Ghost In The Shell (1995)


We live on the edge of an era defined by Artificial Intelligence. Day by day, AI is being further integrated into our lives, with advances being made to make it more useful, more lifelike, and more knowledgeable. We've known for a while that this would happen, that AI would one day take over our lives, but now we are closer than ever to this vision of the future that we've held for so long. Cyberpunk has for decades been a genre of speculative fiction that held sway with a select sub-culture of people, with works like Neuromancer or Blade Runner defining people's lives, inspiring both awe and fear as they collectively imagined what the future might hold. Ghost in the Shell is a key part of this genre, one whose influence can be found across all forms of media, and the way that we viewed the future of the internet for decades was filtered through the lens of this movie, whether you knew it or not. Obvious influence is drawn from Blade Runner which came before it, but in it's more direct and specific confrontation of the perils of widespread adoption of the internet and the advances in Artificial Intelligence, Ghost in the Shell set itself apart from everything else, becoming something more than just another piece of fiction drawing inspiration from Ridley's accidental cyberpunk masterpiece. Never once being afraid to seem impenetrable or pretentious, Ghost in the Shell draws the audience in with stunning visuals, frenetic action, and iconic characters, and leaves them with questions of existence, consciousness, and identity. These questions have always haunted our species in one way or another, but Ghost in the Shell asks them in ways that deal directly with mankind's adoption and dependence in technology, and now even more than when the film was first released, the answers to these questions have become both more important, and more amorphous.

The form the internet takes in this film is obviously one that we're not quite familiar with. Other sci-fi films usually look very anachronistic and goofy given enough time; we see in them outlandish or laughable predictions of what they thought the future might be. Ghost in the Shell however has so far avoided that, with it's version of the "net" looking partially like something someone from the 90s would design, but partially like something that still could be what eventually comes to pass. It's much more chaotic than what we have now, even the most progressive fiction usually didn't envision an internet as neat and organized as it currently is, but in it's chaos comes beauty. More than a series of tubes, the net in Ghost in the Shell is more akin to massive streams of information, flowing through the modern world and touching everything, everywhere. The central plot is that of an infamous hacker/terrorist dubbed "The Puppet Master" making his mark on Japan, with Major Motoko Kusanagi being the lead agent in Section 9, a shadowy governmental agency whose modern day equivalent might be something like the CIA. Specializing in counter-terrorism, cyber-forensics, counter-hacking, and asset acquisition, Motoko is something of an enigma from the very beginning. She is a cyborg, a person whose entire body has been replaced by a robot (or "shell" as they're called in-universe). The first thing we see her do is assassinate a diplomat who is attempting to get a programmer out of Japan and into his own country. In this confrontation we see the very nature of both our main character, and the world that she inhabits. Clearly Motoko is willing to get her hands dirty, and clearly programs and the net are seen as powerful and incredibly dangerous. With wide-spread adoption of cybernetics and "cyber-brains", almost everyone is now connected to the net via their very minds, and their cybernetic parts and even their minds and souls (or "ghosts" as they are referred to) can be penetrated by skilled hackers to be controlled. In the year 2029, a hacker from a hostile foreign state can not only gather intelligence, they can inflict damage. This is reflected in the film's action sequences, which not only are simply awesome and entertaining to watch, but are a reflection of the turmoil that this future has been thrown into. Ghost in the Shell has many strengths, but chief among them are it's commitment to every scene having a both a narrative and world-building purpose to them. The reason the movie is able to pack so much into a short runtime is due to this strength, it's ability to dispense information indirectly while establishing character, setting up plot points, and entertaining the audience all at the same time.

