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Some of you might remember my concern back in June when I first reported on Production IG’s planned visual update to Oshii’s 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell. Well, the Blu-ray of GiTS 2.0 (not to be confused with GiTS 2: Innocence, which will also be referred to a lot in this piece) hit Japanese stores a few weeks ago, and via sources that I’m not at liberty to identify I have managed to get my hands on a preview copy – months before the (still yet to be confirmed) UK release. So it was that I found myself, on the first morning of 2009, sitting down to watch one of my favourite movies of all time again, but instead of being filled with the usual satisfying feeling of anticipation, I was gripped with something nearer to dread.

The ‘problem’ – if it is really one at all – is the issue of progress. In the nine years between GiTS and GiTS 2: Innocence technology changed. In this time the tech teams at Production IG focused on becoming the masters at seamlessly merging CGI imagery with conventional hand drawn animation, with GiTS 2 being heralded as the pinnacle of this across the industry. And with these new technological changes came aesthetic ones; Oshii switched palettes from green and blue tones to more deep, orange ones, and the computer interfaces and displays that are such an important part of the GiTS environment became more sophisticated and refined as the software used to create them got cheaper, quicker and maturer. And while these displays had been the only thing to be rendered by computer in the first movie, the sequel employed CGI in nearly every scene.

Suddenly, you could run the two movies and – arguably – something didn’t look quite right. At times they looked like different worlds. The computer displays in GiTS started to look outmoded by today’s standards, let alone compared to the future they were meant to predict. Some of the cityscapes looked uninspiring – perhaps – in comparison to the epic computer rendered vistas of GiTS 2. Production IG had hit the same problem Lucas had hit with the Star Wars prequels – when you’re making heavy SFX based science fiction, your work is always going to look dated. Luckily then, that you can now go back and change it…

Before we talk about this anymore, lets have a look at the evidence. By far the biggest section of the film to have been altered is the well known, and often mimicked, opening sequence, with Major Kusanagi leaping off a skyscraper to assassinate a foreign diplomat. I’ve grabbed some images from both versions of the film for comparison.

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The first thing you notice is the palette switch, as well as how the old computer maps that open the film have been completely re-designed and rendered.

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Then it hits you, every external shot in the sequence – including the Major herself – have been recreated in CGI.

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And this is where I first started to have problems with GiTS 2.0. CGI Kusanagi doesn’t look quite right. Well, she looks fine on her own, but inter-cut with the other characters – who are still hand drawn from the orignial – she looks jarring. Almost, at times, like you’re watching two different films.

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From here you’re into the ‘cyborg birth’ opening sequence, which has also been completely redone, with much more sophisticated CGI and the same green-to-orange palette change, the again bring it more into line with the companion sequence in GiTS 2.

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Later on in the film there’s also some CGI rendered helicopters and vehicles, although luckily the climactic spider tank battle sequence has survived untouched. There’s also a few minor dialogue changes, as well as a female voice actor for the Puppet Master, which makes a bit more visual sense and the plot a little easier to follow. But otherwise the rest of the movie has remained largely untouched.

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Sitting writing this after watching GiTS 2.0 for the first time only a few hours ago, I’m still a little undecided as to how I feel about it. One major issue i have is that I always loved the original’s aesthetic, far more than I did it’s sequel’s. The video game style graphics, the green-blue palette…the whole film captured the 80′s cyberpunk vibe of Shirow’s original manga (all be it with a far darker, more serious tone) as well as developing on the themes and aesthetics of works like Bladerunner and Neuromancer that came before it. Don’t get me wrong, I like GiTS 2: Innocence, and I found the new palette that Oshii had brought over from Avalon appealing, but it was a different film to the original, a different world. And I was happy with that – time had passed in the real world, and I was happy to just accept it had passed in the GiTS world too. Things change, especially technology. Characters had clearly aged, so why couldn’t everything else had moved on as well?

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Also the beauty of the original film for me was that it didn’t actually rely too much on futuristic design and visual effects to create it’s haunting atmosphere. The best science fiction works because it manipulates the familiar and believable, and what truly makes GiTS a masterpiece is the noir atmosphere, Oshii’s pacing, his slow pans, and the beautifully drawn Tokyo Hong Kong street scenes.

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In fact watching it after returning from Tokyo, it’s remarkable how un-futuristic the architecture is in GiTS, with the sequel’s towering CGI mega-scrapers and smoggy vistas starting to look a little Fifth Element in comparison. It’s these things that give the original it’s feeling of edgy, ‘just around the corner’ realism, and if it’s any consolation, all of that is still here in 2.0.

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Personally there are still a lot of unanswered questions for me. Why was this made? Is it just another IG tech demo? How much as Oshii actually involved? Wasn’t he busy making Sky Crawlers at the time, and is this really just a marketing exercise for that movie – it having been shown at the same time at some Japanese theaters?

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Not that there’s nothing at all to recommend this release. As previously mentioned, the beautiful pacing and gentle street scenes are all still intact, and this is the best they’ve ever been seen. It’s a great transfer, and has clearly been cleaned up in places in the process, and it’s the better for it. Kenji Kawai‘s legendary score has also been given an audibly noticeable remaster, and sounds stunning all over again. I was only given the main feature, but the Japanese collectors release featured not only some interesting looking extras but also a copy of the original – although it’s unsure whether that has been given the same gorgeous visual polish in the transition to Blu-ray. Only time will tell what is included on any western releases.

Only one thing is certain – if you’re a GiTS fan then you can’t kid yourself – you’re going to want to see this. Whether you end up loving it, hating it, or – like me – wondering whether it was really necessary is something still to be determined.

ありがとうございます to The Laughing Man for securing me this review copy. The net is vast and infinite…