Duality: a simple but demonstratively cardinal term. The expressionistic properties of ‘duality’ alone can already form the metaphorical backbone of the most impressionable citings of physics, philosophy, mythology and visual arts in human history. Balance in its purest form constitutes two opposing beings; physical or otherwise, keeping each other in check. Gravity and mass, good and evil, light and dark. Man and machine.
This constant of mirroring opposites is fundamental to the human perception of being, which by extension feeds into the relationship between the world and human worldview. It is this fascinatingly loaded nature of ‘duality’, that allows the Japanese multimedia franchise Ghost in the Shell, to assume a fluid property of omnipresent relevance: its array of themes and questions about the human condition, identity and technological hubris continues to find a relatable anchor in the 21st century, despite being 22 years since Mamoru Oshii’s famed theatrical film adaptation in 1995. When musing over the evergreen freshness and unique worldview of the film, essayists and critics alike are quick (and very much correct in doing so) to point out the uncharacteristically inward-looking philosophical lecturing that it was so confident in positing, as well as the universally relevant themes of human identity and the contemporary technological spawn. This relevance has floated back to the forefront of international attention, due to its favourable comparisons with the recent 2017 Hollywood live-action adaptation, directed by Rupert Sanders. (Suderman, 2017). The fundamental exploration of robotics, the synthesis of the human and cyber (cyborgs) in a near future demonstrates a level of contemporary awareness that is unique to Ghost in the Shell.
“The world of Ghost in the Shell is part futuristic action movie and part philosophy lecture, in which artfully constructed animated action sequences serve as vehicles for investigations into the nature of consciousness. It’s a showcase for what top-notch animation can do – one that the new movie never quite manages to match.”
However, the cultural uniquity of Ghost in the Shell cannot be designated to its worldwide resonance alone. Eastern thinkers and researchers pointed to the localised historical backdrops which set the attitudinal foundations of Japanese science fiction, which had its roots in the post-war 1960s, eventually blooming fully with the paradigm shifting advance of electronics, led by the Sony Walkman, video games and the personal computer in the 1980s and 90s. The so-called henshin būmu or ‘transformation boom’, in which fictional narratives centred around heroes and heroines transforming into super-powered alternate personas to battle enemies, enjoyed an iconic presence in Japanese fiction, and can be keenly observed in the emergence of the Cyberpunk genre, the subtly related Mecha genre and the unrelated but still demonstratively iconic Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) genre, which effectively built themselves around the staple ‘transformation sequences’. (Ryusuke, 2017) It is certainly feasible to argue then, that the localised iconography and geographical personality of Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell makes the product a timeless canvas, dabbed in an ever-increasing build-up of questions and sort-of answers. The ‘sort-of’ uncertainty that the film’s ending leaves its audience in is a definitive guise for its contrastingly clear statement, that identity and being is indeed a fluid and ever-changing spectrum of selves, never stagnant, but ever-present.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell film adaptation keenly utilises every narrative asset to portray its cinematic world as a flood of data; an urban sprawl, with infinite veins choked full of information. And it is in this identity that the film forms the foundations of its ideas, a sprawling centrepiece that exists in an endless feedback loop of dualistic cycles. The city and its residents, people and space, culture and history, technology and progress, all contribute to this loop of influence, and merges to form a congruent whole.
On Philosophy: Fluid Being & The Cyborg
The widely cited inspiration for Ghost in the Shell’s title: the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’, was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1949), intended to describe (and mock) René Descartes’ view of the mind-body duality, which posits that mental phenomena are non-physical. In other words, the mind and body are considered distinct and separable entities, so that physical human bodies are controlled by immaterial souls. (Crame, Patterson, 2001, pgs. 1-2) On face value, the 1995 film readily explores Descartes’ view of the mind-body duality (though actively agreeing with it is debatable, as I will later discuss) with a thematic focus that posits a world in the near future, where human minds or ‘ghosts’ can be jacked into a vast cyber network, as well as operate cybernetic bodies or ‘shells’, hence the title ‘Ghost in the Shell’. The fluid nature of the human mind and the discardable tool-like presence of the body then informs the discussion of what makes humans human, when the majority if not all their physical presence in reality is not of their own flesh. The film’s main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi – a female cyborg police commander working for Public Security Section 9 – is an active signifier of this mind-body disconnect. In the film’s various action sequences, the Major showcases a steely focus on the missions at hand, while totally disregarding the integrity of her physical body, even going as far as ripping it to shreds during the final act, while battling a Tachikoma (spider-like tank). Of course, mirroring this reaping of the rewards of having a dispensable body, Kusanagi also expresses a profound sense of identity displacement throughout the film, as she is aware that her body is not ‘her’. It is this disconnect and Kusanagi’s relationship with the main antagonist of the film (to be discussed later), as well as the tone of the world set by the film, that will eventually challenge the Cartesian establishment, which will also be discussed later.
