Ghost in the Shell is one of the most important anime movies of its time, but does it remain a timeless classic to this day?
|Genre||Science fiction, action, seinen|
|Release year||1995, 2008 (GitS 2.0 version)|
|Purchase Blu-Ray||Purchase from Amazon.|
|Purchase DVD||Purchase from Amazon.|
Ghost in the Shell is one of the most recognizable sci-fi anime of all time, as well as being one of the most recognizable old school anime of all time. I guess it helps that a live action remake came out this year, even though it isn’t good per say. But at the very least, it did revive an interest in the franchise, getting people to check out what it’s all about—myself included.
Often, we ponder to ourselves on what makes us human. What kind of qualities do we have that sets us apart from other animals and even machines?
Like animals, we’re flesh and blood. We have the need to consume (whether it’s other animals or plants). We need water. We reproduce. So what happens if we take those qualities away? Do we lose our humanity and become something else entirely, or is it simply a state of mind?
These are the kinds of themes that Ghost in the Shell explores as a franchise., with an emphasis on cybernetic enhancement technology. By replacing our flesh with more durable machinery, what do we gain from it and what do we lose? Well, let’s find out.
The Line between Humanity and Apathy
The movie opens with this short monologue.
In the near future, electrons and light flow freely,
and corporate computer networks eclipse the stars.
Despite great advances in computerization,
countries and races are not yet obsolete…
Ghost in the Shell takes place in the year 2029, in the fictional cyberpunk city of New Port City in Japan. The story follows the exploits of Public Security Section 9, a fictional police force working for the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. The plot focuses on the police force pursuing a mysterious figure called the Puppet Master, an unknown figure who snuck into Japan and was known for stock manipulation, spying, political engineering, terrorism and violation of cyber-brain privacy (also known as “ghost-hacking”).
Leading the assault force of Public Security Section 9 is one Major Motoko Kusanagi, a strong-willed cyborg woman with a skill for assassination and tactics. This character is one of the main focuses of the movie (as well as the franchise), showing her as this seemingly cold policewoman who gets the job done. There are multiple scenes where she strips herself of her clothing (usually for camouflage during a mission), revealing her womanly figure. Despite that, the movie clearly presents to us that she isn’t entirely human and that her body is synthetic. There was a whole sequence where we see her body getting assembled, as if awaiting her birth. So in that sense, the nudity is not entirely gratuitous and shows her that she is human, in appearance. You wouldn’t know she was mostly machine, until you see what is really beneath her synthetic skin—or hey, those outlets on the back of her neck.
But Motoko doesn’t see herself as just some machine. In her conversation with fellow co-worker Batou, she explains what she thinks of her own identity:
Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call “me.” And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.
The title and motifs of the series Ghost in the Shell were inspired by the novel The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. The terms “ghost” and “shell” were also used in-universe to describe the “soul” and “body” respectively. One of the main motifs is that the shell can be discarded, but the ghost can remain intact. The body doesn’t make the individual, but rather the mind. And this is what sets Motoko and the rest of Public Security Section 9 from both humans and machines. While possessing a large amount of cybernetic enhancements, they’re still human on the inside. They’re still capable of feeling empathy, keeping memories and constructing their own personal goals.
This was further emphasized with a common citizen of New Port City, a garbageman who believed he had a wife and a daughter. But because the Puppet Master hacked his cyber-brain and manipulated his memories, the garbageman learned that the memories were fake. And what made this scene more tragic was that the memories would be very difficult to erase, allowing the pain of losing what he never had to remain with him. This is a case when the cybernetic implants don’t make a person less unfeeling, but rather more emotional. A cyber-brain is very much like a computer, therefore a hacker can mess with it.
One can lose his humanity when he loses his name, his memories, his emotions and his self-awareness. In this way, the Puppet Master had achieved this—finding people to hack and taking away their human qualities, making them into puppets without ghosts. In this sense, a “ghost” is like human DNA, but as data instead. And just like any other data, it’s susceptible to corruption and deletion.
Because the mechanical shells have no reproductive organs, the cyborgs have no orthodox means of producing new beings into existence. Even though Motoko has a feminine body, the inside of her body does not carry feminine traits, such as the ability to produce breast milk or eggs. So why does she possess a female body type, even though it has no clear advantages for her abilities as a soldier and police officer?
Perhaps it was simply a cosmetic preference, with Motoko preferring to be seen as a woman. I don’t think the movie itself made it clear whether Motoko was a woman before her cybernetic implants, though it’s strongly possible considering her personality can be considered more typically masculine. In that sense, Ghost in the Shell can also function as a message for feminism. Motoko may not be biologically male or female at this point, but she still embraces her feminine body and her masculine personality as part of her identity. She’s a unique being who views herself as simply Motoko Kusanagi.
