The Cyborg Body: Technology and the Search for Identity in Ghost in The Shell.

Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost In The Shell belongs to a sub-genre of science fiction anime known as “mecha” anime.

Conventions of the mecha genre include a futuristic hi-tech setting, a fast narrative pace and a youthful hero or heroine.

The term “mecha” is derived from the Japanese abbreviation of the English word “mechanical” and is used to refer to all mechanical objects, whether they are real-world or fictional.

In Japanese, therefore “mecha” encompasses objects such as cars, guns, computers, and other devices. The flexibility of the term means that it can also be used to refer to humanoids, robots and such things as the boomers from Bubblegum Crisis, the (similar) replicants of Blade Runner, and the cyborg.

What is a cyborg?

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, that is an organism with enhanced abilities due to technology.

Fictional cyborgs (and I say fictional because some theorists have suggested that any human being who has a pace-maker or wears contact lenses can be considered a cyborg by definition) are frequently portrayed as a complex mixture of organic and mechanical parts.

The concept of the cyborg is, therefore, a rejection of rigid boundaries, notably those separating “human” from “machine.”

East V’s West: how cyborgs are portrayed.

The treatment of human/technological hybrids in Japanese anime differs from that of western fiction, the western tendency is to privilege the robotic or cybernetic body by emphasising its destructive or dehumanising potential (the Terminator and Robocop are good examples of this).

The treatment of cyborgs in Japanese anime presents the fusion of man and machine in a much more ambiguous manner. For example, while the imagery in mecha anime is strongly technological and is often focussed on the machinery of the armoured body, the narratives themselves often focus to a surprising extent on the human inside the machine or the ghost inside the shell.

The problematic relationship between human and machine in an increasingly technological world is a recurrent theme of many mecha anime and is the dominant theme of Ghost in the Shell.

It is this contrast, between the vulnerable, emotionally complex and often youthful human inside the machine, and the power that he or she possesses that creates the tension which drives Japanese mecha narratives.

AI, Cyborgs and mind-hacking.

Ghost in the Shell explores the relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity. The film is set in the year 2029, in an age of sophisticated computers, technology and cybernetics.

The films central figure, Major Motoko Kusanagi works for Section 9, part of a government body set up to combat technological terrorism. In this technological age, many people are in fact cyborgs, more machine than human.

Human brains are fitted out with interfaces that connect them to the net, a vast network of virtual information. Consequently, it is possible to hack into people’s souls (the human soul is known by the term ghost in the film) an illegal process known as “ghost hacking”.

Kusanagi’s mission is to track down a notorious criminal known as the Puppet Master, who has been ghost-hacking individuals and controlling them by erasing their memories and replacing them with artificial ones.

Ghost in the shell grapples with what it is to be human in terms of the power and necessity of memory. This is an issue which informs much of Kusanagi’s spiritual journey throughout the film. One of Kusanagi’s more memorable lines in the film is “Memory cannot be defined but it defines mankind”.

The influence of American Sci-Fi.

In its exploration of profound issues such as the relations between the soul, the body and technology, ghost in the shell owes as much to American science fiction as it does to any specific mecha anime.

Ghost in the shell’s dystopian vision of a future of shadowy government agencies and dark urban setting of rain- lashed skyscrapers, along with the films metaphysical focus all reveal the influence of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner.

The psychology of the cyborg.

In keeping with the film’s metaphysical focus, Major Motoko Kusanagi is psychologically complex. The films inward focus, in terms of the psychological exploration of its cyborg protagonist, results in a counterbalance of narrative pace.

Slow, lyrical and reflective scenes which highlight Kusanagi’s essential loneliness, are contrasted by fast-paced scenes of technological combat.

Through the character of Kusanagi, the film seems to mourn for a lost world of human connection, this is apparent in a scene in which Kusanagi Is shown riding a boat down an urban canal, quietly watching the people in the city as they move through the rain.

In this scene, through Kusanagi’s eyes, the viewer focuses through the rain on the lonely individuals backlit by the urban neon.

The shadowy, armless mannequins “she” stares at in the brightly lit department store window not only reflect Kusanagi’s own non-human state but also underline the film’s powerful sense of the loneliness of the human condition in the futuristic world.

The birth of the cyborg.

Another distinctive aspect of the film is the figure of Kusanagi herself. Her “birth” is shown at the beginning of the film in a sequence which accompanies the opening credits. Kusanagi first appears as a series of computerized digits running across the screen.

We then see her mechanical body frame and a shot of her head which is opened up and connected to a variety of technological implants. She is then given flesh and we see her floating in a foetal position immersed in liquid; before she finally emerges into the world.

Kusanagi’s humanity is therefore extremely ambiguous, as although we see her being constructed during the opening sequence, the sequence itself clearly references organic birth.

Also, Kusanagi and her team-mate Batou speak of being “alive” in a way that suggests they consider themselves to be human at some fundamental level.

