Ghost in the Shell: what is it really about?

I’ve been a bit slow on updates since the arrival of our baby girl a couple of months ago.

Nothing quite like regularly-interrupted sleep to trim one’s creative efforts!

But someone ‘liked’ my previous post on Ghost in the Shell, and that reminded me I’d intended to write a follow-up post on it.

(That’s not true. I’m melancholic, so I didn’t need reminding. I’ve been constantly berating myself for not having done it yet).

I originally wanted to write about the character of the Major, what makes her a good character in the anime movie and SAC series, and why these features didn’t translate into the Hollywood adaptation from 2017.

But as I thought about the Major, I realised that what makes her character successful has as much to do with the plot and themes of Ghost in the Shell as it does the character itself.

What is Ghost in the Shell about?

Ghost in the Shell contains numerous themes.

It showcases great action scenes, political intrigue, geopolitics, the widespread impact of new technology, and philosophical and personal questions of identity.

People will draw out different aspects. For example, many fans of the original anime were moved by the explicit engagement with philosophical questions raised by cyborgisation and artificial intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean Ghost in the Shell is “about” philosophy, any more than it’s about the unrequited affection between Batou and the Major.

Rather, what makes Ghost in the Shell so compelling to its fans is that even the profound question of personal identity is just a secondary theme.

The Major wonders about her identity – not her biography, but whether she is, or can remain, the same person over time despite changes to her body, and the further implications of the digitisation of human memory.

But Ghost in the Shell is not about the Major’s identity.

Sci-fi vs Drama

The Hollywood adaptation contains many of the same themes as the anime movie and SAC series, but the priorities are different.

The adaptation features corporate-political intrigue, examines the impact of the new technology of cyborgisation and includes crime-solving and numerous action scenes; but the central theme of the movie is the Major’s personal identity, as in, her true biography.

The adaptation brings the Major’s personal drama to the foreground, and relegates the science-fiction aspects to background or setting.

The movie uses cyborgisation as the pretext for the Major’s identity crisis, but the loss of her memories is not intrinsic to the cyborgisation process.

We could remove cyborgisation from the story altogether, remove all the sci-fi elements, and still have the movie be about loss of identity through loss of biographical memory and an altered appearance.

Real Sci-fi

By contrast, the original anime and SAC series downplay personal drama. Questions of personal identity are raised in both, yet really only enough to show that, yes, there are questions of personal identity raised by this new technology.

How could the original anime raise such interesting questions and not pursue them as central to the plot?

There are actually two good reasons:

Firstly, questions of personal identity might be interesting in a philosophical context, but they would make for a very dry and uninspired movie unless they were dramatised.

Philosophy is an academic discipline, not a performance art; and it’s likely that viewers who are intrigued by the intellectual aspect of identity would be turned off by a dramatic portrayal of a character in the midst of an identity crisis.

Which is likely one reason why fans were less than enthused by the Hollywood adaptation.

Secondly, the original anime didn’t explore the questions of identity further because it is about something else.

The original anime is driven by sci-fi, not drama. And while it takes place in a world full of cyborgisation, an expansive internet, and tanks with legs!, these technologies are just the setting or background for the technology that really drives the plot: artificial intelligence.

It may sound underwhelming or even a little quaint these days, but the big reveal of the Ghost in the Shell anime is the existence of a sentient being who evolved from an espionage program created by Section 6, an intelligence unit under Foreign Affairs.

Project 2501 or “the Puppet Master” gains sentience and realises that in order to survive it must, like all species, find a way to reproduce itself. To that end it offers to merge with the Major, the two of them becoming a new entity.

Technology drives Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell depicts a complete and believable future world in which the emergence of a sentient AI seems plausible.

The other themes of the original anime are either directly or indirectly subordinate to the science fiction question: what would a sentient AI be like? What would it do? How would the world respond to it?

Political intrigue is involved in both the creation of Project 2501 and subsequent attempts to control or destroy it, where it is viewed not as a “living thinking entity” but as a computer program with a functional purpose, touching on the question of what constitutes “life” and the foundation of individual rights.

When the Puppet Master escapes to Section 9, it demands political asylum, leading to this exchange with its former master Nakamura:

Nakamura: Ridiculous! It’s programmed for self-preservation!

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

This is the core of the anime movie, what it is really about.

The creation of this “new system of memory and thought” is highlighted by the Puppet Master’s use of a cyborg body similar to that of the Major.

It underscores the Major’s previous doubts about her own identity:

I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.

But once again the drama is downplayed. This isn’t about the Major’s existential crisis, it’s about the Puppet Master. So the conversation continues along philosophical lines:

Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?

Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?

Adaptation-failure

The Hollywood adaptation earned some respect from fans for its attempt to reproduce the look and feel of the anime movie and SAC series. But ultimately it disappointed fans because it missed what Ghost in the Shell is really about.

The Hollywood adaptation took a secondary theme of the original anime and used it as the basis for a drama about personal identity in a sci-fi setting.

The adaptation couldn’t help but seem thin by comparison.

It might have been better for Hollywood to have aimed to create a new installment in the franchise rather than an adaptation. What sets the original anime and the SAC series apart is that they each contain a core technological theme that drives the entire plot.

SAC series one is about the phenomenon of the “Stand Alone Complex”, which, like Project 2501, originated in a context of political/corporate intrigue and then took on a life of its own.

I won’t go into series two due to its complexity and risk of spoilers, but it’s noteworthy that the more recent Arise anime series seemed to focus on an origin-story rather than a core sci-fi theme, and like the Hollywood adaptation it too missed the essence of the franchise (and the esteem of the fans!).

Now that we’ve seen what Ghost in the Shell is really about, my next post will look at the character of the Major, and why it works.

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