I’ve seen this one before, but years and years ago, and since its part of my roommate’s collection, I thought I’d give it another spin. And it was just as good as I remembered it being. This is one of the classics, released in Japan 1995 to huge acclaim, in part for its portrayal of the near future and in part due to the questions it asks about what it means to be human. Thirteen years later it doesn’t feel dated or quaint; a testament to the visionary nature of Mamoru Oshii’s directing.
Set in a futuristic Hong Kong, it tells the tale of an elite government team’s attempts to capture an incredibly powerful hacker known only as ‘The Puppet Master’. Major Kusanagi, the leader of the anti-electronic terrorism squad is a cyborg, retaining only parts of her original brain and spinal chord in an otherwise completely artificial body. As she and her team close in on the elusive hacker, questions of what it means to be human, of what separates artificial intelligences from organic ones, and whether those lines can be crossed become increasingly important.
The plot is almost completely understandable, though the ending is worth rewatching a couple of times in under to understand the nuances of the dialog between the Major and the Puppet Master. Having grown accustomed to plot coherency being sacrificed for ambiance and mood, this is no small thing.
There are strong echoes of Blade Runner here, as the immediate struggles of the characters pale in comparison to the importance of the philosophical points being explored. Occasionally the Major launches into a rather didactic speech about her body, mind, and soul, but for the most part the issues are explored smoothly through the heated debates and actions of the characters. Where does the soul reside? How much of your human body can you lose before you become a machine? What does it mean to be human? The Major with her artificial body is particularly drawn to these questions, and even as the bullets fly, and plot twist follows plot twist, the movie maintains a gravitas that grounds the futuristic elements and keeps us riveted in our seats.
So, yes: an excellent anime, thought provoking and beautifully rendered, with distinctive characters and compelling themes. This is a classic in the genre for a very good reason, and if you found Blade Runner enjoyable, you’ll love it.