Friday, November 13, 2009

The Final Ghost In The Shell Rant Of The Year

"I did not revise [Ghost in the Shell] because I was dissatisfied with the original, but to prove how far we have progressed since then…" – Director Mamoru OSHII, 2009.

I’ve finally had a chance to watch Manga’s new Blu-ray release of Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and did some fairly anal comparisons between it and the “original” cut of this landmark 1995 cyberpunk thriller while I was at it.

I find myself very torn...

攻殻機動隊/GHOST IN THE SHELL (or for me, simply GITS) was as "big" an anime film as was humanly possible; an early US/UK/Japan co-production, based on a popular manga from internationally successful creator Shirow MASAMUNE (Appleseed, Black Magic M-66), and directed by one of Japan's most critically acclaimed animation directors, Mamoru OSHII (Patlabor, Angel's Egg). It was catered to hit the middle ground between arthouse critics and mainstream Hollywood audiences alike, and the - at the time - revolutionary use of "digital animation" was a selling point even to audiences who weren't into those violent porno Japanime cartoons their creepy friends loved so much. It dragged every part of the movie geek work by the hand, if for no other reason so they could all see what the heck the fuss was all about. It sounds like it was carefully designed to be a commercial success, but the fact that it was a smart and highly unique film even after its' one-two punch of branding and spectacle, left the landscape of animation forever changed the world over.

It was aped mercilessly by the Wachowsky brothers for their smash hit Matrix trilogy, and comparisons are already being drawn to Cameron's upcoming probable Sci-Fi disaster Avatar... a small wonder, what with Cameron himself having been one of the most vocal fans of GITS when it was first released in America in 1995. Steven Spielberg, perhaps the biggest genre director out there, owns the rights to remake the franchise in Hollywood, though wither or not that'll ever actually materialize is statistically insignificant. It won't, until proven otherwise.

The film has had a long history of "new and improved" video releases, particularly in Japan, dating back to mammoth CAV-encoded Special Edition LD box set with a full Shirow jacket illustration , to the DVD packaged in a digibook containing Oshii's full storyboards for the film. The latest release was the 2007 "Legendary Anime" DVD + BD set from Bandai Visual, containing the film in both SD DVD and HD Blu-ray. Both releases had proper English subtitles, Japanese and English Dolby stereo audio, and were taken from the same print. Multiple reviewers suggest that this particular BD transfer was no looker, but that it was still by far the best the film had ever looked or sounded on home video.

It probably would have been the end of it... if Oshii hadn't been working his ass off for the last decade, experimenting with everything from segmented action films heavy on CG and cute girls, to esoteric animated features that make stuff like Dallos look like cinematic junk-food. Oshii had been involved in the "Sound Revival" of the Patlabor films years ago, literally re-recording the entire script and score in 5.1 surround, so when it was announced that an "Improved" version of his most well known work was on the way, it wasn't in and of itself a shock.

What followed that brief announcement, however, I doubt anyone expected. The theatrical and home video re-release of GITS was marketed via short traser clips with the following tagline;

This is not a remake. This is not a remix. This is another "G.I.S." It is a... "2.0"

The longer trailer went on to talk about "all new 3D scenes". Like it or not, the latest edition of the 1995 cult classic was going to be in the Lucas school of 'Special Editions', and sure enough, most fans tore it a new asshole sight-unseen based solely on the brief shots of the heroine in full CG and glowing brianwave patterns. This is despite the fact that all of the new material, color correction, film restoration and audio recordings have been done under the full supervision of original director Oshii. This isn't the first time Oshii has undergone an insane remaster, either; his two Patlabor feature film materials were in no shape to be released in 5.1 surround, so he got the proverbial band back together for both films and re-recorded the dialog from the ground up.

Think Roman Polanski... except into basset hounds.

As is often the case with these retrospective “Redux" editions, some of the new material is quite good and some of it is just crap, making the whole difficult to digest in comparison to a film that everyone has known and loved for over a decade now. It’s not a new film, or even a Director’s Cut made to fix a broken original. It’s just a different spin on a modern classic, and the fact that only some of the material is actually an improvement leaves me quite frustrated… though at least, from a tech-geek perspective, I find the whole thing utterly fascinating.

Manga Entertainment has screwed the pooch themselves in two ways. One, the US package list extras not on the disc – they’re not even for that film at all! They’re for Oshii’s sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. I went over this a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it here.

