Viking Night: Ghost in the Shell
By Bruce Hall
January 31, 2018
Back in 1995, I was getting my internet over the phone line, and still wasn’t sure what browser I wanted to use.
For perspective, this was back when you had to go to an actual computer store and - get this - buy your choice of web browser. In a cardboard box. With plastic shrink wrap and everything. The software itself would have been on a CD, or possibly floppy discs. Actual printed documentation would be included as well. Since I couldn’t leave the store without also buying a couple of games, the whole operation might have taken a couple of hours.
It really was quite a day’s business, buying software in the nineties.
But that browser was a window to the world. And the Web was not only light years better than what we’d had before, it was no less than the sum of all human knowledge at the fingertips of everyone. It’s a shame people born today are likely to view the Internet not as a vast web of interconnected technologies, but as an underlying basic utility like electricity or natural gas. It’s one of the most important “things” ever created and it’s changed humanity in many ways. And surprise, not all of them are good!
With miniaturization being the top technological trend of the past half century, it was only a matter of time before our access to the world wide web became smaller and smaller. Next thing you know, it’s possible to watch cat videos on the plane, and nobody ever remembers to turn off their goddamn ringer in the office. Now, imagine a world where all this annoying technology could literally be merged with the human body in ways intended to improve everyone’s quality of life. Artificial limbs, organs, and even full bodies might be available. And all of it would be always on, always connected.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’m glad you asked, because (deep breath) this is the world posited by Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga. You know how new technology always starts out being a really cool thing, and then everybody ruins it because people are basically awful? Well, imagine this happening with cybernetics, and that’s a good starting point for our story. It’s a world where even people of modest means can purchase body modifications and connect themselves online, so it doesn’t take long for criminals to find inventive ways to exploit this.
To protect near-future Japan from such cyber-threats, the government has created Section 9, an elite squad of cybernetically enhanced commandos trained to respond to enemies both physical and virtual. They are led by Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), whose robotic chassis we see being constructed at the beginning of the film. The Major, as she’s called, is nothing more than a human brain implanted into a fully cybernetic body. The result is a cross between Ellen Ripley and the Lady Terminator, inside the robot equivalent of a 23-year-old gymnast/porn star.
Which reminds me...in a moment, Ghost in the Shell will go on to explore some pretty heavy existential themes. It will prove to be not just a great anime but a pretty solid police procedural on its own. You should also expect there to be some groundbreaking use of animation and computer imagery. But because this is an anime, all the girls are slightly north of “sexualized,” and the Major is no exception.
So good news, ladies. In the not so distant future when you’re being fitted for your new fem-bods, rest assured the entire Maxim back-catalogue will be available.
Back in Japan, Kusanagi and her team are called to intervene when the Foreign Minister is attacked by his own interpreter. This just in - drawbacks to having a “cyberbrain” include increased appetite, a high probability of porn addiction, and OMG someone can totally hack your brain! It’s called “ghost hacking,” and it’s the calling card of a cyber-terrorist called the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi). This is what Section 9 was built for, but what should be a quick collar drags on and the bodies start to pile up.
Despite the very metal-sounding nickname, the Puppet Master is no garden variety “script kiddie.” Each time the police think they’ve pinned him down, the suspect escapes, or turns out to be just another ghost hacked victim. As Section 9 works to hunt him down, the Puppet Master begins to take a personal interest in Kusanagi, as if testing her to see what she’s made of. It isn’t merely curiosity; it’s the work of one wily competitor against another. Despite her passion for her profession, the Major has a rebellious nature that risks her being manipulated.
I know, that sounds like the standard psych profile of any sci-fi cop, robot or otherwise. But do you remember what I said about what a mixed bag technology can sometimes be? Ghost in the Shell spends a lot of time on this, building an always-on-verse where nearly anything seems possible. Future Japan has what I like to call a post-dystopian vibe to it; that of a ruined civilization successfully rebuilt. It’s an eclectic mass of very fallible humans crammed into a half gleaming, half grimy metropolis roughly the size of your imagination.
And it’s made quite clear that even gullibly romantic garbage men can afford a cyberbrain. So you’d think this kind of easy access to world-changing technology would have no downside whatsoever, right?
Ha-ha, right. Imagine the Internet times a bazillion. Yes, Kusanagi’s partner has cool robot eyes that let him see in the dark. And all the girls in Section 9’s typing pool have fingers that turn into more fingers that turn into more fingers. I assume that means anyone slipping under 16,000 words a minute buys...whatever cyborgs eat for lunch? Who knows. Point is, foolish people will eventually abuse any technology, whether it be a sharpened stick or having WiFi built into your skull.
Plus, when your body can be replaced and your mind uploaded and downloaded at will, at what point does the line between man and machine immeasurably blur? Is that the ultimate equalizer, or the first step toward the end of individuality? Particularly when someone can hack into your brain and implant memories, or force you to act against your will. What does this mean for individuality? What does this mean for accountability?
Will anyone be left to care? Heady stuff, indeed. Ghost in the Shell is the Akira of the 90s, operating on just a whole other level.
At one point the Puppet Master has Kusanagi briefly wondering whether she even exists at all, which (surprise) appears to be an issue with people occasionally swap out brains, or occasionally upload themselves into someone else. Couple these mind bending concepts with the film’s innovative fusion of multiple animation types, and you can see why I spent more time watching Ghost in the Shell repeatedly than I did following the OJ Simpson trial that year.
Truth is stranger than fiction with the exception of 1995, when it actually wasn’t. Even back then, anyone willing to see it could perceive the vast potential of getting the Internet into everyone’s hands. Of course nobody saw The Drudge Report, 4chan or Facebook’s eventual dismantling of democracy, but that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it? That’s why this film and its themes were so resonant then, and remain so today. In a world where technology is woven into the fabric of life you can lose your identity, or you can choose to evolve.
That seems worth thinking about as much today as it will in Future Japan.