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Andrew Osmond remembers the early reactions to Oshii’s classic

By the mid-1990s, the UK anime market needed another breakout title, to stand up in the cinemas and pull in new viewers. It was with this intent that Manga Entertainment moved beyond handling already-made anime and sunk its funding into a brand new project, Ghost in the Shell. While the film didn’t get huge amounts of media coverage, a couple of outlets were so intrigued by the British connection that they sent writers to cover the film’s opening in Japan.

Ghost in the Shell premiered at the Tokyo Fantastic Film Festival in November 1995, triple-billed with two more SF anime, the anthology Memories and the Macross Plus movie. “The young men standing at the front of the queue have been standing here since 11pm last night,” reported Andrew Smith for The Observer. “They are not nutters. They are, literally, nerds… They could scarcely look less like the vanguard of Japan’s first real contribution to global pop culture, but that is what they are.”

Smith went on to explain the focus of their interest was Ghost in the Shell, “the most expensive anime yet made, with a budget in the region of $10 million. It is also the first to be financed by US and UK as well as by domestic production companies and will go on general release in America, Britain and Europe. The otaku are excited by this. They feel that the world is about to join them.” This wasn’t technically true – foreign capital had been funding anime since Astro Boy.

Another man in Japan was Clark Collis of Empire magazine, who suggested that Japan needed the foreign markets as much as the foreigners needed them. “(The Japanese movie industry) is looking beleaguered with around 95% of theatrically released films in Japan now coming from the West.” This was a huge exaggeration – the figure was under 70% — but it was a grim time of decline for the domestic industry. “The obvious conclusion that Japanese studios have arrived at is to start doing some serious exporting themselves, with Ghost being used as campaign spearheader and closely followed guinea pig.”

Collis was surprised by the lack of creative input into Ghost from Manga Entertainment. He noted cattily that Andy Frain, Manga’s then head, was credited as executive producer, “which appears to involve him handing over a large amount of money in exchange for the creative input of an executive pencil sharpener.” Frain, however, argued, “You have to be very, very careful in dealing with the Japanese creative process. To be honest, they didn’t need to bring us in at all. It’s quite an honour. Anime in Japan has been successful for so long that, as a gaijin outsider, you interfere at your peril.”

Frain had suggested to the Japanese that a particular scene in Ghost – a stationary shot of characters in a lift – could be shorter, or set somewhere else. ‘But they didn’t really seem to understand what I was getting at.’

Collis’s review of Ghost, also in Empire, was one of the most enthusiastic notices. ‘This not only equals the technical proficiency of (Akira) but goes some way beyond it,” he wrote. “What makes this such a cut above the rest is a set of senses-assaulting production values that equals anything Hollywood produces… Just make sure you see it on a big screen.”

Sadly, most of the other British notices for the film were tepid. The American dub received a lot of flak (the British cinema release of Akira had been subtitled). Sight and Sound’s Kim Newman thought that Ghost was tailored for the world market, though his comments were clearly informed by the ‘Manga’ imports that preceded it. “Many of the specifics that prove baffling in the normal run of anime, especially the rape imagery, shrieking ‘cute’ pubescent females and transformer-type robots, have been minimised or eliminated here,” Newman wrote of the film. However, he described the film as a “cyberpunk policier” and warned that the core fan audience might find Ghost old-hat, thanks to Manga’s own past releases in the same genre.

Ghost in the Shell picked up better notices Stateside. James Hoberman at Village Voice had reservations, but complemented the film as “a dreamy, sombre, almost noirish movie… Whereas Akira’s creators offered stridently coloured sequences of lovingly rendered hyperdestruction, Oshii prefers a dark aquamarine palette and lavishes his attention on all manner of detailed water effects.” Barry Walters at the San Francisco Examiner called the film an “extraordinarily artful and highly adult” work. “Despite its sci-fi / action pretext, Ghost is closer to talky European art-films than the typical post Terminator cop movie. There are plenty of moody moments set in skillfully rendered scenes of rain-swept, urban decay… The result is more existential than a shelf full of French philosophy.”

Certainly these qualities seemed to impress other film-makers. Hollywood’s king of cyborg cinema, James Cameron, contributed an enthused blurb to the film’s press pack. The Terminator director called Ghost, “A stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.” In 2008, when the Hollywood studio DreamWorks bought the live-action rights to Ghost in the Shell, Steven Spielberg called it “one of my favourite stories.” Not long after Ghost’s release, Spielberg had directed two heavyweight dystopian SF films, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.

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However, it was the Wachowski siblings who made their love for Ghost in the Shell obvious. They included numerous visual homages to the film in the first Matrix, from a marketplace chase scene (with exploding melons!) to the Kusanagi-like screen presence of a glowering Carrie Ann Moss. Asked by the Guardian what he thought of The Matrix’s debts to his film, Mamoru Oshii got grumpy. “I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. Frankly, it gets a bit annoying. I’m sure the Wachowskis feel the same. (The Matrix) is an entertaining movie, but I prefer their debut, Bound.”

His tone seemed to bear out the words of Manga’s Andy Frain. In the anime world, foreigners are still tolerated on sufferance.

Ghost in the Shell will be appearing at selected Picture House cinemas later this month, and will be available on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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