Ghost in the Shell (1995, dir. Mamoru Oshii)


I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.

Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.

There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.

When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.

I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.

Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

Asian Cinema Month – Ponyo

Ponyo (2009, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Starring (English dub) Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Carlos Alazraqui

It was freshman year of college and it was a Friday night. We decided to see a movie. We let Clint pick, usually a bad choice…however, he decided on a Japanese animated feature called Princess Mononoke. I make no bones about the fact that I pretty much detest anime. I’ve tried to watch multiple series and can barely make it past the first episodes. Anime films, however, I have been able to tolerate fairly well. Well, that evening as we settled in to the barely occupied theater, I was overcome with amazement at the lush imagery before me. This blew anything Disney made right out of the water. The themes were complex and aimed more at adults than children. After that I would go to see Nausicca of the Valley, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Howl’s Moving Castle. All of these are the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Deep beneath the ocean lives Fujimoto (Neeson), an wizard who has abandoned the surface world and raises his fish daughters to fear humanity. The eldest of these guppy-like creatures escapes and is found by Sosuke, the young son of a navy officer and a nursing home attendant. Sosuke names the fish girl Ponyo and has to avoid her being taken away by a number of human forces. Eventually, Fujimoto surfaces and wants his daughter back while Ponyo has come to enjoy the surface and wants to become human. Some of these elements sound familiar? Yes, this is a Japanese re-imagining of The Little Mermaid.

The plot of the film is incredibly simple and I was reminded of the lighter Kiki’s Delivery Service. There’s never any real peril or chance anyone might actually die. You would think with the stakes being so low the picture would be a bore, but it most definitely isn’t. What pulls you in is the seemingly infinite imagination of Hayao Miyazaki and epic skill of his animators. Every film Miyazaki releases reveals why CG animation will never trump the power of high quality cel animation. It might not be as quick, but when given the proper time and skill you have unparalleled works of art. The wordless opening sequence of the picture is breathtaking, featuring the nighttime migration of jellyfish then transitioning to a panorama of sea life.

The adventures of Ponyo and Sosuke are pure wish fulfillment. I was particularly enamored with their excursion of a tiny steamboat through a flooded village. It felt like that exact thing so many kids would imagine while playing on the couch or in the backyard, the idea of freedom to travel and explore. Ponyo is a delightful character, she is constantly discovering the surface world and find joy in such simple things. Her first sip of hot cocoa drives her wild, her first warm meal puts her into a sleepy coma, and there’s never an adult admonishing for such exuberance. While you may think this is a film made for children, its just as much for adults, tapping into that time of discovery and play I think many of us miss.