Revival! Ghost In The Shell 2.0 Remastered

The Barbican Cinema’s third anime lecture series wrapped last month with a screening of the remastered version of Ghost In The Shell. A week before, on 12 July, the original 1994 cinema release was commemorated with screenings of the remastered version in five Japanese cities.

The clumsy new title misled  some fans, who thought at first that it was a remastering of Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, but there was nothing clumsy about the film itself. It turned our regular monthly session into an atmospherically charged event – a sell-out, with a long queue for returns and a powerful buzz of anticipation in the packed foyer. The buzz as we emerged was even stronger. Almost everyone in the cinema enjoyed the remaster and loved seeing and hearing it on a big screen with a cinema sound system to support the new 6:1 surround sound mix.

Almost? Well, about a week later the Barbican had a complaint from someone who didn’t consider that the remastering, or possibly the projection system, lived up to its hype. I know some videphiles are extremely picky about onscreen quality, but the flaws and poor imaging that so annoyed him passed me by completely. I think Production I.G. and Skywalker Sound did a fine job.

Of course, nothing divides fan opinion like the remastering of a classic, as Disney and Lucas have proved. The buzz was built over months of blogging and message-board murmurs. In Japan the remastered movie has been available on Blu-ray since December 2008: the main reason for the remastering was to upgrade it as far as possible for Blu-ray release.

It’s an understandable decision – Blu-ray buyers are an important new market, and a high grade projection format works best with something high grade to project – but it does tend to imply that a film not meeting the latest projection standards has nothing to offer. Director Mamoru Oshii’s original movie blows that idea out of the water without anyone needing to tamper with a single pixel.

Ghost In The Shell‘s reputation didn’t come from mere technical achievement. It’s an anthology of cinematic poetry. Starting from the marvellous skeleton of Masamune Shirow’s original manga, with its densely imagined world and philosophy, Oshii built a series of visual haiku, linked to tell the story but also functioning as a series of independent entities.

Individual scenes, watched in isolation, not only give pleasure but also reveal meaning, like brief, highly focussed meditations. The opening credit sequence, the diving scene that echoes it, and the trip through the city half an hour in, are perfect gems that can be savoured in their own right. The shots where Kusanagi, a puppet in female form designed to serve the world of men, confronts lesser versions of herself being used, tortured or scrapped, are tiny samples of protest songs building to an undercurrent of controlled rage, as hard and spiky as rap. Oshii’s subtle modulation of shadows and water, elements as ephemeral as ghosts, merits close observation – look how Kusanagi’s shadow shifts in and out of existence in the sequence where she fights a terrorist in water.

Composer Kenji Kawai, meanwhile, made aural poems, using repetition and revision as subtly as Bach to build a fugue that meshes with the rest of the soundtrack. He chose introspective, deceptively delicate themes where Hollywood would go for brass, bass and overkill – for example, in Kusanagi’s climactic battle with the tank. He scored his hypnotic chorales with the voice as just another element in the mix, keeping the human in balance with the electronic. For the remastered edition, Oscar-winning sound editor Randy Thom remixed the soundtrack at Skywalker Sound, making it fresh and vibrant on contemporary equipment, but retaining the original’s eerie, ethereal qualities and its respect for silence as an essential component of movie sound.

Oshii used music to help control the emotional flow, but also placed his CGI setpieces to modulate the movement and colour design of the 2D animation. The mix of all these elements gave him a range of tools to pace his story, emphasise his key points and manage audience reaction – working not only as a poet, but as an anthologist and editor using a multi-dimensional language to show each contributor’s work at its best, and ensure its effective contribution to the overall impact of the movie.

Given Oshii’s delicate interlacing of elements, has the remastering process been managed so as not to destroy what he and a huge team worked so hard and spent so much money to build? The short answer is yes. Although Ghost In The Shell 2:0 is a changeling, a noticeably different creature, it’s still a beautiful and effective movie.

