Cyborgs, Androids and the Posthuman in Japanese Science-Fiction Animation- A Whisper in the Ghost

Ghost in the Shell was released in 1995, directed by acclaimed science-fiction director Mamoru Oshii. Being a recreation of the manga of the same name, there was a certain amount of expectation regarding the quality of the film. Fortunately, it has been described as “Rising anime to something real, opening the doors for Disney’s pursuit of Miyazaki, and eventually, the truly incredible page of manga we see today” ( 24/04/11) and by James Cameron as “The first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence”.

The movie focuses around a government organization codenamed “Section 9”, a group of elite cybernetically enhanced cyborgs, whose main focus seems to be purposefully unclear, but hints towards the prevention of cyber-crime and corrupt politics . Set in the futuristic 2029, the world is linked together by an omnipotent computer network, which can seemingly be accessed at any time by any individual. However, with this advancement in technology, criminals have become more and more capable in the art of “Ghost hacking”, implanting false memories within an individual, forcing them to commit crimes on an increasingly untraceable scale. Section 9, lead by the female protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, (Henceforth referred to as Kusanagi) are tasked with the apprehension of the elusive “Puppet-Master”, the most prestigious hacker in existence. However, as they proceed throughout their investigation, they suddenly realise that all is not what it seems, even questioning their own motivations and existences in the process.

The movie opens with a brief introduction to the futuristic society they live in, explaining that “In the near future, corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe…The advancement of computerisation however, had not wiped out nations, or ethnic groups”. This brings about immediate connotations of a world associating itself with a relatively positive state of affairs, as all too often in cyborg and futuristic anime, there is a sense of looming dread, be it from the breakdown of societies or simple disassociation with the idea of individuality, grouping people as machine or man. Haraway describes this narrative conceit as “Cyborg writing must not be about the fall, cyborg writing is about the power to survive… (Haraway, 1991, P154).

Despite the fact that the city itself is dystopic in its aesthetic, Kusanagi is a stark parallel. Sitting atop a roof, the scene cuts to a room of politicians, discussing the legitimacy of an error in what is assumed to be a computer program. Kusanagi is then shown, and introduces an immediate issue within her cyborg form. As she is ordered to move into position, she removed her jacket to reveal a naked body. Portrayed as a frighteningly powerful figure, notions of gender politics are brought into consideration. Kusanagi herself has a “perfect body”, with large breasts and a doll like complexion. However, it is clear that she has no genital organs, which causes a problem. Lamare describes this as “There is yet a situation where technology and gender become inextricably meshed. That of the female cyborg” (Lamare, 2009, P215). By purposefully giving her no apparent reproductive organs, Oshii has chosen to ignore her inherent sexuality, despite giving her an aesthetically pleasing form. This shocking contrast is more apparent in the later half of the film, when we can associate this with her issues regarding her humanity. By removing her vagina, Oshii dictates the immediate issue regarding her ability to reproduce, thereby stripping her from her most fundamentally genetic right to be declared a human. Haraway compliments this by explaining that “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world- it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis or other seductions to organic wholeness” (Haraway, 1991, P150). Despite this however, Kusanagi’s one line is crucial in our initial determination as to what she might initially be perceived as. When an unknown male voice asks her “What’s going on in your head today, there’s an awful lot of static in there”, she replies with “It must be a loose wire”. This line, however, is problematic within itself, due to inconsistencies within translation. In the original cut of the film, in both English and Japanese language tracks, she uses the phrase “It must be a loose wire”. This would have the audience believe that because she is a cyborg, it’s merely a problem within. However, in the 2008 remake, Ghost in the Shell 2.0, Kusanagi explains that “She must be on her period”, as is the intended dialogue for the scene. This completely changes our initial impression of her. Now, she seems wholly female, and despite the fact she has no apparent genitals, she still experiences issues with her biological make-up.

