Mamoru Oshii's 1995 adaptation of the popular Japanese manga 'Ghost in the Shell' is notable as the first anime feature film to be released to theaters simultaneously in Japan, the UK, and the United States. Prior to that time, anime had been making inroads into Western popular culture on home video, and the theatrical release of 'Akira' made a notable splash a few years earlier, but the medium had never broken out beyond a cult audience. 'Ghost in the Shell' sought to bring it into the mainstream. The film didn't quite achieve that lofty goal, but certainly did leave a lasting impression and has endured as a classic of both the sci-fi and animation genres.
The picture makes its intentions clear right away that this will not be a children's cartoon. In its opening scene, a woman stands atop a building roof, strips almost entirely nude, arms herself, and leaps backwards off the ledge. A few floors down, a foreign ambassador argues his diplomatic immunity to police attempting to arrest the man with him, a government computer programmer in possession of state secrets who has sought political asylum. Suddenly, the window shatters with gunfire and the ambassador is slaughtered in grisly fashion. Outside the window, the assassin drops from sight and is quickly enveloped with a cloak of invisibility, blending her body into the cityscape below.
Later we'll learn that the woman is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg field agent for the Public Security Section 9 task force, and her job was to prevent the programmer from defecting while leaving no trace of official government involvement. With Kusanagi's partner Batou and a team of other specialists cybernetically modified to varying degrees, Section 9 handles the dirty work that other government agencies want no part of. After cleaning up the mess from this assassination, the team's next assignment is to track down a cunning computer hacker calling himself the "Puppet Master" who has been intruding into the cyber-brains of various individuals throughout the country to make them perform his bidding. The trail will lead them to an unexpected revelation concerning the Puppet Master's true identity and nature.
Set some 30-odd years beyond the time of the movie's production, 'Ghost in the Shell' posits a near future world dominated by information overload, in which mankind and technology have seamlessly integrated into one another. Almost everyone, even the garbagemen, have cybernetic enhancements to their bodies and minds, with only the soul (or "ghost") to distinguish them from pure machines and maintain their humanity. However, even that line seems to be blurring.
As brought to life by Mamoru Oshii, the film combines a heady mix of cyberpunk futurism, gritty action, and thought-provoking philosophical ideas in equal measure. The direction is very moody and filled with beautiful, haunting imagery. Oshii's obsessive perfectionism manifests in an amazing attention to detail, with layers upon layers of cluttered visuals fleshing out the workings of this future society. The story questions the very nature of what it means to be human, but does so in an unpretentious manner. Running just 82 minutes, the film has a tight and concise narrative, delivering its intellectual content in the guise of a sci-fi thriller with several well-orchestrated action sequences.
It may not have been a theatrical blockbuster in the U.S., but 'Ghost in the Shell' was a big hit in Japan, has had a long shelf-life on video in every territory it was released in, and has proven incredibly influential to both the anime world and other media ('The Matrix' movies borrow extensively from it, for example). The 2002 anime series 'Stand Alone Complex' is technically a parallel adaptation of the original Masamune Shirow manga and does not follow the continuity of the movie, but leans heavily on Oshii's visual and directorial sensibilities (though he had no involvement in its production). The show ran for a couple seasons and is also very popular. In 2004, Oshii returned to the property with 'Innocence', a direct sequel to the 1995 film that expands upon his philosophical musings and has an even more dazzling visual design. In each of these branches of the franchise, 'Ghost in the Shell' is fascinating, compelling entertainment as potent in intellectual substance as it is in sleek and richly-detailed style.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ghost in the Shell' comes to Blu-ray from Bandai Visual. Although the studio has released a few anime titles on both High-Def formats on these shores, the American distribution rights to this particular film belong to Manga Video, a company not yet committed to High Definition. As such, the 'Ghost in the Shell' Blu-ray is currently only available in Japan. No mention of region coding is marked anywhere on the disc case, but fortunately Japan and North America both fall under Region A anyway, so the disc will function in any American Blu-ray player.
