Ghost in the Shell 2.0 Review
As far as the cyberpunk genre goes in Japan the most important films of the last twenty years have to be Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Akira has the advantage of having come out a few years earlier, but the influence of both films on the science-fiction works to come after them is immeasurable. Like Akira, Ghost in the Shell started life as a manga serial, this one written by Masamune Shirow. Shirow had already achieved a level of international fame through his other seminal manga serial: Appleseed, and Ghost in the Shell further cemented this success. An animated adaptation beckoned, and in 1995 it found the ideal director in Mamoru Oshii, whose own works had shared many of the themes found in Shirow’s techno-bible. The release of the Ghost in the Shell anime film was a highly important event in the profile of Anime worldwide as it was the first time a Japanese animated production was released simultaneously in Japan, U.K, and the U.S.A. Akira may have brought anime to the attention of the international mainstream, but it was Ghost in the Shell that made the first real statement that anime was a truly global entity.
In the year 2029 technology has advanced to the point where the human body can be augmented or replaced entirely by cybernetic components. In this new cyber age our brains themselves have been modded so they can connect to a vast corporate information network that covers the entire planet, and yet the borders between state, class and ethnic groups continue to exist in force. As such, organisations such as Public Security Section 9 are necessary existence to combat against international terrorism and cyber crime. The lead agent of Section 9 - a highly trained female cyborg named Motoko Kusanagi - is currently investigating a powerful super-hacker known only as The Puppet Master who has been hacking people’s brains and brainwashing them seemingly for the purpose of disrupting Foreign Aid talks with the Gavel Republic. However, as Section 9’s investigation progresses they discover The Puppet Masters motives is related to a governmental conspiracy that leads right to the heart of the Foreign Ministry itself.
The Ghost in the Shell manga is one of the most intelligent works of Science Fiction I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Masamune Shirow is like the Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick of the manga world all combined together, and in just 11 reasonably brief chapters (under 60 pages each) he somehow creates a world which is so politically and scientifically dense that even the most learned of Sci-fi buffs could find the story hard going. And yet, with such an meticulously information-heavy approach to detail, the manga also manages to incorporate very mainstream elements of Japanese serials, such as exciting action sequences, a heavy dose of sexually promiscuous imagery (what the Japanese call Fan Service) and most significantly a very light-hearted approach with constant comic relief used to break up the highly ontological tone of the story.
Mamoru Oshii’s film condenses the episodic narrative into a pretty tight storyline for such a detailed thriller that manages to maintain as much of Shirow’s original philosophical ideas as possible. The most significant alteration Oshi has made to the source is in significantly toning down the technological exposition and pretty much completely removing the humour from the piece. This makes the characters seem much more serious and emotionally deadened, which further blurs the line between human and robot. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this could easily have led to a much blander and overly pretentious entry into the realms of cyberpunk, but in Oshii’s hands the material has become significantly more brooding and atmospheric than Shirow’s manga, and this certainly suits the central themes of Ghost in the Shell very well.
Those central themes and the philosophical questions they raise revolve around the idea that in the future technology forms a symbiotic relationship with mankind, and the contents of our brains; our entire life’s experience and knowledge base, has been digitally mapped onto a huge cyber-network that spans the planet. The only thing that separates a human being from artificial intelligence is their “Ghost” - a trace or “phase” that exists within their cyber-brain that contains human identity, or the “soul”. The problem is that our ghost (or sense of identity) is reliant on our perception of the world around us, and when that perception is reliant solely on technology, it’s open to attack from cyber-hackers who can erase/alter sensory responses and memories to such an extent that they effectively control the ghosts of their victims and create a brainwashed “puppet” to do their bidding. The central “villain” of the piece: The Puppet Master is one such ghost-hacker – albeit an extremely effective one.