The second fuck up is that in the "2.0" cut of the film, the Puppet Master character has been re-cast… and more specifically, gender swapped. I’ll get into how that impacts the film later, but the short of it is that the Japanese audio track now uses the feminine pronoun (彼女/kanojo), while the original version had the masculine pronoun (彼/kare). The subtitles on the disc still use “he”, despite the fact that the cast is now calling it a “she”. The character - technically speaking - doesn’t even HAVE a gender, but the original film used a male voice, and the 2.0 version used a female one. So it’s weird hearing the cast say “she”, hearing a “she”, and seeing it subtitled as “he”. This was actually fixed on the 2.0 Japanese DVD subtitles, so it’s not as if someone at Bandai Visual didn’t know that these changes were made.

To be fair Manga did subtitle the brand spanking OP text - a whimsical poem this time around - left untranslated on the Japan releases… so, as usual, there’s simply no absolute winner here.

BBFC/IFCO logos make everything so much worse...

Beyond all that, Manga's presentation of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (henceforth, GITS 2.0) is pretty damned good. You get both DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 and uncompressed PCM 2.0 tracks in both Japanese and English, and the AVC transfer is quite stunning, with no clearly visible level of artifacting, aliasing, ringing or compression-related banding to speak of. The main and pop-up menus are attractive, fast to load, and easy to navigate. The largely well-timed white subtitles, using the translation from Manga's own prior DVDs, are FUCKING HUGE but, otherwise I have no serious nitpicks.

Of course, all of this is in regards to GITS 2.0, so... how did all that turn out?

Let’s just get that elephant out of the room: the 3D Major. My wife nearly vomited when she saw it, feeling that the single most beautiful image in the film – that of protagonist Major Motoko KUSANAGI in her nearly-nude Thermoptic Camouflage suit leaping down the side of a building to blow a scuzzy dignitaries’ skull wide open – was replaced with some straight up crumby looking CGI that doesn't even hold a candle to similar effects Oshii made four years ago in the film's sequel. I'll be honest, the 3D Major sucks. The model itself of Motoko actually matches the model they used in the second Thermoptic Cammo sequence pretty well, but that’s a relic from the mid 1990s, which explains exactly what’s wrong with it today...

That said, what Oshii as a film maker gets out of it, the innate and total freedom to move his camera around Motoko while bathing her in multiple light sources and raindrops in a way that even 2D digital animation couldn’t have ever provided, is almost impressive in its’ own way. Being able to pull out and get a feel for what the futuristic Japan looks like in the opening scene from a birds’ eye view does hold some narrative weight, and if I were ever an animation director, I’d be very interested in having that level of freedom. As it was also THE most bandied about promotional image for the release of GITS 2.0 – heck, it’s been used on all of the video covers so far! – I wouldn’t be shocked if the producers convinced him to put it into the film just to convince audiences that they were getting into something “new” and “improved”.

The other most controversial CG sequence inserted into the picture is at about 30 minutes in, where the diving Motoko slowly surfaces to the warm sunset, bubbles sparkling about her all the while. It’s jarring in that it’s clearly a 3D model and not a 2D drawing, like the rest of the film, but the nuts and bolts difference between the two sequences is comparatively minor, and it seems like it’s only there to try and tie into the “new and improved” opening. It doesn’t make the pre-credits sequence any better (except by comparison), but I applaud him for having tried all the same.

I’ll also mention that Kenji KAMIYAMA’s mostly unrelated GHOST IN THE SHELL: STAND ALONE COMPLEX TV series has a full-3D Motoko in the opening, so these sequences give Oshii’s film a resonance that’s arguably missing with Kamiyama’s very different take on Masamune SHIROW’s original concept. These two directors couldn’t be any more different to begin with though, so wither or not that’s a wise comparison to make is debatable.

The CG also infects the choppers in the final reel, though at least the original sequences with them were… I don’t want to say they were “bad”, but they were certainly nowhere near as beautiful and memorable as the film’s opening. The choppers just sort of hover in place as 2D planes shift around slightly, proving that even the best of traditional animation had very real limits. This, seamless or not, is a clear example of Oshii using new technology to enhance something that was flawed, and comes as one of the more welcome changes (for me, at least). Yes, it’s obvious that we’re looking at a CG effect in a 2D environment, but having seen the original 2D effect, I’m not convinced that keeping it was “better” either. There are other subtle CG additions, like the typing-hands and various wide shots of Hong Kong, but nobody seems to complain about all of that*. Nor should they, as most of it looks pretty natural, not breaking with the "2D Look" found in the rest of the picture.

