Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I am once again living without a car.  It hasn’t been a traumatic life adjustment or anything, but it has limited how much of the city I can conveniently access without it feeling like an epic journey.  It’s also made me realize, once again, how few legitimate movie theaters are currently operating in New Orleans proper.  Ever since most theatrical screenings were exported to the Metairie movie palaces in the 1990s, there have been precious few cinemas operating in the actual city.  I can only name three currently running, and if you’re biking & bussing around the center of town, only two of those are easily accessible; most nights for me, the original uptown location of The Prytania might as well be on another planet.  So, in these dark days when the ludicrously cheap AMC A-List subscription service is miles of interstate out of reach, I am relying heavily on the programmers at The Broad & The Prytania at Canal Place to keep me air conditioned & entertained.  Thankfully, they do a kickass job.

In particular, I’ve been loving the repertory programming at The Canal Place Prytania in recent months.  The Rene Brunet Classic Movie series at their uptown location is the closest thing this city has to a solid rep scene, so it’s been cool to see that NOLA TCM energy flow downriver to their new outpost.  If anything, the downtown location has been much hipper in its curation, including the Wildwood series—a “weekly celebration of daring cinema”—and, more recently, a month-long program of anime classics branded “Anime Theatre.”  I had just caught up with Akira and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in the few months before the Anime Theatre series started running, and I very much wish I had held out to catch them for the first time on the big screen.  I just never would have assumed the opportunity would present itself so conveniently (except maybe as a glitchy Fathom Events stream out in the suburbs).  Luckily, though, there was still one major blind spot that series could fill for me: the 1995 cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell, which was a real treat to see projected big & loud with a fired-up audience of downtown weirdos.

It’s a stain on my honor that I watched the live-action Scarlett Johansson remake of Ghost in the Shell years before seeking out its animated ancestor.  Worse yet, I apparently enjoyed that remake at the time, faintly praising it as “Blade Runner-runoff eye candy” with “a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot.”  In retrospect, I’m surprised to see how much of that Blade Runner DNA flows through the original film’s synthetic veins.  I assumed the live-action version borrowed a lot of Ridley Scott’s neon-noir imagery as lazy shorthand, but it turns out the anime version of Ghost in the Shell sets a lot of its own moody, “What is humanity anyway?” introspection on the same neon-lit, rain-slicked streets of future-Tokyo.  There’s plenty of RoboCop influence at play here too, not only in the ultraviolence exacted by Ghost in the Shell‘s cyborg law enforcement leads, but also in the first-person POV framing of those cyborgs booting up in a cold, blue world.  The movie was plenty influential in its own time too, to the point where you could argue that The Matrix was actually its first live-action remake – right down to its green towers of binary code.  Watching Ghost in the Shell for the first time felt like finding a crucial, missing piece of a larger genre puzzle.  It helped contextualize other genre works I already love by fitting them into an infinite continuum of sci-fi visual language.

It’s also just gorgeous.  This is brain-hacking cinema of the highest order, much more low-key & philosophical than I expected based on its most lurid imagery.  Yes, these badass cyborg women strip down into flesh-tone body suits before digitally cloaking themselves in reflective pixels, but they look amazing doing it, blurring humanity & technology in the medium itself.  Ghost in the Shell was at the forefront of mixing digital animation with traditional hand-drawn cells, conjuring a new, glitchy spectacle out of their interplay where most future productions would only see cost-saving measures.  It’s through those digi animation experiments where the film manages to feel like its own weird thing despite all the convenient comparisons swirling around it.  The future-world body horror of seemingly human parts opening in segments to reveal the fabricated machinery inside is mirrored in the human/machine hybrid of the film’s animation.  It’s a tension in technique still echoed in contemporary anime, whether thoughtfully in films like Belle or lazily in films like Fireworks.

If I’m not spending much time recapping the themes or plot details of Ghost in the Shell, it’s because I assume most cinema obsessives have already seen it.  This was a behind-the-times educational experience for me, which is pretty much how I always feel when watching classic anime.  The only relatively unique aspect of my Ghost in the Shell experience was the opportunity to see it projected big & loud, thanks to the downtown Prytania.  It was the closing film in their Anime Theatre series, but their kickass repertory programming is marching on into spooky season with their upcoming line-up of Kill-O-Rama double-features, pictured below. In a city with a relatively small cinema exhibition scene, that kind of thoughtful, adventurous curation is invaluable.

-Brandon Ledet

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