This poses the obvious question: How can any human know that they are truly human if their very perception of the world around them can be altered so significantly? This fundamental question haunts the protagonist: Motoko Kusanagi, an ass-kicking cyborg whose only original body part is her brain – an organ she cannot actually see or feel. Motoko’s struggle to keep in touch with her inherent humanity because of her physical displacement from the world around her gives rise to lots of thought-provoking statements about the end point of today’s technological advances, and the nature of life itself. What’s more, when The Puppet Master’s true nature and plans are revealed in the final act, an even grander level of existentialism kicks in that will have you meditating on the nature of life and our definition of reality long after the film has ended.
Despite such lofty ontological themes, Oshii has crafted a surprisingly mainstream action film. For a start the narrative is extremely concise, with the whole case involving The Puppet Master wrapped up in only a handful of incidents, this makes for an aggressively paced film that is given a further shot of adrenalin from some extremely stylish action set pieces – in fact stylistically every aspect of the film is a marvel. Oshii’s decision to relocate the story from Japan to an indistinct Far Eastern state gives him the freedom to incorporate lots of visual influences and a subtly layered multicultural setting, which results in cityscapes that have truly eye-popping art design.
The entire look of Ghost in Shell was state of the art back in 1995, Oshii chose to digitally scan each animation cel so they could be digitally manipulated to give the image a whole slew of subtle live action affects like lens distortion, reflection/refraction of light, and CG overlays to make Ghost in the Shell as close to live action than almost any animation before. Kenji Kawai also has an immense effect on the mood of Ghost in the Shell in creating an extremely evocative score that provides the ideal accompaniment to Oshii’s reflective montages that show off the intricate cityscapes.
I touched earlier upon the stylish action set pieces; these are driven from the spectacular scientific concepts that populate the Ghost in the Shell world: A universe where cyborgs are tantamount to superheroes, with the ability to leap buildings in a few bounds or communicate telepathically (across a network) and even turn themselves invisible with the use of thermo-optical camouflage. Oshii makes full use of these elements in a number of high-octane confrontations that have all the attention to detail and technical brilliance you expect from the auteur’s work. So while Ghost in the Shell may well be an impressive accomplishment as far as philosophical fiction goes, it’s also an extremely exciting action film that should appeal to all audiences.
Version 2.0The version of Ghost in the Shell present on this Blu-ray release is in fact the Version 2.0 remaster that Mamoru Oshii released to a small number of theatres in Japan back on July 12th 2008. The idea with Ghost in the Shell 2.0 was to go back to the original source and “enhance” it by recreating certain scenes with all new 3-D CG animation and digital effects, whilst also completely remastering the audio in collaboration with Randy Thom over at Skywalker Sound. From the lips of Oshii himself:
“In terms of CGI, there are over 90 cuts that have been altered and enhanced. And with extensive use of filter effects and colour correction techniques throughout the rest of the film, it's fair to say that pretty much the entire movie has been enhanced in some way.”
|Version 2.0||1995 Original|
That is most certainly a fair statement! Some of the new 3D sequences are particularly jarring – like Motoko’s introductory assassination sequence and her diving scene midway through the film – as they segue from obviously 3D animation to the traditional 2D cel style that makes up the majority of the film. To combat this problem Oshii has resorted to using digital hazing effects that have completely blurred the clarity of the image and give it a much, much softer and diffuse appearance in relation to the 1995 original. Not all the CG is to the detriment of the image though, the new graphics of the cyber-net world actually work quite well, with the green, flat systems now matching the yellow 3D graphics used in Ghost in the Shell – Innocence. Not that I want to suggest there was anything wrong with the original look of the cyber-net sequences in the first place, just that the new effects certainly don’t hurt the film at all.
I can just about overlook the 3D tampering as 90 shots doesn’t really add up to a tremendous chunk of the film, but the most overriding change in Version 2.0 is the heavy-duty colour correction. As mentioned earlier the cyber-net sequences are now golden-orange in appearance and they look pretty good, but for the rest of the film Oshii has opted to switch the more neutral blue and green tone of the 1995 version to a salmon/golden tone that just looks more drab and “earthy” to me – although obviously the colour tone of the film changes wildly from scene to scene. Colour in general feels more muted, pastel shades frequently replace what was once a quite vivid colours and a number of scenes are significantly darker, and while you can argue that the look of Version 2.0 is closer in tone to the look of the GITS sequel: Ghost in the Shell – Innocence, I just cannot get on with the new appearance at all. The 1995 original was a visually striking film on every single level, Version 2.0 is still visually striking, but it just seems a little blander.
