Ghost in the Shell (1995) Retro Review

Ghost in the Shell is the 1995 anime movie about the contemplation of existence in a world filled with technology in every part of our lives from the world around us to the bodies we inhabit. With a live action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson about to hit cinemas worldwide (along with the controversy that seems to follow it everywhere it goes) at the end of March, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the original 1995 version and give it a review of it’s own in the same vein as I did the 1995 Mighty Morphin Power Rangers movie.

Title: Ghost in the Shell
Production Company: Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment & Production I.G 
Distributed by: Shochiku (Japan), Manga Entertainment (United States) & Madman Entertainment (Australia)
Directed by: Mamoru Oshii
Produced by: Yoshimasa Mizuo, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi & Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
Starring (Japanese):  Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera & Tamio Ōki
Starring (English): Mimi Woods, Richard Epcar, Tom Wyner, Christopher Joyce & William Frederick Knight
Based on: Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow
Release dates: 18 November 1995 (Country Unknown) 
Running time: 82 minutes
Rating: PG (United States) / PG (Australia)

Ghost in the Shell is the story about the idea of existence itself. During an age where people can upload their consciousness into enhanced cybernetic bodies known as “shells” to access the worldwide electronic network (Think of it as a version of the Internet). Through this network the “shells” can access new bodies, take control of cars, enter computer networks and special abilities like speed and camouflage.

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Major Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of a group that works for Sector 9, a Government organization that is sort of a black-ops style public security department. Major’s team is assigned to find and take down a mysterious hacker going by the name The Puppet Master. After finding a garbage man who was ghost-hacked by The Puppet Master to throw off their trail, Major is able to find a way to track down another location hacked by The Puppet Master: A facility that creates “shells“. One of the shells assembled at the facility is able to escape, but get’s hit by a truck and is partially destroyed, landing it in the hands of Sector 9, suspecting that the “ghost” inside might be The Puppet Master itself. Major, herself being a “Ghost in the Shell” is able to plug herself into the other shell and enters it’s code, coming face to face with The Puppet Master.

Through the information gained during the interface with the shell, Sector 9 learns about Project 2501, a secret project created by Sector 6 to capture The Puppet Master, but it turns out that was a lie. Project 2501 was created to hack ghosts for people of power and influence as well as Sector 6 themselves. While wandering various networks under Project 2501, the program itself became sentient and became The Puppet Master, who ponders the meaning of existence. Through a fear of being unable to reproduce or die, The Puppet Master plans to combine it’s ghost with Major’s in order to experience mortality.

While the merger happens, there is a fight between Sector 6 and Sector 9, with one wanting to cover it’s tracks and the other wanting to save Major. The result of the fight is that the facility is destroyed, but Batou (Major’s second in command and good friend) is able to save Major’s head and combines it with a new body. However due to the corrupt merger, she is no longer Major nor The Puppet Master, but a combination of both. Together that plan to see this world in a new light and experience it to it’s fullest in their new form.

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The characters in Ghost in the Shell are all really well written and have their own personalities that drive the story. However there are really only two characters that are worth talking about, Motoko Kusanagi (aka Major) and The Puppet Master. However for the sake of giving this section a bit more to say, I’m going to include Batou in here too as he is a semi-main part of the story. Another thing I’ll point out is that this review is done based on the English dubbed version of Ghost in the Shell, so I won’t sit here and compare voice work between the two versions nor the vocal work at all. I’m just going to keep it to the characters.

  • Motoko Kusanagi (Japanese: Atsuko Tanaka / English: Mimi Woods): Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of an assault team working for Sector 9. As someone with a completely cyborg body, she contemplates life itself from a distance, having not experienced it herself as a human being. She is cold, calculating, and often distant from others with the exception of Batou. She eventually merges with The Puppet Master, becoming a new entity at the end of the movie.
  • Batou (Japanese: Akio Ōtsuka / English: Richard Epcar ): Batou is the second in command of the assault team that works for Sector 9. He’s very protective of Motoko to an almost father-like degree. Having only parts of his body replaced and upgraded with cybernetic implants, he is more aware of the difference between man and machine but is unable to explain it. 
  • The Puppet Master (Japanese: Iemasa Kayumi/Yoshiko Sakakibara(2.0) / English: Tom Wyner): The Puppet Master is a life-form created out of the sea of information that is the worldwide network. Starting out as Project 2501 in order to hack the ghosts (or minds) of others for the powerful and influential people of the world as well as Sector 6, it gains sentience during it’s time going through the networks and due to being unable to break Sector 6 firewalls, escapes into a cyborg body and claims political asylum. Eventually it plans to merger it’s ghost with that of Motoko in order to experience mortality, reproduce and eventually die. 

