Release Date(s)1995 (September 8, 2020)
Studio(s)Bandai Visual/Shochiku/Production I.G. (Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Japanese and American cinema has a long history of cross-pollination, going all the way back to the works of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. This history is particularly interwoven when it comes to the science fiction genre and Japanese animation. Iconic anime like Akira (1988), Cowboy Bebop (1998), and Ghost in the Shell (1995) were all inspired to one degree or another by the writings of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson, not to mention Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. But these anime inspired other Western works in turn, including The Wachowski’s Matrix films (1999-2003). It’s no surprise then that they’re among the most accessible anime titles for new American fans of the genre.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (adapted from the 1998 manga by Masamune Shirow) is a particularly interesting case, not only because of its hybrid animation style, which blends traditional 2D animation with early CG, and bullets-flying action, but also for its thoughtful examination of Humanity’s place in a highly technological, near-future world. What is the soul when consciousness can be digitized? What does it mean to be Human when people can replace more and more of their bodies with machinery? And makes a person unique, when one’s mind can be linked to the physical objects around you… or even be hacked?
The film’s story focuses on Major Motoko Kusanagi, a young woman who leads a military assault team for Public Security Section 9 in Japan’s Newport City. Kusanagi is assigned by her superiors to track down the mysterious Puppet Master, a criminal hacker who can hijack cybernetic brains and bodies, take over people’s “ghosts” (read: souls), and implant false memories at will. This, of course, is extremely dangerous to society at large and it’s personal for the Major; for reasons that aren’t addressed in the film, she’s received a full-body cybernetic replacement and is already grappling with questions of her own identity.
Ghost in the Shell was shot mostly on 35 mm photochemical film using traditional hand-drawn animation techniques, with some CG animation and digital post production. It was finished for its original theatrical release at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For this new Ultra HD, the camera negative and CG film outs been scanned in native 4K and the digital post production has been redone to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate, with light-touch color grading for high dynamic range (Dolby Vision and HDR10 are both available on this disc). The result is very impressive. All of the hand-painted cels and background layouts look spectacular, offering more image detail than ever (and more than you might suspect). Colors are richer and more nuanced, with the HDR giving certain elements an added measure of pop and luster. Grain structure is very light but appears organic. One can’t exactly say this image looks “natural,” but it certainly looks better than ever.
Lionsgate’s 4K disc offers 4 audio options: English and Japanese Dolby Atmos—both new mixes—along with English Descriptive Audio and the film’s original Japanese 2.0 LPCM stereo mix. So… here there’s good news, great news, and some not so good news. The good news is, both Atmos mixes sound fantastic, with a nice wide front soundstage, excellent clarity, smooth and natural panning, robust bass, and pleasing atmospheric and effects lift from the height channels. The Descriptive Audio is obviously a nice add for those who need it, and the original Japanese 2.0 mix is as good as it ever was. The great news is, the film not only includes English “dubtitles” that match the English audio track, when you select either of the Japanese audio options the English subs are a proper English translation of the Japanese language. What’s more, this is a new and better translation that the subtitles included on the previous Anchor Bay/Manga Entertainment Blu-ray from 2017 (and reviewed on The Bits here). Frankly, this is the best translation I’ve seen yet, one that seems to preserve more of the original Japanese cultural context. Note that Spanish subtitles are also available.
But here’s the bad news: On all of the audio mixes included on both the 4K and Blu-ray in this set (not just the English tracks), the film’s original end credit song—Kenji Kawai’s Chant 3 – Reincarnation—has been replaced by Passengers’ (aka U2 with Brian Eno) One Minute Warning. Rest assured, Kawai’s similar Chant 1 – Making of Cyborg still plays over the film’s opening. But this change seems to be intentional, so we wonder if the call wasn’t made by the rights owners. Personally, I really like the Passengers track, and again Chant 1 still features prominently. But this is going to be one of those changes that’s likely to be divisive with fans. The smart play is to keep your previous Blu-ray version to retain the original track. I’ve accounted for this in my audio review grade by knocking it down to a B+. Otherwise, the audio grade would be a solid A.
Lionsgate’s 4K package includes the film on UHD and also Blu-ray (a disc that appears to be mastered from the new 4K scan). The 4K disc includes the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with Mary Claypool, Eric Calderon, Richard Epcar, and Charles Solomon
- Accessing Section 9: 25 Years Into the Future (HD – 18:42)
- Landscapes & Dreamscapes: The Art and Architecture of Ghost in the Shell (HD – 10:50)
- Trailer 1 (HD – 1:37)
- Trailer 2 (HD – 1:49)
All of these extras are newly-created and they’re terrific. The two featurettes offer wonderful detail into the background of the film, its influence, themes, and artistic design. It features new interviews with the film’s English script writer, English sound mixer, film critics/anime experts, the American voice actor for Batou, and more. You also get to see really good looks at the film’s background layouts and learn about Oshii and animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo’s efforts to research the visual textures of Hong Kong and Tokyo for use in the film. And while I’m not a fan of dubbed English audio for a film like this, the people involved in producing it (and who participate in the commentary) offer a great many insights on the film and production. Hats off to our old friend Jeffrey Lerner and his team for their work in creating these extras.
The Blu-ray in the package includes those same extras, and also carries over a couple of special features from previous DVD releases, including:
- Production Report (SD – 27:04)
- Digital Works (SD – 29:34)
Those feature the film’s original Japanese production team discussing their work (in Japanese with English subtitles). The package also includes a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
For some of you, the change in the film’s closing credits music will be a deal-breaker. (And if we should happen to learn that this change was accidential and not deliberate, we’ll post an update here.) For the rest of you, this disc represents Ghost in the Shell looking and sounding better than you have ever seen or heard it before… and by no small margin. This is a landmark anime, a stunning piece of visual animation, and an imaginative work of science fiction/cyberpunk that seems to become more relevant with every year. And the new extras in this package are well worth your time. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt