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Unfriendly Ghost

Dirty Harry, the Next Generation: Broad-shouldered Agent Bateau stalks Japan's futurist streets in "Ghost in the Shell."

Cyborgs blast away in 'Ghost in the Shell'

By Richard von Busack

A constant theme of modern science-fiction movies is the essential question of what constitutes humanity--i.e., when will our machines stop duplicating human activity and start becoming human? In the hands of someone like Philip K. Dick, the question can become a piercing metaphysical quest for the soul; in the Japanese animated feature Ghost in the Shell, the question is an occasion to have cyborgs in the year 2029 blasting each other with guns. Ghost in the Shell's technical mastery--and it is of stunning technical proficiency--impresses the viewer, but abstractly, when cyborgs start wondering aloud whether they have souls or not, it's almost as if the spirit of the movie has been given a voice to ask itself aloud the same question. It doesn't. The cityscapes are more alive than the characters in Ghost in the Shell, and the monotonous line reading of the various actors in the English version are as vacant as the faces of the cyborgs.

Ghost in the Shell is the latest from the producers of Akira; and they repeat that film's combination of gunplay and deceptively complex backstory. The history of Project 2501 is a complex tale of interdepartmental rivalry and some red herrings about a "Colonel Malice." The short version is that 2501, a spy called the "Puppet Master," is loose on the Internet, downloading itself into meat-puppets (to borrow from William Gibson) that the Internal Bureau of Investigation uses as living hardware for its own cyberpolice. It turns out that 2501 is a program that's striking out on its own, and the monster wants to take a bride.

During lulls in the action sequences (including one spectacular gunfight in a museum), superstrength-enhanced heroes Motoko Kusanagi and Bateau rattle off plot points. After one especially long and tortuous explanation, Bateau says with dismay, "All this information is just a drop in the bucket." When a film's dynamic is all pursuit, the exposition is a waste of time. Dedicated anime fans will likely only care about the surface of Ghost in the Shell, particularly the potential for realism--realistically idealized bodies, anyway. (Breasts: the twin pillars of the entertainment industry.) I would have traded the fight scenes and the lingering shots of these flawless, plastic bodies for more of the emotional impact of one short illustration of a stream of oily, polluted water in a city of the future.

Ghost in the Shell (Unrated; 85 min.), directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Masamune Shirow.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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