I've talked about it at length before, but when I first started out watching anime in the mid 90s, there wasn't exactly a lot available for an anime-starved middle schooler, looking for his next fix. On TV, the only shows I could see were Sailor Moon on USA and the random anime films on Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Anime. It got a bit better when Toonami first started and we got Voltron—then Robotech and Dragon Ball Z. But beyond that, if you wanted more anime, the video store was where you had to go. In my local Blockbuster we had only two rows of a single small shelf dedicated to anime. But every once in a while, an anime would appear on the new release wall.
One day, picking up games and movies for a sleepover with my friends, one of them came up with the recently released Ghost in the Shell. He had seen it before and called it the most amazing anime he had ever seen. So of course I was excited to watch.
I remember watching it, late at night with my friends in my basement and really loving it. The action, the CG animation... the topless scenes with the Major (I was 14 at the time). It was my first introduction to cyberpunk in any form. Yes, I was really loving it—until the ending.
The moment the action stopped and the final conversation with the Puppet Master began, is the moment my feelings of love began a rapid descent toward hate. The movie had been so cool with tons of action and a great villain, but the ending was just psycho-babble as far as I was concerned. I didn't understand what happened even in the slightest—except that the major was now in a little girl's robot body for whatever reason. I remember in the late hours of that night playing Bushido Blade and just thinking that if it weren't for the ending of the film, I would have really enjoyed Ghost in the Shell.
Over the next few years, I saw the film once or twice more and got to the point where I, if nothing else, understood what happened at the end. But while everyone else I knew revered the film, I despised it as the perfect example of how to ruin a film in the last few minutes.
It wasn't until I was attending college in Japan years later that I really sat down and watched Ghost in the Shell again—this time as part of a modern Japanese film class. In the intervening years, I had managed to avoid both Stand Alone Complex and Innocence to my personal satisfaction, so it had been at least half a decade since I saw anything Ghost in the Shell-related. I figured I'd give it a second chance.
While I still didn't like it after that viewing, I found to my surprise that I didn't hate it. And as we broke into groups and began to discuss the film, I discovered something that legitimately shocked me—I had been looking at the film in completely the wrong way.
Since childhood I had been viewing Ghost in the Shell as a plot-driven film—as kids tend to do with everything they watch. But Ghost in the Shell is not a plot-driven film, it is a concept-driven film. The Puppet Master plot is just a vehicle to look at the deep questions of a cyberpunk society—especially those relating to humanity and gender: if the only thing that remains of your original body is a small piece of your brain, are you still human? What exactly is a soul? When anyone can have any body they choose, what exactly does gender mean anymore? Why is the most masculine character of the film (the Major) the only one with a woman's body?
Moreover, the movie is very big on "show, don't tell" and those scenes with little or no dialogue serve to explore the aforementioned questions (and others) through visual means alone.
Fast forward to the present day and I am definitely a fan of Ghost in the Shell—the film as well as its sequels, spin-offs, and the original manga. It taught me two important life lessons. Firstly, how changing how you look at something can change your enjoyment of it, and secondly, just because you hated something as a child doesn't mean you'll hate it as an adult.
Except for coconuts—they are and always have been completely and totally vile.