It’s almost ridiculous how good this movie is. Ghost in the Shell (1995) should have had the impact on popular culture that The Matrix (1999) and Blade Runner (1982) had, because the movie can easily hold its own amongst these celebrated works. But it never had, because it originated as a Japanese manga in the late 80s and only slowly trickled its way towards the West. It is the Asian counterpart of those well-known Western movies. In fact, Ghost in the Shell was perhaps the major inspiration behind The Matrix. Together, the three of these are the triumvirate of the cyberpunk genre on the big screen.
Cyberpunk originated in science fiction literature, most notably in the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, and focused on blurring the lines between biological bodies, robotics and information technology. And in this blurring, where the very definition of what is human and what is the human soul starts to slip through your fingers, that state of being would be its own source of hope and fear. The human body becomes a machine itself. Diversity and new life could rise up in the interplay between the biological and technical world. Cyberpunk, like all punk, is a subversion of the established order, and with that comes diversity, chaos and evolution.
Ghost in the Shell is a deeply philosophical film that engages with all the questions that need to be asked, yet it is packaged as an action thriller. But really, it is so full of visual metaphors that you could dissect each scene to discover all the meanings and messages hidden in the film. The character we follow is the Major, a cyborg police officer who is nevertheless modelled physically and mentally on a human. Maybe the human she once was. But in her behavior we can see that what is left mentally inside her brain is a few steps removed from what makes an actual human mind. The way she uses her body shows that she no longer has a human sense of what it is like to own a body. But she does have a sense of intuition. In her own words, her “ghost”, a remnant of the human mind that she once might have been, still whispers to her.
Two scenes in particular stand out because they are so iconic, so full of meaning. The opening titles when we see the Major’s body being created in a vat. Starting out as a human, rebuilt as a robot, with layers of new humanity plastered on top. It is filmed as a rebirth, with the new human body emerging and curled up as a baby. These are moments that the Major re-enacts in her later life while she is searching for an answer to whether she is alive. The second scene is a look at the city where it all takes place. The city is modelled on Hong Kong and is constantly being rebuilt, like she is. Discarded appliances float in the canals, as she might be discarded in the future. And Hong Kong itself is a city tries to find a new identity.
And is it any coincidence that the final confrontation takes place in an abandoned museum of natural history? A robot shoots apart the fossils of ancient creatures, while a depiction of the tree of life towers above the scene. Will cybernetic life be the future? The robots are already modelled after animals, like spiders. The helicopters and airplanes look like birds in this city. The city itself is gritty and fully of cracks and holes where human life is found in blaring intensity. The city is like a jungle that would make a great habitat for cybernetic life.
The film perfectly captures that dark, gritty, moody feeling that Blade Runner also had. The city has that kind of beauty that dark, decaying places have. Where there are too many people and neon lights, yet everything is rusting in the rain. The city reflects the inner yearning of the Major, because she too has no real control over who she is or what she will become.
What I am trying to say is that the film takes its themes so seriously that it is a full immerse experience where the writing, the drawings, the camera angles, the music, the dialogue, all work together with a single spirit. The result is an incredibly focused and rock-solid work of art in which everything is carefully considered and constructed. If the themes that I mentioned raise your interest, then this film is obligatory watching.