Ghost in the Shell is a series I’m drawn to for many reasons. The original 1995 film, written by Kazunori Itō, directed by Mamoru Oshii, was based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. Far from Shirow’s hyper-sexualised action comics, the movie refined and focused the material into something visionary. Held up as one of the all-time greatest animated films, it is a study in future tech and how it might influence humanity. It asks the question: In the world of nuanced artificial intelligence and cybernetic enhancements, what makes someone or something human? It is simultaneously subtle and brash. It is both thematically heavy-handed and coy. To my mind, Ghost in the Shell has earned its reputation.
It is the film’s well-realised futuristic cities, complete with grime and espionage, along with the rejection of Shirow’s over-the-top fan-service that lift it to a higher plane than its source material (see image for example). Along with the film and its sequel, we were also blessed with a TV series and associated feature films to flesh out another angle to these stories and characters. ARISE endeavours to explore the history of these characters and it certainly maintains interest, even if each arc isn’t always satisfying from beginning to end.
This first collection contains two stories of deception and mystery, where shadowy government agencies manipulate in the name of “public interest” and the central characters have to piece together the truth.
BORDER 1: GHOST PAIN examines Major Motoko Kusanagi’s history with the 501 Organisation as she tries to clear the name of her previous commanding officer. It’s a murder mystery with enough meat and familiar characters to keep an enthusiast engaged, but may prove a little dry if you’re not already a fan. Contrasting with the poor CG revisions made to the original movie, the CG in ARISE actually stands above much of the rest of the animation and draws attention to the limited character detail. Some fans may take issue with the simplified character designs, but the style of having detailed backgrounds and more simply-rendered characters is at least visually consistent. Some of the detail depicted in cityscapes and other backgrounds is more than worthy of the original film. Character poses, events and even a few camera angles make reference to the 1995 film and (often effectively) pander to the nostalgia of the viewer.
BORDER 2: GHOST WHISPERS feels like it has been crafted with our present climate in mind, as war crimes and appropriate military response are called into question. The most interesting elements relate to characters we know from the rest of the Ghost in the Shell lore, and how their relationships could possibly transform into the ones we’re so familiar with. I watched these two episodes with someone who hadn’t been exposed any other Ghost in the Shell material – or much anime for that matter – and they found the episodes to be interesting enough, but failed to understand my shocked responses watching those I knew to be friends antagonising each other. My friend felt the experience kept them watching, but weren’t as on-board with the way each story resolved itself.
It will be interesting to see how much of the Major’s history can be unpacked in the 4 episodes planned for release, but as it stands, Ghost in the Shell: Arise is one for the fans. Specifically, fans who don’t object to the shift in character design and a more straight-forward approach to story-telling. Episodes 1 and 2 play out as fairly standard detective stories, set in a high-tech future, and framed around important characters from anime’s history as a medium. If you’d like to spend more time with the Major, here’s your chance. If you’ve never been exposed to any Ghost in the Shell, I’d highly recommend picking up the recently released 25th anniversary edition of the original movie and see how you go from there.
We received our review copy of Ghost in the Shell: Arise: Part 1 from Madman Entertainment. I watched Episode 1 in Japanese with English subtitles, and Episode 2 with English audio. Both held up well, although some of the more theatrical dialogue felt slightly more forced in English. Either option should serve you well.