For a good chunk of the late 1980s and early 1990s, science fiction was utterly consumed with the convergence of robotics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, the internet, virtual reality, globalization, and more. This produced a lot of terrific cyberpunk fiction, some of the best of which came from a Japanese creator named Masamune Shirow, who made waves with a futuristic manga—about cops, terrorists, cyborgs, artificial intelligence and the evolving nature of human life—called Ghost in the Shell. Like Shirow’s earlier work, Ghost in the Shell has plenty of badass combat cyborgs running around doing secret agent and police work, but this focuses less on mecha mayhem and more on the uncertainties of a world where people start to resemble machines, and machines start to resemble people. Given the great success of Ghost in the Shell, an anime version was inevitable, and we got it in 1995, when the cyberpunk movement was about a decade old, the Internet was starting to transform everything, and traditional animation was starting to give way to computer-generated imagery. The result was an anime unlike anything seen before or since, really, a cinematic adaptation of a popular Japanese comic, sure, but more importantly, one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, live action or otherwise.
The story takes place in Japan, several decades into a future where heavy cybernetic augmentation is commonplace, as is the dominance of a super-saturated information network that feels like several different internets all layered on top of each other. Keeping the peace is a sprawling police/intelligence/military network comprised of rival Sections that each have overlapping mandates, and sometimes accidentally start shooting at each other as they pursue their own clandestine agendas. Major Matoko Kusanagi is little more than a human brain living inside an otherwise robotic body. Possessing extraordinary training, she is the top operative for Section 9, assassinating high-level targets, pursuing cyber-criminals and otherwise living a kind of endless spec ops life that would grind down even the most well-adjusted person. Kusanagi knows she is 99% machine, and is starting to wonder if her “ghost”—that human part of her identity—is starting to break down. When a major case breaks involving an elusive cyber-criminal called the Puppet Master, Kusanagi and her colleagues are all called in to find the target and bring him or her in before the Rival Section 6 can beat them to it. Kusangi begins to suspect that there is a whole lot more to the Puppet Master case than anybody is letting on—which is par for the course in her line of work. But this time, she can’t shake the feeling that whatever the Puppet Master is, it might help her answer some questions about herself and what is left of her ghost that nobody else can really understand. As Kusanagi’s interest in the case gets more personal than professional, and as the tensions between Section 9 and Section 6 become even more dangerous than the criminals working for the Puppet Master, it’s clear that this may be a world where life is cheap, but death is even cheaper.
Visually, this movie is a major standout for the novel ways in which it blends high-quality cel animation and CGI. Before Ghost in the Shell, other anime that tried to blend the two delivered jarring results. But here, they click perfectly, creating a parallel world where people like Kusanagi dwell in both the physical and the digital simultaneously, aware of the particular strengths and limitations of each.
But what makes Ghost in the Shell such a classic is how it handles the nagging questions anybody in Kusanagi’s position is bound to ask. Who am I, really? If memories are just data, then are my memories trustworthy? If there is nothing left of my ghost, is there really anything left of me? Can a personality created out of code really consider itself alive? Every time I am destroyed, do I lose something forever? These are all questions that were cool to imagine, but felt distant and speculative when the movie first came out. In the 20+ years since then, those questions have gotten a lot less about thought experiment, and a lot more about preparing for the rest of the 21st century. Great science fiction doesn’t have to be visionary, but the most visionary science fiction is usually some of its greatest. And Ghost in the Shell is deeply, deeply visionary.
There are a bunch of terrific scenes that make this movie unforgettable, but the moment of truth takes place at the end of the first act, when Kusanagi and her partner Batou run down an early lead on the Puppet Master. He is a hacker thug using a humble garbage man as a kind of data mule to ping the from public terminals. Kusanagi and Batou show up and the hacker runs off, beginning one of my favorite urban chase scenes in movie history. Kusanagi is armed with her cybernetic body, combat reflexes, and an ability to turn almost invisible. Her quarry blends into crowds, is armed with a machine pistol capable of shredding even Kusanagi’s armored body, and a willingness to fire indiscriminately. The chase finally ends with a brutal confrontation that proves that the contest between human and cyborg isn’t much of a contest at all. But what makes this the moment of truth isn’t its exceptional action, but the comedown when it’s all over. The hacker and the garbage man have both been mind-wiped by the Puppet Master, and neither know who they really are or why they have just done what they have done. As Batou gathers evidence from the scene, we can see what Kusanagi is thinking. Maybe everything about me is a lie, too. And maybe it’s time I did something about it. When we have that conversation with ourselves—and everybody does, eventually—that’s when our lives really begin, whether we’re made of metal or bone.