Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience



Updated April 16, 2017


A shot of the fictional New Port City, inspired by the congestion of Hong Kong
A shot of the fictional New Port City, inspired by the congestion of Hong Kong

Some of the greatest science fiction films ever made revolve around the relationship between man and machine. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), and The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), to name some prominent examples, all discuss the potential of artificial intelligence/life and its impact on man. To this group of sterling sci-fi it would not be inappropriate to add the Japanese animated cyberpunk film Ghost in the Shell (GITS), directed by Mamoru Oshii and released in 1995.

Against the backdrop of a highly technologised and corporatised world in the year 2029, in which granting asylum to computer programmers can be regarded as a violation of arms control, GITS follows Major Motoko Kusanagi and her intelligence unit as they investigate the cyber-crimes of the mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. Along the way the Major and her crew encounter political intrigue, corporate malfeasance, and “ghost-hacked” humans whose minds and memories have been altered. But the intricate plot is only a vehicle for a host of philosophical speculation revolving around technology and its consequences for society.

For the Major is a cyborg, bothered by questions of her own humanity and identity due to the fact that the only organic part of “her” is her brain. The Puppet Master is a computer program that has developed self-awareness and similarly wonders what it means to be alive. Can a machine develop consciousness or a soul? What, exactly, is meant by these terms? Is man “just” a machine?

Revisiting 1995’s seminal Japanese animated feature film Ghost In The Shell, which unlike Hollywood’s latest live-action remake, was a philosophical contemplation about technology and society

Both the Major and the Puppet Master yearn to evade their loneliness and become something greater than what they are. Their desires find resolution when the two beings eventually merge into a single entity. This transhuman life-form, having found freedom through a type of death, explains to a friend the nature of its reincarnation by quoting the New Testament: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Philosophical speculation revolves around technology
Philosophical speculation revolves around technology

Appropriately, this declaration of childhood’s end is uttered by the Major-Master while temporarily inhabiting the artificial body of a child — a scene reminiscent of the technologically-driven evolutionary transformation of David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And like David Bowman, who returns to earth and surveys it from orbit in a god-like position, the Major-Master stands on a precipice looking down over the city and contemplating the possibilities before it. Both Kubrick and Oshii artfully blend the ancient and the modern, the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the technological — an uncommon feat even in the vast speculative arena offered by sci-fi.

In an interview for the Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence DVD, Oshii stated that “Human history, culture, and civilisation has all been about making puppets”, an idea expressed in GITS when the Major says that “If a technological feat is possible, man will do it. Almost as though it’s wired into the core of our being.” Despite the fact that technological development has historically not been entirely linear, this is not necessarily a far-fetched notion: a similar concept is implied in biologist Richard Dawkins’ book The Extended Phenotype (Oxford University Press, 1982; revised edition, 2016) and a survey of history reveals countless attempts to construct automata, from the engineers of ancient Greece to the roboticists of the 21st century.

Some theorists such as Ray Kurzweil have argued that the next stage of human evolution is to merge with technology — or be replaced by it. The implications of this are discussed in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking Penguin, 1999), but even in ancient times pertinent questions were being raised on this subject. For example, in the Chinese Taoist text Lieh-Tzu (thought by many scholars to have been composed in the 4th century AD), one can read of the craftsman Yen-shih impressing (and frightening) King Mu of Chou with an android of such verisimilitude that it prompted the King to exclaim: “Is it then possible for human skill to achieve as much as the Creator?” (A.C. Graham translation)

A jacked-in Major perched on top of a skyscraper prepares for combat
A jacked-in Major perched on top of a skyscraper prepares for combat

This power of technology to induce both wonder and fear is embodied by Oshii himself, who in a 2002 BBC interview confessed: “Technology frightens me, though it is also very important to me. I sometimes want to be a computer myself, but at the same time I really get frightened by it.”

In general, the Japanese have long regarded manga and animation as a legitimate vehicle for the treatment of adult and philosophical subjects. While Western animation has not been devoid of mature efforts (Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal [1981] and the films of René Laloux, for example), these films are not mainstream, and the Western image of an animated film has been dominated by Walt Disney productions. Hollywood, of course, is substantially driven by the profit-motive, but according to Oshii the Japanese attitude is different: “No one really cares about how much we sell — stuff like that. As long as we create things we want to create, and do what we want to do — that’s what we care about.”

