Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Ghost in the Shell review

An existential action anime? That's what Ghost In The Shell, a.k.a. Kokakukidotai (Shell Mobile Force) is, with animation sporting top-of-the-line computer imagery in the Bladerunner-like metropolis of Newport, but that's secondary compared to the underlying intellectual theme.

Major Kusanagi Motoko is a skillfully trained cyborg assassin in Newport's Section 9, who's taking out a diplomat illegally trying to give immunity to a listed programmer, demonstrates her training, including an amazing moment when she dives off a building, picks off her target, and via a thermoptic camouflage (i.e. portable cloaking device), vanishes from sight.

She and the members of her team, consisting of the mostly human Togusa, Ichikawa, and Batou, a burly no-nonsense blond cyborg with electronic eye implants, are trying to track down the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master is a master hacker who hacks into people's brains and uses them for his dirty work, presumably to carry out espionage or terrorism, leaving his puppets no memory of their infiltration. One of his puppets keeps using a public computer to try to infiltrate the brain of his wife, who is divorcing him and wants custody of their child. When he's picked up, he is told by Section 9 that his wife, child, and divorce are all false memories imprinted by the Puppet Master, causing further distress to the man when he is told the fake memories can't be erased.

However, there are two conflicts going on. One is Kusanagi's mission to hunt down the Puppet Master. The other and the one with a deeper meaning is the search for her identity within the scheme of a whole, or rather, something beyond her individual self, highlighted by her words taken from the Book of Corinthians: "For now we through a glass, darkly." This reflects an earlier statement when she says in observation of a victim of the Puppet Master, "all data that exists is both fantasy and reality. Whichever it is, the data a person collects in a lifetime is a tiny bit compared to the whole." A postmodernist flair is introduced when the Puppet Master says "While memories may as well be the same as fantasy, it is by these memories that mankind exists."

The question thus is, is it possible for the soul to exist in a highly technological world, where special operatives have cyborg shells, metabolic control systems, ESP, and cyber-brains?
The search is also symbolized when she surfaces, and the animated image of her rising up to meet her reflection, representing her true self. She wonders if she has a ghost, an animating soul or spirit. In looking at the construction of her body in the opening credits, one sees that she's heavily mechanized, with an outer layer of flesh surrounding her.

Her attempt at defining the self begins with a unique face, voice, childhood memories, feelings for the future, and the set of mental processes producing a consciousness that is "me." However, upon a discovery involving the Puppet Master, she further worries that what if there wasn't a real "me," that "I believe I exist based only on what my environment tells me. ... What if a computer brain can generate a ghost and harbor a soul? On what basis then do I believe in myself?" In other words, what if there is no higher power to connect to, bringing into mind the word "religion," which means "to reconnect to."

The action sequences aren't extreme, ultraviolent, or gratuitous in the chase sequences, but are moderate, that is until the heavy artillery is brought out, at which point glass, metal, and rock starts to fly. A very intelligent, thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind existential, soul-searching anime, with Kusanagi despite its cyborg dominance showing some human traits.


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