Delving Within The Shell: The Hidden Story Of Ghost In The Shell

As far as I am concerned, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell is an absolute masterpiece of a film. A cult classic as well as my personal favourite movie, Ghost in the Shell is an 82 minutes anime adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga of the same name. The movie is set in the cyberpunk-esque future of 2029 where the relationship between man and technology has merged to the point where the boundaries of the two begin to blur. Cyberbrains are now commonplace, acting as a shell that houses thoughts and consciousness or a “Ghost” as the movie calls it. Hence the name Ghost in the Shell, a reference to Arthur Koestler’s “The Ghost in the Machine”. There’s a bunch of philosophical themes brought up throughout the movie primarily revolving around self-identity in such a future. Did I mention that this movie heavily inspired The Matrix? God I love this movie. If you ever need an example of how anime can be used to express a narrative entirely through visuals then look no further than Ghost in the Shell. 

And that’s the thing a lot of people miss the first time around. It’s not just the dialogue that is carrying us through plot point A to plot point B. The climax of the movie is sold to the audience through subtle imagery throughout the film, something not unfamiliar to Mamoru Oshii when looking at his previous work on Angel’s Egg (Another great anime movie that I highly recommend). Something I believe gives anime the upper hand over live action is that animation can really drive home a narrative through visuals and Ghost in the Shell absolutely nails this. Let me explain

No, this is not a photo. This a background still from the movie. Somebody drew this. Nutty.

*Spoilers start here*

Okay, so the crescendo to Ghost in the Shell isn’t some large epic fight sequence or a twist where Motoko discovers it was all just a dream or whatever. The climax is a conversation between the Major and the film’s “antagonist” Project 2501, a conscious intelligence born in the vast sea of information. 2501 reveals its motivations to merge ghosts with Motoko. He explains that by doing this a whole new lifeform will emerge, neither human nor machine, the next stage of mans’ relationship with technology. But hang on a minute, why go this far just to specifically get to our protagonist? Isn’t that just awfully convenient? Well Motoko asks this herself:

“Why did you pick me?”

“Because we are more alike than you realise” 

This line right here is the absolute peak of the movie. I get chills from this line. So far the entire film has been subtly building up the connection between Motoko and 2501 through some really neat cinematic tricks and I feel that they often get overlooked. The reason why 2501 chose our protagonist isn’t some plot convieniance, it’s the entire point of the movie. Let me explain.

So in the boat scene with the Major and Batou, the Major gives a rather long speech about humanity while our point of view slowly pans closer in on her face. She has a very static facial expression until right at the height of the speech where she looks up wide eyed and animated. This EXACT same shot with the EXACT same animation is used on 2501 when it goes on its spiel about humanity in Section 9 HQ. Bonus points are awarded here knowing that 2501 was watching Motoko on the boat when it speaks with her voice. Similarly, Motoko is watching over 2501 from the above balcony in the latter scene. Using subtle imagery like this creates the parallel between the two characters and reinforces that crescendo moment I mentioned before. Ghost in the Shell is full of these. 

Just before the boat scene, Motoko is diving in the waters outside the city. Being deep below the water fills Motoko with fear and loneliness, an effort to prove to herself that she has not lost her humanity into becoming a machine. But this scene is as much foreshadowing as it is putting forward questions of self identity. We have this beautiful shot of Motoko rising towards the surface where she is met with a reflection of herself. She opens her eyes as both forms merge, coming out the water as one. Sound familiar?

Notice how nonchalant Ghost in the Shell is when presenting violence, action, nudity etc? The soundtrack isn’t intense like most movies when dealing with similar scenes. In fact the soundtrack is long, drawn out and very clear (more on this in a bit) much like the cinematography of the movie. This is a deliberate choice to present a cold and indifferent tone throughout. Why? Because BFFs Motoko and 2501 are also both very cold, precise and calculated personalities. Just as the movie is presented with an indifferent attitude, Motoko and 2501 are both very indifferent to events transpiring around them because they’re badass enough to keep a calm demeanor at all times. Even the tone of the movie is used to draw a connection between these two characters. 

Oh and it’s definitely not coincidence that both 2501 and Motoko share the exact same body with the exact same face.

Visuals aside, we also have a dialogue between Motoko and Togusa. Togusa is confused as to why he specifically was chosen to join Section 9 due to his lack of cyberization and mechanical enhancements in comparison to the rest of the team. He’s by far the most “human” and isn’t some kind of superhero cyborg like the Major. 

“If we all reacted the same way we’d be predictable. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialize and you breed in weakness.”

