Film Score Friday #2: “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)

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Motoko Kusanagi contemplates life and meaning in Ghost in the Shell.

In a world where the human body has been augmented and all but replaced by technology, does the possession of a soul serve as the criterion by which one is judged to be human? And if so, what constitutes a soul? These are the primary questions posed in the near-future society of Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s highly successful manga of the same name, in which the barriers between man and machine have blurred to the point of becoming indistinguishable. When not fitted with robotic or cybernetic implants, many humans now live as cyberbrains (the “ghosts” of the title) inside specially created cyborg bodies (“shells”) and hooked up to a vast interconnected global network of information exchange.

With these new prospects come new dangers, as skilled hackers and cybercriminals find fertile online ground to exploit, and necessary new means of police protection, in the form of Public Security Section 9, led by series protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. One of the most successful and influential anime productions of all time, with its lasting impression seen most visibly in the story and visual design of the Wachowskis’ Matrix series (whose ‘digital rain’ effects it directly inspired), and beautifully animated, it went on to spawn not only a film sequel, subtitled Innocence, but two separate TV reboots, namely the Kenji Kamayama-directed Stand Alone Complex and the more recent Arise. A live-action remake, the subject of fevered discussion in recent months over its controversial casting of Scarlett Johannsen as Kusanagi, is due for release next year.

Both Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s film can be read as attempts to understand, navigate and, in some respects, anticipate the brave new world heralded in real life by the dawning of the internet age only a few years prior, of which the fictional world depicted in Ghost in the Shell can be seen as a logical extension of the increasing interconnectedness between both human societies and human bodies. (It was, for example, the first anime film released simultaneously in Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.) While the manga clearly outlines that its setting, the purpose-built New Port City, is in Japan, this is less explicit in the film, presenting the sprawling megalopolis (never mind metropolis) as a teeming, heaving melting pot of both regional and international influences. The visual influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is evident in the mixture of English, Japanese and Chinese script in the myriad neon signs that dominate the cityscape, as is the look and architecture of real-life cities such as Hong Kong, from which Oshii drew extensively in his conception of the city. It is not only different cultures, however, that live side-by-side, but both rich and poor and old and new, with tumbledown shanty huts providing both a stark contrast to the progress and technological miracles seen elsewhere in the city and a vivid reminder of those that they leave behind, as true of real-life, modern-day metropoles from Manhattan to Mumbai as of fictional, futuristic ones.

Ghost in the Shell‘s futuristic city setting.

This sense of temporal and cultural synthesis is mirrored in numerous ways by Kenji Kawai’s minimalist but fantastically effective soundtrack, which offers an eclectic mix of traditional and modern instrumentation and itself evinces a panoply of influences not only from East and West, but from film-scoring and pop music conventions as well (Kawai enjoyed some moderate success as a rock musician before transitioning into composing). The liberal use of synthesisers, particularly synthesised strings, not only aptly matches the film’s futuristic setting, but also draws comparisons with (and bears the influence of) other forward-looking film composers whose style is similarly predominantly defined by synthesised sounds. One might think of John Carpenter’s early electronic scores for his own films, Wendy Carlos’ work for Stanley Kubrick or, perhaps most fittingly of all, Vangelis’ immediately distinctive soundtrack to Blade Runner.

At the same time, however, while acoustic instruments feature frequently alongside electronic ones, it is somewhat telling that those that do are often the most identifiably Japanese; alongside three singers, the few fellow musicians credited on Kawai’s soundtrack are percussionists, playing a set-up of traditional taiko drums, bells and gongs. The atmospheric “Nightstalker”, for instance, combines synthesised strings with the distinctive tone of the Japanese koto, creating a ruminative quality that would not be out of place in a neo-noir film. Indeed, coupled with the film’s pan-Asian stylisation, the concurrent sounds of the expansive free-time strings and koto’s rubato phrasing draws more than a passing comparison with Blade Runner‘s famous “Love Theme”.

Rather than merely referencing this at certain points, however, Kawai sets this tone from the very start with what is essentially the film’s opening title, “Making of a Cyborg”, accompanying a sequence in which Kusanagi (or at least her cyborg “shell”) is, as the title suggests, “made”, in the sense of being literally assembled (see below). The first of three similar “Chants” interspersed throughout the soundtrack, Kawai describes in the accompanying featurette Production Report included on the film’s DVD release how the composition of this piece comprises a mixture of different musical traditions, with Japanese vocalists singing words in the ancient Yamato dialect to notes taken from Japanese scales and harmonised using techniques borrowed from Bulgarian folk music. The added presence of traditional Japanese bells and drums, providing unobtrusive and solemn background accompaniment, lends this number a further air of mystery, its evocation of ancient customs in strong juxtaposition to the futuristic images seen on screen.