In this section you can view a number of comparison grabs I’ve made that highlight the differences between the two versions. Please note that the screenshots for the 1995 Version are taken from the Bonus Features of this disc, which offers a poor quality version of the film that is in face a SD to HD upscale, therefore you may not be able to tell how much softer the Version 2.0 image is in relation to the 1995 Version.
|Version 2.0||1995 Original|
The visual changes are certainly going to be a bone of contention, but the new remastered audio just might convert a few die-hard fans. Randy Thom has done a fantastic job on the sound design and Ghost in the Shell has never sounded better, with completely new and much more realistic gunfire and explosions, while Kenji Kawai’s beautiful score sounds like it was recorded yesterday. At times the new audio is quite a difference from the 1995 Version so I’m sure purists will scoff, but there are scenes that now have more subtle dynamics - like the credits sequence that shows the creation of Motoko’s cyborg body. Now the sound effects from the production process don’t impose that much over Kawai’s moody score.
The changes aren’t just Audio-Visual, Oshii has altered the opening text right at the start of the film which was originally lifted straight from the manga; it now has a more elaborate poem. Apparently there are some minor edits here and there throughout the film as Oshii reunited the film’s voice cast to record additional/alternate dialogue, but I can’t say I picked up on any of these small changes. The one major difference to the voice work on Version 2.0 is that the actor who originally played the voice of The Puppet Master: Iemasa Kayumi, has now been replaced by the actress Yoshiko Sakakibara. I’m not sure why Oshii decided to change the sex of The Puppet Master’s voice given that the character is in fact sexless, I can only assume he’s trying to further blur the lines between Motoko and The Puppet Master, as Yoshiko Kayumi does sound quite similar to the actress playing Motoko: Atsuko Tanaka. This of course makes the scene in the final act when Motoko and The Puppet Master are talking to Batou a little harder to follow for newcomers to the film, as they’ve got to discern between two similar voices to figure who is saying what!
|Version 2.0||1995 Original|
PresentationI’ve already mentioned that Version 2.0 has been digitally hazed by Mamoru Oshii presumably in an attempt to integrate the new 3D CG sequences into the 2D cel scenes as seamlessly as possible, this has resulted in a significant drop in sharpness between 2.0 and the 1995 version. Bearing this in mind, I never expected this fullscreen 1080p transfer to reach reference levels of detail, but I have to say that image clarity isn’t too bad at all really and there’s a definite jump in sharpness over standard definition. The 2.0 remaster may have degraded the sharpness of the image and significantly altered the colour scheme, but otherwise Oshii’s team have done a cracking “restoration” job (and I use the word loosely in this case) on the image, it looks as clean as ever and there’s only the odd nick, fleck and grains of dust from the cel-scanning process to be found. The animation lines have a satisfying depth and don’t appear to be affected by any noise reduction processes, and yet film grain is pretty much non-existant – although the reduced clarity may have played a big part in that.
The new 2.0 colour scheme is quite understated and naturally the hazing makes colours look a bit more cloudy so I wouldn’t say this is the most vibrant HD image, but there are times of bold colour and the blu-ray handles them very naturalistically. Speaking of which, the contrast and brightness levels seem very well balanced and consistent between the original content and the 2008 additions. Some scenes are definitely on the dark side but that seems to be the intent, and back levels and shadow detail are very solid. Encoding uses the AVC codec with an average video bit-rate of 22.90Mbps. For the most part compression is very solid with only trace amounts of tiny blocking being noticeable in motion, but given the hazing some intrusive banding creeps into the image on one too many occasions. Thankfully, what doesn’t creep into the image are any Edge Enhancements - there are some dark halos around certain characters and objects, but this is down to the shadow cast from the front animation cel on the background drawings.
