Reviewby Brian Ruh,
Ghost in the Shell 4K Blu-ray
In the near future, people have become increasingly enhanced with cybernetic implants, which has led to both advances in human capabilities as well as new avenues for crime. Cyborg Motoko Kusanagi is the leader of Section 9 of public security, and she and her team are kept busy trying to apprehend criminals in both cyberspace and in the physical world. Kusanagi and her team manage to stop a mysterious hacker called the Puppet Master from disrupting sensitive political discussions, but the hacker later seeks refuge with Section 9, saying they are a new form of artificial life, born from the sea of information in the 'net. This results in a personal and professional crisis for Kusanagi as she tries to answer the existential question of being a cyborg while dealing with both the Puppet Master investigation and her loyalties to Section 9.
When Ghost in the Shell came out in 1995, it was a revelation in both content and marketing. A measure of the film's success is often given as the fact that it went to the top of the Billboard sales charts when it was released on home video in the U.S. This little tidbit is often repeated, and I've even seen it in recent Japanese discussions of the film. This was no coincidence, though, since the film was developed jointly with the UK's Manga Entertainment, and created with an eye towards the growing interest in anime outside of Japan. In some ways, Ghost in the Shell hit that sweet spot for this kind of film—it has enough depth to go after an arthouse crowd, yet there is enough action and intrigue for a mainstream audience.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the film itself. You haven't seen Ghost in the Shell? You need to. That's just my blanket recommendation to anyone who would be coming to ANN and reading this. Actually, it's also my recommendation to anyone who is interested in film in general. Your mileage may vary with regard to its philosophical elements and Kusanagi's questioning of who she is. Personally, I think they work within the context of the film and point to some really fascinating and crucial questions that we need to keep grappling with as computers and technology increasingly become an inextricable part of our identities and existence. But I also know that for others, these elements can come across as too broad and fall flat, devolving into nothing more than pretentious hand-waving. Regardless of your eventual take on it, Ghost in the Shell has cemented itself as a legitimate piece of anime and cinema history, and it's something that everyone should make an effort to see.
This new U.S. release of Ghost in the Shell from Lionsgate arrives at just the right time to celebrate the film's 25th anniversary later this fall. However, there may be a bit of confusion here since we already got a BD release from Anchor Bay a few years ago that was proudly emblazoned with a “25th anniversary edition” label. At the time there was a push to celebrate the anniversary of the Ghost in the Shell franchise in general, rather than the film itself, and the Anchor Bay release was part of that effort. (The manga began serialization in 1989.) For such a celebratory release, it was a rather bare-bones affair—there was a booklet with a couple of essays (which was expunged for later reprints) but there weren't any on-disc extras at all. Additionally, one of the big complaints about this previous edition were the subtitles, which were stilted and awkward, sometimes seeming as if certain passages had been translated independent of the rest of the film. All in all, a rather disappointing release.
Now that we are closer to the actual 25th anniversary of the film itself, how does this new release compare? One of the most striking things you may notice at first is the original cover artwork by Martin Ansin. The image itself has been circulating for a while, as it originated as a poster available to attendees of MondoCon back in 2014, and was then made available to the general public a bit after that. The connection with Mondo isn't terribly surprising though, since a few years ago there was also a Ghost in the Shell BD steelbook that used the art of Kilian Eng, which had also been originally used as a Mondo poster. In this case, Ansin's art isn't just on the exterior package, but has become a part of the BD's menus as well. As an image on its own, I quite like it. However, I don't think the colors mesh with the palette of the film, so its use in the menus is a bit jarring.
Once you get into the film itself, it really looks gorgeous. This release has the film in three different formats - 4K UHD, standard Blu-ray, and a digital copy (which you can redeem on the Vudu or Fandango Now platforms). I'll just come out and say that I'm not a home theater otaku, and I'm sure someone has a take on bitrates, how this release visually compares with the Japanese UHD/Blu-ray release that came out a couple of years ago, and the like. But that person isn't me. I can only describe what I see with my own eyes, and I think this is the best that I've seen the film look. Compared to the “25th Anniversary” BD of a few years ago, there is a definite and noticeable improvement in certain scenes. The scenes with a lot of obvious CG don't come out as well, but I'm sure that's due to the available materials. Still, I'd rather have an honest effort showcasing the original film than something like the Ghost in the Shell 2.0 mess we got a while back, which replaced certain scenes with all-new CG imagery to nobody's satisfaction.
