“What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”
Hype is a tough concept to combat. To tout a film like攻殻機動隊 [Kôkaku Kidôtai] [Ghost in the Shell] as one of the best animes ever created is to set-up expectations that cannot help but falter under the weight. Yet here I am—having watched Mamoru Oshii‘s seminal work thirty-plus years after its initial international release (hitting Japan, Britain, and the US within five months)—speechless as to just how thought provoking and unique it proves. Not a story about one character or one specific conflict, it follows agents of the counter-cyberterrorist organization known as Public Security Section 9 to facilitate its viewers’ entrance into a possible future that’s only too real in its technological advancement. As mankind becomes Gods, its creations become alive.
Screenwriter Kazunori Itô adapts Masamune Shirow‘s manga in a way that throws us into the action to learn on the fly. It starts on a mission with Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka) in the air and her partner Batou (Akio Ôtsuka) on the ground. Something’s going down and they have been tasked to do whatever is necessary to take out their target. Besides an exploding round that literally tears this as yet anonymous victim apart from the inside out, however, the results are forgotten in context with the process undertaken. Number one: Major and Batou communicate without opening their mouths. Number two: Major inexplicably sheds her clothing before jumping into combat. Number Three: Major uses therm-optic camouflage to turn invisible upon her escape. It’s a lot to digest.
Next comes an opening credits sequence that “Westworld” definitely homages wherein a cybernetic body is constructed. We therefore figure out that Major is an artificial shell housing her former human consciousness (although this back story is not explicitly shared). She’s a machine, Batou merely cyber-enhanced. As far as their Section 9 team goes, only their boss Aramaki (Tamio Ôki) and plucked-from-the-police-force associate Ishikawa (Yutaka Nakano) are still biologically natural. This reality leads to some great sequences like Motoko taking control of the car from Ishikawa without warning (or hands) and some great dialogue like Batou inquiring why Motoko would go swimming despite knowing her body will sink to the ocean floor if any of her floating capabilities malfunction. Can anything else but danger make us feel truly alive?
The filmmakers introduce philosophical and spiritual ideas like this throughout, asking us to question what it means to be alive and to rely so heavily on artificial enhancement. This latter query is at the back of Section 9’s current operation, pitting them against an unknown hacker known as “The Puppet Master” (Iemasa Kayumi). He has been wreaking havoc across the city (an urban landscape merging new world and old based upon Hong Kong and as such aesthetically similar to Blade Runner) “ghost hacking” humans with cyber brains. The term “ghost” is more or less used to describe consciousness, so The Puppet Master is literally altering and installing memories into those with technological augmentation. Citizens’ desire to be super-human makes them susceptible to corruption like any other computer system.
It’s an ingenious concept that perfectly encapsulates the paradox inherent to our current industrial evolution. That which makes us better (strength, health, and longevity) also renders us weaker (malfunction, prone to outside influence, and lacking humanity besides a soul). The thing that we believe makes us human (the soul) becomes the sole artifact retained to that previous concept of life. The soul does nothing to help us if someone hacks in and wields us as weapon. It becomes a vestigial afterthought, transferred from one shell to the next and therefore meaningless if the unit housing it can’t perform to the height of its desires. As Motoko tells Ishikawa, a world with perfection becomes predictable and vulnerable. Machines lack nuance and epiphany. To exist is no longer to live.
Through its detective mystery—don’t think Ghost in the Shell is action-packed as flying bullets and exploding heads are few and far between—we’re shown the tipping point of artificial intelligence becoming sentient. Motoko and Batou are unwittingly approaching that moment when man is met head-on by its creation and where those with feet in both arenas must choose. But that choice is hard to define because it’s less about not being human and more about acknowledging you are. Whether your “ghost” is human or manufactured, the line delineating “real” blurs to non-existence. And suddenly, after its quick-paced procedural reveals an insidious government conspiracy, the film ends as lacking in finite answers as it began. Our interpretation and experience watching these characters becomes paramount to their journey onscreen.
There’s something unavoidably pure in this respect because the story is so straightforward and yet richly deep. Motoko’s mission leads to answers about the case while unearthing questions about her identity and the reality in which she exists. Oshii, Shirow, and Itô’s version of 2029 is a Rorschach test for audiences to decipher in as far as how their hopes, dreams, and fears fit its parameters. Would we want to enhance ourselves and thus risk losing all control? Would we be the type to revel in newfound perfection despite it leaving us without family or human interaction beyond the job? If Motoko and Batou decide to retire, everything artificial about them becomes forfeit. They are slaves to their occupation because very little will be left without it.
That doesn’t mean humanity doesn’t still linger, though. Motoko hears “whispers” as though intuition. Batou cannot stop himself from feeling embarrassment whenever his partner disrobes to fight in case camouflage is necessary, constantly diverting his eyes from her naked body and covering her up with a coat when the action ceases. She’s still dead-eyed and robotic (unlike what I’ve read about the manga and her expressiveness within). He’s still willing to lose an arm that isn’t entirely flesh and bone because it can be replaced. Everything we know has therefore been altered despite intrinsic details remaining the same. To allow Batou to be as cybernetic as Motoko would have been to render the whole cold. It’s these tiny nuances that foster the familiarity and authenticity to buy in.
The stunning animation with texture and depth helps too. It’s dark, busy, and overwhelming—big city living at its finest. Computer graphics help enhance special effects and bring in TRON-like cut scenes of maps and gridded-off infrared type imagery too. We can tell who’s more human than others through facial expressions and enjoy those that aren’t showing their talents whether with invisibility or finger extensions for rapid typing. Not every character is quite what he or she seems and each has the capacity to change his/her motivations because there isn’t any programming to trap them from free will no matter how far-removed from nature they are. In a world so advanced that imperfections have been erased, this idea of choice becomes our last connection to a retained humanity.