Thursday, January 3, 2013

Archive: "Ghost in the Shell"

The Soul of the New Machine

Film Comment, September, 1996.

"Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through he air; I listen to voices in America; I see men fly---but how it's done, I can't even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns." ---Virginia Wolf, "Orlando."

Arthur C. Clarke was the another wise person who noticed that technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic. The master Japanese manga creator Shirow Masamune shares this view: "Science," declares a character in Shirow's early cyberpunk graphic novel "Appleseed," "is the new black magic."

In "Ghost in the Shell," the animated film version of a later Shirow work, a gifted director, Oshii Mamoru, invests the author's futurism with a quality of the uncanny, as if our awe before technological advancement has gone full circle and become, instead, indistinguishable from superstition.

Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku Kidotai , 1995), which has been playing around the country and will be out on Manga Entertainment home video this summer, is a breakthrough work, an anime spine-chiller that is more fully alive than most live action movies. It should be required viewing for critics who fear that snowballing new film technologies will inexorably make movies even more mechanical and soulless than they are already --- as if mechanical thinking, especially about plot and character, wasn't the real hazard all along.

Even more dramatically than such heartfelt techno romps as Babe and Toy Story, Ghost in the Shell , is an artfully fabricated mechanism with discernible life-signs, a factory product with a human soul. Its traditional cell-animation techniques are augmented with swatches of glittery computer graphics, but what matters most is that its complicated story and sophisticated themes are consistently interesting. The picture resembles its central character, a cyborg cop of the near future with a crucial kernel of actual brain tissue in her metal cranium;; it's an entertainment machine with functioning gray matter.

On a purely technical level, GITS is dazzling. Only die-hard Western Animation chauvinists, clutching their stop watches and fixating upon the number of frames-per-second that flicker by (which is a function of money, anyway, rather than technique), only these perceptually impaired souls could fault the movie's craftsmanship. Director Oshii is a master of mobile spatial effects. His blasted cityscapes feel three dimensional because he moves through them without inhibition, gazing at them from every possible angle. (Supposedly , in his off hours, he prowls Tokyo with a video camera collecting novel vantage points.)

The characters, too, wear their fabricated status lightly. Some of the most impressive "effects" in Ghost in the Shell are closely observed incidental glimpses of people changing clothes or climbing out of bed in the morning. As always, when human truth is captured by hand, in a drawing or painting, rather than by photography, it's the quality of perception that's impressive, not the technical achievement. This is one account of the encroachments of robots and cybernetics onto human turf that doesn't seem to have fallen in love with the enemy.

This is a future world in which the replacement of frail human body parts by sturdier mechanical ones has reached a logical conclusion. Our heroine, Section Six special operative Kusanagi, has been battered about so much and fitted with so many prosthetic replacement parts that she barely exists in her original form. Only a portion of her God-given organic gray matter remains inside her titanium alloy "shell." In this augmented incarnation, Kusanagi makes a stellar operative. She can plug listening devices directly into her nervous system, and "dive" mentally into computer circuits and monkey around with the programs. Of course, there are quite a few other people around who can do this, too, including some government "ghost hackers" who are perfectly willing to implant false memories -- "synthetic experiences" -- into innocent citizens and manipulate them like puppets when it suits their purposes.

Kusangi remains confident, however, that her "ghost," or soul, has remained intact deep inside her walnut sized lump of surviving brain tissue -- until some strange encounters in the line of duty force her to re-examine the entire concept. A super-powerful pirate ghost hacker, The Puppet Master, has been sabotaging sensitive government initiatives. But when the Puppet Master appears, as a ghost in the shell of a female cyborg, he/she/it turns out to be something new under the sun, an intelligence that has never been human. A fragment of computer virus that replicated itself and acquired sentience, the Puppet Master has commandeered a body in order to demand "political asylum," the rights that any other "life form" would be entitled to.

Superstar writer-artist Shirow Masamune, who created Ghost in the Shell in the pages of Young Jump magazine in 1993, is a rare one man band in the manga field, where the norm involves squads of assistants working in near factory conditions to crank out hundreds of pages a month. Shirow, a former high school art teacher, lives near Kobe, well away from the high-pressure Tokyo manga scene, and lovingly writes and draws and Zip-a-Tones every page. He has been one of chief exponents of the "mecha" school since the mid-1980s, when his second professional effort, the 1,000 page-plus epic Appleseed , was published by a small independent company and became a word-of-mouth hit. It is a pleasing irony that these almost fanatically detailed celebrations of the mechanical are produced in conditions befitting hand-thrown pots or boutique jewelry. In his attitudes toward manga production, at least, Shirow is practically a Luddite.

Most of his work contains certain signature elements: these are, in his own words, "Females, mecha, computer brains, and Special Forces units." His lissome heroines (there isn't a single male protagonist in the Shirow canon) tend to be soldiers or SWAT cops in form-fitting battle armor that bristles with machine enhancements. Shirow himself contends, with justice, that his reputation for turning out minutely detailed art is exaggerated; the complexity is in the content, he says, not in its depiction. His stories, crawling with spidery marginal notes that supply fan-satisfying facts about every vehicle and weapon, have their "technical manuals" built right in.