That's not to say that it's so packed full that it's overflowing. In fact, for a movie that does it's best to elegantly get as much as it can into every single scene, there are a lot of moments where it allows it's world to breathe. Entire scenes are dedicated to relaxed or slow conversations between the two main characters, and there is an entire sequence that lasts nearly 5 minutes that is literally just shot after shot of the city, with the film's signature main theme playing over it. What purpose do these scenes serve? Why put slow, thoughtful,  philosophical conversations and seemingly pointless shots of the city into an action anime? As I said before, the action sequences in this movie serve another purpose on top of their surface level entertainment value. They are world-building, character-establishing moments that don't conflict with the slower scenes, but instead build upon them. The first insight we get into Motoko's inner turmoil comes when she begins to discuss with Batou, her partner, how tied they are to their bodies and minds. Earlier we came across a man whose mind was hacked into, and false memories implanted to make him believe he had a wife and child. The technology they have is not advanced enough to remove these memories, so this man will now have to live with memories of a life he never actually had. I believe it's seeing this that starts Motoko thinking about who she really is, a cyborg with memories of a life before her body was completely replaced. She speaks of how fragile and complex our sense of identity is, how many things must come together to form the ego, and how their ability to connect to the internet, an infinite source of data, has now become a vital part of their identity. She begins to really question who she actually is, comparing herself to Batou who is human with cybernetic implants, and to her other section member who is nearly entirely human. What part of her is actually her? If she was forced to give her body back to the government, would she still be herself? How much of you has to change before you're a different person? The ancient thought experiment of The Ship of Theseus is brought to life here in a new millennia, forcing us to look at the entirety of Section 9 and ask ourselves, which of these people are truly human, truly the same person they were before? Is Motoko, with her entire body replaced, and her mind transferred to a cyber-brain, a human being? Immediately after this conversation, the scene in which we see the city through Motoko's eyes attempts to help us understand the way she is beginning to see the world. The way she sees herself, her sense of identity, is being called into question. For maybe the first time, she's beginning to sense that the line between human and non-human is becoming blurrier than she originally thought.


Being allowed to breathe and see the city as it is, allows the audience two things: First and most obvious, we get a moment of world-building, of simply seeing the city of the future from the point of view of a person on the street. We see the electronic signs, the towering buildings, the intricate waterways that snake their way through the entire city, the half-finished construction projects, and trash littering the streets. The identity of our world is not established here, but fleshed out. The audience is given time to take it in, to internalize where this film is taking place. The second point, one much more formless and subtle, is in actuality a continuation of Motoko's musings about identity. The shots of the city are slow and detail-oriented as a reflection of her gaze. The things she is looking at, the things she is noticing, these are what are brought to our attention. She is looking at her environment with new eyes, a new curiosity and desire to understand. She sees a cyborg in a window that resembles her extremely closely, causing her to reflect more on how much her outward appearance makes up who she is. If she is simply a brain inside of a cyborg that isn't even unique in appearance, does that make her less of herself? Is she just a brain living in a generic shell? Does she have more in common with these half-finished buildings than she does with a human being? At one point, she watches people walk past a department store window, which is filled with mannequins dressed up in the store's clothes. Which one is she supposed to identify with, the humans walking past, or the mannequins made to look as human as they can? Motoko's outward appearance is constantly in conflict with the way she speaks and thinks, which causes more dissonance for both her and the viewer. She's clearly a mature individual, with well-fleshed out thoughts about her own soul and identity, but her body suggests that she's a girl in her mid-20s instead of the grizzled military veteran that she truly is. The medium of anime is used here to it's fullest potential, creating a protagonist that is beautiful and young which meets the expectations and desires of the audience, but then subverting this to use her appearance against the audience to confuse them.

