“… but now it’s time to cast off all restrictions and shells, and shift to a higher-level system…”
Ghost in the Shell is a work constantly asking what comes next. Whether it’s the next potential move of a cyber-terrorist, the next iteration of technology and weaponry, or the next step in the evolution of mankind. We know where we are right now, and we think we might know where we could go, but… what comes next?
It is the year 2029 in Newport City, Japan. Section 9, a branch of Public Security, has recently been founded as a unit specialized in counter-terrorism and anti-cybercrime. When necessary, they
also act as oversight against government corruption. Towards those ends, their ranks are filled with an awesome group of highly-proficient individuals.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is the assault leader. A savvy smart-ass with skills in hacking few in the world can compare to. Batou is the powerful fist even without weapons; Ishikawa the tech expert; Saito the sniper; Togusa the rookie former-policeman; Boma the demolition specialist; Pazu the jack-of-all-trades; and Chief Aramaki the brains behind them all. Watching them work together is the best part, but sadly some don’t really have much presence. We spend little time with Ishikawa, Boma and Pazu -- and beyond Motoko, there are no real character development arcs.
Thankfully, their fights are further augmented by the crazy fuchikomas. I say ‘crazy’ in the most affectionate way possible. Depending on how their silliness strikes you, it will probably be love at first byte. A fuchikoma is a think tank, an AI-controlled armed robot that can either act independently or be entered by a controller and used as a vehicle. They look something like cute, pudgy, mechanical spiders. Much of the manga’s humor comes from the quips of these curious, sometimes recalcitrant, automatons.
Though more often than not it’s the Major’s own defiance towards authority that gets the biggest laughs.
The world of Ghost in the Shell is awash in technology. It’s everywhere you look. Usually where you don’t look too since it’s so prolific. People have begun casting away their flesh and organs in place of cybernetic enhancements or even full cybernization. Cyborgs are a norm. Motoko herself looks no different from an average, fully-human girl you might encounter beating criminals senseless while packing Seburo-style heat. Only when you get a little closer, lift up her hair, you see the ports on the back of her neck for hardwiring into a computer terminal or for direct connection to another cyborg.
Not long into the manga, there is a particularly profound section where Motoko observes the creation of a cyborg. An entirely biomechanical cyber-body is split open at the back of the neck, awaiting the only original organic material left of the woman to be cybernized -- her brain and spinal cord. Is this what our individual consciousnesses can be reduced to? Our bodies, like a two-meter high block of flesh and blood instead of marble, carved down to this small yet significant bit?
It is no wonder that the Major often wonders about the nature of her ‘ghost’. In a body 90% manufactured, it is hard to be sure what is really ‘her’ and what is not. Is there a ratio of human-to-machine where Motoko’s identity disappears and ‘she’ becomes something else entirely? And would ‘she’ know the change even occurred? At one point, she jokes that maybe only two brain cells remain the ‘real’ her.
Shirow plays this concept of identity like a violin.
It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to our sense of self. Our bodies support our brains; our brains give rise to a consciousness. We are our bodies. However, in this new world there are hackers that would change this would-be permanence. Now cyberbrains can be infiltrated and implanted with false memories and personalities or be hijacked altogether and controlled remotely like a puppet. The main story arc involves such a character: The Puppeteer, a wizard hacker that can crack the strongest ice barriers and use people as pawns. So the question becomes not how we can retain our identity, but whether it’s even possible.
Although steeped in deeper philosophies, Ghost in the Shell is primarily an action-packed gunshot. Whether using a thermo-optically camouflaged fuchikoma to sneak around, hunting down a wanted target or busting onto the scene full force, Section 9 and the Major take you for a ride. Even when the build-up of the story is gradual, there is a great sense of anticipation of the payoffs to come. Shirow’s drawing is fluid when it comes to this tension-and-release, creating dramatic moments one after the other. A firefight may take only a few pages here or there, but it’s elegant and bloody and satisfying. And when the barrage carries on for page after page, better hold on!
Whether the technical prowess of Shirow’s art is greater than his creative choices is an academic question. Both are married perfectly. He makes Motoko look cool visually and adds to that coolness with the fact that she is a cyborg. So too is Newport City a fascinating place for both the way he makes it look and the futuristic technology he decides to fill it with. His ideas and execution are amazing. At times even prescient, given that this was first published in 1989. As with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I guess there’s just something in the cyberpunk water.
To ask what comes next is to invite change. “Change is the only constant.” It feels pedantic to say that. It’s one of those simple truths that stretch from the cosmological to the infinitesimal. And there we are right in the middle of it. I’ve changed while I’ve written this sentence. You’ve changed while you’ve read this one. Our cells replenishing themselves, dividing, dying. Admittedly, those are tiny changes. Motoko herself confronts a great change head-on, the “what comes next” of our development as a species. It’s only one of many possible paths we could take, I imagine. It’s possible we’re well on our way, walking in her footsteps and mustering up the courage to do the same. Hell, we might have already made the decision.
Motoko talks about her ‘ghost’. It’s the last bit of her identity housed within the cybernetic shell of her body. It whispers to her, guides her, offers as much assurance as it can even though she fears it might not even exist. Housed within a life of constant change, what permanence can we find?
Maybe just those changes that birth a new future… and being lucky enough to witness them when they come to pass.