Ever since my childhood, anime has assumed a dangerous, forbidden aura. I can recall in my early teens as these Japanese animated movies and television shows began to encroach upon video stores’ territory, scant shelves and then populated aisles of big eyes, big swords and big breasts. Give or take an Astroboy, I never watched any anime in my youth – my parents were quite strict on ratings advice – so the idea of cartoons with sex and violence and ‘adult themes’ fascinated me long before I ever watched an anime proper.
Two of the formative anime films of my teen years – Ninja Scroll and Ghost in the Shell – have recently received a Blu-Ray release in Australia, giving me the opportunity to relive these films from an adult perspective. Watching Ninja Scroll over a decade later, the ‘adult’ content of the material is perfect suited to a teenage boy, with an early scene revelling in the dismemberment of unprepared ninjas and the attempted rape of Kagero by a grotesque golem of sorts.
It continues much in this exploitative vein for the rest of its runtime, and it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to teenage boys like myself in the ‘90s. While it’s no masterpiece – more a Saturday morning cartoon writ large with bloodier violence and boobs – the main appeal of the film is its character designs. The films’ “Eight Devils” are drawn with an eldritch, elongated style and imaginative powers – wasps, shadow-travelling, impossibly euphemistic living snake tattoos – that holds up two decades later, even if the storyline is pure cheese.
Ghost in the Shell (in a gorgeous remastered hi-def release) shares with Ninja Scroll the kind of ‘adult’ content that’s really gussied-up juvenilia – action scenes, nudity, natch – but paired with thoughtful, philosophical subject material. Decades later, the film feels familiar. Partly this is because it addresses perpetual sci-fi questions like “What divides artificial intelligence and human intelligence?” and its aesthetic draws from Metropolis to Blade Runner. But equally the film’s influence is unmistakable in 2014; it can be felt from The Matrix to more recent releases like Under the Skin and Her (beginning much like the former and ending much like the latter – “The net is infinite.”). Similarly, while its philosophical speechifying perhaps hews too close to an undergraduate philosophy course, many of the questions the film poses are being answered now, as US-designed viruses infest computer systems and the increasing ‘power’ offered to us by the internet also leaves us increasingly vulnerable (see: the recent celebrity nude photo hack).
Ninja Scroll might be a children’s cartoon with an R-rating, but Ghost in the Shell is the business. Having not seen the film in well over a decade, I’d remembered the broad strokes of its plot but had forgotten the mesmerising atmosphere fostered by director Mamoru Oshii. The soundscape plays an important role: the sound design conveys the heavy ‘thwack’ of the artillery used in the film’s action sequences while Kenji Kawai’s score creates and sustains a contemplative ambiance throughout. The film’s imagery finds the complexity that the sometimes-overwritten dialogue strives for, with repeated motifs of death and rebirth – with water acting as a versatile symbol, amniotic and funereal in equal measure – heralding the film’s ambiguous conclusion.