(Not) Bridging The Gap: Ghost In The Shell 2.0

 

If there’s anything more played out, and dangerous than a reboot, it is the “enhanced” reissue of a classic. Be it for the celebration of an anniversary of a favorite title, or merely due to certain interests, the re-release has become something of a tainted concept since the days Jorge decided to being his legendary Star Wars back to theaters with new effects and sound back in the mid-to-late 90s. Before this, we were more privy to just seeing a favorite on a large screen years after it hit. And only a few films ever came back into circulation with added scenes, and various nipping and tucking thrown in for measure. For me, this goes all the way back to when Spielberg went ahead and re-released Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But it’s a rare beast when the changes exhibited do anything but give us an alternate version of a story so many are familiar with. And with the advent of digital cinema, the temptation for filmmakers to revisit has sometimes been to great to resist, often leaving viewers with baffling, and let’s just face it, unsatisfactory results. I’m sure I don’t need to bring up Han Solo & Greedo to further make this point. So when I initially heard that Mamoru Oshii was to supervise a cosmetically updated version of his turning point feature, Ghost In The Shell(1995), my initial response before I saw any imagery was,…an all-digital Koukaku Kidotai sounds cool in theory, but would be nothing less than a pretty footnote. Three years came and went, and for whatever reasons I never got around to catching this version until last night.

So what are my reactions?

Well let’s just say right now that this is by no means meant to be a review of a film that I already own in a number of forms, and continue to enjoy at least once a year. Being a fan of each rendition of Masamune Show’s dystopian masterwork of a manga, the film was something of a watermark, not only for anime as a whole in regards to global consciousness, but for me as a longtime lover of speculative fiction dealing in the blurring lines between humanity and machines. I many ways, it takes the best elements laid forth by Blade Runner, and offers up a bolder examination of the themes Philip K.Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson & others had been ruminating in literary form for years in a cinematic manner not before seen anywhere. It is a seminal piece of cyberpunk cinema that transcends genre, and offers more insight to those curious to explore the career of one of anime’s final pioneers & most curious personalities. More than this, the film also functions as a declaration of sorts by its director long tiring of merely spinning cartoons for overgrown children.

Oshii’s Ghost is something of a tale of transfiguration, of leaving the nest, and embracing that which being endlessly young fears most. By using the framework established in Shirow’s complex, and yet often self-relfexively humorous universe, Oshii takes a more serious route by using the manga’s iconic lead character of Major Motoko Kusanagi, and giving her a journey of self discovery beyond the confines of not merely her occupation, but of her own definable form. What starts off as a hard science fiction tale of espionage, cybercrime, and harder hardware, the film directly posits questions of the characters of the mysterious Section 9, and their place in a world ever coming closer to Kurzweil’s Singularity. Not the most easy film to pick as a breakthrough hit, but somehow, against all odds, the film became a cult milestone beyond Japan, where it was only mildly received. Also sporting some of anime’s first major use of CGI, multlayering, and cyberspace imagery, the film is a nearly seamless feat even by today’s standards. The film has gone on to helping create an ongoing tv franchise that exists in its own separate universe, as well as a quasi-sequel in the large budgeted 2004 arthouse anomaly INNOCENCE. A film that for better or worse, cemented Oshii as not only a brilliant visualist, but increasingly oblique in his boldness as a majority of his filmography in recent years has included live action work that has also remained an acquired taste.

So it’s pretty difficult for me to It’s difficult to articulate into words what went on as Ghost The Shell 2.0 is concerned. If anything, it reveals more definitively that Oshii is much less interested in what the masses enjoyed about the original, and is more interested in keeping his own stamp on matters. Which would be fine if any alterations made to the film had any basis on the story. In 2.0, much of the original film is as it was, save for a near audio-visual trimming overhaul. Which is to say that the film is now attempting to be a lot more visually in line with the world of INNOCENCE’s Hong Kong than it is interested in anything else. Mostly gone are the grayish, and humming green hues that once were considered major inspiration for the world of the Wachowski’s The Matrix. Which makes one wonder if Oshii was going out of his way from the opening scene to distance himself from that as much as possible. Especially considering that his live action virtual world exploration, AVALON (2001) shared such amber & gray tones. But the choice to basically change at least 95% of the film’s color grade remains nothing more than a means to maintain some kind of visual continuity between his films, and again, has no bearing on events.

