composer for film, theater, and TV

Ghost in the Shell: humanity in the cyborg

A couple of years ago we witnessed the release of the American take on Masamune Shirou’s legendary manga Ghost in the Shell. That movie was, for me, a complete miss in regards to the story and its themes, and in my opinion only recycled the same old Hollywood themes of fighting for “justice” and “freedom” but in a marginally exotic background. I will maybe dedicate a future post to that movie, and also what went wrong in the soundtrack, but today I want to talk about the real masterpiece: Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 masterpiece adaptation, and in particular Kenji Kawai’s iconic score.

Oshii diverged quite a bit from the original manga in making his film. While the original Major Kusanagi was a sexy and a bit sassy, Oshii portrays her as very inexpressive and quite sexless. At several point we see her naked during the film, but this is only used to emphasized her superhuman synthetic body than to elicit any sexual feelings toward her. He also used the story as a platform to explore more in depths themes which were already present in earlier films, such as the nature of reality, what makes us human, and what are the means by which governments and institutions seek to control us and determine our lives. He also makes a lot of religious references, mostly taken from the christian tradition, a technique which has been present in his work since the cryptic Angel’s Egg (1985).

For those who don’t know the film (go watch it, it’s on Netflix so come on), it takes place somewhere in the not-so-far future, where many people have altered their bodies mechanically in order to enhance them for different tasks, in other words, they have become cyborgs. Motoko Kusanagi, the protagonist, is a police agent whose only “human” component left is her brain. Together with her partners Batou (another cyborg police agent) and Togusa (the only non-cyborg agent in the whole department), they are tasked with catching the Puppetmaster, a very dangerous criminal who has been hacking into people’s cyborg brains in order to either take information or to make them commit crimes.

The world in which the action takes place might seem quite alien to us: there is technology we don’t know, countries that don’t exist in real life, a very complicated diplomacy and bureaucracy, together with the fact that the main character is a cyborg, which is something we haven’t yet managed to make in reality (I say “yet” because there must be people trying). But the brilliance of both the film and the soundtrack is that they manage to make us feel an emotional connection with the film, which makes the philosophical message even stronger. There are many ways in which this happens on a visual level, but here I will like to refer you to the Nerdwriter’s amazing video-essay about it.

Let’s focus on the music, then. The first thing that comes to our attention when watching the film is that the score contains two main elements which we don’t expect in a sci-fi movie: acoustic percussion and voices. Right at the beginning, during the title sequence, when we see a cyborg being made, we hear different types of drums with rhythms that are quite repetitive and make us think of an ancient ritual, as though the being we see coming to “life” is of divine nature. To this, we have the human voices, which seem to be singing a song of praise to this being. This mixture of voice and drums, which is so ancient and almost innate to us as humans, creates a bridge between the cyberpunk world of the film and its very human themes. When the synths come in, later in the film, they resemble acoustic instruments such as a harpsichord or a string section, we never have sounds that are too foreign.

I relate this somewhat with John Williams’ decision in 1973 to score George Lucas’ Star Wars as a Wagnerian opera, rather than using synths and electronic sounds (such as Bernard Herrman had already done in The War of the Worlds a couple of decades earlier). By using the aesthetic of 19th century European music, he could speak in a language the people were already used to and could understand, thus bridging the gap between the strange world of the franchise and the audience.

Kenji Kawai chooses the same, he stays throughout the film with the same 3 musical elements, repeating them in almost the exact same way, thus keeping the audience engaged with what is going on and creating connections between the different scenes in the film. When we hear the music from the beginning again in the middle of the film, during the long establishing sequence, we understand that these images of the city we see are also a projection of the sense of alienation the main character feels inside.

This makes me think about how sometimes it’s very tempting to make films that are completely experimental and alien. Sometimes it is also good to give the audience something to hold on to, in order to have a better grasp of what is going on. One way to do this is through the music. In the end, music speaks to a much deeper layer of consciousness than images. Images are more rational, and can be processed more carefully. Music speaks to the subconscious, and thus is much wilder and irrational, therefore it is what audiences very often look for (even though they may not realize it) in order to understand a film better. Food for thought, also for myself.

Beautiful concert version of the soundtracks of Ghost in the Shell 1 and 2

image source here