How do you continue a franchise that started on a slow burn, became super popular and to this day has a legion of fans the world over and not trip over yourself? Well, the answer will surprise you because it’s certainly not Ghost in the Shell and unfortunately, it’s not this film either.
Set in the revamped world of GITS: Arise, The New Movie (yes, that is its stupidly needless title) is the continuation of the Firestarter storyline started in the fifth episode “Pyrophoric Cult”. Now, I need to stress that this episode was not included in the western video releases (because it’s Japan and they like doing this) and only Funimation in the US got the streaming rights to it. So anyone who saw the first 4 parts of Arise will be able to follow along but it’s still a clipped experience. So, anyway, this series follows the arc of Motoko Kusanagi as she investigates the death of her commander in the 501 Organisation (it’s a division of the Japanese military). Along the way, she tangles with Public Security Section 9 Chief Aramaki and as the series progresses she works with to neutralise threats of a cybercrime nature and slowly builds up a team of likewise skilled individuals such as Batou, Togusa, Borma and Paz. In the fallout since the last episode, Kusanagi’s team is almost ready to be paid to deal with problem situations by the government. Chief Aramaki is not happy with a private contractor getting stuck into police and cabinet business but is shut out of the process so can’t do much about it. After an embassy is taken hostage by a group of military officers upset at the downsizing of their division and the military in general, the Major’s team is sent in to clean up. They do but in the doing, the soldiers are all murdered by their now former hostages and an exact twin of the Major is spotted on the embassy grounds directing sniper fire at the team. At the same time, the Prime Minister and Kusanagi’s former boss in the 501, Kurutsu, are assassinated in a bombing across town. All of these things have something to do with the Firestarter program that the Major and her team have been encountering.
The main draw of this version of the story is the excellent story by Tow Ubukata (Fafner, Mardock Scramble). He has a good handle on the characters, especially the Major, and he uses them in the same way that Kenji Kamiyama did. The way the dialogue just flows in waves and how each character has their own point makes me wish more scripts got written this way. As for the Major, if she isn’t written well then there’s not much point in watching a GITS programme. Luckily, the version in this movie is as appealing a character as she’s ever been. She is depicted in this movie as having matured a lot since the beginning of Arise but she still plays fast and loose with the various factions that ruled the landscape. She’s not concerned with who will come out well in the in-fighting going on with the government, she just has to talk with the right people. Along the way, she forms a fast bond with her team and trusts them to do their jobs even if they don’t always trust her judgement. I liked how the DNA of the closeness of the team from Stand Alone Complex can be viewed through a certain prism as having its beginnings here. They are all amazingly badass at what they do, all they need is focus. Kusanagi is that focus.
With every Ghost story, the cast is very important, doubly since ZRO Limit dubbed Stand Alone Complex with what I will always consider to be the most definitive version of the cast thus assembled. I’ve talked about it before for Stand Alone Complex and for the first parts of Arise, but the dub for Arise/New Movie is better than the Japanese one. There’s just something about the way the English voice actors attack their roles that I personally find more appealing than the Japanese ones. Elizabeth Maxwell continues to chart new territory as Matoko and Christopher Sabat has skinned Richard Epcar’s voice again and I’m fine with that. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is back for a brief time as Kurutsu and the same people in place for Arise are back for the other roles. All in all, it’s a good dub. That’s not to say Maaya Sakamoto isn’t amazing as the Major, because she is. For me, she’s just not Atsuko Tanaka and that’s not a failing of hers, it’s one of mine. I hope to get more used to her voice in time.
Every Ghost story has an overarching point, a concept it wishes to explore. In the original movie, it was the idea of identity and what is was to be human in a world where the artificial and the flesh had blended. In Stand Alone Complex, it was the idea of what it meant to be an individual in a world where group thought and data linkage was the best way to being. In Arise it was the rise of corporations in the face of the obsolescence of the state. In “The New Movie”, it’s about obsolescence in general. Do states, agencies, militaries or even organised society have a future in a place where the world doesn’t care who runs it so long as it’s done efficiently? For the Japanese government, it’s about the rise of data and how it cannot cope with the sheer volume of information at its detractors’ hands. For military groups like the 501 and Kurutsu, their role in peacetime has been downsized in favour of smaller groups like Section 9 and Motoko’s team. For people in general, they face a future where the singularity arrived and nobody even noticed. Nothing replaced it so what is there to look forward to? Like all good GITS stories, the movie weaves around its characters and plots to come together so that the one cannot be useful without the other. We need the characters to explain what’s going on and the plot needs the characters to have something to bounce off of. As always with Newport City, it looks amazing and even in a prequel state, has the look of a utopia about it. However, like all good utopias, it won’t take you long to find it is dystopian underneath. Even in the corridors of power, politicians can be afraid of something and it’s the dirty little secrets they try to hide that provide the most ammo to their enemies and the Firestarter virus is wielded in a specific way to find these out. Unlike the previous series or even the movies, this threat is unseen, moving silently as not to attract attention. All in all, it’s one of the better written GITS shows around.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this movie and it’s simply this: other than the elements that Ubukata brought over from Arise, there’s not a lot going on. Nothing is really explored in terms of new ground and worse, the film itself feels like they’re just getting everything in place for something else. The way in which Matoko is reshaped into a version of herself that resembles the movies or Stand Alone Complex (works better with authority, knows the hidden plots within plots instantly) rather than further explore her relationship with Section 9 or her team. There’s a moment where, after a previous scene in which she tells them to pull up their bootstraps or they’re fired, Motoko seemingly sacrifices herself after telling the team they are great. I’m simplifying the exchange but that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Why would she say these two interconnected things? We’re not told because the film is moving on here, people. As for the direction, I thought that director Kazuya Nomura did an ok job but a lot of his shots are very pedestrian in their execution. What’s worse, is that the behind the scenes stuff actually tells you how good a job Production I.G. did on the project so I’m thinking that the animators skills are covering a lot of holes here. Kazuchika Kise, the original director from Arise is on hand to keep things together and I thought his execution was much better in Arise.
Finally, one of the most standout things about GITS is the music. Think of it: Kenji Kawai’s haunting and instantly recognisable score from the original film and even Innocence or Yoko Kanno’s life-affirming and pulsing animal of a score for the two Stand Alone Complex seasons. They are the definition of music for animation or film that descends the medium and elevates the art form to a higher level. For “The New Movie”? The award for the blandest score in a GITS project goes to Cornelius who also worked on Arise. There’s nothing of note here. There’s one repetitive beat in the action scenes and some slower music for the drama but that’s it. I know I’m asking a lot of a composer who’s only got three projects to their name but please, this is Ghost in the Shell. Bring your A game, man. Overall, this feels like a greatest hits of Ghost rather than a proper excursion. They hit all the right notes but that’s it and no more. We see the team together, we see the Major becoming a better player and yes, we see her in a retread of the assassination scene at the start of the first film at the end of the new film. Now, the good news is that a Greatest Hits for Ghost in the Shell is still nothing to be sniffed at. It’s still the best thing on TV, home video or the cinema screen. It’s just a shame they couldn’t close out this chapter with more panache. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (which wins a medal for dumbest title ever) will reward.
Plus, it’s not like they can make a worse film, right?
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