Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1
This isn’t a Retro Review so much as a re-visitation. I already saw this flick, years ago during my teens, when it might as well have been called America's #2 gateway anime. You know…
You’d hear that from a tape store clerk back then, or read it in some mag about all this “Japanimation” stuff that’s supposed to freak out your folks. Now, Netflix and Amazon have honed this recommendation process into an algorithm, and I still think there are plenty of better titles to recommend first.
Look, there’s no denying the significance and influence, here. Nobody’s forgotten how the Wachowskis famously sold THE MATRIX to studio execs, in part, by playing clips of action from this and saying “we wanna do that for real.” Watching it again, though, and having a better grasp of how to articulate what made it so boring the first time around, it seems more like a barrel of raw material that was subsequently refined by its followers into something more usable.
(And, of course, if we really want to pull apart the chain of influence, there ought to be an acknowledgment to the works of William Gibson somewhere in its credits.)
As you’ll recall, GHOST IN THE SHELL follows a couple of cyborg G-Men - - lady asskicker, Kusanagi, and her no-nonsense subordinate, Batou - - as they pursue the nigh-mythical uber hacker known only as “the Puppet Master.” Their search is complicated by the appearance of a naked robot chick who’s seemingly been created without any human command (although there’s a good chance Puppet Master put the call in.) Muddy cyber-spy intrigue props the girl’s importance up and, after enough choral-scored slo-mo shots of city-scapes to make this feel like a feature-length cologne commercial, Kusangi somehow tracks her to a warehouse for a climactic gunfight with a spider-bot.
There’s some cool stuff up in there - - enough to load a seven round .45 magazine, perhaps. There are briefcases that snap out into Uzis! And robot fingers that type with tentacles! And invisibility cloaks not affiliated with Hogwarts! And a flesh-colored cat suit!
However, there isn’t as much you’d expect; or as much as you’d need, for that matter. Break it all down, minute to minute, and so much of what’s on screen seems like talky bait for a grad student’s film studies thesis paper.
This isn’t a character-grounded film. Kusanagi’s another one of those laconic assassin types; terse because she probably isn’t too good with words, not because she chooses them carefully. She “evolves” when she merges her consciousness, certainly, but it’s not so much growth for her as it is listless change. She’s gotten to the end of the movie, so she ought to do something drastic, right?
It isn’t too thrilling of an actioner, either. The gunplay comes in fits and starts - - bursts of sound and fury to shake you back to attention whenever you start dozing. It plays out something like the aforementioned baited grad student, shouting random obscenities in a discussion class during TA duty after he anxiously notices that students’ eyes are fluttering. “Listless” even works pretty well to describe this action, too. It's over-the-top, certainly, but somehow never exuberant about it (and you've got to be exuberant about it, man.)
Where does the attention go, then? It goes to interminable philosophical discussions that more-or-less treat the action scenes like water breaks. And that works real hard against a flick whose poster shows a naked chick brandishing a massive pistol and cybernetically-enhanced boobies.
Look, there are always one or two conceits you just have to accept with sci-fi. Usually, it’s about 90-pound waifs stomping the shit out of goons more than twice their size; or it’s about hardcases walking off fatal gunwounds through sheer, stubborn willpower. Here, it’s about these gruff grunts waxing intellectual like they’re at a post-symposium dinner party. Even if Kusanagi and Batou were that self-aware, it’s still hard to buy them being this articulate.
Or maybe the point is the two actually aren’t that sharp. The questions they posit about identity and consciousness sound heady, at first, but seem more like filibuster after just a little analysis. What is the self? Where is the soul? Can minds merge? The questions aren’t profound by themselves, and they look rather inconsequential when the credits roll and nobody's bothered to offer any concluding statements to put them to any use.
82 minutes is a savagely tight run-time to tell a cogent story, let alone to try to cover the big and profound Q's. Perhaps this is yet another case of a nuanced and sophisticated manga getting dumbed down to accommodate the constraints of a costly animation budget. Perhaps its a title that's simply lost its luster after so many imitators have standardized its innovations.
Or perhaps the title "GHOST IN THE SHELL" is a none-too-subtle clue - - a joke of the creators' that nobody's noticed - - because there isn't actually much of anything substantial lurking inside this flick's reputation and appearance.