Gender-bending Cyborgs: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell introduced by Mamoru Oshii

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2.0 (Kōkaku kidōtai)
Mamoru Oshii
1995, Japan, 82 min.

By Barbara Goslawski

Introducing and discussing his most famous film, Mamoru Oshii will be present for a rare screening of Ghost in the Shell on Saturday, July 12 at 9 p.m at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The film is part of the retrospective, Techno/Human: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, which runs from July 12 to 25.

Mamoru Oshii’s dazzling Ghost in the Shell is an anime masterpiece, a revelation. Tough and gritty, the film whips up a fantastical narrative that continually wrangles a realist edge. It’s the 21st century and humans have fused with machines. Imagine the struggle to retain a sense of humanity within a cold artificial context and you’ll only get a hint at the battles that rage across every conceivable level of this film.

Adapted from the manga by Masamune Shirow and made in 1995, Ghosts has a profound relevance that resonates both stylistically and philosophically in contemporary art and society. Veterans and novice fans of this form alike will find this to be one trippy experience.

True to form, Ghost in the Shell, is a complex synthesis of traditional cel and more innovative CG animation. It`s a sci-fi, fantasy, action-adventure set in a world populated by cyborgs. They are, however, mere shells really that are capable of being invaded by ghosts, renegade spirits that invade their carefully composed and regulated inner hubs. In this film, cyborg public security agents from Section 9, led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, a female borg construction that morphs into the deadliest of superheroes, pursues the elusive hacker known as the Puppet Master, a slippery entity capable of the most dastardly shell invasions. The complex labyrinth of political intrigue and identity politics that results is vital in its cultural resonance.

More than a technological marvel, it is Oshii’s carefully measured direction in this film (precise at times, explosive at others) that coaxes greater depth. Ghosts in the Shell is not just a masterpiece of animation – a genre which by its very nature and formal essence makes anything actually possible – it is also a brilliant film. Technique is as central here as is handling of the subject and the respective subtexts. Urban Japanese landscapes are transformed by the animation into complex futuristic visions that are as fresh today as they were when the film was made. Photos and traditional cel pictures had computer generated images inserted and laid overtop of them. The perspective, and subsequent imagery, is simply stunning. (And yes, Hollywood filmmakers were quick to copy shamelessly. The Matrix would not exist without this predecessor). Made in 1995, Ghosts has informed our current ideas of cyberspace. It even seemed to predict it.

A cyber thriller with a philosophical subtext is nothing new these days. Oshii’s futuristic foresight is, however, still relevant. Profound meditations on self-identity weave throughout the film’s scientific realities. While events in the plot are filtered through this cyborg vision, moments of genuine humanity escape. Characters struggle with weighty questions about their own human essence even as they transform into the very machines that govern their being.

The most insightful element of Ghosts is the even deeper level of enquiry into issues of gender. Twenty years ago, morphing between the stereotypical gender divides was relegated to the margins of art making. Transgender identity was a foggy notion. Today, as we are often reminded in our everyday lives, gender fluidity is becoming an acceptable norm. In Ghosts in the Shell, this new reality is not only recognised as necessary, it becomes a vigorous state of being.

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