As mentioned before, Ghost in the Shell is an exercise of organic world building that focuses on the masses of data in an urban metropolis. The materialistic, tactile approach to data in this sense, as well as the intensive mirroring of the mind, memory or the ‘ghost’ as a series of data streams in the Net, also references the work of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, who engages with the study of the human consciousness with a decidedly more materialistic lens, which helps to inform this research’s segment on the connection of the city and the human, as well as informing my reading of Ghost in the Shell’s penultimate declaration of the inevitable fluidity of self and identity. To Dennett, consciousness is “something like the product of multiple, layered computer programs running on the hardware of the brain.” It’s an evolutionary process, purely physical in nature, in which sensory information and other biological functions combine and grow correspondingly more complex over time. There’s no mystery – just complexity. (Suderman, quoting Dennett, 2017). The complexity of the humans’ ability to perceive and think, Dennett argues, is a modular process of our brains evolving to take on more complex calculations and trains of thought. It must be emphasised, that this idea of growing complexity through modular growth, forms perhaps the most definitive reading of Ghost in the Shell, as we start to dive into the character of the Puppet Master, the urban inspiration of Hong Kong, as well as the localised historical backdrops which informed the creation of an animation classic.
The term ‘cyborg’ was coined in 1960 by physician/scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, in a paper presented to the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. Clynes and Kline derived the term from the compound ‘cybernetic organism’, and defined it as a creature that ‘deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.’ (Clynes, Kline, 1995, pg. 31). Sharalyn Orbaugh frames her readings of the Ghost in the Shell film through this definition, describing it as a ‘complex narrative, dealing with several issues regarding cyborg subjectivity.’ (Orbaugh, 2006, pgs. 82 – 85). As discussed before, the film’s cyberpunk setting was utilised as a narrative exploration of the essence of humanity, which can also be categorically regarded through the individuality of memory. However, with the introduction of the Puppet Master, an A.I program that has gained a sentient awareness, an additional…condition to being human, involves the ability to procreate. Reproduction.
Synthesis of the Ghost, Shell & Machine
To contextualize the eventual meeting (and merging) of the film’s main protagonist and antagonist for its penultimate statement, one must understand the state of being that the Major is battling over, as she struggles to retain a sense of self in an increasingly digital and machine world. Initially, Ghost in the Shell is content in retaining the strictly Cartesian concept, that the human mind is an immaterial consciousness that controls the physical body, thus designating the ‘ghost’ as what makes us human and ourselves. However, the film starts to bastardize this seemingly straight-and-universal truth, by positing that in a world controlled by networks of data, and with the majority of human ghosts being constantly moved around in the Net, even the literal ‘ghost’ of a human can be hacked into. The film, through the character of the Major, regards human memory and self-determination as the essence of individual being:
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinct myself, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny… All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience.”
The stagnant sense of self held by Major Kusanagi is of course met with constant embattlement: her physical individuality is effectively framed as non-existent, as a stroll through the busy streets of the city caught glimpses of another woman with the same exact look as the Major, as well as a store mannequin, which was depicted as having the same face as her. Hammering this issue in further: if even one’s memory can be hacked and altered by a third party, how can one be sure that his perception of self and memory is even real?
The Puppet Master’s first interaction with Kusanagi was a promise to ‘see each other face to face’, spoken verbally through the Major’s own voice. The promise’s metaphorical layering is a keen reference to the duality of man and machine. Kusanagi’s amplified identity crisis following this encounter was once again verbally contextualised through an elevator chat with her partner, Batou: “Sometimes I suspect I’m not who I think I am…maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuffed it in this body. Maybe there was never a real me in the first place and I am completely synthetic like that ‘thing’ [Referring to the Puppet Master].” Batou’s response offers an relatably external reading of how one perceives oneself: The Major is treated like a human, therefore she is. The external sense of self generated by how one interacts with the surrounding world (and how the world interacts with oneself) gives an entirely new perspective: one that is made unreliable, since this sense of individuality is ironically not of an individual creation. “It sounds to me like you are doubting your own ghost,” said Batou.
During the climax, Kusanagi was asked by the Puppet Master to merge, so they can become an entirely new, synthetic being: one that is neither human nor machine. Ghost in the Shell has presented this problem of self-identity’s authenticity with intense gravitas: it seems impossible to truly find reliable ‘proof’ that we are human, unique and can consider ourselves individuals. The film’s solution, according to essayist Blautoothdmand, is that there isn’t one, and that’s the point. Presenting the Puppet Master’s worldview and arguments, Blautoothdmand posits a fundamentally Cartesian idea, that there is no absolute true ‘self’, what you think of yourself IS who you are. ‘Cogito ergo sum’: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ (Veitch, citing Descartes, 1977).