Further enforcing this idea is the following scene, in which the viewer is invited to watch the creation of Kusanagi’s cyborg frame. We see her metallic exoskeleton and augmented brain come together in a symbiosis of mind and body, profusely depicting the fact that she is almost entirely machine at this point. Following from this, we see a strange visual metaphor, in which Kusanagi is transported down a tube full of liquid, which appears to symbolize human birth. As she floats weightless and unwilling through these tubes, it seems clear that this is a contradiction as to how we might associate the creation of the cyborg. Whereas a typical construction might be one of the addition to parts onto the exoskeleton, everything about Kusanagi’s “creation” seems wholly associated with birth. Being shown in the foetal position, we see a brief period of vulnerability, as she becomes instantly aware when she emerges from her mechanical mother, it is clear that we might not be viewing her construction, but her creation, or birth. So far, we can view the introduction to Kusanagi as somewhat contradictory, at least in the sense of questioning her alignment towards being more machine than man. While we can determine that her body is quintessentially machine at this point, the many allusions towards her human nature are still apparent. It only continues to distort the matter in the following scene, when we see Kusanagi awaken, implying the previous scenes were a dream, or memories

The next series of issues comes from Kusanagi and Togusa as they drive towards the apprehension of what they believe to be the Puppet Master. They discuss the nature of the his crimes, and as Kusanagi explains her thoughts regarding internal struggle, she claims that “There’s just a whisper in my Ghost. I hear it sometimes”. Thus far, there has been no real explanation as to what the “Ghost” is, only that it can be hacked into to control others. It remains safe to assume that it is either the firmware in the cyborg, an easily accessible flaw, or something more spiritual. By stating the whisper, it could infer something to the effect of intuition for the job. This theory gains credence when Togusa questions why he has been brought onto the job.. As Kusanagi explains to him, “Besides your slight brain augmentations, your body is completely human”, and continues to elaborate on the fact that by him being completely human, he gains an insight that the cyborgs may not. She likens him to the individual, and them to a group, with strong implications that she worries about the ability to think independently as a cyborg. “If technology does not give us complete control in our lives, it at least gives the illusion of SOME control” (Gray, 2002, P89).

As the film progresses, we are introduced to the “Garbage collector”, who has been cyber-hacking his wife’s brain as he goes about work, because “All of a sudden, she has no time for me, and now she wants a divorce”. The ethical problems are obviously apparent, and more-so the issue of privacy, or the lack thereof, in the world that the text is set. So far, we have been lead to assume that the hybridization of people to the network is an altogether positive thing, besides the Puppet-Masters recent action. However, by introducing someone like the garbage collector, it shows that literally anyone can hack into anyone, providing they have the correct, illegal software, proving that the world might have the lines between utopia and dystopia subtly blurred.

As the team come closer to arresting the criminal, they are faced with another mechanically enhanced cyborg, assumed to be the one orchestrating the situation. Kusanagi gives chase, leaping up the onto the roof of a building with unnatural ease, hurling herself into the fray.

By taking the role of the aggressor on herself, she casts off any doubts so far as to assuming her femininity dictates weakness. Haraway explains this as “The cyborg is not an IT to be dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment…we are they” (Haraway, 1991, P180). As she comes face to face with him, so to speak, she reintroduces the aspect of body politics, attacking him in therm-optic camouflage, and being seemingly naked once again. Cavallaro suggests that “Nudity is employed as a means of succinctly conveying the main characters ultimate vulnerability as a concurrently physical and psychological dimension of her divided being, and hence an illusion to her inherent humanity” (Cavallaro, 2006, P86). As Kusanagi and her partner, Batou lead an on the spot interrogation, we are introduced to the idea of ghost hacked humans as active members of society.

Questioning him on his name, memories, past, he retains no memories. By carrying out the crime, seemingly of his own free will, it allows us to consider that what he experienced might not be ‘real’.

This idea is further explained as Togusa interrogates the garbage collector. His first question is asking “Tell me again. What is a simulated experience?”. Togusa explains to him that all his memory is fake, that he has no wife or child, and he had been manipulated in order to inadvertently hack into a government official. The contrast between memory and identity creating a person plays a large role in this situation. Because the man can not place himself in a reality, because he has no ‘real’ life, how can we value him as a human? The last decade of his life is described as “A fantasy, nothing more than a simulated experience” as they break him down and explain that nothing of what he perceives as reality is ‘real’. Brown explains this as “If ones memories are not entirely ones own, and if virtual memories are as a vivid and realistic as actual memories, how does one know what to call real?” (Brown, 2010, P26). It becomes increasingly troublesome therefore, to determine whether or not we can assume his existence is ‘real’. Togusa then hands him a photograph which the man earlier attempted to show to his co-worker, but refused to look. On it, the garbage collector claims is “His wife and child, beaming happily like a little angel”, but the reality is not quite so idealistic. On it, is simply a picture of himself. Upon seeing this, he exhibits the most humanistic experience so far in the text, and begins to cry, thereby asserting his humanity. Despite the fact that he might have been hacked, his existence merely serving as a shell for another, the fact that he can cry dictates that he can still show emotion, and is therefore essentially human in nature. Cavallaro explains this as “Ghost in the Shell emphasizes peoples dependence on material vestiges of the past, in the guise of photographs, which by supplying the victim with memories, are concurrently supposed to invest them with a sense of identity” (Cavallaro, 2006, P189)

