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Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008): Review

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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…


26 thoughts on “Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008): Review”

  1. I had the same feeling watching Innocence, it is true that the movies do not feel the same at all, and thuogh I prefer the first one they are both still great. It’s impossible for me to *not* watch anything gits related, though, so we will have to see how this one turns out…

  2. Good review Tim but I can’t help but think that this is just a way to try and squeeze a few more pennies out of the franchise. What they’ve done to the film seems completely unnecessary and like you say jarring to watch. Seems a bit like what George Lucas did to Star Wars and look how that turned out! Still, I love GITS and am already downloading it!

  3. Snor + David,

    Couldn’t agree more – it’s unnecessary, and probably done for purely cynical reasons. But it’s GiTS – so what you gonna do? 😉 I’ll probably buy the BR when its released, just for the extras plus the quality of the transfer is great.

  4. I have to say, as someone degreed in computer science, I consider the interface design of the original tactical map in the opening sequence to be more futuristic and realistic than the remade one.

    It provides much clearer tactical information, and only the information required. The initial 2D view helps in the simplification of this information, but as this sequence unfolds it shows the map is quite capable of rendering 3D for detailed inspection from all angles.

    It is the epitome of realistic interface design, and reflects a natural extension of the current cutting edge (see ubuntu’s “cube” interface).

    The “new” version is nothing but a convoluted piece of CG “shock and awe” which actually detracts from the scifi panoply of the original.

    That said, I think the cyborg creation sequence could be redone, but not with cold, automated algorthims. It should be done right, using an adaptation of the original production methods, preferrably someone from the original 1995 staff.

    You don’t restore the sphinx with steel and glass, you quarry the same local stone and mix mortar as per ancient documentation. The same respect needs to be given to anime classics.

  5. Hey buddy, there’s no “Tokyo street scenes” in GITS. It’s set in Hong Kong, the ad on buildings are all in Chinese and Chinese-styled.

  6. @ Plasma

    Again, couldn’t agree more. I don’t think many of the original staff had much to do with 2.0, as they would have been tied up with Sky Crawlers at that time. Shame.

  7. I understand why people dislike this revisionist update. And if anyone asks, I don’t think I need to see it to know the original’s gonna be a cut above.

    But this isn’t a painting with weathered and missing parts that’s been restored by a 3rd party based on dubious records. It exists side by side with the original and its “OG cgi.” Those of us who stand by the platinum standard of the original were fortunate to have been there near the time of release and gotten a personal snapshot. It DOES look dated today to be honest. It’s just that this version doesn’t mesh well with the intonation of original.

    I’m gonna watch it, cus I’m a huge fan of everything GitS. When IG rolls out the next round of GitS I’ll be the first in line, beating back the crowd and smothering faces to get the first taste.

  8. I just had the opportunity to check this out, thanks for the wonderful review stating some of the the differences without trying to put people off of it based on your own bias. It was difficult to find information that wasn’t extremely and un-rightly negative.

    From what I have heard, the changes were mainly motivated by Oshii himself.

    As an animator that absolutely loves both the original, the sequel, and the the series, I have to say I find some of the enhancements to be extremely well done. The only thing out of the entire thing that really bothers me is the recreation of Motoko in CG for the opening. It was done in a way that actually looks quite nice and it seems to make sense as an opening, but I definitely believe it would have looked better with enhancements on the compositing or re-done 2D animation (only the extended falling sequence would have had to be re-done) to better fit the new environments.

    And as far as the environments go, I am a huge fan of the Interface and Environmental stuff that was done in Innocence, so I find the change to the opening score sequence to be quite an improvement. Something about the orange that really gets me, and it really works well for this world.

    Again, I think with a re-work of CG Motoko, you would have a truly excellent re-telling of this story, the animation is already there, it is just the look that is present in the rest of the film that is missing there.

    If I get crazy enough, I may say copyright be damned and do everything I can to re-create those CG versions of Motoko in a well composited 2D handrawn form.

