" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Having seen Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence at theaters last fall, and having appreciated both the style and the underlying philosophy, I thought I had better check out its 10-year old precursor. The new 2-DVD set from Manga was the perfect opportunity.

Manga Sprouts

An anime granddaddy celebrates 10 year anniversary
An anime granddaddy celebrates 10 year anniversary

I found out that a lot can happen in 10 years. The seeds of what I saw in Innocence were there in Ghost in the Shell, but they hadn’t bloomed yet, and what the seeds promised could not have been predicted. These seeds could have easily grown into something more bland, uglier and less nutritious than Innocence. That’s a roundabout way of saying that Ghost in the Shell is surprisingly less interesting than its sequel.

Ghost in the Shell is set in the “near” future where people seek cyborg enhancements to their bodies and minds. Two cops, Batou and Kosanagi, are investigating the murder of a diplomat. He was killed by his translator, but the cops are after the one who hacked into her enhanced brain and caused her to commit the crime. The hacker/murderer is called the “puppetmaster” because he’s so good at pulling other people’s strings, but beyond the nickname, they don’t know much about him.

The investigation always remains in the real world, but at some point the cops speculate whether the identity of the killer couldn’t move from body to body. The soul of the killer could be hacking and uploading itself into a new host, long after the killer’s original body is dead.

So Ghost in the Shell has its metaphysical moments. But rather than letting these moments take center stage, the movie crams in a lot of plot elements and action scenes. My wife commented that the movie felt like a companion piece to the original comic book story; it seemed to be written for audiences already in the know. For me, a newcomer to the story, it was hard to keep up with everyone’s identity and motive.

Both movies paid attention to visual details, and both included otherworldly choral music that lent the movie a magical air. They both included some exploration of identity and reality. But where Innocence felt like a mature, poetic film essay, Ghost in the Shell just felt like a Japanese comic book.

DVD Extras

The movie plus the extra features would have probably fit onto one DVD. Nevertheless, Manga presents a nice two-disc package. A clear plastic slip cover gives the package some sheen and depth, and the silver printing on the three-panel foldout is elegant and pretty. Inside, you’ll find a folded mini-poster, one side with gynoid nudity, one without.

The extra features are all on the second disc. The best of these is Digital Works, an in-depth feature on the way computers were used in the creation of Ghost in the Shell. Digital Works doesn’t just show the flashy, exciting tricks. It shows the whole process of how animation is produced. It shows us animation tables and cameras; it talks with the editor about Avid editing systems; it even shows the computer that prints to film. In short, it takes seriously the opportunity to inform fans and aspiring animators what is involved in a project with this scope.

The second-biggest feature is an American re-edit of Digital Works called “Production Report.” Once I realized it was a truncated version of the feature I had just watched, I pressed stop.

In addition, there are several galleries of plain text and still pictures, from character dossiers to biographies of the key filmmakers.

Picture and Sound

The movie is presented in a widescreen format, and it has both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 6.1 DTS soundtracks, for both English and Japanese versions of the film.

The English-speaking actors were alright, although the lead female voice sounded flat and toneless. At some point, we switched to Japanese dialogue and English subtitles, although neither language option seemed obviously better or worse.

The musician in our family had recently visited and helped calibrate the surround-sound speakers. During the cityscape scenes, there was often a Japanese choir that filled the room with sound. The surround effect was rich and full. But most of the film’s audio track is just dialogue, and so the surround sound may not be so important for this movie.