Manga have included enough audio options to suit viewer needs, you can choose either the original Japanese or an English dub in both LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 6.1. Ghost in the Shell was originally shown theatrically back in 1995 in Dolby Stereo, but Version 2.0 release was shown theatrically in Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES, so technically the Japanese DTS-HD MA 6.1 track is the “original” track for this title. It’s an excellent track; the new audio remaster is a corker and completely eliminates most of the ravages that time inevitably brings to any audio master. There’s hardly any background hiss at all and dialogue is particularly smooth and crisp. Bass levels are aggressively meaty with only a slight perception of looseness that might suggest this is a near-15yr old film. The action sequences have impressive depth to them, with each sound effect sounding suitably distinct, and these excellent dynamics also do wonders for the evocative score. The remix is extremely expressive and the directionality is excellent so all of your speakers will be given plenty to do.
The Japanese LPCM 2.0 track understandably sounds slightly less expressive in just every single area: Volume levels are lower, bass is less weighty, sound effects are a touch less defined in the mix; and of course the sound stage isn’t nearly expressive – especially when it comes to rear sounds. However, if the DTS-HD track is a no go for you then this LPCM 2.0 presentation does a very good job of its own. Comparing the English dub tracks to their Japanese counterparts reveals the English LPCM 2.0 to be more restrained than the Japanese, but the English DTS-HD 6.1 track is actually a pretty good match for the Japanese track. The big difference between the English and Japanese tracks is that the dialogue is never at the same volume level in the mix.
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall.
ExtrasA small but worthwhile selection of extra features await for you on this disc. I’ll just run through the most substantial features individually:
GITS Original Movie: Manga have included the 1995 version of the film on this disc, and if you’ve seen the screenshots taken from this presentation above then you can see that unfortunately they have not opted to us the high-quality HD master that was struck for the Japanese Blu-ray release in 2007. Instead they’ve used an old, poor quality tape master to produce an absolute stinker of a transfer that, although presented in 1080i, will not offer any more detail than a particularly lousy DVD transfer. The problems with the transfer are legion: Massive amounts of shimmer is a constant nuisance - as is cross-colouration, the image is blurry and there appears to be some form of vertical streaking going on in the print, which is perhaps down to some form of video grain. Compression is AVC with a low average bit-rate of 17.00Mbps but there is so much blocking in the image down to the source that it’s hard to say if the encode itself is poorly compressed or not. Very thick edge enhancement halos are omnipresent and so thick that they’re almost as substantial as the animation lines themselves. On top of all this contrast and brightness levels are a bit dodgy so both whites and black levels are quite poor.
You don’t need to take my word for it, just take a look at any one of the screenshots in the Version 2.0 section to see a good chunk of the problems I’m moaning about. For audio you can choose between Japanese or English in LPCM 2.0, and as far as the Japanese track is concerned the quality of the audio is as poor as the transfer. The sound is very muffled, dialogue isn’t particularly clear and bass is both flat and very soft. The 2.0 presentation is just as flat and lifeless, but at least there’s very little in the way of hiss, mind you the audio levels are so low that it could just that. The English 2.0 track fares better, the volume level is much higher and while this has introduced lots more hiss into the audio, just about every other aspect of the sound is better than the Japanese track. It wo’t be winning any awards for sound quality any time soon though!
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall.
Making of Ghost in the Shell – Production Report: A generic featurette that is too short to offer any real insight into the film’s production, but it does spend time with just about everyone who played an important role in the making of Ghost in the Shell so there is some interesting trivia to be found here.
Theatrical Trailer: Self-explanatory, presented in the similarly low-quality 1080i AVC as the Original Movie.
The remaining extra features are text based and provide some concise background information: Creator Biographies provides short biographies for Mamoru Oshii and Masamune Shirow, whilst Character Profiles and a Glossary reveal important information from the film.