Ghost in the Shell – both in manga and anime form – draws from a wide spectrum of philosophy for its deliberations on the nature of consciousness and the borders of existence. It’s characters quote Descartes, Confucius and a gamut of others as they ruminate and cogitate, between – or even during – bouts of tactical violence. The ideas and their ramifications often place Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk creation on a pedestal all of its own within the genre. It’s ambitious work that asks – nay, demands – that the viewer participate. Questions are asked and left for us to ponder our own responses.
When reading a manga, one portions out the pace of the narrative oneself. A reader can pause, take stock, take a break, pick up the story tomorrow. The ambient spaces between reads allow the ideas to flourish and grow, even if we’re not consciously repeating the questions to ourselves. But how to do you allow for the same within a narrative feature, especially one with ambitions of cinematic release? Imposing an intermission on your audience to urge solemn contemplation is a dramatic move. A literal intermission – especially in a film with a relatively brief running time – might lose you audience members altogether.
In the justly-celebrated 1995 anime of Ghost in the Shell, director Mamoru Oshii finds an artful solution. Oshii had dealt with serious subject matter within the framework of an anime feature before. His 1993 Patlabor 2 is, at heart, a complex and profoundly intelligent political thriller about a terrorist who orchestrates a military coup, pulling strings much like GitS‘s ‘Puppet Master’. That film found plenty of spaces for such rumination, and the beats within it are some of the most lyrical I’ve seen in the form.
For GitS he arguably went one better, dividing the film into two uneven halves that are joined by a deliberately contemplative pause in the action; an arena for us (and lead character Major Motoko Kusanagi) to digest and regroup.
I have long assumed that this demarcation is a sign that the film may have originally been intended as a 2-part OAV (Original Video Animation), and that these street scenes amount to the opening titles of ‘part 2’ of the piece, featuring Kenji Kawai’s signature music that strongly recalls – if not outright repeats – the movie’s opening theme. That, ultimately, the two halves were only latterly considered strong enough to demand a cinema release and were thus fused together. I’ve not seen anything that proves or disproves this theory of mine (though I haven’t dug hard), but over time I’ve come to let the theory go, in part due to witnessing Oshii’s fondness for such beats elsewhere in his work.
Here, we are presented a future Tokyo motoring at its own pace. A canal boat silently chugs along. Aboard it, the Major spies a woman in a high-rise building who appears to be a dead ringer for herself. A copy? Another version of the same ‘model’? The uncanny moment presses on the piece’s enquiries into the nature of self and identity. For the Major, these questions are urgent and troubling as she displays a paranoia over her uniqueness in the world; both physical and digital. The film has already shown us how, in it’s reality, people can be hacked like computers and reprogrammed. Might they also be coped? Erased? If the ‘shell’ the Major inhabits is off a production line, what qualifies her sense of self? What secures and protects it?
The sequence continues. A dog looks over a parapet. It begins to rain. We transition to night and neons. The Major appears again… or are we looking at a mannequin in a shop window? Another type of lifeless form. Another type of puppet. When the sequence ends, it returns to more showroom dummies, this time more obviously so; disrobed and disarmed. Featureless. Eerily, it foreshadows the Major’s own impermanent ‘end’, as her cyborg body will suffer dismemberment before the case is over, though her essence will remain in tact.
These three minutes of the film are not merely a pause in the action, then; they do provide sustenance and imagery that furthers the ongoing line of enquiry. It isn’t wholly liminal or negative space. Yet it feels like a worthwhile beat to take, and an invitation to take part in the philosophical dialogue occurring within the story. It’s a rest and it’s an outstretched hand. A breather… and a request. You could delete it from the film, but you’d be excising part of the identity of the whole. Like that garbage truck driver in the first half of the story, there’d be something ineffably missing and changed about it. It would suffer as a result.
Animation – particularly rooted in genres like action and science fiction – rarely takes the time to pause for contemplation in the same manner you might find in live action cinema. As the very name of the genre implies, it’s about movement. Constant movement. Oshii’s little palette cleanser here owes a debt to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni or, perhaps more appropriately, Ridley Scott circa Blade Runner. It stands as a concerted and successful effort to breathe a certain soulfulness into his picture. A ghost in the shell, as it were.