The Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku Kidotai) (1994) 1:23
directed by Mamoru Oshii
voices by Richard George, Mimi Woods, William Frederick
Haven't watched any anime in a long while. Now I remember why. Nearly all of them are garbage or, at best, uncannily disappointing. You can't help but feel that there was initially some promise to the story that was torpedoed somewhere along the line by the necessarily more communal and collaborative nature of making animated movies. The days of Chuck Jones are long over, ladies and gentlemen.
This movie comes up short on the cardinal virtues of 90% of the anime seen on American soil, namely: eyeball-busting violence and cartoon women without any clothes on, neither of which will be seen in The Ghost in the Shell.
Beyond that, it doesn't take advantages of animation's other virtue: the possibility of creating a complete and visually distinctive world from scratch (expensive sets? what expensive sets?)...when an alien hive takes as much time to animate as Archie Bunker's living room, you're pretty unbounded in what you can do. The world of Ghost is pretty mundane, looking more or less what I imagine contemporary Japanese neighborhoods actually look like. Cramped streets that all seem like alleys, with buildings shooting up, towering into the air without anything like a sidewalk in sight.
Okay, so, strike one, it's not interesting to look at. Second of all it suffers from the omnipresent, intrinsic flaw that all animation that strives not to stylize but to recreate human behavior, suffers from--its characters aren't humans. Sure, japanimators and their Disney counterparts can replicate hundreds of different facial expressions and gestures and postures but it remains just that: a replica. It is possible to mime the specific facial expressions of real people, but the humanness seems to be altogether beyond the reach of animators who strive for verisimilitude. How much harder is it for a team led by seventeen different artists animating single, stationary cels one at a time, to capture a human performance on screen than for even a hack actor, a live hack actor? Immensely more difficult, I would guess, and perhaps even impossible.
And even if this judgement isn't as universal as I make it out to be, it's certainly true here in Ghost. The characters are just flat. There are a few effective scenes that don't have any pyrotechnics or violence to them, but they are few indeed. To illustrate: there is one scene, early on, that isn't accomplished with much more than one single stationary shot and a voice-over from a character standing off-camera. It's actually the cliched 'interrogation room' shot from so many cop movies: a MS of a man sitting at a desk, blazing lamps on his face, the rest of the room in shadowy darkness. He looks dazed, the kind of look one has when one is too stricken by a horrible shock to do much more than sit still, empty eyed, and stare. And while he's doing this (not really doing anything) the off-screen cop is telling him that his brain had been hacked into and hsi memories altered by a criminal, and that all the memories he had of his wife and child were all fabricated by this criminal to fulfill some scheme. He has no wife, no child. His apartment is an empty bachelor pad. Sorry, they tell him, but they simply don't have the technology to restore his memory, or even to erase the false ones from his brain. He's going to remember a nonexistent wife and child for the rest of his life. I don't know... I thought it was a very simple scene and that's why it works. Less variables for the animators to worry about. Desolation they can do okay. It's getting drawings to emote that's a bitch.
Perhaps I should detail what there was of plot that I understood. It was a horribly written script and badly structured movie so the plot was pretty tough to follow.
There's a tough, synthetic cyborg broad, Kusanagi, and her partner at some governmental paramilitary police organization, Bateau. And...eh... there's this criminal hacker named the Puppetmaster who's really a government experiment (top top secret, of course) in artificial intelligence and they're after him; and there's some inter-departmental rivalries and deceptions going on between Section 6 and Section 9 and... in the end the Puppetmaster's mind merges with Kusanagi's, supposedly together making a 'human' mind. Yeah, also instead of the sexy cyborg body that needs to be nude to turn invisible, Kusanagi winds up in a black-market cyborg body shaped like a little girl. That's about all I can sweat out of my brain about the plot. It really is a mess.
But whereas when watching Akira or Ninja Scroll, say, I find myself thinking of other ways they could've assembled the film that would make them less uneven and incomprehensible, while watching Ghost in the Shell I just feel that I wouldn't know where to begin. And it's not only that there's so much wrong about it (and there is) but rather that there is so little that's right with it. There's no motivation to try to mentally gather the good bits into a working whole because there are almost no good bits. Why bother?
The other big anime shortcoming (not inherent in the form, but a big pitfall that they all seem to fall into) present here is that of almost relentlessly bad pacing. Moving jerkily in fits and starts; actually starting to pick up in one part, and then dragging like a lead ball the next. That's what you get when you don't really go from scene to scene but setpiece to setpiece.
The one exciting scene, and it was pure action, was the scene in the abandoned warehouse with the spider-shaped tank. Why she (Kusanagi) was there, why the tank was there, I couldn't tell you. The warehouse itself was pretty dark and nebulous. And it was raining, which, granted, is visually interesting all by itself. Anyway, she cartwheels and flips around, dodging the guns of the tank, periodically returning fire although it's already been established that her gun won't even scratch the thing, and for a few moments it's pure perfect cartoon junk food. She then hops on top of the thing and tries to rip its hatch off but she can't. It is a tank after all. The strain is so violent, she pulls so viciously and futilely against the immoveable object that she tears herself apart, ripping her own arms and one leg off, sending her body flopping doll-like onto the floor, where one of the tank's arms starts crushing her head. She gets rescued before her head is popped like a pimple, but she's in horrible, dismembered shape.
Too bad that's only 2 minutes in an otherwise stunningly boring 83 minute movie.