This is the point which the Kusanagi’s introspection into her own life begins. As Batou walks away, he states that “That’s all it is, information. Even a simulated experience or a dream is simultaneous reality and fantasy”, implying that he considers what they experience, and what he did to be the same thing simultaneously.

Following this, we see what we assume to be Kusanagi scuba diving. Harkening back to the introduction when we experienced what is assumed to be her origin, she once again remains stoic and unmoving in her experience, merely rising to the surface into a reflection of herself.

We could assume through the imagery used that as the left Kusanagi is rising from the ocean, she is emerging from the icy depths of the ocean, into the reflection of herself, on the surface, as though her cyborg body is rejoining with her human mind. Under the water, she is all machine, surviving due to her implants, whereas when she rises back to the surface, she is nothing more than a human again, in the eyes of the public.

As Batou arrives to take her back to shore, he seems perplexed that “A cyborg would go diving in her spare time”. Interestingly, it is this point in which Kusanagi is confirmed to be a cyborg, as previous allusions were never really confirmed. Batou begins to question what he thinks is a self-destructive nature, asking her what she would do if something were to go wrong, to which she wryly replies that “She would die”. This is the first point in which Kusanagi and Batou consider their existence as individuals, as opposed to part of a cyborg collective. Again, the boundary between simulated experience and reality is explored when Batou asks her “What’s it like swimming down there in the ocean, not those simulation pools” to which she replies that she feels “Fear, cold, and alone”. She explains that she feels hope, because as she rises back to the surface, she imagines she is becoming someone else. One could assume that this is Kusanagi insinuating her lack of acceptance in being a cyborg, that by risking her life scuba diving, she feels things only a human would. Contrary to this idea is her physical identity, yet again. Batou questions her desire, as her mechanical body could sink at any moment, killing her, yet she still chooses to persist. However, following this, we come to a large explanation behind many of Kusanagi’s motives. As Batou asks if her purpose is to “Get out of section 9”, she explains to him how their bodies are essentially perfect. By having “State of the art” shells, they have achieved things that “Long ago, were only capable in science-fiction.”

She argues that they don’t have the right to complain about their existence, and how an “Occasional tune up” is a necessary evil. Kusanagi explains that if they were to ever quit, they would have to return any part of them which is enhanced, which would leave very little, implying the only thing to remain would be her “Ghost”, which we can assume to be allegorical for her soul. This persists to be the crux of the narrative conceit, of which Napier explains to be “The real action of the film is not so much the hunt for an evil…more-so the quest for the Majors spirituality…whether or not she possesses something that she calls a ghost-the spirit or soul that animates her body” (Napier, 2001, P107). This can be reaffirmed by Kusanagis following soliloquy, in which she explains:
“There are countless things that make up the human body, just as they make up me as an individual, my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. I carry a sense of my own destiny. All of these things are small parts of what make me, me.”

At this point, it can become clear that Kusanagi, as an individual, defines herself by her memory, and the identity created from it. She places little value on her physical form, relating back to the title of the movie, implying that her essence, and the sum parts of her individuality is her Ghost, and the physical husk she is contained in, is nothing but “Boundaries for which I am to overcome” This seems to relate to Litch’s idea that “Physical attributes matter a great deal in our judgement about personal identity, but this is not the property that determines personal identity” (Litch, 2002, P69). Kusanagi seems to be on a search not necessarily for the Puppet Master, but herself on an existential level. Reid states that “Though memory is not the grounds of personal identity, it provides first-hand experiences of it…noting that the evidence we use to make judgements about our own past…” ( 10/04/11)

Following this, Kusanagi has more problems with her individuality as she spots her doppelgänger in a café, with the exact same cybernetic shell as she does.