To understand the gulf between the Japanese and Western approaches to animation, one need only compare GITS to a commercially much more successful work released the same year: John Lasseter’s Toy Story. In this comedic film the mechanical toys evince human attributes; in the melancholy GITS the very question of what constitutes the human dimension is raised. The hero of Toy Story is a cowboy who in the finale is kissed off-screen by his sweetheart. In GITS the decidedly unromantic protagonist is not averse to engaging in combat while naked. The toys of Toy Story have an affinity with their owner; in GITS the Major and the Puppet Master seek freedom from the corporations that created them. Toy Story’s themes are direct and unequivocal; GITS is a multi-layered work teeming with incongruity and ambiguity: an ancient Japanese marriage chant overlaying scenes of congested modernity, a vision of an angel before the unification of a cyborg and a computer program, the quotation of ancient texts to explain futuristic phenomena. Toy Story has a neatly-wrapped happy ending; GITS arguably has no ending at all — only a new and ambiguous beginning. Toy Story is a talkative film; GITS has long segments in which dialogue is completely absent, and is more interested in showing than telling. This last attribute is a hallmark of great sci-fi. As Oshii said: “I think the best thing about science fiction is that it allows for storytelling that externalises someone’s mind through visual images, such as the landscape or cityscape of a planet.”

Cityscapes often allow for storytelling by externalising mindscapes
Cityscapes often allow for storytelling by externalising mindscapes

One striking example of this style occurs during a battle in a museum, where a tank trying to kill the Major sprays bullets on a wall depicting an evolutionary tree. Up the tree the bullets strike, eventually stopping short of “hominis” at the peak. This shot can be understood in several ways, but one of the more obvious interpretations is a reinforcement of the proposition that machines will put an end to traditional methods of evolution.

Many of the questions that are raised in GITS —- the nature of identity and its connection to memory, the evolutionary trajectory of man, the progress of technology — have been debated by philosophers and theologians for millennia, not least in Arthur Koestler’s book The Ghost in the Machine (Hutchinson, 1967), which was the inspiration for the original manga by Masamune Shirow, first published in 1989.

But while GITS is based on the manga, there is a great difference in tone between the film and its source material. Indeed, admirers of the film who then turn to the comic for more of the same may well come away disappointed. For while the manga does discuss philosophical, technological, and political ideas, it is a much more light-hearted affair. The enigmatic moodiness of the film, so reminiscent of film noir, owes more to European cinema — Oshii has often mentioned directors such as Jean-Luc Godard as being a major influence, in addition to films such as Metropolis and that most quintessential of cyberpunk films: Blade Runner.

Nor is GITS unique in this respect; Oshii’s 1983-1984 mini-series Dallos, often cited as the first direct-to-video animation in history, tells a futuristic story in which oppressed colonists on the moon use terrorism and work stoppages to obtain freedom — a plot derived from Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous film The Battle of Algiers (1966).

But Oshii’s own impact on Western cinema has not been insubstantial. When the Wachowski brothers were pitching The Matrix (1999), they screened GITS to their producer in order to indicate the kind of film they wanted to create.

The Matrix trilogy, in addition to containing many visual references to GITS, similarly ends on an equivocal note in which the simplistic classification of humans as “good” and machines as “bad” is eroded. The Wachowskis in turn influenced Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2005), a TV series which also featured input by Oshii, and which explored further many of the themes found in the original film.

In 2004, Oshii released a sequel titled Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, a visually impressive but convoluted extension of some of the ideas in the original film. In 2008 he re-released GITS with new computer graphics, a remixed soundtrack, and the trimming of some scenes, but this did little to improve a work that required no fixing, and the film is best seen in its untampered form.

Recently, Hollywood has become interested in the GITS franchise, with the recent release of a live-action remake. This production is partly due to Steven Spielberg, who acquired the rights to remaking GITS some years ago and who declared it to be one of his favourite stories. Unfortunately, with dialogue that could have been written by a computer program, the remake is a thematically simple tale bereft of the philosophical and technological questing that made the original film a provocative work of art. A more promising development is the recent announcement of a new animated installment in the GITS series with Kenji Kamiyama at the helm.

In a 1967 interview with Sight & Sound, Fritz Lang seemingly dismissed his own Metropolis of four decades earlier, and expressed scepticism about the possibility of saying anything new on the subject of man-machine interaction: “All right, so man has to live with the machine. Is that a message today? He still has to live with himself first.” Unfortunately, Lang did not live long enough to witness GITS’s obliteration of the man-machine dichotomy via the depiction of a future in which living with the machine and living with oneself are identical.

Unlike much other sci-fi, GITS postulates that so-called AI (artificial intelligence) is not artificial at all, but merely another type of life-form. Would Lang have agreed with James Cameron, the director of intelligent sci-fi films as Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and The Terminator (1984), who described GITS as “the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence”?

While this accolade should arguably go to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), GITS is no less profound and striking in its ideas and imagery, and despite the profusion of comics, novels, sequels, remakes, and television series that comprise the Ghost in the Shell franchise, the original film stands apart as a milestone in cinema history.

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017