“There is no absolute truth, only perception of truth, and therefore all kinds of perception are equally true. This, I would say, is the ultimate solution to the issue of identity in relation to not only the ghost, but also the shell; the idea that there’s no such thing as a ‘true’ self, and that identity is merely constructed.”
The dialogue shared between the Major and the Puppet Master effectively frames this devotion to an untrue sense of self as being against the nature of progress. When the Major asked the Puppet Master for an insurance, that she can still be herself following the merge, it answers “There isn’t one. People change, and your longing to remain yourself will continue to restrict you.” The Puppet Master posits that the entirety of being is never constant. Identity is a fluid process of change and continuous renewal, and that attempting to establish a static sense of self is a fundamentally untrue act.
By accepting to merge with an A.I, as well as herself as a simultaneously non-human and human being, Major Matoko Kusanagi fits comfortably into scholar Donna Haraway’s vision of the cyborg as a creature without human limitations. For Haraway, the cyborg is a liberating entity ‘not afraid of joint kinship with machines…a creature in a post-gender world.’ (Haraway, 1991, pgs. 150-154) The nature of progress is therefore a spectrum of constant renewal, and the nature of being is autonomous with change.
Loop of Progress in Spatial Identity
Continuous change lies in the forefront of Ghost in the Shell’s philosophical musing. It is fitting then, that the final section of this study delves into the localised influence that created this culturally unique and transformative work. The geographical inspiration of the film, as well as the Japanese context of Ghost in the Shell’s creation, is the acumination synthesis of this study.
Hikawa Ryūsuke maintains, that the Ghost in the Shell film serves as a cultural export that is characterised by a post-war Japan. As the country entered the 1970s, the problem of pollution deepened, and concern grew again about the negative fallout of science and technology. This, in addition to the 1980s electronics boom which gave rise to the Sony Walkman, gaming and the PC, meant that Japanese society started to shift to a technified focus on the individual. Thus, the Japanese conception of cyborgs was, in a sense, a self-portrait of postwar Japan. (Ryusuke, 2017) However, what gave Ghost in the Shell its longevity and the resonance of its narrative can also be credited to the visual identity that harbours its narrative essence. Hong Kong has become a staple in the global cyberpunk movement, since its sheer volume of built-up historical and visual incoherence perfectly exemplifies the idea of a society that is dominated by overloaded data, overlaying networks and the real-life definition of a city that changes its people, as well as changing due to its people. Wong Kin Yuen noted that ‘Water imagery is used in Ghost in the Shell as a symbol for the flood or sea of data, its massive communication system in a new urban topography, with its complex electronically-controlled switchboard and fluorescent 3-D scanner images of road maps or grids.’ (Kin Yuen, 2000) The political complexity of the region, due to the time period of the 1990s, as Hong Kong nears the end of its 99 year lease to Great Britain, makes the location a definitive place to contextualized the idea of searching for a distinct identity.
The film’s art designer, Takeuchi Atsushi, noted that the visual inspiration of Hong Kong distinctly informs their main theme, that ‘on the streets there flows an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols…. As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded.’ (Nozami, citing Atsushi, 1995). It is then fitting to conclude, that Ghost in the Shell is presenting a synthesis of identity that explores the duality of the internal self and the external space. Spaces are one and the same as identities, and I have already discussed the nature of the feedback loop that spaces is created by humanity, and humanity is shaped by spaces. Elizabeth Grosz describes this synthesized relationship fittingly:
“The city in its particular geographical architectural and municipal arrangements, is one particular ingredient in the social constitution of the body…the place where the body is reexplored, transformed, contested…in turn, the body transforms, reinscribes the urban landscape according to its changing needs.” (Grosz, 1999, pgs. 386)
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell serves as a culturally significant study of the human self in a networked world, and the answer it have come to are ever more so indicative of the future attitudes to identity. Swapping well-defined borders of the self and the ‘other’ for a spectrum of sort-of truths and blurred selves as the norm is indicative of the film’s final message. “The net is vast and infinite.” said the reborn Major, as she stared down towards an awesome cityscape dominated by veins, skyscrapers and flickering lights. The city is one with its people, and the flowing data that floods the city is one with itself. The nature of self is a synthesis of relationships between the internal perception and external interactivity, and it is within this synthesis that we as humans can truly discover what it means to be human.
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