‘Ghost in the Shell’ is one of the classic anime. It is certainly, and will be in the future, regarded as one of the greatest films of the genre. In many ways Oshii created a philosophically and aesthetically beautiful film. However, just what is inside that beautifully crafted, yet Byzantine, shell? Well, this article is designed to delve into and, ultimately, understand just what Oshii, and too a extent Shirow, is attempting to say in this landmark film.
Before this piece commences on its journey though the heart of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ it is, perhaps, more important to understand what the surrounds The Shell of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. This part of the article is focused on defining ‘Ghost in the Shell’ adequately whilst simultaneously examining the sub-genre ‘Ghost in the Shell’ redefined in 1995: Cyberpunk science fiction.
Cyberpunk science fiction is defined by Lawrence Person through the characters that inhabit their respective universes. In this way he said that “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”
In this way you could say that Cyberpunk Science Fiction is perhaps a technological derivative of Dystopian Science Fiction where the protagonist is trapped in a society which is ruthlessly malevolent and treats its deprived people in an abject fashion. The difference, of course, being that Cyberpunk is far more involved with technology than its dystopian cousin is.
However, Cyberpunk is far more focused on protagonists and antagonists on the edge of society. In this way Lain, from ‘Serial Experiments Lain’, is just one of a host of characters that are within the Cyberpunk sub-genre that goes from being “on the edge” too being the centre of attention. For example think of Lain, Tetsuo (‘Akira) and Neo (‘The Matrix’) who were all at the periphery of society and became the most important person influencing that very same society. They put the punk back into Cyberpunk.
So is ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a cyberpunk piece? Well Kusanagi’s famous line (in this film) best sums it up: “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.” In many ways Cyberpunk is all about breaking down boundaries. Described in this way, perhaps, this defines exactly what ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is as a story.
“The year is 2029, the world is made borderless by the net; augmented humans who live in virtue environments. Watched over by law enforcement agents that are able to download themselves into super-powered, crime busting mecha. The ultimate secret agent of the future is not human, has no physical body and can travel freely through the information highways of the world. Hacking and manipulating whatever, whomever and whenever required…”
Ghost in the Shell DVD Blurb (Manga Entertainment) 2003.
Is this really what ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is about? Yes, in some ways it is. In other ways it is not! The blurb emphasises a certain degree more bite and fight than the film actually possesses. Rather, the mention of borders, refered to throughout this article as boundaries, is perhaps what is important in relation to ‘Ghost in the Shell’.
Indeed Motoko Kusanagi is attempting to break down the boundaries restraining her from being bound by the society she finds herself in. The reason she desires escape is because she believes that society is progressing in a direction which essentially losing its humanity. In this way Kusanagi is a way of expressing Oshii’s lament that society is becoming less and less human.
As discussed earlier Cyberpunk is essentially a way for science fiction authors to discuss a modern day topic or issue within the context of the future. Oshii here is using ‘Ghost in the Shell’ as a vehicle to discuss the effects upon society of the dehumanisation of society.
Susan Napier also believes that there is “an implicit lament for a lost (or perhaps never really existing) world of human connection is one of the film’s more distinctive elegiac aspects.” However away from such “elegiac aspects” she asserts that “‘Ghost in the Shell’…has a strongly ‘female’ sensibility.” Napier hypothesises that this feminine perspective is to be found “in terms of the traditional female links with the irrational and the uncanny and the interior and the reflective.”
Napier’s comments are motivated by her own feminist stereotypes. It can be asserted that the reason why Kusanagi is a woman is because of Masamune Shirow’s admiration of the female exterior. This can be seen throughout his work, e.g. ‘Dominion Tank Police’ and ‘Appleseed’.
In spite of the fact that Napier believes ‘Ghost in the Shell’ can surpass the usual anime stereotypes, it is interesting to consider her idea of femininity being explored in the film. This be examined as an interesting viewpoint to interpret different scenes during the course of this article. However Napier describes ‘Ghost in the Shell’ as a complex mixture of Cyberpunk, mecha, metaphysics and philosophy to spawn a “cyberpunk-noir film”
‘Ghost in the Shell’ also explores the idea of the Cyborg which Jennifer Gonzalez envisions as “reflections of a contemporary state of being.” Both these ideas link back to the idea of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ being about boundaries and how Kusanagi is going to be able to surpass those boundaries. Boundaries and boarders are keywords in regards to Cyberpunk and so we are going to explore the world of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ in depth and critique what both Oshii and Shirow are attempting to say in this redefining anime.
Next week we explore Kusanagi’s “time of the month” and also a parentless birth. That’s right, the first two scenes are critiqued next week on ‘Ghost in the Shell’: What’s inside the shell?