When writing this about an hour after seeing Ghost in the Shell for the first time, I debated where to go with this article. For much of the critical world and movie fandom, GitS is notable for the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the Major, who is decidedly less Japanese than the character’s original name — Motoko Kusanagi — would suggest. I don’t think, however, that anyone really needs my opinion as a white American male about the whitewashing of another non-white character. Instead, I’m more interested in considering this film as a new entry in the cyberpunk genre, while remaining fully aware that my background perhaps allows me that luxury.
In both manga and anime formats, GitS represents a melding of two of the foundational texts of cyberpunk: Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner and William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. The influence of Blade Runner is perhaps the most obvious: the issue of can a human creation — androids in Blade Runner and cyborgs in GitS — be human and that most fundamental of questions: What makes us human? Along with its corollary: What makes me… me? The new film stays solidly in this territory, exploring this question even more directly through the experience of the Major than Oshii’s film. From Neuromancer, we have the world of cyberspace — hacking through a virtual reality representing software code and processes, sending one’s consciousness into this virtual world and interacting with it in a more personal way than typing on a keyboard.
All three stories explore the idea of artificial consciousness and awareness, but GitS more directly marries these two in the person of the Major. The very title of the film establishes the Major’s dilemma: is she primarily her ghost (i.e. consciousness) or the shell (i.e. her body)? Who or what defines her (or any of us)? Is it her past — her memories? Is it those who have constructed her that control her destiny? Is it her job in Section 9, and her relationships with Batou, Togusa, Aramaki, et al? Or does she have another path open to her, one in which she defines herself? Sanders’s film stays true to the spirit of Oshii’s film, even if it perhaps makes more explicit the Major’s dilemma by making it more directly connected to the plot and her relationships with the characters in her life.
Further discussion of the film’s themes is difficult from this point forward without spoilers. For the review portion of this article, then, let me say first that I think the film, much like Oshii’s, strikes a good balance between action set pieces and philosophical conversations. I loved the visual aesthetic, from the fleshed-out cyberpunk future Hong Kong to the cybernetic designs and on to the visualization of cyberspace. In the mid-1990s, animation was a superior choice in realizing the world of Ghost in the Shell (just compare it to an American film released the same year, Johnny Mnemonic, based on William Gibson’s short story), so it’s exciting to see what can be done in live-action with the blend of CG and practical effects. While I prefer Kenji Kawai’s score in Oshii’s film, I thought the blend of synths and traditional film score was fitting; I also appreciated the use of Kawai’s Utai IV – Reawakening). I enjoyed the performances of Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, and crew; I especially liked Takeshi Kitano’s portrayal of Section 9 chief Aramaki. Overall, I think this is an excellent entry into the cyberpunk genre.
And now, on to the spoilers…
The opening of the movie shows the Major being wheeled into surgery. As she’s being worked on, Cutter (head of Hanka Robotics) and Dr. Ouelet discuss her role and purpose. Ouelet sees her as representing progress, the next evolution in humanity, but also as an experiment — although one to be admired and celebrated. This is in contrast to Ouelet’s view of Kuze – a failed experiment, and therefore disposable. Cutter views her as a commodity, a weapon to be used. She’s only a means to an end for him, a way for him to further cement his influence over Section 9 and the government.
The prominence afforded these two perspectives might lead us to see these as the only choices available to the Major, but of course neither is a destiny of her own choosing. Instead, the Major has several choices available. While Cutter placed her with Section 9 as one might a new gun, the Major has developed relationships with her team, especially with Batou, and so remaining with Section 9 on her own terms rather than on Cutter’s is a distinct possibility. When she finally meets Kuze and discovers she is not really the first of her kind — although Ouelet would probably explain this away Old Ben-style as a matter of point-of-view — the Major has the choice of what to do with him: capture him, let him go, or go with him. Her choice to let him go, I think, hints that the decision she ultimately makes will be on her own terms.
This theme of control over one’s own destiny is made even more explicit through the several scenes in which, before anyone gets into her head, the Major says, “My name is Major Mira Killian, and I give my consent.” At the end of the film, as Ouelet is apparently going to follow Cutter’s orders to terminate her, the Major makes a point to say, “I do not give my consent.” Ouelet replies, “We never needed your consent.” The Major’s backstory, both the in-world reality and the implanted, false memories she has of her rescue, demonstrate this lack of consent as well. In her false memory, she was rescued from the disaster that claimed her parents, and only her brain was able to be saved. While this is prsented as a noble act, the Major had no consent to being made a cyborg even in the “better” scenario of her supposed rescue.
And when we find out that the Major was once Motoko Kusanagi, a headstrong runaway rounded up with Hideo (now Kuze) and others living in the Lawless Zone, her brain removed completely without her consent, we realize just how little of her life has been her own choosing. When Ouelet says, “We never needed your consent,” it’s absent of even the moral covering of saving another’s life.
This reminds me very much of the freedom versus security argument, and we can see this theme developed by the film as well. In the more obvious example, this is represented by Hanka as a representative of the military-industrial complex., which promises greater security at the expense of freedom — both for individuals like the Major and for government entities like Section 9. (An idea that to this American seems rather odd, but I find it interesting nonetheless.) But the overreach of a militarized corporation like Hanka is not the only way this is shown. On an individual level, the choice of freedom versus security (or convenience or power or any of the other things for which we so easily give up our freedom) is expressed from the very start of the film, when Dr. Osmond is discussing the potential benefits of cybernetic enhancements with an African diplomat. Osmond shows how his daughter learned French in the time it took to sing “Alouette.” The diplomat replies that his people embrace cybernetics, but don’t want to lose sight of what it means to be human. The subsequent attack in which the geisha robot hacks Osmond’s brain through his cybernetics demonstrates the vulnerability of cybernetically enhanced humans. Batou also comments on this, stating that he and the Major, in gaining amazing abilities, now must undergo regular maintenance — they are not free to ever live without this routine invasion.
It is perhaps in these themes of consent and personal invasion that Ghost in the Shell best speaks to us in today’s world. Many of us have in an increasingly real sense a virtual persona that is as much us as our physical selves. And that virtual self is vulnerable to hacking, manipulation, and invasion of privacy to an extent that our physical self is not. While all versions of Ghost in the Shell deal with these ideas in various ways, the 2017 film makes the story more personal by focusing on the Major’s search for her own sense of self.
The film’s resolution carries through the personal side of the Major’s story nicely — she chooses her own fate while still supported by Section 9. The Major cannot get free of Hanka and Cutter without them, showing that our sense of who we are (and indeed, the process by which we discover this) is inextricably linked to our relationships with others. She also embraces her past as Motoko Kusanagi, choosing to build a new relationship with her mother. She cannot return to and continue her old life as Kusanagi, but she can forge a new one.
Overall, I found Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell to be a great addition to cyberpunk, both pulling from and contributing to the style and themes of genre. While it may not be a financial success, I hope that it, along with Westworld and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, paves the way for further entries in cyberpunk… and maybe an adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer is less of a pipe dream than it once was.