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The Anime that Made Us: Ghost in the Shell

April 8, 2022

Storming onto this series is none other than the seinen series Ghost in the Shell, a rather major landmark in both anime and sci-fi. Most people probably have heard of this series thanks to the 2017 live-action adaptation with Scarlett Johansson (which, for the record, I would argue was a relatively decent adaptation-all things considered). However, while many have varying opinions on that adaptation, Ghost in Shell's influence goes way further back than 2017. In fact, it stretches all the way back to the 1990s, ultimately influencing films such as The Matrix and Deus Ex Machina.

How did Ghost in the Shell influence the Sci-Fi genre? It begins with the topics the series introduced. The series wanted to leave people thinking critically about how technology would change people's thoughts about what it means to be human. It brought up various ideas and questions: can robots love, or can a human still be considered human if their soul is in a (robotic) shell? How far can humanity go with artificial enhancements while still grasping what it means to be fundamentally human? Interestingly, that's where the term "ghost" comes in. A ghost is effectively a shell that houses the person's "soul," or "being."

An image of a cyber body from Ghost in the Shell.

Credit: Masamune Shirow

While these questions aren't entirely new, especially if you've been around either the Sci-Fi or anime realm long enough: for example, Star-Trek has touched on these types of questions, Akira as well, and Appleseed isn't unfamiliar with these concepts either. However, what differentiates Ghost in the Shell from other Sci-Fi series (in this case: cyberpunk Sci-Fi) is how it approaches these questions. Because while both Akira and Appleseed focus on a more apocalyptic war setting, Ghost in the Shell focuses on asking, "how does technology affect the person." We can actually see the Major (Motoko Kusanagi) wrestle with these retrospective questions during the series. In fact, in the 1995 anime movie, she states that she doesn't even know what it's like to be human. (The scene leading up to that point involves a…non-family friendly type entertainer, so I decided to oversimplify this part).

The world itself is set in the future where robotic enhancements are commonplace, and human minds can interface directly with the web. Oddly enough, we see it happening today: with robotic prosthetics and even Elon's Musk Neuralink. In short, the series presented questions in a unique format. They introduced concepts and ideas that we (for better or for worse) see playing out today.

Phew! With this extensive introduction, let's discuss who even wrote this series and what is the exact plot of Ghost in the Shell? And a seinen series? What's a seinen series?

Glad you asked! So far in "The Anime that Made Us" series, we've covered: shonen and shoujo anime. A quick reminder, however:

  • shonen is geared towards younger male (primarily middle school age or younger)audiences with its fights and humor.
  • shoujo is geared towards young female (primarily middle school age or more immature)audiences with more romance and a slice of life.
  • A seinen series is typically defined as:

    is generally geared towards young adult male audiences. Some subcategories often include fantasy, horror, or sci-fi. Other notable examples of seinen series outside of Ghost in the Shell include Kill la Kill, Space Dandy, and FLCL (Fooly Cooly).

An image explaining the difference in shoujo, shounen, and seinen anime/manga

Credit: anime_wiki

With those definitions now clarified, let's discuss the other two topics: who wrote the series and its story/plot. It was written by Masamune Shirow and was begun in 1989, right after his series Appleseed. Thus, making it an 80's series. However, it ran in Kodansha's manga anthology Young Magazine Kaizokuban from May 1990 to November 1991. It was also released in tankōbon format on October 2, 1991. Soon after, Dark Horse picked the series up, releasing the English translation, running from March 1, 1995, to October 1, 1995.

Shirow got his inspiration for the series shortly after reading the 1967 novel: The Ghost in the Machine (which you can see in the name), written by Arthur Koestler.

The cover for The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler

Credit: Koestler

When he got to writing the series, though, Shirow often struggled to make sure the story was neither too complex nor too simple. This struggle is because he wanted to balance what he wanted to convey, from sociological differences to the technological advances within the series and, ultimately, the philosophical discussion of said material. Cybernetics being intertwined with humans, cyberattacks and hacking techniques are commonplace in the series.