*Nobody bitching about the Star Wars Special Editions complained that the spaceships were re-rendered in 3D, either. Why? Not only because the shots looked better, and they LOOKED like a natural part of the film. They weren't standing out like a sore thumb screaming "Look at me mommy, I'm compensating for something!" Start dropping in Jabba the Hutt or making dewbacks mug for face time, and yeah, people notice...

More dramatic is the change in general color timing, both in the special effects, and in the film as a whole. So much has been made about the relatively short CG shots of Motoko that the fact that the entire film looks dramatically different seems to have nearly been glossed over entirely. Contrast is pushed, blacks are crushed, flesh tones are warmer and the blue haze the film has wallowed in since its’ video release in 1996 has been replaced with warm reds and Earthy browns. The film may even look ‘uglier’ at first glance, like a harsh light shining through a slightly opaque pane of dirty glass, but it does give the film a dramatically different – and much more modern – appearance than it once had.

This massive color manipulation holds much more interest than two flawed CG sequences, and as a tech geek who’s sole purpose in life is to fix color levels on shitty VHS recordings I’m impressed at the face lift the film has undergone. The color is often drained compared to older treatments, but it’s so wildly different that you can put them side by side and just marvel at how they managed to make it so… different.

Forgive the watermarks.
I'm just lazy and trying to prove a point.

Let me get techno-babbley for a moment. The frame has been cropped slightly in GITS 2.0 compared to GITS. The reason for this is likely a matter of film stabilization. The way you eliminate telecine bobble – that sudden “jerk” when a film cuts to a new scene, or the whole frame bobbing back and fourth – is by using a computer program that looks at a number of frames, and shifts the image one way or another, trying to eliminate any obvious movement in one direction that it doesn’t detect as actual camera movement. Bobble like this was a common side-effect of optical film printers, and as GITS was created by scanning the 2D elements into a primitive computer system, the entire film is basically an optical special effect. The frame is a little cramped, but the fact that the entire film doesn’t randomly jerk around at cuts or shake up and down seemingly at random is still quite a technical revelation.

Film damage and grain has also been eliminated. There are still occasional sequences with a minor spec of dirt, or a grainy background, but largely the film looks cleaner and fresher than it ever did on home video, forget theatrically. I didn’t detect any obvious scratch removal artifacts, though the film definitely has very slight DNR related trailing, color banding, and contrast blooming. Remember that the entire film is an optical effect, so odds are the negative is mercilessly gritty compared to a 35mm production shot using a more traditional animation stand. I’m almost surprised that Oshii didn’t add a faint layer of “digital grain” to make the whole project look more organic, but this is a new version for an age in which noise is no longer a natural product of animation. Today it’s either added intentionally, or it’s avoided completely, and Oshii decided that GITS 2.0 didn’t need fake grain standing in for an element that was only a part of the film’s production by default.

GITS on Blu-ray - in Japan, at 1080p – is said to be very grainy, and a trusted friend who has access to far better equipment than myself has described what he calls a layer of what looks like "analog noise”, printed to film. All DNR has side-effects, but if what he’s described is what the negative looks like, it isn’t the ‘natural’ film grain I crave. It’s a side-effect of its' obscure production process, and I can’t for the life of me blame Oshii for wanting to minimize it using whatever means are available.

I don't mean to be a dick, but I will point out that every single scene in GITS 2.0 has been zoomed compared to the prior Blu-ray/DVD/HDTV transfers floating around. My theory? Bandai Visual used the same HD masters used for the 2007 BD release, and let Oshii tweak the living shit out of it. The differences a new telecine would produce would be minimal anyway, so why bother spending the money on a new transfer if the plan is to let the director tweak it well beyond recognition? I can't prove this, and I admit I was wrong about Akira getting a new HD telecine, but unless the Japanese language documentary not included on the Manga Blu-ray discusses it, we'll simply never know for sure.

Another major change is in the multitude of on-screen computer graphics, the shift from green to amber is more natural to GITS 2.0 than one might expect. The text is still aliased and a little primitive looking, but images like the GPS displays and cyberbrain scans are all new, and manage to look modern and polished without looking showy or out of place. Oshii’s plan to use NTSC video for these effects in the original cut of the film made sense in 1995, giving audiences something “familiar” to cling to and further separate it from the more outré “Sci-Fi” effects also shown in the film, but NTSC resolution composite video has dated horribly in the High Definition age. Of all the things that should have been replaced, Oshii fixed the only thing that would forever mark this film as a product of the mid 1990s, and for that I commend him.