Motoko Kusunagi

The Major explains that she needs a family man, an honest cop. She needs a human element to the squad to ensure all bases are covered. This same viewpoint is shared by 2501 as revealed nearer the film’s conclusion. He explains that he wishes to merge with the Major, a human variable, to ensure his survival. A simple copy of himself will not suffice.

“A single virus could destroy an entire set of systems, and copies do not give rise to variety and originality.”

Project 2501

Speaking of being copied. Notice the parallel here between 2501’s reluctance of being copied and Motoko’s whole character arc struggling to come to terms with the fact that she may be a copy herself? Yeah. That. 

Jesus Christ these backgrounds though

Back to that soundtrack though. That eargasmic main title theme that also plays during that beautifully long city sequence? Yeah well that’s actually a really old Japanese wedding song not only meant to symbolise the joining of man and machine but to also set up the concept of the merge between our two characters from the very beginning of the movie. Also as a side note, I love the contrast of the futuristic setting and the more primal soundtrack. It really feels like the ancient chants are representative of humanity while the setting and the visuals represent technology. 

*Spoilers end here*

Masterful storytelling aside, can I just briefly gush about just how pretty Ghost in the Shell is? I love detailed works from around the 80’s and 90’s with another example being Akira. I’ve been watching anime my whole life and I can never get over the fact that all this background art is entirely hand drawn. It’s a style that we really don’t see anymore with everything being a lot more clean, crisp and digital nowadays. I dunno, it just feels nostalgic. 

Also that uncanny valley effect they pull off with the faces of the cyborgs to make them look like dolls? Amazing. *Chefs kiss*

One last thing I’d like to get out of the way before I finish. I have heard complaints of nudity and “fanservice?” in Ghost in the Shell and I feel like it’s unfounded. I think people’s knee jerk reaction to things of this nature within media is still fairly immature. A similar attitude arose from when Game of Thrones was still airing, that things like nudity are somehow a cheap way to get viewers? Implying that the work itself is lessened for having “fanservice”. And yeah I mean I can give you a long list of TV shows and anime where that is in fact the case though Ghost in the Shell is definitely not one of them. Instead of asking “why is there nudity?” you should really be asking “Is this actually nudity?”. You literally see Motoko be built from inside out as the opening sequence. At what point of this process does she become naked? When the skin is applied? Can a synthetic body made from metal really be naked? Not only that but Ghost in the Shell and Cyberpunk as a genre for that matter are full of uncomfortable imagery. Seeing a woman’s mechanical brain on a table beside her as it’s being hacked into is supposed to give you the sense of unease, a perversion of the human body. Motoko’s body shouldn’t be sexual, we see every cable, every limb being applied to each other. But the biggest reason why sexual themes shouldn’t all just be shrugged off as fanservice is that sometimes it can be used to further present a narrative. Motoko acts almost transcendent of her own body. Throughout the film she suffers with her own self-identity and she states that as long as she knows her ghost is human then she IS human. Her body is replaceable, just a tool to get the job done hence her complete indifference to her appearance. On the other side of the coin, Batou is always seen covering her up whenever possible because he sees the Major as holistically human and is completely empathetic. In fact he only covers up the Majors body in the film’s final act, ignoring 2501. It’s used to show character and personality and in this case I feel Ghost in the Shell is all the more better for it. And there’s the whole gender identity stuff the film brings up which adds even more philosophical questions to the pile but I won’t go into that.

Anyway Ghost in the Shell is absolute unmatched genius. Trust me, they’ve tried. Thanks for sticking through my rants, god bless you. If you want more out Ghost in the Shell and don’t know where to go from here then you’re in luck. There’s several more Ghost in the Shell titles and I’ll quickly go over them. Each one is a separate continuity that has no narrative dependencies on each other:

  • Ghost in the Shell (1995) — Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002) — Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GiG
  • Ghost in the Shell: Arise (A series of OVAs. It’s not nearly as good as previous titles but it exists)

I particularly recommend Stand Alone Complex if you enjoyed the original movie. It’s a television series of about 25 episodes per season. While the movie explores the philosophy behind the world of Ghost in the Shell, Stand Alone Complex deals with the sociology and the politics. It’s very good. 

If you want more similar works to Ghost in the Shell then check out Akira (1988) and Psycho Pass (2012). Psycho Pass in particular is heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell and it’s made by the same animation studio, Production I.G.

If you want more from Mamoru Oshii then check out Angel’s Egg (1985)! It’s massively underappreciated and unheard of but it’s very good if you enjoy reading between the lines like I do. Otherwise it’s a fun acid trip. Maybe I’ll write about it sometime.

Until next time

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