Does It Hold Up is a chance to reexperience favorite childhood books, movies, TV shows, video games, and other cultural phenomenon decades later. Have they gotten better like a fine wine, or are we drinking cork?
The last time I saw the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell was when I was in college, more than a decade ago. It was the most recent DVD release, which at the time looked amazing on my convex curved CRT TV. What stuck out to me at the time were the action scenes — they’re slow to build but quick to unfold, with quick flashes of extreme violence that verge on body horror, as the organic and inorganic parts of people are torn apart. Recently, though, I rewatched the film in a theater. The action scenes were as I remembered them, but what struck me more this time around was the world where Ghost in the Shell takes place.
At first glance, you might call that world a cyberpunk dystopia. It looks dirty, rundown, and chaotic. Everything seems to be made of concrete — nothing natural grows in the city. The only hint of green comes from the water stains on the ground, and the only other colors are found in the signs and billboards draping between buildings like overgrown ivy. But even the signs appear faded by age and water damage.
This is exemplified during a sequence that follows some garbage collectors. Along their route, the buildings feel too close to the street. It’s day, but it somehow seems dark. No one else is out on the streets. And though the signs for businesses block out much of the sky, all the shops are shuttered.
We don’t get our best look at the city until an extended montage a little later in the film. Passenger-filled boats travel through the city’s many canals, as people meander down walkways that flank the channels. Shops line the streets, and construction scaffolding covers many of the buildings.
From the street, we’re shown the interior of a restaurant, where all the patrons seem to be well dressed. Most of the people walking around are in business attire, or at least fashionable clothing. Even during the chase through the street market, everyone there is dressed in a similar manner.
But these places full of life aren’t depicted as that different from the ones in the garbage-collector sequence. The building exteriors are still made of stained concrete. The signs still have muted colors and water damage. This is just how the city is.
The more I think about it, the harder it is to think of this place as necessarily dystopian. The visual cues suggest a rundown world, but the lives of everyday people are divorced from the actions of Section 9 and the politics going on in the film. It’s very unlike, say, Akira, which shows how everyday life is constantly butting up against police, politics, and violent civil unrest. In Akira, there are so many protestors that they have to be processed in converted arenas.
The contrast between the broken-down city and its human inhabitants may mirror one Ghost in the Shell subplot: the protagonist, the Major, questions whether she’s human, given that all her body is artificial except her brain, and by extension her soul. She can’t see her soul, so she can’t prove it’s real. Similarly, the city’s body is also artificial, made of concrete, steel, and neon. Its brain, on the other hand — the people who live within it and make it work — are still organic and alive. The city’s soul, much like the Major / Puppet Master hybrid at the end of the film, is harder to define. It isn’t human or inhuman, inorganic or organic. It’s both, yet neither.
The film ends with the Major / Puppet Master looking out at the city, saying, “The net is vast and infinite.” Then we see the city from their vantage point, with the streets and canals resembling neural pathways. The city, too, is vast and infinite.
So while the film’s action scenes are memorable because of their quick, extreme violence, the mysteries of the setting are more interesting because they’re slow and lifelike. Which just makes sorting through the contrasts, and the parallels they suggest, all the more interesting.