(For more instances of these alterations, please consult this post by the ever reliable Tim Maughan.)

What makes this all the more disconcerting is when we see the opening scene which puts us en media res as Section 9 members are watching over a rogue programmer looking to leave the country. A scene that has already had a lasting impact on the visual language of anime, and maybe even cinema in general. And what we have here is an almost complete 3D computer animated version of the Major, perched over the edge of a building, listening in. Again, an already visually impressive moment, redone in CG, as the interior scenes remain 2D cel animation. Why? If this is all they set to do, then we’re already in trouble. And sure enough, much of the film’s most memorable bridging moments in its very clearly established 3 chapter structure are done in this half-CG, half re-colored 2D method that just screams uninvolved. While the helicopters & buildings in the opening scene are now more in line with the INNOCENCE world, why is it that other machines, and vehicles not similarly upgraded? This creates a schizophrenic effect that murders any sort of world building consistency the original film had, and it’s astonishingly frustrating. Again, there are no real words to best approximate just how cold, and careless this feels. Especially when the then-unprecedented CG work in the original film does nothing to detract from the film’s complex, and often provocative themes. If Oshii wanted to keep a work consistent regarding intent, all of this is clearly shot in the foot with a full clip at point blank range by these decisions. There’s simply no reason for it, other than money, and perhaps ego. It’s like adding trick lights, and plasticy looking import accessories to a vintage Chevy Impala for no other reason than it seems impressive to one person; the differences are simply gaudy & distracting.

One of the most standout nitpicks I can recall from this version is the botching of one of the original’s prime visual motifs; Major Kusanagi’s eyes. Her eyes are a major point that Oshii, along with character designer Hiroyuki Okiura went out of their way to sell with the film as we are meant to essentially see the world through the eyes of a construct in the guise of a human. We see this happen throughout the film every time we are meant to empahize with her as she observes the world around her, even as she begins to question her role. And one of the most telling images of the film is at the beginning of the second section of the film (the boat scene) as she is scuba diving. It is in this moment that she begins to quietly resurface. She reaches, and passes through her reflection against the rippling surface of the ocean. And we have a sustained single shot of her seemingly dead stare into the sky. And in this version, we have….this…

Again, I’m not sure whether this was a technical issue since they decided to go 3D with this moment or not, but whatever the case, the flow of this theme is almost completely compromised by obscuring her eyes like this. If one is going to redo a film in this manner, it pays to go all the way, or not at all. This is a glaring example.

For this viewer, there are those rare instances when small changes are necessary. When Blade Runner was re-released without voice-over in 1992, many of us rejoiced. And more recently, as the film celebrated 25 years with a beautifully rendered FINAL CUT, much mention was made in how the new alterations were small, and slight enough to both add layers to the world of the film, and not distract from the film’s thematic center. Ridley Scott seems to understand that the changes need to be virtually invisible in order for them to function in story. However, in the case of Ghost In The Shell 2.0, the new images, shots, added lines, and voice actor change for the central “villain” of the Puppet Master stand out like a skin infection. There’s simply no way this could make for an alternative viewing experience for those new to the film, as much as one for fans. The only folks I could have seen to have “benefitted” from making this would have been Oshii, the producers, and CG artists hoping to work. It’s just a shame they didn’t get a chance to do any work on a full-narrative project in hopes of making a dent in the current landscape. Even Randy Thom’s updated sound renders events lifeless sans much to any reverb in outdoor scenes. There’s simply no sense of space to the proceedings, making it sound even more cold & artificial than the often stock anime sound mix the 1995 version exhibited.

Not sure why there was any reason to make these alterations outside of putting a lacquer on a classic, and hoping fans would bite, no matter how it looked. Sometimes all it takes is some respect for the works of the past, and a re-iusse to share great love for a work. I can see a number of better things to have been done than this.

