Mamoru Oshii’s "Ghost in the Shell" stands alongside "Akira" as one of the most significant landmarks in anime. Also, it is a major contributor to the cyberpunk genre, drawing from the same well as William Gibson’s 1984 novel "Neuromancer" and Ridley Scott’s 1982 film "Blade Runner" (based on Philip K. Dick’s book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") and serving as a massive influence for "The Matrix". Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, it remains extremely popular among audiences around the world for both its thrilling action and intriguing philosophical content – not to mention the visual splendor of its animation design.
"Ghost in the Shell" is set in 2029, when technology has become extremely advanced. Safeguarding the virtual information network against hackers is Section Nine, a defense force that includes cyborgs Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batô. They pursue the criminal mastermind known only as the Puppet Master, a being of great power and influence. However, a plot is revealed that prompts a reconsideration of the Puppet Master’s origins and motives as well as the concepts of identity and what qualifies as being “human.”
The film’s title refers to the essence of being, identity and intelligence that is confined by an artificial body – a cybernetic ghost and its shell, a system which easily warrants comparison to the human soul and its own body. The issue of identity in this complex context is brought up many times throughout the film. The cyborgs accept their artificial components as normal aspects of their existence, yet they also ponder the nature of their memories, thoughts and experiences and how they contribute to their individual characters. At one point, a man is revealed as having received false memories of a wife and daughter who in fact never actually existed, thus calling his own seemingly well-established identity into question. Later, the theme escalates when the Puppet Master demands political asylum as a sentient life form and talks of DNA as yet another program designed to preserve identity. As in "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Blade Runner", "Star Trek" and the new "Battlestar Galactica", "Ghost in the Shell" openly explores and challenges what it means to be designated as a human or a machine.
Being not only an anime but one of the most highly regarded animes ever made, it should come as no surprise that this is one visually impressive film. The futuristic metropolis in which it is set is created as an immense, highly detailed world. Massive grey buildings streaked with rust and grime form imposing walls and valleys of metal that give way to facades of brightly colored signs and countless mounds of trash. One fantastic scene focuses solely on the city and its inhabitants, showing the many flyers plastered on the walls, the impossibly tall skyscrapers, a giant plane floating majestically among them like a strange whale, the many traffic lights – all as an anachronistic yet fitting sung chant set to a slow drum rhythm plays on the soundtrack. Other scenes work to further character development. An especially beautiful one features Motoko sea diving, plunging into a dark, watery abyss before ascending towards an orange sunset, her view partially distorted by water droplets on her mask - yet another sign of the great detail and beauty put into the animation. Afterwards, she and Batô talk about themselves and how they each regard their individuality, making them so much more than gun-toting robots made to hunt down the bad guys. They talk and behave like humans, and consider their own humanity, so why, then, shouldn’t they count as being human? Such sequences serve as strong reminders of the intelligence that is refreshingly maintained throughout the film.
A fascinating thought piece, a bullet-filled actioner, a mesmerizing vision of the future – fitting all of these descriptions, "Ghost in the Shell" clearly has much to offer both its longtime followers and potential newcomers. A true cornerstone of both anime and science fiction, it is wholly deserving of its now-legendary reputation.