NB: The following contains spoilers for 1995’s Ghost In The Shell.
There’s a matter of factness to Ghost In The Shell that is perfectly chilling. If our souls are programs within machines, then it follows that those programs can be hacked. If they can be hacked, they can be controlled, shut down, or corrupted.
Based on the hit manga by Masamune Shirow, and adapted as an anime feature in 1995 by director Mamoru Oshii, Ghost In The Shell is an influential genre classic. Sporadically violent but also unusually meditative, Oshii’s film ranks alongside Akira and the work of the late Satoshi Kon as some of the most intelligent sci-fi storytelling to emerge from Japan. It imagines a future where cybernetics and the web have become all-encompassing; in essence, human consciousness has migrated into machines.
In this strange new world, the threat of hackers breaking into human minds is so present that a special task force, Section 9, deals almost exclusively with cyber-terrorism. One such cyber terrorist is known only as the Puppet Master, a shadowy figure capable of hacking and manipulating the ‘ghost’ or consciousness of his victims. Major Kusanagi, a soldier with an entirely cybernetic body, leads the hunt for the elusive hacker, who isn’t all he initially appears…
Ghost In The Shell is a sober and detached exploration of what we might gain from transhumanism and what could be taken away. The benefits of inhabiting a body which can be repaired, updated, or replaced altogether speaks for itself: sickness and disease could, in theory, be abolished forever; the transhuman generation would be the first to grow up without even considering the possibility of death.
Then again, there’s a melancholy sense of disconnection in Ghost In The Shell which might imply that all is not perfect in the transhuman future. An absence of a biological body is presented as a kind of numbness, a detachment from the self and other people. Pain, hunger, fatigue, the desire to procreate; these are the instincts which drive us, and they’re all tied to being a living, breathing organism. What might it mean if the organic bit of us were taken away? What would remain, and how would its absence change us? It’s something we’ll never know for sure until our souls fly the nest in the real world, but Ghost In The Shell presents the sensation as being a kind of melancholy or emptiness.
Ghost In The Shell is one of a relatively small number of movies that convincingly imagines what living in a non-organic body might feel like. The way Major Kusanagi moves – even the way her skin creases as her limbs bend – subtly indicates the latent power in her combat-ready frame. Yet her body also seems plastic and somehow sexless; a vehicle to be driven, like a car.
The film also explores what the digitization of the human brain might do to our perception of memory: something the author Philip K. Dick explored to compelling effect in his seminal novels. What would the ability to create and delete memories do to our value of them? We’ve seen how the web has democratized information and also forced down the perceived value of entertainment through the sheer weight of its availability. Might the same be true for memories? That is, if we can have them created for us, would we need, say, real holidays anymore if a company like the one in Total Recall could remember it for us, wholesale? If we have the illusion of a lived experience, do we need the physical activity itself?
Ghost In The Shell was made at a time when the internet was around but far from a ubiquitous presence. Yet Oshii’s film astutely depicts the ironic remoteness of an interconnected society, where information is everywhere but physical contact and human warmth are in short supply. Indeed, the whole conspiracy central to the movie is driven by its artificially intelligent ‘villain’. A sentient computer program created by the government to protect against cyber criminals, the Puppet Master escaped into the network, driven by its desire to experience a connection to biological sensation – sex, illness, death. The Puppet Master isn’t defeated, ultimately, but assimilated by Kusanagi, creating a new consciousness that is neither human nor entirely artificial. The suggestion, perhaps, is that the course of human evolution could one day be altered forever by our own ingenuity; the biological and the digital inextricably enmeshed.
If there’s an iciness to Ghost In The Shell, there’s also a hint of optimism. In the few interviews he’s given, Oshii has readily admitted that he’s fascinated by computers and technology, which is why he’s returned to sci-fi time and again in such movies as Patlabor and the 2004 Ghost In The Shell sequel, Innocence. When asked by the AV Club about the common theme of humanity and technology in Japanese storytelling, Oshii makes an important point about the country’s sci-fi output, and Ghost In The Shell’s themes in particular:
“As well as Japanese animation, technology has a huge influence on Japanese society, and also Japanese novels. I think it’s because before, people tended to think that ideology or religion were the things that actually changed people, but it’s been proven that that’s not the case. I think nowadays, technology has been proven to be the thing that’s actually changing people. So in that sense, it’s become a theme in Japanese culture.”
Today, the ideas explored in Ghost In The Shell feel more less abstract than they did in the mid-90s, and we’re really beginning to see just how fundamentally technology has changed us since the turn of the millennium. We may not have shrugged off our fleshy bodies yet, but we’re increasingly used to immersing ourselves in a digital world – something that wasn’t the case around 20 years ago. It’s now accepted that we’ll spend a fair percentage of our waking lives peering into our smart phones and communicating at a distance rather than face-to-face. It’s possible to communicate with people on the other side of the planet in an instant; people we may never physically meet.
The notion that we might begin to augment our bodies with cybernetic components doesn’t seem too far fetched; indeed, Ghost In The Shell has weathered the march of progress so well that the forthcoming live-action adaptation, due out in 2017, quotes certain sequences from the 1995 film almost shot-for-shot.
The final thought, perhaps, is that once we leave the human epoch behind, and embark on a new, posthuman era, there’ll be no going back. With every technological advancement, we wind up giving something away as part of the transaction; by migrating to cities we lost our sense of space and connection to nature. By migrating to the web we lose our sense of privacy. By moving beyond our mortal bodies, we may gain extraordinary strength, intellect and other wonders, but who knows what we’ll give up in return?
Now well over 20 years old, Ghost In The Shell remains a sci-fi tale of extraordinary, chilling ambivalence.