Ghost in the Shell Special Edition
Emru Townsend · January 31, 2005 | Not many sequels make you want to go back and see the original, but watching the theatrical release of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence last October made me want to run home and watch the original Ghost in the Shell again. It wasn't until Manga Entertainment re-released the original as a special-edition DVD earlier this month that I finally had the chance—and I'm glad I did. It's a rare thing to go back to a decade-old movie that hinges on technology, both thematically and visually, and find that you appreciate it almost as much as when you first saw it.

That Ghost in the Shell focuses on technology is a given. The original manga was by Shirow Masamune, and most of his works—including Appleseed, Black Magic and Dominion, all of which have also been adapted to anime—examine the intersections between technology, society, philosophy and crime. Like its sequel, Ghost in the Shell's particular points of interest are memory and crossing the threshold between man and machine.

Set in 2029, the three main characters are Motoko Kusanagi, Batou, and Togusa. The three are members of Section 9, an elite law enforcement/anti-terrorist unit; like most of Section 9, they are cybernetically enhanced. Kusanagi and Batou are physically more machine than human, whereas Togusa has had only the lightest modification. While operating in Hong Kong, the three are caught up in the search for a mysterious, supremely talented hacker known only as the Puppet Master, whose modus operandi include hacking people's memories to make them do his bidding.

Ghost in the Shell Special Edition
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Manga Entertainment, 2005
Originally released in 1995
82 minutes

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In this aspect the movie deliberately confuses memory, the brain's stored experiences, with memory, a computer's stored data, to ask two questions: when you live in a world where the brain is thoroughly mapped and modifiable, what's the difference between the two? And was there ever a difference?

These questions are directly connected to Kusanagi's own gnawing self-doubt. She's prone to wondering: given that most of her body is cybernetic, is she still human? How can she tell? And if she isn't, does she miss it? (We're never told outright if she had these doubts before encountering the Puppet Master's handiwork, which opens the door to various interpretations of the film.)

The fictional search for the boundary where humanity begins between real and artificial life is an old one, so it's not surprising that this technological aspect doesn't date Ghost in the Shell. More interesting is that the movie's visuals make extensive use of CGI and computer-assisted animation, yet still seem fresh and captivating. The reason is made clear if you watch the two making-of segments on the second disc in the Special Edition package; it's apparent that Oshii didn't make use of digital tools unless it fit into the aesthetic he was looking for. It's a bit contradictory: Oshii has been criticized for thinking through his films too much (in these pages, Fred Patten referred to Innocence as "coldly cerebral"), but it's that same rigorous approach that makes him reluctant to rush in where other directors have trod far too often. There's no CGI for the sake of CGI; if it's there, it's there for a reason, and it's in the service of the director's style. Like Toy Story, which came out the same year, the end result is a film that dates well though the tools have rapidly become more sophisticated in the interim. While the digital work in Innocence is more prevalent and sophisticated, Ghost in the Shell doesn't suffer; proof enough that it's not the tool, it's the director.

If you've seen Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence but never seen the original, it's worth it to pick up this DVD. It's a benefit storywise, as it fills the viewer in on some of the allusions in Innocence, but it's especially worth it to catch the similarities (Oshii's obsession with basset hounds), and the differences (the "less is more" approach of the original versus the "more is more" approach of the sequel). When compared side by side, Oshii's real achievement becomes clear: Ghost in the Shell is not a thematic and visual precursor to Innocence, but a complement.

DVD Features: Anamorphic widescreen; DTS-ES 6.1 surround and Dolby Digital-EX 5.1 surround (English, Japanese); Dolby Digital Stereo (Spanish, French, Italian, German); English subtitles; character dossiers; creator and director biographies; Digital Works and Production Report featurettes; Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex trailers.
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