Ghost gets a new Shell

The film you loved only slightly vandalized

I had barely made it into my seat when I heard the trivia question.

“Basset Hound!” I yelled.


The guy handed me my prize (a fistful of online movie vouchers) while my friends congratulated me on my grasp of obscure movie trivia. (The question was “What animal does director Mamoru Oshii put into all of his films?”) A nice start to an evening of classic anime as the curtain rose on Ghost in the Shell a nearly 20-year-old film still beloved by anime fans everywhere.

Then we got our first glimpse of the film’s protagonist standing naked atop a high-rise building and it became apparent that something was up. This was kind of the same movie we saw back in the late ’90s but ever-so-slightly different. Our well-remembered cartoon naked lady was now a weirdly blurry 3D CGI naked lady. Like something you’d see in a video game cutscene only shot through a sheet of gauze. She was still striking the same poses donning her hi-tech invisibility gear before dropping silently down the side of the building and shooting a guy while she free-falls past his office. Why does she do this? I’m still not sure even after seeing this film three times but it looks cool as hell.

We were relieved to see that the soft-focus CGI stuff goes away almost immediately. Only the shots where the camera lingers over our heroine’s nude body are shot in the new style — all other characters and scenes are traditional cel animation like we’re used to. It became clear that although the Digital Film Festival advertised this film as the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) this was actually a slightly altered version called Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008). It isn’t a sequel — confusingly there’s already a semi-sequel out there called Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) — this is just the original film where about 40 seconds of cheesecake shots have been redone in glaucoma-simulating Xbox-vision. Um… neat?

By refilming the shots where the attractive heroine takes her clothes off arches her back and gently glides through either air or liquid this version of the film really calls attention to how often such scenes appear in Ghost in the Shell and how gratuitous they are. Here’s a film with breathless action scenes a vividly imagined future society and genuinely insightful discussion about identity and self-awareness as it applies to mostly mechanical organisms — but to really sell it to its intended audience we’re gonna need to show some robotic titties. I feel like shaking my head sadly but the tactic worked. Audiences loved GitS in the ’90s and they still seem to love it now — for good reason.

This really is a fascinating film; it just has a few weird flaws. The pacing is all over the place for example. The movie begins and ends with frantic action scenes that barely attempt to explain the stakes tactics or combatants to the confused yet thrilled audience. After the first action beat things come to a crashing halt as we watch the backs of two characters’ heads while they have a long conversation in an elevator. Meanwhile if the audience stops paying attention for two seconds they’ll miss an important plot point or lose track of what everybody’s trying to do. First-time viewers tend to get overwhelmed. Heck five-time viewers still have trouble keeping track of everything. This is one of those stories that fans obsess over filling in the cracks of the narrative with explanations from DVD commentaries the original manga online forums and more. The good news is for the most part the story rewards such devotion with a fascinatingly rich experience.

As the (Japanese) credits rolled my friends and I agreed that the film still holds up today but that the slight changes of the 2.0 version are unnecessary and distracting. Who would take a perfectly good film and tweak it to make it slightly worse? Then we saw the Lucasfilm logo in the 2.0 section of the credits and suddenly it all made sense. Oh George.