Transhumanists and their associated flavors of science fiction have long imagined a world in which technology unbinds the self from the body. Ghost in the Shell, a long-running Japanese franchise consisting of several different comic book series, video games, and animated TV shows and films, falls firmly within that tradition. But until the turn of the 21st century, sci-fi thought that such physical transformations would be just that: physical. The ascension of the internet as a social dimension has already brought to the fore such possibilities, even as the field of bionics stays somewhat behind the advances hoped for it by now. (Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell, first published in 1989, predicted lifelike robot bodies by 2029 — which, hey, we’ve still got 12 years to get that right.) But rather than make the series feel dated, identity issues in the cyber age actually make Ghost in the Shell seem extraordinarily prescient. The particulars may be off, but the emotional reality constructed by the 1995 film adaptation feels dead-on.
It’s a prime time to revisit that film now, with the imminent release of a live-action American remake. Said remake has drawn criticisms of whitewashing ever since Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead character. Mamoru Oshii, who directed the 1995 film, dismissed these concerns: “The Major [Johansson’s character] is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.” That’s a solid defense on a thematic level, although it completely ignores Hollywood’s dismal history of Asian representation. Of course, until the movie can actually be seen, we won’t know whether it does indeed meaningfully incorporate race into the series’ preoccupation with identity in the digital sphere.
Within the world of Ghost in the Shell, cybernetic enhancement is commonplace, with nearly all citizens of the future Japan augmented with, at the bare minimum, mental implants (“cyberbrains”) to allow them to access the network that connects all systems. Many go further, “upgrading” their bodies with robotic limbs or eyes. The only biological parts that Major Kusanagi still possesses are her brain and spine. The resultant alienation between mind and body is sharp enough that the former is called the “ghost” and the latter the “shell.” Philosopher Gilbert Ryle originally coined the term “ghost in the machine” in 1949 to criticize dualism, and Masamune literalizes it. The plotlines across his comic book and its various adaptations tend to deal with advancements in cybernetics that further blur the line between objective experience and virtual consciousness.
In the case of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, this complication emerges in the form of the Puppet Master, a feared hacker so skilled that he can even alter cyberbrains, and who is later revealed to be not a man but an artificial intelligence. Originally created by the government, he has since gone rogue and at one point demands asylum from recapture on the basis of his sentience. Met with an official’s incredulity at this, the Puppet Master challenges: “Can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?”
The Major herself embodies this theme, speculating at multiple points about the extent of her humanity. (Though Ghost in the Shell is remembered primarily as an action movie, it actually has more philosophical monologuing than chases or firefights.) She doubts at times whether she ever had a real body, speculating that she herself may have been built, like the Puppet Master. Sometimes she’s more lighthearted about her condition, joking about it being her “time of the month,” though we see in the sequence depicting her body’s construction that she does not have even a facsimile of genitalia.
The Major defies traditional definitions of gender, in fact, accepting “she/her” pronouns and exhibiting a form we think of as “feminine” but bearing an androgynous face and performing in a neutral behavioral mode in a “male” profession among all-male colleagues. This is not to say that the film denies her femininity or ignores the ramifications of such. In one scene in which Kusanagi, ponderous as ever about her identity, wanders the city, she spots several other individuals who look exactly like her — others in her body’s “line,” so to speak. Here we have both a comment on the commodification of the female body and the most explicit demonstration of digital selfhood. The physical is stripped away, erased by humankind’s capability to mass-produce it. Thus is an individual defined wholly by their mind.
Ultimately, the Puppet Master offers the Major a way to bypass her existential crisis by merging her consciousness with his to create a new being, joining him as a bodyless mind. This is the promise, in theory, of the internet. Of course, we don’t use cyberbrains to access it, and while we can leave our racial or gender identities behind as we use it to interact with others, our ability to physically manifest such transcendence is still limited. But does that matter? As ideas about the constructed nature of race, gender, etc. proliferate, we advance toward a state wherein we can in fact erase such boundaries purely through force of will. Whether society can actually progress to that point, or how long it will take to do so, remains to be seen. And there will be hiccups along the way, such as Hollywood filmmakers defending problematic casting on questionable ideological grounds. In the meantime, Ghost in the Shell remains to help us think our way toward such a future.