Ghost in the Shell didn't emerge in a cultural vacuum, of course. It didn't spring full-blown from Shirow's solitary forehead. Rather, it's an evolutionary advance in the "mecha" sub-genre of Japanese manga and anime, a welter of giant robots, "mobile suits," cyborgs, and more recently, computer hacking and artificial intelligence. Everything from Tezuka Osamu's boy-robot hero of the 1950s, Tetzuan Atomu (aka Astroboy), often cited as the founding icon of the entire Japanese comics and animation industry, to later variations like Giant Robo, Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross (aka Robotech) and Akira, fall into the same broad category of tales about humans that interact, or intersect, or meld with their mechanical appendages. (The kid-cult TV show Power Rangers is an adaptation of a Japanese program from the sub-genre's live-action wing.)

Director Oshii Mamoru was already a leading light of the anime branch of the mecha movement when he came to Ghost in the Shell, as distinctive in his way as Shirow but with impeccable industry-insider credentials. His reputation was built, in films like Patlabor and Patlabor 2, upon the sheer sensuous splendor of his futuristic battle scenes. He is also credited with making some of the first mecha films that are truly adult in their approach to character.

In interviews Oshii claims to get many of his best ideas in dreams, and he works in more conspicuous Christian references per film than any Asian moviemaker this side of John Woo. He also had enough clout to demand and get a free hand on Ghost in the Shell, and in picking and choosing episodes from this serial epic he shifted the emphasis in interesting ways. The surprising resonance of the final product results partly from the tension between Shirow's broader speculative approach to the implications of the story and Oshii's introspective bent.

In general, Oshii's approach to Ghost differs from Shirow's in emphasizing human and philosophical concerns over political and technological ones. A lot of Shirow's lavishly depicted weaponry has been omitted, and Kusanagi's sense of personal implication in the Puppet Master case has moved to the foreground. Shirow is energized by social issues like the potential for eavesdropping and mind control that would arise with "ghost hacking." Oshii is more interested in the challenge the technology presents to one individual's sense of her own humanity.

It was Oshii who added a couple of quotations from the Bible to the discussion of the birth of "ghost" consciousness in either an artificial or an organic "shell": "Now I see through a glass, darkly. . ." mutters a reflective Kusanagi, to the befuddlement of an android comrades in arms.

The central issue here is the one that engaged Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 source novel of Blade Runner. "What if a cyber-brain could generate its own 'ghost'?" wonders the mostly cybernetic Kusanagi -- with the "ghost" of the title understood not just the sum total of a person's memories but the bedrock of her self-awareness. If that essence can take up residence as easily in a mechanical as in an organic system, "then what's the value of being human?" Only the most thematically ambitious science fiction has wrestled effectively with similar concerns.

Oshii condenses the novelistic richness of Ghost in the Shell , of necessity, but he also generalizes it. He seems to want to ascend as efficiently as possible to the level of abstraction and metaphor. He deliberately elides specificity.

In the manga, the city setting is simply Tokyo, right down to the street names. Shirow peppers his pages with sly satirical digs at Japanese political institutions, and bases some plot lines on recent political scandals, notably the covert involvement of the supposedly neutral Japanese government in the US Cold War weapons build-up in the pacific.

In Oshii's version, even the locale is indeterminate. Are we even in Japan, any longer, or are we somewhere else entirely? Or nowhere? (The metropolis is now called Newport City, and it resembles Hong Kong a great deal more than Tokyo. The bee-hive tenement apartment blocks and signboards stretched across the neon canyons are distinctly HK-like, and unless I missed something all the signs are written in Chinese characters only, without furigana.)

Shirow seems to be a basically down to earth individual, a responsible citizen concerned about the future. He finally emphasizes the strategies people will have to come up with to function in a terminally disorienting world. To that extent, at least, he's an optimist; he thinks that our sense of day-to-day responsibility will keep us from going under.

Oshii, however, seems to embrace disorientation. He sees it as a stepping stone to a higher form of consciousness. His use of a trance-industrial music score and gliding camera moves that caress the facades of looming buildings -- especially on a couple of extended montage interludes -- invest the high tech vistas with an ominous undercurrent, a whiff of the uncanny. He makes the implications of metastasizing technology seem awe inspiring, sublime, like the poisonous beauty of a smog-filtered sunset.

Ghost in the Shell is a carefully worked out set of variations on the theme of what's human and what isn't; the Philip K. Dick conundrum. The movie, in its startling soulfulness, finds a way to resolve the apparent contradictions.

In the manga, Shirow Masamune's images of one mind "diving" into another are frankly sexual. In the film, Oshii takes us a step further, hinting, 2001-style, at the birth of a higher form of consciousness from the intermingling of human and machine intelligence. The ghost of the Puppeteer, "spontaneously generated in a sea of data," and the ghostly remnants of Kusangi's spirit that have survive the obliteration of her body, produces a new creature, inhabiting the form of an eerie cyborg adolescent with a reedy, oddly inorganic soprano voice. Looking out over the city, in a shot that mirrors the movie's very first, this Neo-Kusanagi quotes the Bible again ("When I was a child, I spake as a child. . .") and wonders aloud, "Where does the newborn go from here?"

Ghost in the Shell succeeds where all the software designers and special effects technicians on earth have so far failed. It makes us look forward to the coming century of rampant super-technology as the dawning of a new age of magic.