Film * Mamoru Oshii * Advanced Tech/Post-Human * 1995
My first thought upon finishing this movie was fairly profound: Yo, I don’t know what the shit I just watched, but it was cool as hell. This film, which is an anime if that means anything to you, moves with a quickness that borders on insanity. It can be difficult to patch together the plot between lightning-fast action scenes, and the exposition struggles to keep up with the litany of near-future technobabble and squirrely philosophical asides. I can give all this a pass, however, because this is a work that is wholly about style, which Ghost in the Shell has in abundance. The animation is smooth and dazzling, and still looks great over twenty years after its release. Sometimes the camera is a little overly interested in the animated cyborg titties that are constantly on display, even though the film goes out of its way to be as non-sexual as possible. If anything, the tone of the film is rather staid. It’s a fun contrast, because the ethereal and abstract philosophical themes of the film clash violently with the frenzied, kinetic and often harsh action. Like I said, it’s cool as hell.
The story, such as it is, centers on Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a cybernetically enhanced super-cop hot on the trail of a mysterious hacker who calls himself the Puppet Master. Before we go any further, let’s define a couple of terms which will make the rest of the story make sense. The “ghost” referred to throughout the movie is a person’s soul. Perhaps not in the sense of the immortal essence of being or whatever, but a person’s ghost is their memories, their experience, their intellect and personality. The ghost is what makes a human. The shell, on the other hand, is simply the augmented meat-body that a ghost can be inserted into. The Puppet Master is a hacker, yes, but he doesn’t go after government computer systems or anything so trivial. This guy hacks ghosts. This is to say if you’re connected to any kind of future-network that I guess jacks directly into your brain-box, the Puppet Master could tap into your noggin and, well, re-create you.
Needless to say, this behavior alarms the authorities. Major Kusanagi, who leads the cyborg assault division of Section 9 (which is seemingly comprised of three people), is tasked with tracking the Puppet Master down. And this is where things get confusing, which is problematic because everything I’ve talked about so far is about ten minutes of movie. As far as I can tell, the film takes place in an unnamed megalopolis that kinda looks like Neuromancer’s Hong Kong. Which is fucking awesome. The main tension is between Section 9 and Section 6. Sections of what? Who knows. Both of these outfits are on the hunt for the Puppet Master, although while their motives seem to be different (maybe?), both happily apply extreme violence to achieve their ends. Also there are shady connections with diplomats and whatnot, but honestly all of this conspiratorial nonsense is half-baked at best and a hopelessly confused mess that is not worth the trouble at worst. I don’t know, it’s fine. While the shadowy government aspect isn’t vital to the film’s overall theme, it doesn’t get in the way and makes for some rad action scenes.
If Ghost in the Shell isn’t particularly interested in shady government shenanigans, then what is the overall point? Two things strike me, the first of which is fairly heavy-handed and the other more about setting and aesthetic. Taking a look at the obvious first, it seems that the most important conversation that Oshii wants to have is about the future of life. This is a question that is raised by science fiction quite a lot, and it usually concerns artificial intelligence. The issue here is slightly different. Rather than speculate about artificially created computer intelligence and whether or not a self-aware machine is a lifeform, Ghost in the Shell ruminates about the human soul interfacing with the machine. The story looks at this theme in a couple of ways. The protagonist is an augmented human, and the antagonist is one of the aforementioned artificially created intelligences. Their conflict raises a philosophical conundrum: is one more human than the other?
Many things trouble the concept of the soul in this film, such as referring to the soul as a ‘ghost’ in the first place. That’s a loaded term! A ghost is ethereal by nature, it has no true substance and exists only in the minds of those who perceive it. What makes a human mind? We can see the hardware, and we can even see the electrical impulses that imply thought. Yet what makes for true sentience? Major Kusanagi is a cybernetic lifeform, yet she perceives herself as human. She believes this because technology has advanced to the point where her body is interchangeable, nothing but a very expensive, complicated shell. Her true essence is free to move from place to place, shell to shell, so long as her ghost remains unviolated.
The Puppet Master, however, has the ability to violate ghosts at will. This ability is terrifying, because it demonstrates a machine exercising complete power over an individual’s very essence. Machines have had the ability to alter the body since their inception. Most machines that predate the Information Age were created to augment the human body, allowing our species to expand far beyond our natural limitations. Yet a machine that could tamper with the human soul is stark horror. The Puppet Master can rewrite your memories, your personality, everything that makes a human an individual. Yet it seems that all this artificial intelligence wants is to be more alive.
This newly created lifeform doesn’t consider itself a true being because it cannot reproduce itself, nor can it be said to die. In order to experience these things, it endeavors to merge itself with Kusanagi. I suppose she makes a good target, since she’s mostly a machine herself. The end of the film sees Kusanagi’s shell destroyed and her head fly off, which is later collected by her cyborg buddy. Eventually Kusanagi’s ghost is given a new body (a child, for symbolic reasons) with the extra added addition of the Puppet Master’s consciousness. The merger has taken place, and the final product is an entirely new being that has aspects of both parties. Ghost in the Shell has no answers for you. The film ends having posed many questions, and the intention is to provoke thought about a rapidly coming future. How does humanity continue to evolve in an increasingly technological world?
A quick word about the setting of the film, which is an almost oppressively dehumanized metropolis. The art of the film is staggering, and the concept of the mega-city as dehumanizing is well realized here. Obviously, over-urbanization is a common theme in apocalyptic fiction, and if anyone knows about living in vast, hive-like cities it’s Japan. The backdrop of this film is heavily inspired by Hong Kong (which is not in Japan, obviously, but shares a certain look viewers will recognize as the densely-populated Asian super-city), and incorporates visual aspects from various eras in order to present an atmosphere of loosely-controlled chaos. It is the structural representation of information overload, which is the underlying theme of the film. But mostly it looks cool as hell, which, after all, is the primary function of Ghost in the Shell.
And as always, remember: