Screenshots are from the Blu-ray disc included in the set, also pulled from the same updated Lionsgate transfer.
Mamoru Oshii’s existential cyberpunk masterpiece Ghost in the Shell was key to fueling anime’s popularity in the late 90s, proving these “cartoons” were more than simply scantily clad schoolgirls fighting giant tentacle monsters; and were legitimate cinematic art. While there were films before Ghost that also exemplified the best in Japanese animation, you have to first take into account just how hard this film hit in the day. The buzz on Ghost in the Shell wasn’t simply regulated to Anime fans and articles in Animerica, it broke out into the mainstream pop-culture consciousness thanks to its dense narrative and Blade Runner-esque look. To this day I still remember being on summer break in 1996 and picking my VHS pre-order from Suncoast Pictures. Peeking behind the counter I saw a giant stack of Ghost in the Shell VHS pre-orders, still to be picked up, and that clued me in that something had to be interesting about this particular blind buy.
Ghost in the Shell was also instrumental as a gateway drug for many, further inflating the 90s anime bubble that would eventually collapse in on itself in the early 2000s. This was partially due to the popularity of Bittorrent piracy and also distributor greed, if we are going to be honest here. Watching that VHS was a formative experience for me, personally, because of the way it combined art house cinema and anime — I purchased Akira shortly thereafter, just for the record. There was also something very different, yet very familiar about the future Oshii crafted in Ghost, that has since become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the years have trickled by. The film is a philosophical deep dive on what is identity in a digital world? Taking place in the year 2029, when all of humanity is connected thanks to a neural net and cybernetic brain implants. The film focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi a member of the elite intelligence tactical squad, Section 9. Kusanagi is a synthetic “full-body prosthesis” augmented-cybernetic human, which basically means at this point the only thing that’s still “real” is her augmented gray matter in her head and her ghost, which is basically what they call a soul here.
The Major is going through an bit of an identity crisis when she comes across a case involving “The Puppet Master”, named for his penchant for ghost hacking. As Section 9 attempts to track down the allusive hacker, In between the procedural police narrative, Kusangi and others spend their time philosophizing and meditating on just what makes us human and individuals in such an interconnected society. As the mystery steeped in political intrigue is slowly unraveled here, Motoko’s curiosity evolves into obsession over just who or what the Puppet Master is. When a mysterious cyborg body is discovered claiming to be the hacker and wanting asylum, Section 9 is faced with uncovering the truth, that some will do anything to hide. While the film is based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, and shares his fetishsm of tech, it’s how Oshii’s adaptation executes the source in other ways, which has made the film something that continually bleeds into pop-culture zietgeist even today.
Given the anime trending in 1995, Ghost took a much different route shirking the fan-servicey hypersexulization of its female protagonist, which was a genre staple at the time. Motoko Kunsangi is no nonsense, complex and driven by her feelings of alienation. While she is presented as female, her character feels at times almost genderless. Because of this nuance in the script she feels more three dimensional than most 2D girls at the time. Character designs across the board were also more grounded in reality by anime standards, which would help its mainstream appeal. This also helps not to date Oshii’s work since the film carved out its own style for this film. The two other standouts here are the goregously rendered backgrounds and the chilling score by Kenji Kawai, who somehow manages to elevate these meticulously rendered visuals.
I revisited the film almost 25 years later via the new 4K UHD by Lionsgate, this only reiterated the fact that even though so many have been influenced by the film over the years, it still feels very much like its own entity. Visually this edition feels about as definitive as we’re going to get short of owning a 35mm print of the film. The image quality here is stunning on the UHD, although the animation here appears to be slightly retouched like some of the older Disney Blu-rays to even out the visible brush strokes and possibly for color consistency. There is also some evidence DNR has been used to smooth out some of the film grain as well. The backgrounds however are a sight to behold in 4k and I found myself pausing just to take it all in to appreciate the work. This release is also appears to have a better contrast than the somewhat “dark” Japanese release that retails for about $80, compared to this release’s $20 price tag. The clarity is paired with Dolby Vision HDR that further enhances the already vibrant color palette fueled by neon hues and the pitch blacks.
This 4K transfer is paired with a Dolby Atmos track for both the Japanese language and English dub. I chose to watch the film with English, because of partly nostalgia and because the dub here is actually pretty decent. The sound mix here is definitely much more layered to take advantage of the extra channels, which adds up to a few surprises over the viewing. The score here by Kenji Kawai just envelops the room as you’d expect, hitting the lows particularly hard. This definitely accentuates the long takes during the film where the plot takes a back seat to Oshii just inviting the audience to get lost in the world around them. This leads into the most surprising part of the package given the amount of times its been re-released in various incarnations over the last few decades it has ACTUAL NEW EXTRAS.
Along with the film of course you get that “making of”, in DVD quality that has been tacked on to every release since the Manga DVD, but also two newly produced pieces in 4K no less along with a new commentary. The first featurette, Accessing Section 9: 25 Years into the Future digs into the sound design, writing and casting of the English dub. First thing that stood out was this was produced by the wife of Les Claypool of Primus, who also worked sound design on the dub, which I personally found fascinating. Both are interviewed here along with select cast who have since reprised their roles over the years and give some thoughtful commentary on their respective characters. The second featurette, Landscapes & Dreamscapes: The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell, is a deep dive into the background art of the film, which thanks to this transfer is completely on display here. The piece digs into how Hong Kong was used as a stand-in for New Port City, and how this was the first anime to add a location scout to production. If that wasn’t enough there is even a newly produced commentary on the disc with Mary Claypool (Animation Writer and English Language Scriptwriter), Eric Calderon (Animation Producer and Writer), Richard Epcar (Voice of “Batou”), and Charles Solomon (Animation Historian and Critic).
As a piece of cinema, Ghost in the Shell is still as effective and relevant as it was almost two decades ago, which is no easy feat. I think that’s because Oshii has built his story of a cyborg woman trying to figure out who she is on the foundation of some very universal philosophical questions and themes we all grapple with on a daily basis, especially today. Also it doesn’t hurt, the film is gorgeously animated either. Needless to say I was just floored, not only by the presentation here of the film, but the addition of the new extras, which is not usually the norm these days with the whole decline of physical media. It’s obvious Lionsgate really put forth a genuine effort to try and do the title justice and produce a package that wasn’t simply a port of the bare bones Japanese release. Not only has the transfer been tweaked slightly to improve upon previous releases, the addition of the extras for me make this a great if not mandatory pick-up for fans.
Get it at Amazon:
If you enjoy reading Cinapse, purchasing items through our affiliate links can tip us with a small commission at no additional cost to you.