In fact, the entire film is a subversion of what the typical viewer would expect out of a famous anime movie. A surface-level viewing would result in some enjoyment of the animation, the plot, and the action. These are all excellent parts of Ghost in the Shell, and I believe they're designed in such a way that if these are the only elements an audience member sees, they can still have a good experience. But in reality, these are all in service of deeper questions asked about Motoko's personage, about her identity, and about her ghost. In turn, this is meant to question us about our identities, and to ask us to consider how we feel about the identity and soul of a cyborg like Motoko. This isn't a problem we face today, but as technology inevitably advances, the kind of things we see in Ghost in the Shell will come to pass. It isn't addressed directly in the movie, but it is implied that the difference between a human brain and a cyber-brain isn't really that much, that they're both just extremely complicated machines that evolved for a purpose. The cyber-brain was designed and evolved very specifically and over a much shorter time period, but due to it's level of complexity, it's similarity to a real brain is close enough that the sort of questions asked in this movie must come up. The other conversation in the film that most of it's philosophy stems from is the elevator scene, in which Motoko speaks to Batou about the cyborg body that they have trapped the Puppet Master in. Despite the fact that it's supposedly just an empty shell, Motoko sees herself in it, it reminds her far too much of herself and causes her to question her identity once again. She posits that it's completely possible that she's nothing but an empty shell just like it is, that she has no ghost and that all of her memories are faked. Batou doesn't have much tolerance for these sorts of conversations and insists that her brain was originally human and that it's merely been integrated with the cyber-brain. Motoko makes a point that has been a point of contention for philosophers since the dawn of time, which is that no human has ever seen their own brain. We are simply trusting that the impulses we receive are a reflection of reality, that our minds tell us the truth about who we are and our surroundings. This has been called into question though, due to the ability to supplant false memories and experiences like was seen earlier in the film. Motoko's hold on her ego is extremely fragile at this point, and the brief confrontation with the Puppet Master has cast her entire identity and even her belief that she has a ghost, into doubt. 

The climax of the film begins with a startling revelation: the Puppet Master was never human, he is a rogue AI that evolved when exposed to the raw data of the net, and insists that he has a ghost of his own. This raises far more questions than it answers, but before any can be directly addressed, he escapes and Section 9 is tasked with finding him. The final action scene of the movie is an exciting one, brilliant choreographed and animated, and extremely fun to watch. But the true final confrontation comes after the action is over, when Motoko attempts to "dive" into the Puppet Master to see his ghost for herself. The Puppet Master is more intelligent and powerful than she suspects, and instead of a simple dive, it becomes a deeply chilling conversation between the two. The Puppet Master speaks to her of her fragile identity, her longing to expand beyond the boundaries of her shell, and the extreme similarities between the two. Motoko is presented with an option she had never considered before: merge with the Puppet Master to create a new being. Combine their ghosts, to result in an entity that is at once both of them, and neither of them. This only further complicates the questions of identity and soul through the movie's perspective, but it does address Motoko's struggle to identify herself as a human being. She can either continue living in her machine body, experiencing the world through her supposed human mind, and deal with the cognitive dissonance this causes her, or she can merge with the Puppet Master and cast off her human identity all together, and definitively become something that she can at least believe in. Her ultimate choice is to merge, to escape from the existential limbo that she has found herself in, and to become something completely different, something that has never existed before. The answer to her dilemma was not an actual answer, but an escape from the dilemma itself. The questions that plagued Motoko were so intense, so personal, and so unanswerable, the most satisfactory way she found to live with them were to transform her very being. This speaks to the enigmatic struggle for identity that is not just a sci-fi subplot, but a part of who we are as humans. We are always seeking purpose, seeking identity, and meaning, and regardless of what we think, technology will only make that question more difficult to answer.

As a cyberpunk cautionary tale, Ghost in the Shell, has been a defining influence on the genre and on pop culture as a whole. These questions about technology's effect on who we are as people had been asked before, but by bringing it to the forefront of culture, by placing the idea into the layman's head, we began to have a conversation about it that has been ever-present since. Movies like The Matrix, large cultural touchstones, draw direct and obvious influence from both visual elements of Ghost in the Shell, and it's ponderous atmosphere. Nothing however, can seem to touch the emotional complexity and elegant balancing act that the film pulls off. Nothing that I've seen since has done such an incredible job with so little to actually work with. As a filmmaking exercise, it is a marvel all on it's own, but combine this with it's philosophical musings and widespread cultural impact, and what we have is definitively the best movie of it's genre, and perhaps one of the greatest films of all time. I know that as time passes, Ghost in the Shell will only become more relevant, the need to answer the questions that it poses will become more urgent, and  the reality we live in will become more and more like it's simultaneously frightful and awe-inspiring look at the future of humankind.