The popular manga-turned-film noir is a timely work of speculative fiction, especially in our technologically driven world. Its plot centers on the investigation of a cybernetic security agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi. Policing society in the year 2029, Major Kusanagi searches for a dangerous hacker known only as the Puppet Master. With the elusive Puppet Master inciting chaos across the Hong Kong-inspired metropolis, Kusanagi races the clock to stop the hacker in a futuristic game of cat and mouse.
In the wake of this year’s glossy re-imagination of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 classic anime is hitting theaters in over 100 theaters across the nation, including the humble Alamo City.
The real kicker? Kusanagi herself is a creation of cybernetic artifice – her living, human consciousness is routed into a lifeless, mechanical body, or “ghost” – which is vulnerable to the hacker’s omnipotent grasp as much as the rest of her digitalized landscape.
In many ways the film is the quintessential Japanese anime. It takes place in a post-nuclear, new-millennium world of technological sprawl, where human life and mechanization are existentially tangled. (Let’s put aside the political implications of a police officer who literally cannot die.) Beyond the dark political conspiracies, the film’s unstable backdrop is wrought with issues of identity: humans look like computers and computers look like humans in a universe that barely seems like a work of fiction.
This strange crisis of identity is relevant now more than ever. There’s a huge effort in Japan and the United States to create robotic humanoids that interact meaningfully. Some scholars have even suggested that humans are already androids by definition, with our barest beings psychologically married to our tablets and iPhones; and, if life imitates art as they say, the cryptic parable of Major Kusanagi and the Puppet Master begs another visit.
As we witness Major Kasunagi’s battery-powered shell manufactured in the film’s opening credits, we are prompted to ask certain philosophical questions. Where is our species left standing after the technology boom comes to an end? How do we distinguish man from machine when our computers begin to match us cognitively? Who is really in control?
While Ghost in the Shell doesn’t offer concrete answers to these questions, it provides us with a thrilling narrative to see the nightmare of what could be. Never losing its footing in its cultural context – an ancient Japanese wedding song appears at the climax of events as a key musical motif – the film moves beyond place and time to make alarming comments on contemporary society.
As it stands, no one is sure whether the Hollywood adaptation will achieve the same impact as the anime classic. (There is an obvious problem with whitewashing the cast; the live action version stars Scarlett Johansson as an Asian character and ditches the protagonist’s name Kasunagi for the simpler title of “the Major.”) But you’ll have to check out the original to decide for yourself.
Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes and Santikos Bijou are hosting screenings of Ghost in the Shell on Tuesday, February 7 and Wednesday, February 8.