A few years ago, a major studio made a misguided, big-budget adaptation of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson that took the bones of the story, but lost the underlying spirit that made it such an iconic piece of science fiction storytelling. To understand Ghost in the Shell, we have to go back to the original film that rocked the culture upon its debut in 1995. While not an immediate success, the anime gained a huge cult following, including acclaimed filmmakers such as The Wachowskis and James Cameron, both of whom cite the film for influencing some of their most popular works. Director Mamoru Oshii expertly crafts a tale filled with philosophical ruminations on what it means to be human while simultaneously tackling themes of gender identity. Twenty-five years after its debut, the film remains more relevant than ever when it comes to humanity’s relationship with technology.
Ghost in the Shell takes place in the no-longer distant future of 2029 Japan where cybernetic advancements have become commonplace. No longer is the human body beholden to its natural life cycle of biological breakdown from a life well-lived. Instead, individuals have the option of to replace parts of their body with cybernetic parts. Some individuals even have a cyberbrain, which completely replaces the body with a mechanical “shell” that houses that remaining human brain, allowing it to be connected to the internet. This remaining consciousness is referred to as a “ghost”, giving us the title of our film. As with most technology, the fatal flaw that is discovered is that these ghosts can be infiltrated. As a mysterious hacker known as The Puppet Master gets inside the ghosts of important individuals to devious ends, layers of subterfuge and power run amok are revealed.
Tasked with the responsibility of tracking down this hacker is the Section 9 security team, which is the home to assault-team leader Major Motoko Kusanag. The Major is a fascinating figure that happens to be one such individual that is a full-body synthetic with only her brain present in her shell. At least, that is what she believes to be the case. The uncertainty over what is actually real and what is just belief when it comes to consciousness and identity is just one of the intriguing conversations she has with her partner, Batou. Both of these Section 9 figures are incredibly badass and more than up to the challenge assigned to them, but things are more complicated that just tracking down The Puppet Master. There are larger forces at play that stand as obstacles to the truth. The film has some crazy, intense action that is quite thrilling, but that is honestly not the primary focus of the story. There is the typical action-packed climax to the film, but the actual finale is a philosophical conversation on what it means to exist. It is a bold storytelling path that showcases the way in which anime can tackle certain themes that simply do not translate as well in other mediums. It is also the reason why the film has remained as widely respected as it is by fans around the world.
Ghost in the Shell is a brief, but incredibly dense story that does not spoon-feed the audience with easy answers. The film is one that rewards in-depth conversations and countless repeat viewings to gain greater insight into what it is trying to comment upon. These additional viewings will not feel like homework, though, as the cyberpunk world is filled with some of the most daring animation that the art form has to offer. The combination of cel animation and CGI provided something that was quite groundbreaking at the time. The precise character designs are aesthetically pleasing while also revealing so much about the individuals. The androgynous design of the Major omits the presence of reproductive organs which allows her to exist outside of her sexuality, free from the societal-imposed femininity. Add in the fact that the film has a score that is utterly haunting in the best way, and you understand why it has inspired such devotion. Ghost in the Shell is a story that works as a surface-level narrative, but is enjoyed much more when you really dive into the themes at play. The film was highly prescient at the time of its release, and it is almost scary to imagine how close we are to recreating the world from the film in the present. You owe it to the future-resistance to watch the film to see if you can better prepare for the singularity.
Ghost in the Shell comes to 4K UHD Blu-Ray with a very nice looking transfer that serves as a great improvement in most respects. This disc comes equipped for Dolby Vision, but I do not have the setup to review this aspect of the disc. The most obvious benefit of this presentation is the saturation quality and the definition of the highlights. The HDR enhancements are handled very well throughout the film in a way that is subtle, but quite effective. Black levels are also deeper and handle compression artifacts much more effortlessly. The space allowed for the encode is truly impressive and much appreciated. There is a subtle uptick in depth and line work is more refined in this presentation. The disc does unfortunately employ some DNR that, while not a complete mess, does scrub away some of the detail in specific areas of the screen. This is not a full-scale DNR assault, but it is noticeable. The Blu-Ray is a fine looking disc, but those who have the proper setup will appreciate the improvements on the 4K disc.
The 4K UHD Blu-Ray disc offers up English and Japanese Dolby Atmos mixes, as well as the original Japanese LPCM 2.0 track for purists. The Atmos track is totally immersive and offers some hard-hitting sounds that bring the tale home sonically. The sound design of the film is truly excellent and gives all of the speakers a lot of activity. Hearing the helicopters pass overhead is real treat. Dialogue is balanced well with the sound effects and the score so no information is ever lost in the mix. There is some powerful low-end activity that will get the room shaking during active moments. One major issue with this presentation that may upset hardcore fans is an error that occurs during the credits. The Japanese version of the film is supposed to have “Chant 3 – Reincarnation” by Kenji Kawai in the credits, but this disc features “One Minute Warning” by Passengers (aka Brian Eno and U2), which is supposed to only be on the English dubbed version. There is not an option to hear the original song during the end credits. If you can get past this error, this is a really satisfying track that is very active and serves the energy of the movie well.
- Audio Commentary: Animation Writer and English Language Scriptwriter of Ghost in the Shell Mary Claypool, Animation Producer and Writer Eric Calderon, Voice of “Batou” in Ghost in the Shell franchise Richard Epcar and Animation Historian and Critic Charles Solomon provide a commentary track for the film. The participants give an overview of the animation landscape at the time, the impact the film, the tradition of gender fluidity in the Japanese culture, the themes of the story and more. They have a noticeable passion for the subject, and provide so many interesting tidbits that enrich the film.
- Accessing Section 9 – 25 Years Into the Future: A nineteen-minute featurette with the voice-cast and crew in which they discuss the film’s legacy, the English script adaptation, character breakdowns and more.
- Landscapes & Dreamscapes – The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell: An eleven-minute look at the stylistic choices of the film with author Stefan Riekeles in which he discusses the lack of quick cuts, the location scouting process, the dense background animation and more.
- Trailers: The original English and Japanese language trailers are provided here without subtitles.
- Production Report: A 27-minute archival featurette which serves as a behind the scenes rundown of various aspects of the film. This gives a bit of a primer on some of the technology at play such as digital cel work, interviews some of the animators, breaks down recording dialogue and more. This is quite dated, but features interviews with a lot of figures you would not hear from otherwise.
- Digital Works: A 30-minute archival featurette which focuses on using digital animation within the film with in-depth interviews with the creative team. This is in Japanese with English subtitles.
Ghost in the Shell had a seismic impact on anime and entertainment at large with its fascinating approach to philosophical ideas on the nature of existence. The film boasts some truly gorgeous animation and an unparalleled style that still resonates today. Lionsgate Home Entertainment has provided a solid 4K UHD Blu-Ray disc for this cult favorite. If you are an anime fan and have not checked this one out, you owe it to yourself to take a look at this landmark entry into the art form. Recommended
Ghost in the Shell is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Lionsgate Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.