Tag Archives: Ghost in the Shell – Solid State Society

(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.

Review and Analysis: Ghost in the Shell, Solid State Society

Here’s one of the more visually spectacular scenes.

The DVD for this feature-length OVA was given to me by my cousin visiting from out of town–thanks Neil!–and it’s a fine continuation of the Stand Alone Complex branch of the multifaceted Ghost in the Shell franchise. It shares most of the strengths of the TV series; in many ways it could be just another 4 episode arc. But in many ways, it is also the Stand Alone Complex‘s staff’s attempt to do a variation of the first GitS film, and when placed side by side with Mamoru Oshii’s masterwork, the places where the movie worked well also become clear.

Oshii’s Films vs Stand Alone Complex

While I respect Mamoru Oshii’s films artistically and historically, as the first GitS film was one of the breakthrough animes in America, I’ve never warmed to them. This is despite loving philosophy, theology, and art films in general. I’ve always felt Oshii wants to wear his education on his sleeve–he too began in a seminary, and he always loads his films with overt symbolism and quotations from the Bible. Even for this academically inclined seminarian, the Innocence film took these tendencies to absurd heights: something like half the dialogue was simply quotations from various scriptures, philosophical works, and literature. Oshii is very much an idea-driven filmmaker, a self-conscious intellectual. His films are thus rich for academic study and analysis–heck, I’m going to be writing a paper soon comparing the philosophical stances of the Matrix trilogy and Oshii’s GitS films–but devoid of most of the ordinary pleasures of anime, aside from a few extremely well animated action sequences and Kenji Kawai’s outstanding scores.

Sexaaay!

The Stand Alone Complex branch went a very long way in correcting that imbalance of the movies without sacrificing too much–if any–of the philosophical exploration of the mind/body problem that the whole franchise rests on. The TV show had more humor, albeit low key. It had much more character interaction; Batou and Tosuga in particular had actual inner lives. Major Kusanagi was, in my opinion, much cuter. The ideas–especially the politics–were sophisticated without being either willfully obtuse (most of the time); a lot of the overt philosophy was carried on by the adorable Tachikomas rather than characters speaking portentiously about what Shakespeare would think in this situation. Sure, it’s still talky and slow by the standards of action anime. But I found it much more watchable than Oshii’s films, and not in a way where I have to turn my brain off. (Like with certain kinds of shows.)

Oshii’s GitS vs. Solid State Society

As I mentioned earlier, Solid State Society is in a strange way a take on the story and themes of the first GitS film. There’s a lot of plot and character differences, to be sure, but the similarities are striking. Both feature a mysterious antagonist called the Puppet Master or Puppeteer. Both are about cybernetic networks taking on a life of their own, with the Major diving in near the end to discover the new reality that this interconnection of brains will bring about. Both end on nearly identical lines. The fact that the Major only gets a prominent role in the second half of the OVA seems almost incidental; so many of the basic ideas are similar.

Oshii would agree.

Their differences, however, reveal a lot about the artistic possibilities and limits of the more conventional Stand Alone Complex style as opposed to Oshii’s arty approach. SAC often felt like a standard police procedural much of the time, with a heavy focus on plot exposition and tracking down clues. Solid State Society is no different; the plot twists more than once and the emphasis on political and social intrigue is as pronounced as it was in the TV series. The pacing of the OVA–which really is a feature film in every other respect–flagged at times. I sometimes struggled to piece together the clues, characters, and complex strands of plot, and I confess the ending baffled me at first. There was relatively little time for meditation or reflection, even though the pacing was similar to the relatively slow pace of the TV series.

And that is where Oshii, for all his flaws, shines. Both GitS films are deeply contemplative. There are scenes where it is simply just urban scenery, or a parade, set to Kenji Kawai’s awe-inspiring music: atmospherics that give the viewer some space to think and usually to slip in some symbolism (mannequins, robots, etc). Indeed, Oshii loves overt symbolism, whether it be shooting up a map of human evolutionary descent in the first film or the entire doll motif in the second film. It’s often too much, particularly when paired with overly intellectual dialogue, but it is always striking and memorable.

Obviously CGI.

Solid State Society features the same quality animation we found in the TV series, which was very high indeed, but it is much more “ordinary” by comparison. The CG was obvious, particularly in driving scenes. I remember few visual scenes from SSS, while I can think of many evocative and powerful shots in Oshii’s films, usually paired with Kawai’s music. I never thought I’d ever say this, but in SSS, I think even the great Yoko Kanno’s talents are largely wasted on indistinct electronica background. One otherwise notable piece was constantly disrupted awkwardly by dialogue. A lot of this, granted, can be chalked up to the differences between TV and film; TV always contains more closeups than film does, for instance, and usually require faster moving and twisting stories to keep viewers interested in the next episode. There is no room to simply bask in visual and aural splendor. But I still think at the end of the day, Oshii’s work is more visceral.

While the last lines of both Oshii’s first film and this one are nearly identical, they seem to come to different conclusions. Oshii’s film almost seems to celebrate the prospect of all minds being united as one in the Net, with bodies being exchanged at will. SSS ends on a typically TV Mulder/Scully kind of buried emotional moment, one we’ve seen in the SAC series before–in other words one that affirms a much more organic and real kind of connection to people, though it’s hopeful for the future. The choice to make the Major a possible culprit was also notable. She is less passive than she seems in Oshii’s films, an actual moral agent whose intentions are worth exploring as opposed to a vehicle to deliver ideas.

Which one is better?

It depends, I suppose, on what one is looking for out of the GitS franchise. I don’t entirely buy the final twist of SSS, which takes a turn into the kind of willful twisting obscurity that some anime like to indulge in. It’s nevertheless a much more involving and dynamic story than either of Oshii’s films. Characters have understandable motives, and even change and grow. The plot is complex without usually being convoluted, whereas Oshii sometimes stopped the plot altogether in order to focus on some beautiful visuals. The action doesn’t feel as divorced from the rest of the film as it sometimes does in Oshii.

Go Major, Go!

On the other hand, one expects a series with the title Ghost in the Shell to offer some actual insight into the mind/body problem. The SAC branch was as much about political intrigue, and SSS is no different–but in doing so, spotlighting Japan’s current fertility and aging problem, it almost seems like it’s in danger of missing the rationale behind the series altogether, as well as the most interesting dilemmas posed by a society where a significant number of people have cybernetic brains. Those issues were always front and center for Oshii, and while he doesn’t execute it as elegantly as he probably could, that is one of the primary roles of science fiction: to ask questions and think ahead about the implications of technology. (Similarly, I love the current Battlestar Galactica as a drama, but the contemporary political and social allegories are sometimes way too obvious; by the third season, it’s clear that the show is really about Iraq and the War on Terror more than anything else.) Oddly enough, I think the TV series was a bit better on that front, but that might be because of its greater length. The ending of SSS attempted to bring it back home to the original themes of the franchise, but in a way that felt a little rushed and arguably contrived. The climax was definitely much more weighted toward a statement about race, immigration, and elder health care.

Conclusions

I see GitS as much a contributor to the cyberpunk genre of SF as William Gibson’s Neuromancer–a nuanced look at what happens to a society where the distinction between man and machine is blurring. What safeguards, dangers, and opportunities might that present, when we discover just how vast and infinite the Net can be? At its best, Stand Alone Complex and SSS offer some rumination on those issues while delivering a decent story and well-animated action. Oshii offers mostly the former, but memorably. If you enjoyed the Stand Alone Complex TV series, you will certainly enjoy Solid State Society; it feels little different from it. Those who prefer the movies will not find anything particularly new or different to change their opinion necessarily.