‘Major’ Motoko Kusanagi, an almost completely prosthetic cyborg, is an agent in Section 9, a shady police/intelligence unit tasked with counter-terrorism and cybersecurity in a near future Japan. When she finds the trail of the ‘Puppet Master’, a cybercriminal best known for allegedly being able to hack a person’s cerebral implants and take control of them, she is pulled into a dangerous manhunt intertwined with politics and infused with questions of identity and humanness.
I am noticing a pattern in my reviews of Japanese movies (such as Howls Moving Castle or Your Name): they look amazing, but at the end I am left somewhat unsatisfied with the story. Ghost in the Shell is no different.
Again, if I were to rate Ghost in the Shell on aesthetics alone, its an easy five star (though even then I would probably have to make a remark on the movie’s awkward focus on Major’s nude body). I feel like some of Ghost in the Shell’s aesthetic choices – and even some of it’s specific shots – still resonate throughout the cyberpunk genre. Similarly, I feel like some of its themes – when does an AI become human, when does a cyborg stop being human – are central to what cyberpunk is today. In that sense, Ghost in the Shell is a pillar of the genre.
The story, though, favours emotional beats over the plot, favours scenes and moments over the story as a whole. The result is that while the immediate consequences of the scene on screen are clear, I often felt like I couldn’t place what was going on in a bigger picture. Perhaps this was also the result of rather perfunctory worldbuilding which probably served the movie’s purposes but left a lot unexplained. It is possible that some of these issues are solved in the manga – which I didn’t read – but I felt that the movie was perhaps a bit of a grab bag of scenes more than an integrated whole.
The question remains: does that matter? No, but also yes.
It does not matter in the sense that I had a fun evening watching Ghost in the Shell and would certainly recommend it to people who crave an intense injection of cyberpunk look and feel (as, you know, you sometimes do). In that area, it deserves its reputation.
It does matter, however, in that I didn’t feel like immediately diving into the franchise. I didn’t feel a connection with Major or the Puppet Master or any of the other characters, and I wasn’t curious how their lives would play out. I didn’t feel like the movie made a real attempt at answering the questions it posed, I wasn’t invested in Major’s humanness (or the lack thereof). I felt like the lacklustre story made a movie that could have been great just good.
Overall though, Ghost in the Shell’s visuals are amazing and I shouldn’t undersell the movie because it focusses only on those: it wants more than anything to look awesome and it totally does. And you should watch it because of that.