The combination, however, of singing styles and percussive sounds heavily redolent of Buddhist religious music with words from a wedding incantation intended to banish evil spirits also takes on a strongly devotional aspect that is significant for the context of the film in more ways than one. Seen in the sense of the obvious implication that technology has become a new dominant religion to which the majority of the world’s population now subscribes in some way, it comes to resemble something of a purification ritual that keeps the “temple” of technology clean, safe and unsullied. Consequently, in a society where biological reproduction has been rendered almost obsolete through the widespread manufacture of cyborg bodies, the otherwise sterile isolation chamber in which Kusanagi’s “shell” is created comes essentially to represent a “womb of the future”, complete with amniotic fluid of sorts that protects and supports the shell as it develops. Particularly given the presence of entities such as the film’s antagonist the “Puppet Master” that are capable of hacking into, controlling, and thus violating cybernetic bodies, “Making of a Cyborg” also gives the impression of a prayer for the wellbeing of the “unborn child” Kusanagi and others like her whose shells are made in this way.

As if to emphasise and even uphold this ritualistic relationship with technology, similar motifs and combinations of sonorous metallic and membranophonic sounds form the basis for a large portion of the score that follows. “Ghosthack”, for example, is accompanied by ominous low synth tones, gongs and scraped cymbal effects more commonly heard in suspense or horror films. “Access” and “Ghostdive”, meanwhile, almost variations on the same theme, both revolve around the tintinnabulous sounds of tuned gongs and tubular bells, occasionally interspersed with digital or digitally treated percussion. The “Puppet Master”‘s main theme is almost a slowed-down version of this same idea, with the transfigured sense of pace and the microtonal differences in tuning between the various gongs drawing as much of a comparison with Aphex Twin’s early ambient work as traditional Japanese music.

The chant first heard in “Making of a Cyborg” also recurs on two further occasions, each with slightly varied instrumentation. Furthermore, the final chant plays over the closing credits, book-ending the film along with the first, and offers the first real semblance of a full orchestration, adding not only extra instrumental voices but extra instrumental textures, with a string melody and accompanimental dulcimer quaver figurations now clearly discernible amongst the held string chords and sparse percussion from before. This is doubly significant coming shortly after the film’s climax, in which Kusanagi agrees to the Puppet Master’s request to merge souls with her, creating a being that is neither one nor the other, but a combination of both in a symbolic act of reproduction. (As if to make this analogy inescapable for the viewer, Kusanagi’s new “shell”, her old one having been destroyed in the aftermath of the battle, is a smaller one bearing strong resemblance both to a doll and to a child.) Furthermore, the musical transformation and the “fleshing out” of the instrumentation heard, coupled with the subtitle “Reincarnation”, mirror the sense that, in her new persona, Kusanagi, and indeed the Puppet Master, are now somehow more complete through their act of union, having seemingly found answers to at least some of their initial questions.

Kusanagi and the Puppet Master’s union is presaged through the use of perspective.

While the film and manga certainly offer glimpses at the possibilities for human evolution through the continuous process of mechanisation, and furthermore hint at their inevitability, there is little disguising the sense of ambivalence that comes with it, particularly the implication that even the emotional connections we make with the world around us and the experiences that arguably form the concept of a soul can be digitally replicated, leading to the gradual erosion and erasure of the qualities that we take for granted as being innately human. It is telling, for example, that the climactic battle and “meeting of minds” between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master takes place in a museum, and furthermore one showing signs of its obvious age and decrepitude. As further emphasised by the prominent wall mural of an evolutionary chain leading up through various species of fish to “hominis” at the top, the suggestion is abundantly clear that humankind, having previously been at the apex of this process, is fated instead to be merely another stage in it that will (and, it is implied, must) be bypassed by the advent of modern technology and reduced to an artefact, a forgotten and abandoned relic.

Kawai’s instrumentation here, in the appropriately titled “Floating Museum” (drawing immediate associations with Debussy’s piano piece “The Sunken Cathedral”), illustrates this implication in a way that is both beautiful and unnerving. Perhaps the most overtly modern selection on the soundtrack, its sound defined primarily by electronic effects and soft synthesiser lines that steadily build in mood and intensity, the chanting vocals heard at the film’s opening in “Making of a Cyborg” are heard again, but this time in sampled, synthesised form, creating the eery impression not so much of echoes as of vestiges of the original human source. In many senses, however, this hybridisation of organic and synthetic sounds, as well as being the defining feature of Kawai’s soundtrack, also defines its overall effect within the film. Although its electronic elements are very much prominent, they are in roughly equal proportion to their acoustic counterparts, which linger and persist despite all best efforts, very much musical “ghosts” – not just of the spirit, but of the past – within the soundtrack’s digital “shell”. Indeed, by limiting his acoustic ensemble to such primal instruments as percussion and the human voice, and furthermore by demonstrating how these can be manipulated and even substituted with digital versions, it is almost as if Kawai challenges the viewer to consider what the caveats are that come with the kind of modernisation presented in Ghost in the Shell, and furthermore whether we are happy or prepared to accept them.

Kusanagi dives into the film’s interconnected world by means of camouflage.