Some other topics he wanted to include were metaphysics and religious references, which understandably are challenging issues to grasp and present to a mass audience. Taking place in the fictional city of Niihama (New Port City), it centers around the spec-ops task force labeled Public Security Section 9. Public Security Section 9 comprises primarily former military officers and police detectives, with Major Motoko Kusanagi as field commander.

The Major from Ghost in the Shell

Credit: Masamune Shirow

She is a cyborg herself, becoming one due to an injury sustained as a child. The injury ultimately led her to use a full-body prosthesis to house her cyberbank. How can such a dense story be contained, you ask? Glad you asked! The story section is basically cut into 2 main parts: the original 1991 (and the famous 1995 anime movie adaptation) and the sequel: Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface.

The story first begins in 2029, features Section 9, led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki and Major Motoko Kusanagi, as they investigate a villain called the Puppeteer/Puppet Master. The cyber-criminal intended to cyberhack people via "ghost hacking" into their cyberbrains. Throughout the investigation, Section 9 discovers that the Puppet Master is actually an advanced AI created by the Japanese government (surprise!), living in a robot body. After destroying that robotic body, Section 9 believes all is well until the Major discovers the Puppet Master in her own mind. This takes us to the sequel: Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface 2035. The Major, now known as Motoko Aramaki, has to deal with another form of A.I., ensuring it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. She has to deal with that during her current evolving sense of self.

While it was a success in Japan, it wasn’t until the 1995 film adaptation that it garnered international fame. Upon international success however, it soon had video games, numerous movie adaptations, and even two V.R. adaptations!

An image from the Ghost in the Shell VR game

Credit: Oculus Rift

That first video game was released in 1997 on the original PlayStation, simply titled: Ghost in the Shell. It was a third-person story produced by Production I.G., Japan Studio, and Exact. There were 3 more made in the early 2000s. However, all were based off of the series retelling: Ghost in the Shell- Stand Alone Complex (2002 – 2005, see below). Lastly, are the V.R. (virtual reality)adaptations. The first was an Oculus Rift game, released in 2017. It allowed you to go through selected scenes and help the Major gain her memories back (trailer here). The second is a Noh stage play that infused VR into their show, thanks to Tokyo University. You can check out that through the link here.

Moving onto the retelling of the series, it was titled Stand Alone Complex, and it ran from 2002 to 2005. It features Section 9's investigations of government corruption in the Laughing Man and Individual Eleven incidents.

A cover for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Credit: Masamune Shirow

However, it similarly received a sequel in the form of a movie in 2006 called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society.

The most notable related media outside manga and anime would undoubtedly be the 1995 film of the same name.

The cover for the 1995 movie

Credit: Masamune Shirow

This film was the breakout hit that inspired many other artists and pieces of work. Going back to earlier in the article, this film was so influential, it influenced the Wachowskis to go on and create The Matrix. Other classics have been affected- from Deus Ex Machina to Avatar. Even more modern classics such as Blade Runner 2049, Black Mirror, and Altered Carbon can owe some thanks to the Ghost in the Shell fame.

An Americanized live-action adaptation featuring Scarlett Johansson was released in 2017 and was considered a flop, losing approximately over $60 million. The biggest reason for its flop was that the director, Rupert Sanders, didn't understand the source material all too well. Which, there is a lot of (to be fair). Even the original 1995 anime film director stated that the plot was too complex for a singular film. I saw that they tried to showcase the I.P. to the broadest audience possible for the live-action but completely tripped up in execution. Of course, trying to cram too much into a singular movie also sets you up for failure. While it does fail, it does make for a cheesy movie night.

Cheesy movie recommendations aside, closing out this article is rather tricky, as the subject matter of this series is rather too complex to really summarize into 1 or 2 sentences. Check out Ghost in the Shell if you enjoy cyberpunk, sci-fi, or shows with profound philosophical and sociological themes!

This decade is sure speeding by! We can't let this decade whiz by without talking about one of the most car-crazy shows! We'll be switching from robots to cars in the last issue of this decade: Initial D.

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