Assasin to ascention: a spiritual journey.

Kusanagi is not completely comfortable in her cyborg identity, and the real action of the film is not the pursuit of the Puppet Master but rather a quest for her spiritual identity.

It just so happens that the two become one and the same, as it is the Puppet Master who ultimately allows Kusanagi to transcend her rigid identity of a cyborg assassin.

Kusanagi is in many ways innocent and emotionally fragile, this vulnerability, which stems from her uncertainty about her identity, is apparent in a scene in which she and her teammate Bateau are in an elevator.

She voices her concern about whether she possesses a ghost, the spirit or soul that animates her being.

This is just one example of many scenes in which Kusanagi discusses her ghost, and the dialogue in such scenes is intensely philosophical.

However, it is Kusanagi’s cyborg body rather than her mind that is used as a vehicle for her identity quest.

Moments of vulnerability, which as I have suggested links with Kusanagi’s uncertainty about her identity are organised around the film’s recurrent motif of falling.

You’ll also need to bring your birth certificate, any house ownership paperwork, proof of income, medical certificates, marriage certificate, degree certificates and transcripts as well as tax / social security / National Insurance etc.

You need to draw two lines through any photocopies and sign and date them. The reason you do this is to avoid people stealing your personal information.

Fall number 1. The falling motif explained.

The first fall in the film is literal, and occurs at the beginning, before the title sequence and the birth scene I mentioned earlier.

The film opens with Kusanagi standing on the roof of a tall building.

She is plugged into the net via a cable which is inserted into the back of her neck and is attempting to make contact with her colleagues in section 9. Bateau complains that there is a lot of noise in her brain and Kusanagi responds by saying “Its that time of the month”.

She unzips her clothes and stands on the edge of the building in an image of both sexuality and vulnerability. She jumps into the darkness and falls.

Her fall is broken by a strong metal cable which positions her outside a window where a meeting is going on. From there she is able to complete her objective of assassinating a government official, a representative of a hostile country.

This scene reveals several contradictory elements surrounding Kusanagi’s mind and body.

Although at first, she appears human, the fact that she is not is highlighted in her sarcastic reference to menstruation which is accompanied by the action of plugging herself into the net.

This scene also highlights the power/vulnerability contrast, her physical prowess and fearlessness are showcased in her leap from the building however, the fact that the viewer is unaware of her intentions or that she is connected to a cable (as well as the fact that she is naked) means that the reaction to the fall is one of unease, privileging the vulnerability of the body.

Identity Crisis: the second fall.

Kusanagi’s second fall occurs immediately following a scene in which she and Bateau observe an interview with one of the Puppet Masters victims, a distraught man whose memories have been erased and replaced with false ones.

Kusanagi seems unmoved by this, however, the next scene shows her risking death (her cyborg body relies on technology to float) by diving in a harbour. As she surfaces, Bateau scolds her for her recklessness and asks what she sees in the depths of the water.

She responds not with a series of facts but with emotions “fear, anxiety….maybe even hope”.

Kusanagi seems to be searching for some fuller image of herself in the water, one that goes beyond her lonely individuality. The scene suggests themes of birth and rebirth as the water, like the liquid of the scene in which we see her being constructed, functions as an organic womb.

Merging: the final fall.

The third and final fall is a metaphorical “dive” into the mind of the Puppet Master, who she has finally located in temporary possession of another female cyborg body. By this point in the film, both Kusanagi and the Puppet Masters host body have been torn apart in a climactic scene of mecha on mecha combat.

Their armless upper torsos and heads are all that remain, and placed side by side they resemble the armless mannequins from the department store window.

Kusanagi “dives” into the puppet Masters mind, and he takes over her voice, speaking through her in a male voice (blurring the boundaries between gender) and asking her to fuse with him in a world beyond the body.

There are several elements of this scene that highlight notions of boundary transgression.

Firstly, the dive itself and the Puppet Masters appropriation of Kusanagi’s vocal chords is disconcerting as for the first time her body is shown as permeable.

After the dive, we see a point of view shot through the eyes of the puppet master, this shot promotes a kind of double identification.

The viewer is identifying with Kusanagi who is now identifying with the Puppet Master, seeing the world through his eyes. Kusanagi’s fall or dive has allowed her to finally leave her body.

Ascension: a complete transformation.

The film ends with another boundary transgression as Kusanagi appears in a new body, signifying her change in identity. She and the Puppet Master have now merged into one entity.

The final scene echoes the opening scene as again we see Kusanagi at the top of a building, looking down at the city below. This time, however, she does not fall, but simply stands and asks herself “where do I go from here”.

The final line of the film is Kusanagi’s assertion to herself that “the net is vast and infinite”. The scene ends on a transcendent note as she looks up to the sky in a final embrace of the technological world.

Kusanagi’s transformation is finally complete and her identity quest is over.

Phoebe Hodgkinson-meadows

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