Closely tailing Dreamworks' release of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Manga Entertainment's timely offering of the Ghost in the Shell Special Edition DVD is a chance for fans to experience the original with more polish than ever before. For Dreamworks, it may also be a valuable lesson in how to package an anime release. Graced with stylish clear-and-shiny casing, and containing abundant extras, this two-disc set is the new, definitive way to watch Ghost in the Shell. The picture quality alone proves it: this movie, almost ten years old, now looks a whole lot closer to 2029 than 1995.
The innovative quality of Ghost in the Shell comes not from the path that the story takes, but the ideas that it visits along the way. What starts out as a sleek, futuristic cop thriller becomes an inquiry into the nature of "life" and "self." What defines us as humans? How are we aware of our own thoughts? Can a machine be programmed to think like a person? And how did ideas that were around for decades take so long to crystallize in a breakthrough film?
In an age where the Internet is a fact of life and The Matrix (clearly inspired by GitS) is a pop-culture meme, the concepts of Ghost in the Shell may not be as striking as they were to mid-90's audiences. Still, it's the one of the few anime titles that makes us stop and think—and in this movie, the characters sure do a whole lot of stopping and thinking. Those expecting the nonstop action typical of your average sci-fi anime may be disappointed by the deliberate pacing. Rather than overloading us with exciting visuals, Ghost in the Shell challenges our capacity for abstract thought with philosophical reflections. Unfortunately, these reflections go so far that they often weigh down the narrative flow. Prepare for a whole lot of "Wait, what was that? Rewind!" while watching the movie.
Like a true heroine, principal character Motoko
Kusanagi undergoes different levels of transformation throughout the story. Motoko's cyborg body causes her to question whether her personality and memories alone can set her apart as an individual; there's even an emotional element as she and Batou display an unexpected sort of affection for each other.
Kusanagi and the other characters' dialogue may feel like it's been lifted from books on philosophy and computer science, but there's still a sense of personal self-examination. (Compare this to the much colder Innocence sequel, where it's more about Really Big Ideas than asking "Who am I?")
Despite Ghost in the Shell's low-key script, Production I.G makes no excuses when it comes to the animation. The carefully placed action sequences are a ballet of fluid motions and dynamic camera angles, with a level of anatomical correctness that's rare in anime. Fans who are used to the manga or the Stand Alone Complex series may find the character designs off-putting, but look at what we're given: outstanding animation, computer effects that are as fresh today as they were in 1995 (mostly because they don't cry out "LOOK! I'm in CG!"), and thanks to digital remastering, a clarity of line and color that belies this movie's age.
Kenji Kawai's music is a fitting complement to the subdued nature of Ghost in the Shell, avoiding the bombast of typical sci-fi action movie scores. His most evocative technique is setting fast-paced scenes to introspective music—consider, for example, Motoko's battle against a tank, where thick ethereal chords set the tone, rather than a clichéd din of brass and percussion. Even the theme music is a beautiful contradiction, using ancient Japanese lyrics and a traditional melody to heighten its contrast against the movie's futuristic world.
Despite being several years old, the English dub of Ghost in the Shell is still competent by modern standards. Batou's voice actor brings the aura of an action hero to the role, and Motoko is quietly confident even though her delivery gets a little too robotic at times—even for a cyborg. The English dub script tends to add swear words where none exist, and sometimes has to re-arrange entire blocks of dialogue, but generally maintains the meaning of the original translation. And just in case English isn't your preferred choice of audio, there are also Spanish, French, German, and Italian dubs (along with the original Japanese, of course).
The gorgeously designed menus on these discs lead to a satisfying collection of extras: the Production Report is essentially a making-of documentary, and while it has the tone of a high-school instructional video, it also contains valuable interviews with the staff and voice actors. The Digital Works feature focuses on the computer-aided animation process, and the textual content consists of character dossiers as well as biographies for manga creator Masamune Shirow and director Mamoru Oshii. Just for kicks, there's even a movie poster included in the DVD sleeve.
Writing about Ghost in the Shell is like dancing about architecture: a second-hand form of expression that could never convey the genuine experience. Ambitious in all aspects, this movie sets and meets some remarkable goals: a landmark in animation technique and technology, and a pop-culture breakthrough in the understanding of artificial intelligence. The number of movies that have since been influenced by this work—either subtly or blatantly—is a testament to the status that Ghost in the Shell holds in the world of animation and filmmaking. And if the movie itself can be considered a "ghost," then Manga Entertainment's bonus-laden DVD package is the perfect "shell" for it. If you haven't already dished out the money for Innocence, why not spend it on the original first?