Ghost in the Shell

攻殻機動隊

The 1995 film Ghost in the Shell by Momoru Oshii is a significant work in the Japanese Sci-fi and cyberpunk animation film history, based on the same name manga series by Masamune Shirow in 1989. The film explores the boundary of humanity and artificial intelligence, and to what extent can we still be “human” if our bodies are made of inorganic machine parts. It also touches upon the concern of technological advance and its disruption/impact on social order, the capitalist economic crisis, as well as criticism towards political conspiracy.

As a work from the 80s and 90s, it manifests the concern from the development of brain and neuroscience, robot

Setting in the mid 21st century (2029,) the anime film’s set is famously inspired by the cityscape of Kowloon, Hongkong. The overwhelming crowd of wall like buildings, the overpopulated city area of relatively low classes, the grey and brownish atmosphere in the foggy air, all contribute to depicting a postmodern future that is not so optimistic or desirable. Despite the highly developed technology of creating cyborg, robots, and human body enhancement science, the environment where most people live in is like a messy, haunted city. As if foretelling that technological advances do not necessarily guarantee a merit for the greater public, or satirizing a growing discrepancy of the two extremes of wealth and poverty, with power grasped in the minority who owns the technology.

In fact the concern concords with the Japanese society in the 90s: with the economic bubble bursting in the 90s and rapid construction of urban as commercial centers, numerous young people rushed to the big cities (Tokyo and Osaka) while the employment rate kept dropping. Social order was shaken by the material richness and influence from foreign countries, and the urbans were overpopulated by people of working age wandering around. The public generally loses hope and trust toward the government and the political parties, and the wealth gravitates toward the elite class (as it would likely happen for many capitalist countries)

Though 2029 was not a very far future for the 80s, the original work depicts that within half a century, there is the third and fourth world war. The new urban environment (New Port City) and social order emerge on the stage, which is a common motif in Japanese anime culture and one of the classic “whatifs.” Being an island country and often threatened by tsunami and rising sea levels, the threat’s psychological impact on people is implicitly profound, while the fantasy of imagining the homeland sinking is popular in works of art. As the nuclear bombs have caused many issues and reflections in Japan, the postmodern, urban decay, as well as new world building are especially attractive and explorable themes.

On the other hand is Japan’s keen on augmenting warfare power, weapons, and machines, after its defeat in World War II. Within the past few decades, Japan is famous for its world-leading, rapidly developing robot technology and android design that resembles a human. Its enthusiasm and fascination toward high-tech and human-machine fusion fantasy (technofetishism) are unparallel in Asia, or even in the world. There is a mixed feeling of both the envy toward victorious country (United States) and the shadow of disgraceful lost. In sub or pop culture among the young to 40yrs old generations, like manga, light-novel, anime, game, and music, science-related fantasy, machine, and warcraft are prevalent and popular, a trend continuing from the last century.

In contrast with another milestone cyberpunk movie, the Blade Runner which Ghost in the Shell is often put alongside with, the Japanese take on is more penchant about depicting the machine parts that make up an augmented human body. Unlike in the former one, the audience is informed that the protagonist is a replicant, an artificially created being, in the anime film we are invited to appreciate the fascinating imagination that the illustrators used to depict each detailed component, and watch Major (the female protagonist) get assembled step by step.

The current neuroscience and psychology fields in the 21st century still have not figured out which part of human body creates and hosts our “ghost,” whether it is the brain or the “mind” somewhere in our body. Yet the technology develops so fast that computers and robot seems to be able to calculate and emulate something sentient capable of thinking in the future. The Major regards herself as a human because she still has the organic brain, even it is the only part in her that is not machine made. But when she eventually merges into a ghost from the cyber, it shakes our ideas and leaves vast space for discussion.

Essentially, the film presents the fear that computer-generated intelligence will take over the human world, interrupt the presumptions and society, cause the chaos, and question our identities again. What creates and composes of a “soul/ghost/spirit?” Is it that only organic creatures or brains can give life to a ghost, or can an inorganic computer give birth to a real, autonomous ghost? The persisting question echoing in the development history of science—is an intelligent “being” born from the artificial computer or machine or internet an actual spirit? Would it share the same humanity and value ideas as human beings of body and flesh do? How sentient and human it could be? What will still qualify us as a human if a network generated ghosts start to question why is he/she/it not a human?