BATOU: And what are you going to talk about? You don’t even remember your own name. You stupid dickhead.
There is often something deeply unsatisfying about anime as a Western viewer. For every masterpiece like Akira or pretty much any Studio Ghibli production there are hundreds of thrillingly bland series like Bubblegum Crisis.
Whether or not it was the first anime I watched I no longer remember, but for me anime is viewed through the lens of Neon Genesis Evangelion — the hugely popular and awfully disappointing series from the 1990’s. Neon Genesis follows Shinji, a boy on the verge of adolescence who, along with Asuka (who is German, obviously) and Rei, pilots hugely powerful mechs called Evas. Earth is under attack from aliens and these kids must use this ridiculous power to stop them.
Perfect setup for amazing large scale, Power Rangers-style battles that decimate cities right? Hmm, sadly not so much.
Because, like most anime, Neon Genesis has an undercurrent of just plain fucking crazy. It’s not enough to have robots fighting aliens apparently. Instead it is clearly necessary to have an odd semi-Biblical element whereby the progenitor-thing of the Evas is a creature called Lilith (Eve and Lilith, I’m sure you can draw the links) and to have the aliens called Angels (with the connotation that God is waging an assault on the world).
None of it makes any sense whatsoever and for the longest time I thought that I was missing something in the translation — which is extremely common when adult anime like Dragonball and One Piece are repurposed for Western children. Did you know that most of One Piece is really filthy and most characters voice sentiments to Nami similar to what most 15-year olds think of her (if you believe the pornographic fan fiction and fan art)? Only the other day did I discover that, apparently frustrated by the batshit insanity of Neon Genesis, the producers cut the budget, and the main reason the ending makes even less sense than the rest of the show is because they had no money to use more than existing backdrops with dialogue over the top.
So this is the background necessary to understand when I talk about the 1995 anime version of Ghost in the Shell (the live action version of which, controversially starring Scarlett Johansson, is released this Friday). Because, miraculously, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t suck at all. And the mandatory ‘important themes’ even make sense in the context of the rest of the movie. Ghost follows Major Motoko Kusanagi of Section 9, a division of the Hong Kong government (the manga and other anime are set in Japan but weirdly the movie is set in Hong Kong). Kusanagi has a completely cybernetic body but it houses her real human brain and her ‘ghost’, which is really kind of shorthand for a soul. Kusanagi is chasing the Puppetmaster, a person who has been hacking the ghosts of other people for unknown reasons.
The action and everything else in this movie is fabulous, as directed by the now-legendary Mamoru Oshii. But the best part is the whole question about whether machines can have souls. The difference between Kusanagi with her robot body and the puppet master, who is a self-aware AI inside a similar robot body, is intriguing. And the overall question of what does it mean to be human when cybernetic enhancement is the norm and you can hack human brains is so much more sensible than what does it mean to be an adolescent piloting a giant robot as angels attack the earth, etc.
Ghost in the Shell has a 96% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so most of you already know that the movie is amazing. And let’s be honest, most of you have probably noticed that most anime gets pretty crazy at some point. But really the thing that sets Ghost in the Shell apart is that it manages to put together a healthy amount of action (not as much as Akira, obviously), some random nudity (nowhere near as much as Ninja Scroll) and a sensible, coherent and interesting plot (unlike pretty much all of them).