Some elements, like the computer maps in the early sequences, are entirely different. Shots of Kusanagi in the opening sequence have been completely rebuilt in CGI, as have some (but not all) mecha shots.  The colour balance has changed, with he new CGI shifting from cold, relatively clean blue/greys to a warmer, dirtier brown/gold spectrum. (You can see some interesting frame comparisons here.)

The original film played with the contrast between the shabby, slightly down-at-heel human world and the slicker ‘official’ environment. The new colour balance retains that contrast, but altered. There are a number of possible influences we might credit or blame for the remastered version’s colour shifts – Oshii’s other work, general trends in the action gaming world,  or the gradual shift in taste from cyberpunk to steampunk, from a shiny new chrome-and-pvc future to something more worn and grungy. It could even be a clever reading of wider cultural shifts and trends over time – fashion and advertising, even documentaries show traces of similar shifts in emphasis.  Or, of course, taking the relentlessly practical view, the whole thing is a demo for Production IG’s latest CGI compositing and cel animation techniques, and the colour shifts are one way of making this obvious. Being so brilliant that nobody notices isn’t the most effective marketing technique.

Some of the changes in sound are very subtle. The whole Japanese voice track has been redone by the original actors, with one exception, but all those voices are now fifteen years older. As with any form of physical gift, however well an athlete keeps the moving parts in order, some change is inevitable. The voices still work well together. It would take a direct comparison of the two voice tracks to notice the changes, except for one major shift: a new actor for the Puppet Master. Yoshiko Sakakibara replaces Iemasa Kayumi.

Vocal ageing may have played a part – Kayumi was 76 years old when the new voice track was recorded – but the use of a female voice instead of a male one changes the sexual dynamic of the original recording and gives the story a new emphasis. It’s nothing as obvious as a lesbian subtext. Instead of tying the evolutionary motif of the movie to models of human reproduction, it suggests that this bonding of human and artificial ghosts will take evolution in an entirely new direction.

Another important subtlety is embedded in the Japanese voice track. In the first half of the film Kusanagi refers to herself as “atashi” – a very childish form of “I”, rarely used by adult women who want to be taken seriously. Is she being ironic, or simply acknowledging her own puppet status? Or is she foreshadowing the quotation from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, heard in the boat scene? The shift to the more adult “watashi” emphasises a moment of great significance for her personally, even though she is also channelling another ghost. This was entirely lost in the English language version, since English lacks the heirarchical subtleties of Japanese, as well as the ability to convey profanity merely through tone of voice.

The essential elements of this iconic movie – the story, the score, the pacing, most of the casting and many of the shots – are unchanged. The technical tarting-up doesn’t affect them at all. A lot of fuss about nothing, then? Well, not if you’re trying to persuade consumers to buy in a new high-grade format, and definitely not if you want the film business to buy your company’s shiny, sleek and ultra-modern CGI  and digital animation services. The film itself remains as it always was, an absolute gem that can grip any viewer with eyes and a brain, even if it was shown on the kind of grainy ribbon we used to run through our VCRs in the bad old days of the anime camera copy.

Ghost In The Shell was a huge influence on its contemporaries and you can see echoes of that influence in all kinds of places – look out for the visual quotes that Anno used in Evangelion and see how many homages you can spot, not just in anime, but in movies from all over the world. (No prizes for citing The Matrix, but am I alone in seeing a nod from Tarantino in Kill Bill?)

It made for a great finale to our Barbican lecture season. The new season starts in September: hopefully we’ll have more nights with that kind of buzz.

2 thoughts on “Revival! Ghost In The Shell 2.0 Remastered

  1. Hi Helen,

    Just wanted to say thanks for the link through to my GiTS article. Been a fan of your writing for many years now, so it was quite an honour 🙂 Work permitting am hoping to finally make it down for one of your Barbican lectures this September…

    • Thanks Tim, good to hear from you. I like your blog. If you can only make one Barbican session you might want to make it the October one for the Studio Bones screnetalk, or November when we are hoping to have a rather nice double bill, but it’ll be good to meet you whenever you come down.

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