Notions of the uncanny arise around this, as the doppelgänger Kusanagi seems to be from an entirely different world to her, a reflection of herself should she not have chosen to become a cyborg, despite the fact the ‘other’ is merely a shell. “The uncanny blurring between the animate and the inanimate…is clearly exemplified by puppet like characters… (Brown, 2010, P25). By relating Freuds analysis of the uncanny, “One which is identical with its opposite” ( 02/04/11). Not only does this relate to Kusanagi and her double, but the concern between being cyborg and human, wherein the cyborg is the uncanny double of the human, as though the cyborg is unflinching, emotionless and an “enhanced” organism. “Machines could only mock man’s dream…they were not man, but a caricature of it (Redmond, 2004, P160)

As the film progresses, Section 9 have tracked the Puppet Master down to a cybernetic body, to which they attempt to “Dive into”. Batou explains to Togusa that the reason everyone is so on edge regarding the situation is because it appears that a “Ghost” has been created from nothing, and implanted into this body. The concern that Kusanagi experiences here is paramount to her existential search throughout the text. Were a Ghost to be created from scratch, how could she prove herself to be real? By deriving her existence from the memories and feelings in her Ghost, she panics as to whether or not she was once human.

She claims that “Cyborgs such as herself often get paranoid about their origins” which would suggest she finds herself relateable to the body they have contained. She has anxiety as she thinks that “She could have died a long time ago, and someone just my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me” She seems determined to examine the nature of her origin by attempting to disbelieve her birth. Even though Batou claims that she has “Brain cells in that titanium shell”, she refuses to accept.

Clarke claims that “As a hybrid of nature and culture, the posthuman prosthetic body appears as a liminal being that represents both human and machine” (Clarke, 2009, P67) which continues to assert the notion that Kusanagi has elements of both her humanity, in her Ghost and her posthuman, prosthetic body.

Following this, the Puppet-Master, still contained in the cyberbody shell, finally distinguishes itself as an individual, sentient being, as Section 9 come to the conclusion that the program has developed its own ‘Ghost’, as it explains that “Man is an individual only because of his intangible memory” and that while “Memory can not be defined, yet it defines mankind.” By the Puppet-Master explaining this as a sentient program, it causes major controversy with the narrative conceit behind the notion of humanity. Whereas he does determine that memory is an integral part of being defined as human, the fact that a program can become aware of this, essentially “Mediating the quintessentially unstable nature of human subjectivity” (Cavallaro, 2006, P167). As the Puppet-Master is subsequently liberated, the film races towards its climactic ending.

From here, Kusanagi’s objectives are inextricably conflicted with her personal motives. She defines herself as human, however by disobeying the orders. Whereas she is basically “owned” by Section 9, and to an extent, the government, her personal objective is to discover the meaning behind her waning humanity. While Aramaki, the head of Section 9 might have ordered her to “Destroy the Puppet Master, at any cost”, she defies this from an ideological perspective, which implies that although she may be almost entirely machine, her intentions will not waiver due to this. She is still a free thinking individual, being contrary to Napiers claim that “Western Critics have looked at the technologically armoured body as spiritually empty” (Napier, 2001, P 206). Therefore, by defying her orders, she clearly identifies herself as humanistic, letting her emotions define what she will finally decide on, even at the risk of her body.

As the film races towards the conclusion, we see Kusanagi attempting to recover the Puppet-Masters body, which is still being guarded by the criminals who extradited it from Section 9. Once again, we see her as altogether human, as she is forced to fight a large bipedal tank. Despite the fact she is an augmented cyborg, she still refuses to face the tank head on. It is through this extract in which the most intricate definitions of Kusanagi’s personality, and distinction between man and machine are most apparent. Despite the fact that she is attempting to find the Puppet Master alone, she still needs the help of others, despite the fact “The illegitimate cyborgs, not of woman born, refuse the ideological resources of victimisation, so as to have a real life (Haraway, 1991, P177)

The conclusion to the fight ends with Kusanagi leaping onto the tank, and in an almost primalistic nature, tear it apart with her bare hands. The final issue regarding her body politics end here, with her forcibly destroying herself to aid her attempt to save the Puppet Master.