2 thoughts on “(Not) Bridging The Gap: Ghost In The Shell 2.0”

  1. Yes, I agree with the introduction of CGI, it’s really jarring when it happens too. It makes me wonder why they didn’t just remake the entire film instead of adding some new glossy visuals. The original was, of course my gateway into GITS and I preferred the series all things considered. The series wasn’t so smug and didactic, and while I enjoyed the expository philosophy on technology and the human soul, I felt like not enough was devoted to it; like a meandering outlier before someone told the director to hurry the damn movie up and climax. GITs was filled with memorable sequences, and the new CGI rendering just made them too divorced, like they were saying “oooooh, look at this, this is cool!” instead of giving the auditory senses of the viewer the choice to decide. I don’t know why they remade this, I mean I understand the original is now several generations behind in quality because fifteen or so years is a long time, but if they wanted to make the movie again, they should have either cleaned it up for Blue Ray or just remade the entire movie.

    I’m not a fan of the “special edition” stuff, like we cannot tell what’s original and what’s new, in this film in particular. The opening was probably the worst example of this, why did they shift back and forth between hand drawn and CGI? Plus, the CGI technology used isn’t quite as fluid; what was so amazing about the opening from the sudden and massive violence of assassination was the symbolism of the nude female body and her graceful movements and that just wasn’t there. Anyway, it’s not a bad film I just get the feeling it was better left in the original form as a testament to the worlds animation has crossed. Even with the shiny new looks, they didn’t redub the major (her original voice actor is terrible compared to the series, she’s really mechanical in delivery) and the transition was too strong to be as enjoyable of a film. They also should have extended the movie, GITS jumps too quickly between acts for time compression because of budget; it would have been great to gain greater perspective on the motives and motivations like the central question, aside from the obvious “shell” why does the major feel trapped? Why does she agree to “merge” with the puppetmaster when even he (now she) declares they won’t be the same person anymore? You’d think maybe explaining the profound desperation to escape her position in life would be what drives her, but you never really know, she just agrees.

    I watched GITs about 10 years ago for the first time; it was part of my intellectual awakening (long story, but trust me, I didn’t used to be this articulate and insightful by choice) and while it was somewhat confusing, it was a truly amazing experience. I’m not an anime fan by any stretch, I’ve ventured it three, maybe four properties (GITs, Cowboy Bebop, Ninja Scroll (way back in 1995 no less) and oddly enough…FLCL recently) and until this year, I’ve never read a manga (I was curious and tried the GITs manga and let’s just say both the series and films are much better in every way except for Shirow’s nerdly tech obsession which really set his series apart). Since there is apparently and even more dreaded GITS live action film on the way, I guess the question for me is this the last we’ll see of this property? I think GITs has a lot of life left in it of unexplored themes and it would be nice if the existence question was ever settled as pertains to humanity, the major and the ‘net. Did they set up Batou in Innocence as being in the same existential crisis as the major for a reason besides framing device? Will we ever see what Oshii’s ultimate fate of the major is, since she disappeared into the ‘net as a “new” life form? It would be nice, I suppose if he wrapped it up for us in a trilogy or made some new content. Personally, that’s what I would have liked for Dreamworks to do: just fund Project I.G. and Oshii to finish what they started but they seem hell-bent on making a live version, instead….

  2. To answer some of your questions, especially regarding this film, it is important to consider the film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, and his particular style. Nearly all of his films by nature are what some may consider didactic. His films are famous for their languid pacing, rampant symbology, and ultimately lecturelike nature. And the GiTS film is easily his most popular, but by no means is this film rushed by his standards. The three act structure is well in line with his output. And in the years since, his films have become even more indulgent. Take for example, INNOCENCE, which is much less a GiTS film, and much more an Oshii on Carte Blanc rampage. As much as a fan I am of the character of Batou, he only works his best when he has someone to work off of. No such luck in that film.

    As for this particular version of the 1995 film, the answer as to why is simple, simple greed, and desperation. My guess is that someone at Production IG saw what Gainax was doing with their revamp of the Neon Genesis Evangelion tv series, and assumed that some kind of resurgence of mid-90s titles was on the horizon, however this version eschews the unexpected brilliance of that project, and goes for a much more obvious, cynical, and lazy cash grab opportunity. Nothing else has really been changed in the film, save for the new CG effects, which are distracting to the point of irritation.

    And to answer your question regarding the franchise…IG has opted for a new television series, so there will be more Section 9 in the near future. Count on it. But I don’t expect Oshii’s version to return, especially when one considers the thematic throughline of Kusanagi’s character is as done as it can logically be.

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