I lost part of December and all of January to absorbing as much anime and manga as I possibly could. I’m still not entirely sure why, but coming to the tale end of that obsession I’ve found myself thinking back to the first Japanese comic book I ever read, Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (1989-1990).
Ghost in the Shell is one of the few pieces of anime/manga, alongside Studio Ghibli films, that fall into the category “can freely talk about in public in North America without feeling embarrassed.” But that’s the film adaptation; the respect it garnered here has largely not filtered down to the source material, which seems a tad unfair. That’s not to say Ghost in the Shell (1995) isn’t a great movie—it was one of those few lucky moments when you had the perfect combination of director and book. The film deftly weaves together key storylines from individual issues of the comic into a coherent narrative that distils Shirow’s thematic concerns to their emotional core. Plus, it’s beautifully animated.
Yet it’s also a clumsier implementation of the core concepts, resorting to heavy-handed philosophizing between characters where the comics had a more subtle touch and a much wider range of expression. For all the academic analysis and typical university campus discussions of the movie primarily focus on the overarching question in the anime of “what does it mean to be human?”, it’s worth pointing out that Ghost in the Shell never transcends the comics in a way that justifies this eclipse. There’s nothing in Ghost in the Shell (the movie) that wasn’t already in Ghost in the Shell (the book).
What makes Ghost in the Shell so intriguing for me is how it slots into the cyberpunk subgenre as a whole, especially taking cyberpunk as an international movement in science fiction over something purely spawned by William Gibson and run into the ground by his imitators.* Shirow takes the concerns voiced in earlier cyberpunk and manages to wrap them up in almost a perfect expression of post-human anxiety: the usual cybernetically-enhanced characters of the Gibsonian milieu have graduated to cyborgs whose only organic features are a brain and a spinal cord, housed inside a “shell” that outwardly bears the features of a human being but is otherwise entirely separate. Major Motoko Kusanagi, our protagonist, is one of these, leading Section 9 in covert police action against crimes that necessarily involve cyborgs, hacking, and the like.
The other component besides the more typical cyborg setup is the invention of neurochips, a chip that replicates the features of human brain cells and together form cyber-brains that can interact with human ones. In fact, programming for these chips is so close to manipulating neurons that a hacker can, in fact, “ghost hack” a person, altering their personality and memories. It’s not so much that the line between human and artificial intelligence has blurred as that it’s been erased.
In the later chapters, the book digs deep into the extent biological factors create a sense of humanity. The film makes that focus even more explicit; Motoko voices that she doesn’t actually know if she is human, or what divides a spontaneously generated AI utilizing neurochips from a biologically generated human so deeply intertwined with non-human hardware. This comes to a head in the most chilling and memorable moment for me from both the comic book and the film: when the puppet master, a hacker and an intelligence emerging out from the internet declares, “I am not an A.I.”
The greatest appeal of cyberpunk for me is picking apart issues like this, and I haven’t seen a work of cyberpunk go about it as effectively as Ghost in the Shell. There’s also a karmic justice to the most ideal expression of the genre coming out of Japan when so much of English-language cyberpunk in the 1980s had another major anxiety beyond corporatization, communications revolution, and humans replacing their body parts with metal and plastic: the economic rise of Japan itself, a fear of Japanese culture and business overwhelming the United States and Canada and bringing about a dystopic future of god-like foreign corporations and squashed individualism. The orientalism and xenophobia of this branch of science fiction is occasionally breath-taking. Meanwhile, Ghost in the Shell shows a future extrapolated out of 1989 Japan to 2029 that bears superficial similarities to Gibson’s sprawl but is in many ways its opposite: not Japan ascendant, but Japan besieged, divided, losing its identity. The geopolitical aspects of the setting don’t translate all that well to the screen, but the games envisioned in the book between powers give a better sense of a precarious balancing act between nation-states and corporations that threaten to spin out of control at any moment. In an unstable situation like that, the appearance of something (someone?) like the puppeteer threatens to cause a mess indeed.
Setting aside the big-picture of the world itself, one of the largest differences between book and film is the Major. The cover copy of the English translation of Ghost in the Shell mentions “cyborgs with attitude,” and that aspect is mostly lost in the anime. The Motoko of the book is snarky, cynical and outspoken, a striking contrast to the calm and introspective Major we see in the film. Part of this is an overall shift in tone; the film Ghost in the Shell is largely humourless, sometimes to its detriment. Shirow’s work is more slapdash, less ponderous and serious, full of sight gags and characters sniping at each other for stupid decisions. There’s a running joke where Motoko is unable to get any extended leave for a vacation, and she constantly ribs her partner Batou.
Admittedly, the overt jokiness of the early chapters jars with the weightier subject matter as the series comes to a close, but the light, silly moments between characters and playfulness with the wider setting also helps make vision of the future that much less oppressive. Certainly, while the tank-like AIs called fuchikomas show up in the anime, they aren’t the source of comic relief of the book with their wonky AI routines and constant struggles to attain some sort of self-awareness. I prefer Motoko’s stronger personality over the cipher-like, flatline state she exists in over the course of the film, no matter how much better that decision might better reflect the theme of humans-becoming-robots.
A more immediately apparent divergence is the altered visual style. Shirow’s playfulness with setting also extends to playfulness with the art, creating a collage-like mixture of various styles ranging from soft-colour smears to hard-edged line art and everything in-between. The film’s depiction of future Japan is highly detailed, consistent and clean; more obvious are the character designs that display greater naturalism than Shirow’s sometimes, er, creative approach to human anatomy. This is one place where I have to concede the film does a better job: for all the emphasis on the mechanical nature of human bodies, the female cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell are sexualized to an uncomfortable degree and wear ridiculous clothes. The Major is no exception. Somehow, all the nudity in the film (rather more than in the book) never feels quite as exploitative. There is an underlying point about how a cyborg views and outfits his/her body much like you would a doll, but I can’t say it’s expressed as well as it could have been.
Despite ragging on the film a bit, I don’t think we could have asked for anything better in that department either. Like most people, I saw it first, and while I was too old for it to be the revelatory experience touted by others, it still struck me as intensely fascinating in how it deals with post-humanism, much more so than anything else the movement has produced or the more recent glut of singularity-focused near-future SF. It’s kind of a shame that its chief influence in western popular culture was mediated through The Matrix, which plundered much of its aesthetics from this anime but only managed to have the outward veneer with none of the depth—an empty shell of a film, as it were. If I had it my way, Ghost in the Shell would have had the overwhelming pop culture importance carried by The Matrix for people my age, or heck, even Neuromancer has for SF fandom at large. Ghost in the Shell remains, in my mind, the best thing to come out of the cyberpunk movement, and I’m glad I have a copy.
*I’ve argued on multiple occasions that the first English-language cyberpunk novel predated even Gibson’s first short stories: John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider (1975) features an identity-swapping hacker who unleashes a virus (literally called a “worm”) on something that looks very much like the worldwide internet.