The extras that come with this set are a mixture of the new and the old. “Landscapes & Dreamscapes: The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell” is an interview with Stefan Riekeles, who has been curating a traveling exhibition called “Anime Architecture” since the early 2010s. Riekeles goes into detail about the artistry of the film, discussing how the painting, photography, and CG work came together to produce what we see onscreen. “Accessing Section 9: 25 Years into the Future” is another new feature that is centered around interviews discussing the influence Ghost in the Shell has had as well as some of the film's key themes. Interviewees include Mary Claypool (ADR script), Les Claypool (post-production sound), Eric Calderon (writer and producer on Afro Samurai, among others), actor Richard Epcar (the voice of Batou), Tokyopop's Stu Levy, and ANN's own Justin Sevakis. Both of these new features do a great job of breaking down the film and explaining why it is important, especially for an audience that may be relatively new to Ghost in the Shell. There is also an audio commentary track with many of the participants in the “Accessing Section 9” feature, plus animation historian Charles Solomon. As these things usually go, the commentary is a mixed bag, ranging from discussing the themes of the film to pointing out particularly interesting scenes and highlighting memorable lines.
All of the extras having to do with the Japanese side of things are older ones that cover what it was like making Ghost in the Shell in the mid-1990s. The packaging says that this release comes with one feature called “The Making of Ghost in the Shell”, but this is actually two separate features - one called “Digital Works” and the other “Production Report”. Both have shown up on U.S. releases of Ghost in the Shell before - I have them on a two-disc special edition DVD of the film from around 2004 that Manga Entertainment released. They're both showing their age, to the extent that even some of the onscreen text is difficult to read. I do understand the limitations of such features, though—even if they had access to the original source material, it probably wouldn't be worth trying to clean them up. I'm glad to see them again, though, since in this age when computers and CG have become so fundamental to the way anime is created, it's very informative to look back and see how novel and revolutionary some of the processes and practices used to create Ghost in the Shell really were.
One of the constant issues with releases in the Ghost in the Shell franchise has been the subtitles. When I was going through this film to review, I went back and forth between the English and Japanese audio tracks, paying attention to the English subtitles. I was initially horrified to see that the English subs matched up when I had the English audio on. Were these… *gasp!*... dubtitles? Seeing this, I was ready to jump on the big Achilles heel of this release, and I had even written this review saying as much. However, it turns out that the disc is actually just smarter than I am. If you are on English audio, the subtitles will change to the dub script, but if you are on Japanese audio then the subtitles will be a more faithful translation. The presence of these two separate English subtitle tracks isn't immediately apparent, though, since there is only a single “English subtitles” option on the setup menu. Luckily the quality of the translated subtitles is an improvement on the previous Anchor Bay release of the film. In addition to improved English subtitles, this version comes with English descriptive audio, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles. The inclusion of the descriptive audio and SDH options are great, but the old Manga Entertainment special edition DVD also had audio tracks for Spanish, French, Italian, and German, and not including them here seems a shame. One additional thing that may turn some people off this release is that the ending theme is Passengers' “One Minute Warning” rather than Kenji Kawai's “Reincarnation,” regardless of the audio option that you choose. (In previous releases, “One Minute Warning” played on the English audio track, while you'd get “Reincarnation” with the Japanese audio.) For me, this is far from a deal breaker; even though the song isn't “original” to the film, I still think it sounds appropriate. I've seen theatrical presentations of the film that end with the song despite having Japanese audio, so it's gotten to the point where it doesn't even faze me. However, if you're looking for a version of Ghost in the Shell that's the “perfect package”, then you may find this decision profoundly irritating since the rest of the release comes so close.
This Lionsgate release of Ghost in the Shell looks and sounds great, has some entertaining and informative features, and it's wrapped up in a nicely-designed package. The English descriptive audio and SDH will open the film up to people who may not have been able to experience it before. For a North American audience, this is by far the best version of the film available. If you haven't seen Ghost in the Shell before, you should check it out. And even if you have seen it, there's enough in this release to make it worth revisiting.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ An essential anime title, looking better than ever
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