking”, and the movie’s concept of the ghost is intriguing, seeming to be an amalgam of one’s memories, consciousness and soul. As she closes in on the Puppet Master, so too the Puppet Master is closing in on her, the motivations behind bringing them together unclear until the film’s dynamic conclusion.
Oshii’s imagery is haunting and beautiful. The Matrix’s visualization of the internet as a waterfall of glowing green text? That’s taken directly from Ghost in the Shell. As are half the action sequences, the chases in crowds and slow-motion bullet-fractured exploding concrete columns. (To be fair to the Wachowski’s, in the run up to The Matrix they showed Hollywood executives Ghost in the Shell explicitly stating they wanted to make a live-action version of this movie.) More interesting is the film’s fascinating fluidity of identity and gender, and its Blade Runner-esque preoccupations with memory and consciousness. Kusanagi is a consummate soldier, but she feels her grip on her humanity is slipping. A combination of flesh body, computer intelligence and motorized robotic parts, she’s taken to diving in the ocean in her spare time. This unsettles her partner Batou no end, as one failure of her floatation systems and her heavy cyborg body would sink into the unrecoverable depths. As she drifts toward the surface, her body fuses with its reflected image in a sequence that’s both beautiful and disturbing. When she encounters the Puppet Master, he speaks as a man from the damaged form of a female cyborg. Later, when Kusanagi and the Puppet Master meet to discuss his proposal for escape, he takes over Kusanagi’s destroyed body, while her consciousness shifts into the body of the other cyborg. He makes his offer in his voice, from her own body, the proposal that they merge to create something unique, a new consciousness born of the net. It’s a very William Gibson moment, and Oshii conveys it in a way that’s both gripping and unsettling.
Oshii started out working on anime TV series in Japan in the 80s before making his mark with the film Angel’s Egg in 1985 and then the Patlabor TV series and films after that. The latter also explored a near-future world with grave social and ecological challenges, and proved very popular in Japan. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell received much acclaim, but some critics perceived it as chilly, and over-philosophical. Those criticisms miss the mark – Ghost in the Shell is a fantastic film – but would make an accurate assessment of Oshii’s sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). In that film, Kusanagi’s partners Batou and Togusa return, investigating the case of a series of gynoids (female sex robots) that are malfunctioning and killing their users. After an energizing set-piece shoot-up with the Yakuza, the trail of murders leads them to the gynoid manufacturer LOCUS SOLUS. The company is making its gynoids more appealing by inhabiting them with the ghosts of actual human girls. It’s an horrific conception of futuristic kidnapping and enslavement. Batou, who’s grown morose himself after Kusanagi’s transformation and disappearance, centres this film with his own existential uncertainty. Less successful than the original, Oshii’s penchant for opaque philosophical dialogue gets out of hand here, as characters often speak to each other in a series of portentous haikus. It’s still an enthralling film. Batou and Togusa find themselves in an eerie repetitive loop when they go to question a doll-obsessed hacker named Kim in his creepy futuristic mansion. As the same scenario plays out in ever more bizarre variations, it becomes clear to Batou that something is very wrong. Of course, Kusanagi returns to help him bring the actions of LOCUS SOLUS to a satisfying and destructive end. But solving the case of the gynoid girls lacks the resonance of the first film and Kusanagi’s metamorphosis. While the sequel did become the first anime film to be nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or, the original Ghost is by far the more haunting.
TIFF is showing Ghost in the Shell on Saturday, July 12th at 9pm, following an in-person appearance In Conversation With… Mamoru Oshii at 6:30pm the same day. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence appears on Friday, July 25th at 9:30pm. Curated by Twitch’s Todd Brown, the program also includes the two Patlabor films and the excellent The Sky Crawlers, again introduced by Oshii himself on Sunday, July 13th at 6:15pm. That film explores a different dystopian future where a group of children are created to fly warplanes and kill each other by rival corporations, all for the entertainment of a pacified populace. Slow and hypnotic, The Sky Crawlers takes its time revealing the secrets of its world in a fascinating if opaque vision. It’s one that’s really worth checking out for Ghost aficionados. All screenings take place at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more info and tickets, see here.