Ghost in the Shell is an Anime Masterpiece. Most top anime movie lists will have Ghost in the Shell in there at some point and is one of the most universally agreed “awesome” movies ever made. The deep plot about what is humanity and the contemplation of existence itself is a tale that everyone can relate to. The visuals of a futuristic “New Port City” really captures a combination of diplopian wasteland due to overpopulation yet remains the forefront of technological spender. While looking somewhat dated quality wise, the animation from the characters to the backgrounds remains timeless, an ode to a lost art that is hand drawn animation. Some of the effects in Ghost in the Shell have become some of the most unrepeatable techniques ever put to film, the thermal-optic camouflage is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in animation ever.

The story, is as I said before, a deep plot that people can relate to. Even with modern day theories you can still watch Ghost in the Shell and get lost in the deep thought that this movie creates. Using Major is the empty shell to tell the story was a great idea, her internal monologue with The Puppet Master is one of those things that cannot be replicated through modern story telling techniques. I can’t even begin to explain the complex nature of replication vs copying/cloning that it touched in Ghost in the Shell, you need to see it for yourself.

As for sound itself, the soundtrack is one of legend. It mixes classical style chanting with almost technology based synth music to create something that is unique to Ghost in the Shell. Another thing that is timeless in how good it is. It’s shame that they rearranged and re-recorded it for the 2008 re-release.

The hand drawn backgrounds are both timeless and futuristic at the same time

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If there is anything that didn’t work with Ghost in the Shell, it’s that given the changes in technology in the real world, it does come off as a bit dated. Some of the computer effects like GPS tracking look nothing like what we have today, but since we don’t have thermal-optic camouflage yet it’s easy to let this one slide. Another thing is the quality of the animation itself. While it’s still smooth and fluid to the point where it could teach a lot of modern anime a thing or two, the lower quality of the recording media of the time and the method of how animation was handled back then that just does not work with modern TV’s. I’d love to see a restoration of the original masters to see if they can make things look a lot sharper and clearer than what is out there at the moment.

To me, these are small, almost nit-picking levels of gripes. None of what I have said will detract from Ghost in the Shell as a whole. Sure, I could give Ghost in the Shell 2.0 a watch instead as it was released in 2008, but as you’ll see below I’m not a fan of that release. They did nothing to clean up the animation of the original footage even though it was created specifically for the higher quality DVD and emerging Bluray market. In 1995, Ghost in the Shell was mostly seen on VHS tapes, so the animation quality wasn’t as noticeable back then.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kj35zOCvWCE

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is the re-released edition that came out in 2008. What it did was replace a lot of key scenes involving special effects (Like Major’s camouflage) with more modern CGI techniques. There are also some small scene removals or edits in order to bring Ghost in the Shell up to 2008 standards. The musical score was also rearranged and re-recorded, along with the Japanese vocal track with Yoshiko Sakakibara replacing Iemasa Kayumias The Puppet Master for some reason. Personally I think the new CGI scenes do not work with the beautiful hand drawn animation and almost destroys Ghost in the Shell because of it. If you want to see some of the changes for yourself, then please click the video above as it goes through some longer and shorter scenes from Ghost in the Shell 2.0. However I would recommend skipping this version and making sure you get a copy of the 1995 original.

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There aren’t words created that can encapsulate how good Ghost in the Shell is to watch. Story, visuals, audio; all mixed together in one deep package of perfection. This is one of those anime movies that you can show to anyone and then talk about for hours afterwards. You could even show this to your family and not be judged as some weirdo for liking some “cartoon from Japan”. Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of animation and storytelling that is extremely hard to top. Hopefully the live action version does it some justice.

It's an Anime Masterpiece for a reason

Summary

Ghost in the Shell is pretty much an essential must have for any anime collector or even sci-fi buff. The story is deep and engaging, with the action used more to break up the story more than take focus from it. The characters are solid and server their purpose to perfection. Ghost in the Shell is constantly on Top 10 anime movie lists for a reason, given that it is a timeless masterpiece of anime. Let’s just hope that the upcoming live action adaptation keeps to the look, feel and most of all thought that this version created.

Overall
5

About The Author

Karl Smart
Senior Editor / Reviewer

The main "Australian arm" of The Outerhaven. Karl primarily spends time playing and reviewing video games while taking time to occasionally review the latest movie or piece of gaming technology.