Like Bandai Visual's other High-Def releases, 'Ghost in the Shell' comes in a 2-disc set, one Blu-ray copy and one regular DVD copy in their own separate DVD-sized keepcases stored inside a cardboard box. Also included is a booklet with images from the movie and some Japanese liner notes. The artwork on the box is kind of weird and freaky (who is that character supposed to be?) and for some reason the English phrase "People love machines in 2029 A.D." is printed no less than 8 times in various locations throughout the set's packaging.
Upon loading, the disc goes straight to the movie with no main menu screen. In fact, the disc only has pop-up menus. The text is all Japanese and may be a little difficult (but not impossible) for an English speaking viewer to navigate.
The movie's 2004 sequel 'Innocence' is also available separately on Blu-ray in Japan from I.G Cinema Selection and Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
At first glance, I thought I had put in the wrong disc and was looking at the DVD edition. I actually ejected the disc to confirm that I was watching a Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer does not have much of a High Definition appearance. I watched the entire movie convinced that this was in fact an upscaled Standard-Def master. It wasn't until afterward that I shattered that notion by putting in the Region 1 Special Edition DVD from Manga Video that I hadn't watched in a couple of years, only to find the picture there so heavily filtered that it's actually out of focus. The DVD looks terrible and the Blu-ray is a substantial improvement over it, however that says less about the Blu-ray than about the poor quality of the Region 1 DVD. The Region 2 DVD included with the Blu-ray looks much better than the R1 copy. Directly comparing the Blu-ray to the R2 DVD does indeed show the Blu-ray to be slightly crisper and better resolved in the fine details (especially those in the background of shots) as if a layer of gauze had been removed, but the difference isn't nearly as significant.
'Ghost in the Shell' has a somewhat soft and hazy style by design (the integration of primitive CGI is fuzzy by current standards), but the Blu-ray is clearly sourced from a dated video master that exaggerates those qualities. The image is rather grainy and has problems with color banding and white crush. I didn't see any edge enhancement ringing, but the grain frequently comes across looking like video noise. The 1.85:1 picture is also mildly windowboxed, with small black borders on all four sides of the frame, which viewers with zero-overscan displays will find annoying. As mentioned, the disc is still a step up from the DVD edition, and fans will likely welcome any improvement they can get, but as High Definition this is pretty mediocre. The Blu-ray release of the sequel 'Innocence' is vastly more impressive.
Equally disappointing is the audio on the disc. Whereas the Region 1 DVD had snazzy 6.1 DTS-ES remixes for both the original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub, the Blu-ray contains only Japanese PCM 2.0 and English Dolby Digital 2.0 options. That's right, they're both 2.0. Technically, when it played theatrically in 1995, the movie only had a Dolby SR sound mix, and it can be argued that the Blu-ray remains faithful to that original soundtrack. However, the DVD remixes were very well done and quite satisfying, and make the Blu-ray seem lacking in comparison.
For what it's worth, the Japanese PCM track is a little shrill and dated, but does have crisp sound effects (even though many of them are of the recycled variety that older anime productions tended to share in common) and a moderate amount of low end activity in the score. There's very little surround action, even with ProLogic II decoding applied. The R1 DVD's 6.1 remix has a little more heft and better surround envelopment. I wish I could match up the soundtrack from the DVD with the video from the Blu-ray.
The Japanese and English audio tracks on the Region 2 DVD included in the Blu-ray set are both provided in Dolby Digital 2.0 format. Both the Blu-ray and the DVD offer the same English or Japanese subtitles.
Aside from the booklet in the box, there are next to no supplements on the disc.
Even though 'Ghost in the Shell' is an anime classic, this Blu-ray import is hard to recommend, especially with its obscenely high list price (typical for Bandai Visual). The video is a noticeable improvement over the truly lousy Region 1 DVD, but still nothing special. The audio is a distinct downgrade, and there are virtually no bonus features. Die-hard fans may want it regardless, but I can't imagine anyone else rushing to make the purchase.