Once again, Kusanagi shows complete disregard for her physical form, as she sacrifices her body so that she might destroy the machine. At this point, we might define her by Grays statement of “Cyborg being as specific, as general and as useless a term as ‘tool’ or ‘machine’. (Gray, 2002, P19). As she helplessly lies there, ready for her inevitable death, Batou arrives in the nick of time to destroy the tank with his “Standard issue big gun”. Following this, she immediately demands that he link herself and the Puppet-Master so that she might gain an insight into the meaning behind their existence, she needs to be able to define herself on a spiritual level, by communicating with a pre-fabricated ‘Ghost’, one which has become aware and self-preservating, despite being born as a computer program.
The discussion between Kusanagi and the Puppet-Master is from the perspective of the Puppet-Masters first person perspective, only adding to the notion that they are both, at this point, nothing more than machines, able to lie there. The Puppet-Master explains to Kusanagi that despite the fact he is self aware, and therefore an individual being, it lacks the basic organic form that it might need to persist. Whereas Kusanagi questions why the Puppet Master cannot simply clone itself indefinitely, it replies by expressing the desire to be classified as an individual, as “A copy will never be more than a copy”. It attempts to define humanity by explaining that it is the genealogical persistence of memory and identity that would classify one as inherently human. The Puppet-Master proposes that they “Fuse their individual beings together, being reborn as a new and unique entity”. Kusanagi shows her scepticism to merging, as she “Can’t see the purpose for merging when I can’t bear children”, reaffirming previous notions of gender and reproductive politics defining her as a human being. Kusanagi has further problems with merging as she worries about the lack of her individuality as a person, pondering on the nature of whether she will continue to be herself, examining her human trait in regards to fear of change. The Puppet-Master tells her that her desire to remain what she is, is what is limiting her. The notion behind the desire to procreate, and reproduce is enforced by Haraways claims that cyborg texts are “Ruled by reproductive politics, rebirth without flaw or abstraction” (Haraway, 1991, P177) comes into consideration in this last scene quite amicably. The Puppet-Masters description of “Bearing their children into the vast net” implies an almost post humanist junction between the two beings, or the “Unique entity” as to which he describes the pairing. Complementing this is the idea behind the “Rebirth” of the new entity. Lamare explains it as “In the combination of woman and machine, she finds a state where the distinction between woman and machine is blurred, which implies for her, a moment of potential inversion and possible deconstruction of perceived hierarchies pertaining to women” (Lamare, 2009, P 216). The problems pertaining to Kusanagi’s eventual conclusion however, are varied. Whereas at the start of the text, she may have been defined explicitly as a “Cyborg”, that of a machine body with human brain cells, the notion of this is warped throughout, the issues amplified by the merging with the Puppet-Master. Despite the fact that politics behind identity and memory are crucial in this determination, she arguably lands in both the prevalence of the machine, and human at once. Her disregard for physical form, and onus on memory as the key trigger to define her as an individual, and a person would lead us to believe that despite her paranoia surrounding her “origin”, she views herself as essentially human. Contrary to this though, is her apparent lack of emotions regarding death, however, this may be an overconfidence on her part, as she believes she can simply have her Ghost downloaded into another shell, as is apparent in the films conclusion. Whereas Cyborgs may oft cross the line between their individualistic definitions, Kusanagi’s intention and finality is clear. By valuing her life, and allowing herself to break down pre-established barriers, she transforms herself into a higher state of being. No longer being machine, man, or computer program, she essentially frees herself from whatever hierarchical constraints she envisions to be holding her back, as Section 9 consider her to have died at the Puppet-Master crime scene.

In the conclusion, however, we can see that Kusanagi, or what we can assume to be her, survived the incident. Batou obtains a new body on the black market, despite the fact it “May be a little young for his taste”, and then questions Kusanagi as to “If the Puppet-Master is really with her” as she claims “She is neither the woman known as Major Kusanagi, nor am I the program called the Puppet-Master” and questions herself as to “Where should the newborn go from here…?”

For her, “The net is vast, and infinite”.

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2 Responses to Cyborgs, Androids and the Posthuman in Japanese Science-Fiction Animation- A Whisper in the Ghost

  1. Is it really reasonable to assume that because the nude Kusanagi was drawn without external genitalia that she doesn’t actually have them? This is actually pretty common in anime, and isn’t confined to women. In the anime Berserk, nude figures of both sexes are drawn without external genitalia.

    • I believe several times throughout the movie and the comics that she explains her lack of reproductive organs. Whether that pertains to her internal or external organs, I think it’s unclear, but basing it on the assumption that it’s both, I think it’s a reasonable enough deduction. I’d be happy to amend my work however, if I could find something out that would confirm it 🙂

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