On Sept. 17, a 4K remaster of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated masterpiece “Ghost in the Shell” is set to hit Imax theaters in Japan and around the world. Despite having seen the film well over a hundred times, I’ll be there on Day One.
There’s something endlessly fascinating about this sci-fi classic, which took cues from “Blade Runner” and later inspired “The Matrix” as well as dozens of other, lesser titles in both Japan and Hollywood, including a superfluous 2017 live-action adaptation.
Despite plenty of follow-ups — “Ghost in the Shell” is now a veritable franchise — it also remains the best adaptation of the original manga by Masamune Shirow. That manga, which ran from 1989 to 1991, introduced a post-World War III Japan filled with cyborgs, hackers, corrupt politicians and the counter-cyberterrorism unit Section 9, led by the cybernetic Maj. Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka).
Shirow brought the heady cyberpunk concepts, characters and plot, but it was director Mamoru Oshii who infused the anime adaptation with the ambience that makes the film worth revisiting 26 years later. Oshii was fresh off “Patlabor 2: The Movie” (1993), a contemplative film that pushed realism in anime to new levels and explored postwar Japan’s ambiguous relationship with its military. Above all, the film was a triumph of atmosphere, featuring a combination of melancholy music and images guaranteed to make you want to take long walks through Tokyo in winter.
By his own telling, “Ghost in the Shell” wasn’t a project Oshii personally sought out, but once given the job, he used it to carry on the thematic and stylistic project that began with the “Patlabor” series. He continued his pursuit of animated realism, retooling the manga’s characters to look less exaggerated and taking multiple research trips to Hong Kong, which served as the basis for the film’s New Port City. Oshii also brought in longtime collaborators such as artist Hiromasa Ogura, with his intricately detailed background paintings, and composer Kenji Kawai, who provided both the unforgettable main theme and the haunting, minimalist pieces that are a key part of the film’s mood.
There are a few things that, despite having seen “Ghost in the Shell” so many times, surprise me without fail. One is how serene it can be. Yes, there are explosive shootouts and stunning martial arts sequences (featuring choreography, the story goes, inspired by the arcade game Virtua Fighter). But there are also many scenes of relative peace that allow us to breathe in the atmosphere of the futuristic world. Oshii has said that he places more emphasis on a film’s world than its characters or story, and “Ghost in the Shell” may be the ultimate expression of that philosophy.
The second thing that grabs me each time is how little expository information the film presents. Oshii drops us into an unfamiliar place “in medias res,” with no clunky explanation of what’s going on — let alone what the ghost or the shell is, and how the two relate (well, one goes in the other, ostensibly). Instead of being force-fed information, we’re left to search for clues, making us active participants as we construct our own theories and backstories. This has the effect of making the film feel much larger than its just over 80-minute runtime would otherwise allow — and, again, invites many repeat viewings.
I first discovered “Ghost in the Shell” on VHS about 20 years ago, and each subsequent upgrade has helped reveal more details. I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover this time around.
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