Ghost in the Shell vs. Ghost in the Shell 2.0
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Techno/Human: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The 1995 original Ghost in the Shell adapted from Shirow Masamune’s manga is deservedly considered as the high-point of not just stylistic, intelligent anime but also of the sci-fi genre itself, effortlessly melding the politics of a post-human society with dense questions on existence, identity and sexuality. In the years since its release, it has influenced numerous high-profile films including The Matrix Trilogy and Steven Spielberg’s AI.
Set in 2029, in a society where the human consciousness has transcended their biological bodies and can now reside in cybernetic bodies or “shells”, the original Ghost in the Shell still builds a fairly realistic version of a society that despite its’ advancement has only further fallen prey to the surveillance, corporate ownership and government censorship. The central premise of the original revolved around the rise of a mysterious “Puppet Master”, who is capable of “ghost hacking” a mind to manipulate them into doing his bidding or even implanting false memories. On a pure conceptual level, this was heady stuff for any film to do back in 1995, let alone an animated feature adapted from Japanese manga. Section 9, a public security department forms the central emphasis for most of GitS with Major Motoko Kusanagi being its’ protagonist. As a cyborg with real human parts, she often grapples with her existential identity and forms the crux of the themes the film tries to project.
Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is an updated version of the original, a remaster of sorts with the incorporation of 3D CGI and sharpened animation being the key changes from its’ 1995 version. Unfortunately for the most part, neither of those changes work in the favour of the film as the shift between traditional anime to 3D CGI is often jarring than not. Most of the 3D CGI is limited to external scenes with Motoko being the only character shown in it and the results are not that good – she looks more like a mannequin than any fan would prefer. The CGI is rudimentary at best capturing the shades of darkness inherent to the cyberpunk genre well but the actual 3D component of it feels quite aged, even by 2008 standards. Even small game studios in Japan were producing better CGIs on considerably less powerful hardware by then and the mediocre quality of CGI fails to compensate its’ jarring nature with eye-candy. Where the new visual additions do work for the GitS 2.0 is in describing the fidelity of holographic overlays, digital screens and stylistic perspectives when the characters “dive” into the net. Smaller changes serve to only deteriorate the experience with some of the audio FX alterations making the iconic action scenes feel lacking the punch the original had and the re-recorded vocal track lacking the same kind of emotion that the original had.
The stylistic element of the original was a major influence on The Matrix Trilogy by the Wachowskis and this is mostly reflected in the enhanced version as well. The sharper, crisper animations make them less flashy and more sudden, direct but a lot more hard-hitting than you’d see from the majority of action films. The film’s iconic scene including its’ title credits sequence remain at their visual high not because they were technically impressive but because those simple scenes directed brilliantly by Oshii of the “genesis” of Motoko’s female body and the androgynous role she adorns describes a critical theme the film represents. Likewise, nudity and violence might mislead new viewers into underestimating Ghost in the Shell’s intent and purpose but the film beautifully ties that with gender identity, a female cyborg’s lack of menstruation and the role of reproduction in an era where human parts are quickly becoming an accessory to the essential cybernetic parts. Elsewhere, Oshii’s contribution from the original remains ever so significant in bringing Masamune’s manga to life in a manner even the master manga artist could never have achieved. It is indeed no surprise that the 1995 film, along with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solyaris are among the few examples of sci-fi adaptations that managed to transcend their source material.
All that said, it still doesn’t quite justify the mediocrity of GitS 2.0 because the standards of judging an enhanced version of an anime would be its’ technical advancements and GitS 2.0’s facelifts feel both aesthetically jarring and outdated compared to its’ contemporaries. Even 2001’s Final Fantasy: Spirits Within had far superior CGI than what GitS 2.0 can manage almost seven years later. In the four years between its’ “not-quite” sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and GitS 2.0 there is almost no marked improvement in the animation fidelity.
But despite the disappointing and shoddy enhancement, the core of GitS 2.0 still contains one of the most intellectually stimulating sci-fis of the past few decades. On top of it, it transforms the use of nudity and violence beyond simple eye-candy into a powerful message on the gender identity crisis and the role of reproduction. While the animated series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex fleshes out the themes from the original manga far more capably, Mamoru Oshii’s vision enables the film to be a perfect gateway to Masamune’s vision of 2029 and the existential crisis, both cybernetic humans and digitally sentient lifeforms will grapple in an era where the very definition of humanity is blurred. The enhanced version doesn’t improve the viewing experience in any significant way and the jarring transition between 2D to aged 3D CGI detracts more often than not. If you’re a fan of the original, GitS 2.0 might be worth watching merely for the facelift. If you’re new, it’s recommended you stick to the original 1995 version which with its’ philosophical questions remains one of the intellectual high-points of the sci-fi genre in recent memory and a stunning coming-of-age of an animated medium.