Anime Retrospective: Who Slips into my Robot Body? - Ghost in the Shell (1995)

We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.
--The Puppet Master

If someone asked you to describe yourself where would you start? Would you start listing your physical attributes? Perhaps talk about things you love to do, or personality traits that you have? But, what is a person? After you die and your body disintegrates into the earth all that is left is the memories of the people left in your wake. After they pass away then you are no more. What if you could upload your consciousness, your ghost, into a different body--one that is infinitely more durable? Are you still you? That is the existential question posed in the classic cyberpunk anime feature film Ghost in the Shell (based on a manga by Masmune Shirow.)

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a post-WWIII Japan in a place called New Port City. Computers have proliferated almost every aspect of society and cybernetics run rampant. The narrative centers around Major Mokoto Kusanagi, who works for Public Security Section 9, a local police force. Major is a synthetic "full-body prosthesis" augmented-cybernetic human. Only her mind is original, everything else on her body is a replacement or a "shell'. She has been tasked to find an illusive hacker known only as The Puppet Master.

The setting for this film is absolutely dripping in the cyberpunk aesthetic. Although the setting is Japan, the streets and city are modeled after Hong Kong. Cyberpunk is characterized by its mixture of high technology with a degenerated society and populous. The world Major inhabits has all these technological wonders but most people are still marginalized and poor. There is a dichotomy between the shimmering neon lights of the affluent parts of the city and the dirty and grimy underbelly that seethes beneath. Director Mamoru Oshii paints a melancholy picture where no one is truly happy, though that doesn't stop them from trying to grasp what little comforts they can.

Production I.G provided the animation for this film and its a mixture of traditional cel animation and computer graphics. The CG used is quite subtle and makes for some interesting effects (one such effect being Major's thermal optical camouflage). There are several breathtaking action scenes which oscillate between graceful slow-motion stunts and quick brutal takedowns. The Wachowskis took a lot of notes from this flick for their breakout hit The Matrix (1999). The beginning scene where Major does a nude backwards swan dive off the top of a building is one of the most iconic sequences in all of anime.

Kenji Kawai's music score is absolutely beautiful and haunting. The main theme of the film, which utilizes a traditional Japanese choir, echoes and surrounds the viewer, maybe even speaking directly to their ghost. One of the things that sets Ghost in the Shell apart from other sci-fi anime movies is the fact that it isn't afraid to have extended quiet sequences that just focus on scenery. Kawai's music sets the mood perfectly and allows the viewers to just drift off into the concrete vistas and ponder what has come before and what may happen in the future. This is all punctuated by a constant, pressing drum beat that propels the story forward to its explosive finale.

In this future, identity and gender have become almost meaningless as one can have whatever cyborg body they prefer. Major looks rather androgynous and she does not feel shame about displaying her naked body (she has to get nude for her optical camo to work). Her indifference to social mores is telling as she does not feel a connection to her physical body anymore. I feel like this has a parallel in the way Japanese society works in real life, as they focus much more on the group than the individual. They are taught that the greater good of Japan takes precedence over the needs of the individual. So I can see how Major represents the repressed needs of people to breakout from their roles that they are forced into. Major even says at one point: "I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries."

Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of transhumanism-themed science fiction and should be on the list of anyone who enjoys complex narratives as well as incredible action.

-Michelle Kisner