Replacing green with orange is less than definitive in the scheme of things, but not only does it tie into the very imagery in Oshii’s own sequel – INNOCENCE – it also further distances itself from uncomfortable childhood memories of black-and-green PC screens that surely inspired the images in the original cut of GITS. Besides, those fucking Wachowsky’s had ripped-off the “look” of those green ASCII screens so hard as the credit sequences for their own trilogy of slightly pretentious ass-kickery that it hardly feels like it’s Oshii’s baby these days. The strange amber color of the new effects may not be to everyone’s liking, but along with the computerized imagery, I’d argue it was one of the most appropriate changes in GITS 2.0.

See, Shirow's suggesting you could be gay.

The only major narrative shift was in re-casting the Ningyou-Tsukai (Puppeteer, or Puppet Master) from male Iemasa KAYUMI to female Yoshihiko SAKAKIBARA, who incidentally played Prime Minister Yoko KAYABUKI in SAC. The character is an evolved computer program who possesses no gender, but wants specifically to commingle its’ program with Motoko. It also possesses a feminine body. In GITS, the engendered appearance of a deep male voice coming out of the frame of an attractive female, who wanted to mate with a compatible electronic creature so that it’s existence wouldn’t perish via natural selection, carried a very deep message of how simple genetic code is: one being passes it to another and this moves onto a new generation, with the genders involved being only the key and lock that allows the transfer to take place. In the case of electronic lifeforms whom can redesign themselves and “evolve” as needed, the concept of gender is completely outdated.

GITS 2.0 complicates this message by playing the character off as female. What the Puppet Master effectively wants to do is inseminate Motoko; a primal instinct that’s typically thought of as being masculine in nature. Thus the masculine persona ignoring its’ feminine host makes sense. This also creates a kinship with Motoko herself from Shirow’s original manga: Motoko is bisexual, proven quite graphically in the original work, and it’s suggested that “she” may have been a man at birth who switched to a female Shell at a later state of her existence. None of this is confirmed one way or another, but the whole point of Oshii’s film is to call into question what being “oneself” really means, and gender identity is most certainly a part of that. There’s nothing wrong with the new cast member or her performance, it’s just one subtle layer in the whole that’s been stripped away completely, and it’s one that I feel harms GITS 2.0 compared to the original GITS, if only slightly. (Eliminating the brief glimpse of the Puppet Master’s “true form” is a little frustrating too, though you could certainly argue that the blatant Judeau-Christian imagery is just a bit over the top for a hyper-intelligent computer program run amuck.)

Along with the visuals, the film has been granted a brand new 6.1 surround mix courtesy of Skywalker Sound, and in typical Oshii fashion, every single line has been re-recorded by the original cast. Even a decade and change later I’m hard pressed to detect a difference in any of the principle cast, and the reason behind it seems to be – like the rest of GITS 2.0 itself – an attempt to get the highest modern quality available. Even the original score has been re-recorded by Kenji KAWAI in 6.1, a luxury not afforded to the Renewal of Evangelion’s 5.1 surround mix, or probably any other anime title in recorded history. Like the vocals, the music is effectively the same, just a bit clearer and more spacious than it ever has been prior.

Australia may lack cocked DTS 5.1 mixes,
but makes up for it with classy packaging.

Manga includes an English dub, but it’s just the 1995 English dub tracks cut into the 6.1 premix, rather than any sort of “New” English cast featured on the various dubs for Innocence, Stand Alone Complex, Second Gig and Solid State Society. It smacks of laziness, but I guess this is classing Manga Entertainment form all the same...

The Manga release, essentially, includes the original Manga R1 DVD release upscaled to 1080i as an extra. The good news is that the half-hour long GITS PRODUCTION REPORT and Manga’s own 1995 preview for the film are included, in 4:3 and window-boxed 1.75:1 respectively. They look like crap, but they were created on analog video nearly 15 years ago, so what can you do? A glossary, character dossiers and creator profiles are also included on the disc. The CG WORKS behind the scenes feature from the Manga Special Edition is nowhere to be found, which is a shame.

What’s even more fascinating is the inclusion of the GITS ORIGINAL MOVIE. That’s right, the unedited 1995 cut of the film is included in its’ entirety, with both English and Japanese audio and full English subtitles. This sounds like a blessing, both for those who love and hate GITS 2.0 – but, of course, there’s a catch…

When Manga released the film on DVD in 1998, they used the same reasonably nice – if far too DNR-ghost heavy - NTSC transfer used on the Japanese Special Edition DVD, with modified opening titles and end credits, swapping kanji for English characters. (I’m actually not sure, but Bandai Visual could well have pinched Manga’s DVD materials.) It had very little EE, was genuine anamorphic widescreen, and the original release was even presented at 480p. It only had 5.1 upmixed English audio, but it did feature the original 2.0 Japanese stereo mix. It was a pretty fantastic DVD for its’ day, though of course time hasn’t been kind to most digital releases… in fact, when they later released the film as a
Special Edition, the audio was bumped up to include new DTS upmixes, but the transfer took a step backwards by being interlaced!