The ending comes full circle at this. In an effort to destroy an enemy tank and recover the Puppet Master’s body, Motoko sacrificed her body during an attempt to dismantle the tank. She was left a functioning, helpless body without limbs. She spoke with the Puppet Master—an AI who was in a female body at the time, but spoke with a male voice. The Puppet Master possessed self-awareness of his actions and knew at some point that he would fade from existence, so he offered his being to Motoko. Motoko accepted, causing the ghosts of the two beings to merge into one. This was by far the closest thing to reproduction that they were capable of.
Batou managed to save Motoko’s cyber-brain and planted it into a shell of a teenage girl. While still calling herself Motoko Kusanagi, she acknowledged that she was not the same person as before. She is now both Motoko and the Puppet Master as one being, and she’s fine with it. For her, it’s like evolution. Change. Growth.
The Happenings of New Port City
Ghost in the Shell is more of a philosophical story than a plot-based or character-based one. Aside from Motoko’s existential character arc, the movie also has some political intrigue and gorgeous imagery.
The sheer scale and detail of New Port City are breathtaking to say the least, in an attempt to emulate the look and feel of Hong Kong. Imposing skyscrapers, alleyways full of poor neighborhoods, and advanced technology that looked like it came straight from Blade Runner. Combined with the beautiful soundtrack, Ghost in the Shell has a timeless feel to it. And if you’re ever planning to watch this movie, watch the original 1995 cut. Don’t bother with the updated version called Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which doesn’t do much to improve the movie. Hand-drawn animation looks better than CGI any day.
As foreshadowed by the opening prologue of the movie, countries and races are not yet obsolete. While these political themes are not as prominent as the humanity motifs, they still help drive the plot forward.
The cybernetic enhancements not only open a new world of possibilities, they also make room for more human error and abuse. Ghost-hacking is the closest to mind control as this movie gets, which makes it possible for dangerous cyber criminals like the Puppet Master to run amok.
This also gives governments of the world more power over their citizens. Politics takes a front seat and diplomats are willing to recruit the most dangerous hackers out there, as tools for power and control. This is why an organization like Public Security Section 9 exists; to run independently from government affairs and take matters into their own hands, in order to protect Japan from cyber-terrorism and political conspiracies. They have the power to spy on citizens and dispatch criminal activities before things take a turn for the worse. And the members are specially selected among the most loyal and skilled military personnel.
The Puppet Master (aka Project 2501) himself initially started off as a government weapon, before developing sentience. And in a rather unique turn of events, the Puppet Master developed self-preserving behavior, desiring the human trait of reproduction. A machine desiring to be more human… now that’s fascinating.
Despite the depth that Ghost in the Shell presents to us, it’s not without its flaws. As I mentioned earlier, the movie is more focused on its philosophy rather than a coherent plot—one might even call it pretentious in its presentation. To get full enjoyment out of the movie, you need to give it your full attention, or else you will feel lost or bored.
The plot is quite bare bones and leaves much to be desired, since it gives more precedence to its philosophical and political commentaries. You can wrap it up in a few of sentences: Government organization wants to capture a hacker. Military officer questions her sense of self. Organization finds hacker, and military officer accepts her sense of self.
The characters, aside from Motoko and the Puppet Master, aren’t particularly deep. But arguably, Motoko herself has a stern and stilted personality that makes her seem more robotic at times than human, making it harder to personally identify with her situation. There wasn’t a moment where she expressed different emotions, other than indifference and pride. But because of the depth of her identity crisis, she’s still the best character in the movie.
Ghost in the Shell is not for everyone. It’s one of those movies that intends to make you think rather than feel. But once it has your full attention, you can appreciate its philosophical depth and inner beauty. It’s a landmark film in anime history for a reason. It’s also an earlier example that animation isn’t limited to a younger age group, but it’s simply a medium to tell a story. And in the case of Ghost in the Shell, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ghost in the ShellPrice Varies
- A ton of depth into the philosophical commentary and symbolism.
- Beautiful artwork and animation, supported by a beautiful soundtrack.
- A thematic story about humanity and self-awareness.
- Motoko Kusanagi is one of the more complex characters in anime history.
- The political intrigue serves to get the plot moving.
- The 2.0 version redid the sound design and animation, for worse...
- The commentary drowns out the plot and characterization, making this the kind of movie you can't shut your brain off to.