    I now have a side-project that will always be in the back of my mind. . .

  9. To be honest, I don’t consider the original to be outdated. It looks a lot more sophisticated and controlled to me. I’m with Plasmacutter and Tim here.

    It’s got Oshii’s pinpoint accuracy. Everything that is on the frame… is all that needs to be on the frame. I’ll write about this on length as a blog post soon… It’s something that’s been festering on my mind.

  10. I just saw 2.0, Tim,(thank you!) and I have to say, having watched the original so many times I’ve bought two replacement DVD’s, I think the real beauty is in the subtle changes– the score, the updated sound effects, and the small edits. Yes I think the CG sequences were a bit jarring at first, but it actually cleared up a few questions required the original scenes that actually changed the story for me.

    The scene in the end where the strange feather creature was replaced by a flowing river of light indicating data made that scene so much clearer. And after the first few minutes, the occasional visual differences of the CGI versus the retouched hand drawn cels didn’t bother me.

    I think the UI designs were a bit overflowing, but that’s the point: in contrast with the person above who states the original look ” provides much clearer tactical information, and only the information required” I think the 3D superclutter indicated the reality of tactical maps; the information doesn’t need simplification for cyber-brain people. In fact , they need as much data as possible about the environment in case the suspect were to go in an unexpected direction. This was an artistic choice to to go towards “in world” realism, and it made sense. Not to mention that much of the UI and environment redesigns tied the film closer in visual chronology to Innocence.

    I hate to be a dissenter here, but I think this “upgrade” edition really does go against the grain of “special editions kill films” and proves that films can now be improved like the final draft of a novel, in the multimedia sense. In the end, I think the changes won’t diminish the original, but were definitely a nice addition.

    Of course, I really want to see more Ghost in the Shell films/series anyway.

  11. Can anyone comment on how the subtitles for the 2.0 and the theatrical version are on the blu-ray? I’ve got a japanese dvd version that has “dubtitles” (subtitles of the english dub) and I hope that’s not the case with either version in the blu-ray

  12. I can’t comment on the BR release, though I realize that’s the point of this new version. Let me start off by saying my opinion of GITS is that it’s an amazing film, worthy of all the superlative praise it receives. It’s a true innovator and, dare I say, a masterpiece. GITS2 was a successful film as well, different from the original as it may be. I took the stylistic differences to be just that, and thought the original’s cyberpunk vibe was interestingly contrasted with GITS2’s neo-noir.

    GITS 2.0 is an unnecessary mess by comparison; a film that seeks to unify the worlds of GITS and Innocence, two films that exist on different planes. 2.0 is a huge step backward for the integration of CGI and hand-drawn images. Innocence’s convenience store scene was an extremely successful use of the stylistic shift from Batou’s perceived vision and the reality of what actually took place in the store. So in 2.0 when we get knock-offs of SAC’s opening sequence whenever is seems like it might be “pretty” to do so, it strikes an empty chord.

    The orange interfaces fit the warm aesthetic of Innocence and some of that film’s nostalgic sensibilities (old-timey cars, cop partners on the beat, etc). The green computer interfaces of GITS lent it to have a colder more mechanical feel, more distinctly and definitively cyberpunk. To “warm-up” GITS in 2.0 is standing in total contrast to the aesthetic of the hand-drawn animation and moody synthetic tone that makes up the bulk of the film.

    Having said all this, I thought I’d at least give the English dub a try with this version, though I don’t know if I’ve ever watched that version before. Nonetheless, the dub is embarrassing. I don’t care if all the audio has been remastered and I can hear bullet’s from behind, this dub is trash. Why go through all the work of an audio remaster if the default language setting still remains so horribly acted.

    Needless to say, 2.0 not only holds up poorly in comparison to the original and on its own is a less successful film, but as an “update” in 2008/9 it shows no real progress. In a film about a future wold and humans’ relationships with technology, this is an absolute crime. Avoid this shallow cash-grab.

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