Can YOU spot the SD upscale at 720p?

Forget all that, though. The 1080i transfer of GITS on the Manga Blu-ray looks WORSE than any prior DVD incarnation. Rainbows, dot-crawl, massive aliasing, thick analog video noise… the presence of the 2.0 English dub mix and kanji titles all but scream that Manga actually went to their letterboxed 1997 LD masters and upscaled them. That’s right, Manga wouldn’t use those materials for the DVD over a decade ago, but they’re on the High Definition Blu-ray. It’s literally a master rife with BOB deinterlacing artifacts, with no more than 720x360 luma resolution (tops!), being presented as a “Special Feature.” It’s a useful tool for comparing GITS and GITS 2.0 on the same disc, and it includes the kanji credits and ending theme not present on any of the prior R1 DVDs as a sort of morbid consolation prize, but I can’t for any other reason recommend anyone actually watch this piss poor transfer. If all you want is the original GITS, spending $5 on a used Manga DVD from 1998 is a wiser investment.

I probably shouldn’t be so upset, though. Manga may be foolish, but there’s a fine line between poor judgment and outright retardation. Clearly Manga requested the option to include the original cut of the film “in HD”, and Shochiku/Bandai Visual told them exactly what masters they would allow. Japanese rights holders are insanely paranoid that Japanese fans are going to import the US releases at 1/3 the price of local editions, so crippling the American Blu-ray release – either by delays, barring certain language tracks, or demanding higher price minimums – are slowly becoming the norm in the United States.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that Manga Entertainment were original co-producers on GITS we might not have this Blu-ray release to complain about at all. The presentation of the US release is deeply flawed, but for the $30 MSRP, I guess we’re getting exactly what we paid for.

Mmmm, shiny...

The Japanese GITS 2.0 LIMITED BOX SET comes with a glossy 24 page booklet, a bonus 25 minute Blu-ray (1080i) featuring new interviews with the staff, a stereo CD of Kawai’s new soundtrack recording, and best of all the original GITS on a 1080p Blu-ray, featuring a transfer that rocks the socks right off of Manga’s shitty upscale – and all prior DVD transfers, too. The retail price of roughly $140, however, will surely scare off all but the most dedicated of fans… far from satisfied with my Manga copy of GITS 2.0, I’m testing my own dedication as it is.

Is "2.0" a better film than Ghost in the Shell? No. But I don't think it's any worse in the long run, either. While the original version is slightly dated due to the technological limitations of the period, the updated version makes up for it with sloppy new special effects work that look more like cheap knock-offs of the stunning animation found in the film's even more pensive and polarizing sequel, Innocence. Oshii doesn't claim this is as any sort of Director's Cut, he simply offers it as a new version, and makes no effort to pretend that the original didn't happen or should be ignored from this day forward. While so many revivals seem targeted at nostalgiafags and people who grew up on a franchise with marquee value, this one really looks like he's simply tweaked some aspects to make it appeal to a younger, more modern audience much more familiar with the various TV shows taking place after the events in this film. All of that somewhat controversial "2.0" content helps give the film a longer shelf life, extending its' value as a "modern" Science Fiction vehicle by sweeping all of the dated looking stuff under the ru, and replacing it with, while perhaps second tier, undeniably modern production methods.

It's easy as a fan of a film to say that bad effects and dated appearances don't matter if the story is still relevant, but this sort of rationale is exactly why we're saddled with bad and pointless remakes every 25 years or so. Modern audiences don't tend to watch 'old' movies, largely because they don't really even know they exist, or if they do what among them is worth their time to begin with. Oshii has taken a stand to present an 'old' movie in a way that's more palatable to a modern audience, and while he may not have done it in the most subtle way possible, I still concede that he probably made the right choice.

And besides, let's face reality for a second. This whole "2.0" thing was really just a marketing blitz for his newest anime feature, The Sky Crawlers. If we view this in the scheme of things, it's kind of amazing that any of this happened at all. I may not approve of all of the changes on display, but I was still fascinated - mostly as a video geek, I admit - to see them in action, and that seems like it was worth my entry price.

No comments: