Canon Entry - Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
The deeply imagined and well-realized world of Ghost in the Shell has had a wider impact than most people realize. Its aesthetic as well as the ideas about human identity are obvious in The Matrix, which would go on to influence countless other films. Its depiction of the female body as object and tool to be manipulated is nothing new, but the way that it meshes this trope with technology has never been topped, though I do think that Under the Skin is kind of a weirder, more artsy cousin to this movie. So much of this film was so ahead of its time, yet if anyone knows about this movie who is not a fan of anime, it is probably the ill-advised remake starring Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi.
For an extremely dense film, the basic plot is surprisingly simple, if not always easy to follow. Major is a cybernetic individual who is an assault team leader tasked with tracking down “the Puppet Master,”’ a rogue A.I. that has assumed a higher level of consciousness and wishes to understand humanity by inhabiting a real, human body that could die. In 2029 (much more distant obviously in 1995 than it is in 2018 when I write this), humans can replace most or all parts of their body while retaining their consciousness.
In fact, the opening of the film depicts the construction of Major, as a twisted version of human birth since it takes the man as God fear and makes it into a vivid reality. It is also the most twisted version of the male gaze, one of its major incarnations being seeing women as less than the sum of their parts, as we see Major being constructed piece by piece. All this artificiality, of course leads to the ever-perplexing question of what exactly defines a human. A soul? To further add to this fear about the malleability of human identity, people’s “ghosts” can be hacked, and they can be made to do terrible deeds against their very nature as seen in one of the most exciting and terrifying scenes in which a garbageman is compelled to drive his truck as a getaway vehicle.
Even though we have seen her literally constructed piece by piece, Major her/itself remains the great enigma of this film.. I make this distinction of gender because while Mamoru Oshii clearly wants us to read her as female, her personality is so neutral that I am not entirely sure that gender is part of her consciousness. For much of the film, she sees herself merely as an object, a tool to be employed however her master wishes. Oshii was basing this on preexisting manga of which I have very little familiarity, but I felt it could have really been groundbreaking if Major’s obvious physical characteristics were more ambiguous. Clearly, the movie wants us to question Major’s identity and motivations every step of the way, and gender easily could have been one of them. After all, the Puppet Master occupies a female body when it wishes to make its intentions known to Major. I can also see how the Wachowskis picked up on this hint at gender fluidity, since it is a theme they explored a little bit in The Matrix but even more so Cloud Atlas and Sense8.
Watching this film again, I realize that it is not perfect. The rather rushed and bland English voiceover I was forced to watch this in took me out of the movie considerably. I have no opposition to a dub if it is well-done, but I desperately want to see this with the original Japanese voices. There is also a lot of exposition, often in the form of monologue, which I would attribute to the voiceover as well, but it seems it may be in the original Japanese version as well. I forgave this particular flaw just because the whole movie is so involving and clearly touching on some deep ideas.
The theme of the fear yet admiration of technology is nothing new, but I think Ghost in the Shell is one of the best modern films to embody this theme. There are stunning visions of the future, very much in line with what a future visualization of the already very modern Hong Kong and Tokyo would look like. Oshii spends a lot of time simply admiring the landscapes that are created by the collision of the past with the future. Yet there is also a great fear that imbues the film of how technology steps beyond its bounds almost constantly and even those made (or engineered) to stop such abuses are full of flaws. Technology also hasn’t done away with hierarchy. Though even the garbage man in that one scene mentions that he can hack into the ghost of his wife to see if she is cheating on him, it is clear that access to technology is just another way to disenfranchise people.
The film was visionary enough to see how the Internet could be used to wage war, though it maybe didn’t quite predict Russian trolls meddling with the American election. It also predicted how seemingly godlike technology would become available to everyone, yet also how it could be abused to spy on and take advantage of unsuspecting people. If we stretch it even further, Ghost in the Shell predicted the fight over net neutrality and how the abuse of authority could only be worsened by technology. I suspect that this film will continue to yield new revelations about the role of technology even as we draw closer to the date that it is set in.