December 2, 2008
So I finally saw this movie. I’ve seen both seasons of Stand Alone Complex, Solid State Society, and Innocence, but I hadn’t seen the original until now. And you know what? I’m kind of disappointed.
STORY – The central plot and concept is fine. As a cyberpunk fan, I think the human/machine divide is a fascinating topic that should be touched on more often and that Ghost in the Shell treats the subject well for the most part. Unfortunately, the storytelling and pacing in the movie is downright terrible. Sure, the movie’s more than a decade old by now, but storytelling isn’t really something that changes with time — people have been telling stories for as long as they’ve existed, so I won’t buy age as an excuse for all the awkward silences, scenes that were way too long, and scene transitions that didn’t make sense. The political mishaps felt a little haphazard and garbled, but that wasn’t really the important part so I didn’t care all that much.
The important part was Kusanagi’s story and inner conflict, which was allowed one dream-like underwater scene followed by an oddly tension-filled conversation that ended abruptly without explanation. It wasn’t obvious enough to me that she was deeply disturbed by the prospect of her ghost having artificial origins, and it annoyed me a little that they never directly explained what a ghost was even though I guess most people would be able to deduce it from context clues. Instead of putting in more scenes that fleshed out the characters or even the political situation they were in, we got five minute montages of the futuristic cityscape that contributed little more than eyecandy. I like eyecandy as much as the next person, and I love city backgrounds in particular, but I don’t want my story sacrificed for it.
CHARACTER – Motoko Kusanagi should be a multi-faceted and complex character. She should be a capable leader with strong relationships with her team members, and despite her strong and independent exterior, she should be questioning her place in society, her origins, and her future. Those are the things that the Major should be, but I only got vague impressions of all of those points in this movie. I really felt like there could have been so much more to it if they had only spent more time on developing her character instead of whatever else they were doing. Her intelligence didn’t seem as important as her strength, and her relationship with Batou didn’t feel particularly natural or realistic. It was very frustrating to watch.
And if Kusanagi wasn’t fleshed out, then of course Batou (or as the credits seem to say, “Bateau”?) hardly was. We saw very little of him on his own, which I guess makes sense in that the movie isn’t about him, but I feel like his relationship with the Major is important enough to warrant a bit more attention, y’know? I felt like we needed more of his opinions on technology, cybernetics, and I dunno… the theme of the movie? But he was just a flat support character. Why did he care so much about Kusanagi? Beats me! Aramaki and Togusa are even further down the chain — very little elaboration beyond their positions in Section 9. What did either of them think about the human/machine divide? Who knows?
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION – Cityscapes and waterscapes? Drop dead gorgeous. Interior building and laboratory designs? Nice. Gigantic machines and implementations of future technology? Wonderfully detailed. Weapons and vehicle design? Kickass. Oh, did I mention that all the action is excellent? The environment in Ghost in the Shell is really amazing looking, and it seems obvious to me that that’s where they spent most of their time and energy in this movie. The character animation was pretty standard, but I did notice a lot of stillframes. It’s a cheap trick to have digital thought communication and not animate lips moving, but I usually buy that. But here, in addition to that, there was also an over-abundance of panning shots, closeups, and other corner-cutting tactics.
It also really bothered me that Kusanagi’s eyes seemed utterly lifeless and inexpressive the entire movie. Yes, she’s a cyborg, but the point is to retain as many human qualities as possible — even Batou seemed more expressive than she did and he doesn’t even have (human-like) eyes.
MUSIC – I really love Kenji Kawai’s work, so it’s no surprise that I really like the music in Ghost in the Shell. Chanting and traditional Japanese instruments juxtaposed with a future teeming with technology just has an eerie quality to it. Since I did see Innocence before this original movie, I thought a lot of it seemed really similar, which I guess is a good thing? It’s nice to see parallels between related things, even if it’s just as simple as the music.
VOICE ACTING – Oh, god. I saw this dubbed. No one but Mary Elizabeth McGlynn should ever voice Motoko Kusanagi. In comparison, Mimi Woods’s portral is bland, stereotypical, and just too… girlish? It was utterly bizarre for me to hear certain inflections in her speech, and after a while, I just tried to imagine everything Kusanagi said in McGlynn’s voice instead (with only minimal success). Naturally, having seen all the other incarnations of Ghost in the Shell dubbed before I saw this movie makes me biased against Woods because I like McGlynn’s portral so much — would I have liked it better if I had actually seen this first? I really can’t know.
Thankfully, both Batou and Aramaki had their SAC/Innocence voice actors already for the original movie. I haven’t written a review for SAC, but it’s worth mentioning that I think it’s one of the best English dubs ever. All of those voices just fit so nicely. Their emotions and most of all, their personalities, are portrayed perfectly, and it’s really great listening to them. Like Kusanagi, Togusa also had a different voice actor here, but while it still isn’t up to par with his SAC/Innocence voice actor, it’s not that bad.
OVERALL – Despite all the disappointments, I still think Ghost in the Shell has merit as a classic. Even though the storytelling was poor and the characters underdeveloped, the core theme of the movie wasn’t lost. It took a while to get there, but the Puppetmaster’s dialogue did clearly present the topic of a human mind with mechanical origins, and Kusanagi’s actions did eventually reveal her inner turmoil over that idea. That idea is probably the only thing worth taking away from the movie though… and maybe some of those pretty backgrounds too. If you’re like me and have seen everything related to Ghost in the Shell except for this movie, I’d go ahead and see it just for the sake of seeing. If you’ve not seen anything else Ghost in the Shell and are just curious, I’d recommend Stand Alone Complex first. You can dig up the history after you decide you like the series. :P