What Ghost in the Shell Got Right About the Future

It's rightly hailed as a classic, and at more than 20 years old, Japan's Ghost in the Shell is still right about the present...

Chances are, you’re reading these words on a device that, only a couple of decades ago, would’ve been inconceivable. Smart phones and tablets that give us immediate, wireless access to terabytes of words, images and video would have seemed unfathomably high-tech in the ’80s or ’90s; now, they’re just part of our daily lives.

You won’t find a smartphone or a mention of wi-fi in Ghost In The Shell, which offered up a vision of the future from a distinctly mid-90s angle. All the same, it’s startling just how fresh, and how relevant, director Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed, 1995 animated feature still is. It’s set in a future where robotic enhancements are commonplace, and where human minds can interface directly with the web.

As a result, the line between human and machine is now an almost invisible one, as embodied in the protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, a special agent whose body is entirely cybernetic – all that remains of her is her human consciousness – or ghost, as it’s termed in the movie.

A cerebral adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s original manga, Ghost In The Shell has justifiably become one of the most celebrated anime features to emerge from Japan; besides Akira and Studio Ghibli, it’s among the few such films that is likely to sound familiar to viewers outside your usual otaku crowd.

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From a visual and storytelling standpoint, Ghost In The Shells impact was pretty much immediate; in the late 90s, two young American filmmakers, the Wachowskis, were so inspired by Oshii’s anime that they incorporated slivers of it into what would become The Matrix, their own cyberpunk thriller that exploded into cinemas in 1999. 

In fact, when the Wachowskis were trying to explain exactly what their heady amalgam of comic book, anime and videogame imagery would look like, they simply showed their producer, Joel Silver, a videotape of Ghost In The Shell.

Ghost In The Shells brilliance goes far beyond ’90s cool, though – over 20 years later, its vision of an interconnected, cybernetic world is looking more prescient than ever. Admittedly, we’re not at the point where we’re uploading our brains to the internet just yet, but all the same, both Ghost In The Shell and its later animated TV series, the similarly acclaimed Stand Alone Complex, were unique in their depiction of a future world of ubiquitous technology.

Back in 1995, the web’s reach was comparatively tiny; mobile phone technology was in its infancy. All the same, Ghost In The Shell peeked over the horizon and recognised the revolution that was already by then on its way: the internet has changed the way we interact, the way we shop, the way we make friends, perhaps even the way we think. Ghost In The Shell understood all of this, and refracted it through the lens of science fiction: in this future Tokyo, we see how politicians, criminals and terrorists could use technology for their own dark purposes, and what might need to be done to prevent it. 

We see how cyberspace can create instant connections, but also create an almost out-of-body sense of physical isolation; we aren’t souls trapped in cybernetic bodies like Kusanagi, but many of us are familiar with the sentiment that we spend more time absorbed in our phones or talking via a messaging service than we are talking with people face-to-face.

Ghost In The Shell, both in its film version and the series, compellingly depicts this uneasy yet increasingly intimate relationship between humans and machines. It’s now clearer than ever that the two will only become more intertwined, and Ghost In The Shell was uniquely concerned with the possible meaning of technology’s effect on human evolution. It takes the old philosophical question about the nature of existence and recasts it for a digital age: the soul is a computer program that can be hacked and manipulated; memories can be wiped, false ones implanted. They’re ideas that have precedent in sci-fi, certainly – Ghost In The Shell owes a considerable debt to cyberpunk writer William Gibson – but no other animated movie has rendered those ideas on the screen to such a thought-provoking and intelligent degree.

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Ghost In The Shells brilliance, then, isn’t so much in the specifics of its technology – the spooky cybernetic eyes, the doll-like robot bodies, the retro-cool jacks in the backs of people’s heads – as it is about capturing a certain ambivalent mood. There’s the sense in Ghost In The Shell that humanity is on the cusp of great change; with the brain mapped to such a degree that its essence can be captured and replicated, our species appears to be at the point where it could leave its fleshy existence behind entirely and migrate into cyberspace. The question is, how ready is this future society for that possibility? The series, in particular, explores that question in a variety of ways – we see time and again how future technology affects different sectors of society, from the very poorest to the wealthiest and most powerful. 

In the movie, meanwhile, it’s Major Kusanagi who’s the lone character who seems ready to take the plunge; she often talks about feeling disconnected, even trapped by her body. By the story’s end, she’s embraced the singularity, and become an altogether different creature.

This, ultimately, is what makes Ghost In The Shell so perfect for the present day. All around us, we can see the evidence of technology sidling ever closer; like the characters in Ghost In The Shell, it’s hard to imagine a world without these devices and services that, just a few years ago, didn’t even exist. Every now and again, we read and hear about the latest projects going on in pristine offices in Silicon Valley or other technological hubs: advances in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, cybernetics, 3D printers, perhaps even uploading the human brain to a computer.

Maybe this is why shows like Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, and movies like Blade Runner 2049 and even a live-action Ghost In The Shell have sprung up in the last few years: there’s a renewed feeling that change is just over the horizon, waiting.

Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex – a deluxe collection of the complete series, is available to order exclusively on Zavvi now.