The Ghost in the Shell has a weird chronology. The first film that introduced the franchise to western audiences did so by presenting us with the end of the main character’s story. The sequel dared to not have her show up until 90 minutes in. Understandably, they then they rebooted the whole thing, giving them an excuse to give the AWOL protagonist a resurgence. The characters sported new designs and voices, calling this new incarnation Arise. And this new movie also brings that arc to an end.
The plot of the film has Major Motoko Kusanagi – a cyborg whose only human component is her consciousness, or as this universe calls it, her Ghost – investigating a computer virus that infected the Prime Minister’s cybernetic brain, killing him. The film delves into the creation of her newly formed unit and the rough start the team has gelling at first. It also starts Motoko off down the harrowing paths that will eventually lead her into the downward spiral of disillusionment that would define the later chapters of her life.
As the film presents us a younger version of Motoko and her team, the film feels younger and less mature, at least compared to the previous versions. These tonal differences between the original films and the Arise strain are the main talking point. The back and forth between the two conflicting styles make for an interesting discussion in cinematic philosophies.
Initially, the short-sightedly titled New Movie has none of the ideological pondering that could make the previous films seem so obtuse. There is no ethical, political or social maze to navigate. This creates a state of instant mourning in anyone who holds the subtexts of the original films dear. The immediate reaction is to dismiss the film as a child friendly version of Ghost in the Shell.
But that would be a mistake as what we gain from this trade is a far a more accessible and easy to understand plot. Too often in previous instalments I found myself wanting for an explanation, lost in the corridors of the series’ linguistic labyrinths. Only an immature fool would balk at an increase in simplicity and clarity. There is still much to chew over in The New Movie. It gets into the themes of sacrifice, patriotism and loyalty; of the disposability of humanity in an increasingly technological world. It doesn’t skimp on the intertextuality, it just presents it in a more narratively coherent way.
However, the real thing that we lose in this exchange isn’t intelligence, but uniqueness. Ghost in the Shell is one of the most instantly recognisable animations in Japanese cinema. The New Movie could be one in any of a hundred. The loss of the artistry in the visuals is replaced with a more generic looking industrial and militarised dystopic future. The coherence might make the plot stronger, but a side effect of normalising the franchise is losing its soul. Ironically, one of the best cinematic tomes on identity is having an identity crisis.
The prequel angle provides some fun in the way they subvert the expectations of the story. Section 9 aren’t Kusanagi’s employers yet, in fact they are constantly butting heads. That means The Major is at odds with her future mentor, The Chief, which is a great source of humour to long-time fans of the series. The biggest subversion though (as long as you are watching the English dub) is in the voice cast. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, the iconic voice who played The Major in Stand Alone Complex, the creative pinnacle of the series in animated form, plays Motoko’s rival instead of Motoko herself. This gives you a great “Wait, what?” moment that makes you vulnerable for the surprises to come. A surprise it has to be said that will be lessened the more acquainted you are with the Arise specials.
The Arise series is a left turn in a beloved franchise that makes certain tonal sacrifices, but while the TV show was lacklustre, The New Movie justifies its existence with an increase in emotional stimulation, saving Arise from feeling like the weak link in the series. The differences between the two versions of this iconic franchise is literally like comparing the head and the heart. One is cold and calculating, but capable of incredible creativity, and gives us a persona all our own. The other is rash, passionate, open and understanding. Pick and choose your preferred people, or be like me and recognise the merits of both.
Dir: Kazuchika Kise, Kazuya Nomura
Scr: John Burgmeier, Clint Bickham, Tow Ubukata
Starring: Elizabeth Maxwell, Jason Douglas, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn
Prd: Justin Cook, Gen Fukunaga, Michael Harcourt
Music: Keigo Oyamada
Cinematography: Ryan Harvey
Run time: 100 mins
Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is available on DVD and Blu-ray on the 9th of May.