Beyond Our Ken

Ghost in the Shell

A megacity and metaphysics, ultraviolence and superhumans; all very memorable, but the most indelible impression made by Ghost in the Shell (1995) is of its restraint. It may seem unearned praise for a film that often delivers its message by having the characters discuss matters of existential inquiry at length, but the film is lean in many other ways precisely to allow the possibility of these dialogues. At 82 minutes total running time, Ghost in the Shell is certainly not bloated. It is a film of big ideas that it runs at head first, not giving a damn if we think it pretentious. It is an exceptional film for its surety of purpose, for how sparingly it doles out the action and spectacle usually associated with its genre, and for the coolly distant tone it maintains even when the action is on screen.

There are no heroes nor unequivocal villains in the film’s world, only opposing groups of extraordinarily competent people directed by shady intra-governmental power brokers. The film at first appears content to cast a cynical eye upon the corporate machinations, realpolitik, and gruesome wetwork of its near-future megacity. But what begins as a procedural cybercrime action/drama soon launches into a far loftier realm, exploring ideas that cannot be dramatised easily in a visual medium and grappling with the tricky representational problem transhumanism poses for cinema and its obsession with the face as the locus of individuality. In Ghost in the Shell’s final act, director Mamoru Oshii employs some interesting tactics for challenging this facial obsession, but before that he must address another problematic aspect of representation that he has inherited from his source material.

The Ghost in the Shell [1] is originally a manga created by Masamune Shirow. An ensemble cast of characters is headed by the female cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, whom her creator pens with an ogling male gaze. She is treated alternately as a decorative object and as a masturbatory fantasy, typical of female characters in seinen manga primarily marketed to adolescent males. In contrast, Oshii’s film adaptation transforms Motoko from sexed-up poppet to serious-minded protagonist. Notably we do not see her smile, joke, or laugh. She is sombre, her beauty chiselled, her gaze eerie. She seems indifferent to her colleague Batou’s gauche affection and though her naked body is depicted repeatedly, she is clearly coded as unobtainable – feminine but not necessarily female, and in any case not existing to pander to male needs and desires.

The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the nudity that was a source of much titillation in the manga, delivering a full frontal reveal within seconds of introducing us to Motoko. This appears to be an intentional provocation of the audience: she may be classically beautiful but her body is rendered as a pale slab of synthetic flesh that we are challenged to find arousing. In lieu of titillation we are offered morbid fascination at the physical specimens on display. The film is eager to demonstrate all the ways humans and cyborgs can be dismantled and otherwise unpacked. Violence done to the body is ferocious and shocking. Depicted in a curiously clinical manner throughout the film, in death the body becomes a dissection study in which every sinew, vein, structure and joint explodes onto the screen for examination.

The ensemble cast of the manga is mostly reduced to bit players whose role is to deliver some plot-relevant detail and then disappear. That reduction in scope creates the space necessary for a presence unique to the film adaptation: Oshii’s version of New Port City – a thinly disguised recreation of Hong Kong. The psychogeography of this setting is so strong that the city constitutes a character in of itself. Allusions to Hong Kong abound: high-rise apartments and dingy concrete back alleys bristling with signage, low flying aircraft that recall the approach to Kai Tak Airport, the safe house perched on a hillside that resembles Victoria Peak. The urban environment as depicted in the film’s midpoint intermission falls into three categories: property, machinery, and people. Motoko looks on and wonders which category she fits into.

When finally she comes face to face with the Puppet Master, the mysterious emergent intelligence that has been cyber-stalking her and with whom she has become obsessed, both he and Motoko lie broken and immobile. With Batou’s help, their brains are wired together so that sensory input and vocal output flow between them. The Puppet Master makes his proposition to Motoko and Oshii begins delicately to separate her personality from her physical manifestation: the Puppet Master speaks by using the vocal centre in Motoko’s body; she engages his visual field and looks at herself using his eyes; he turns her own gaze back onto him/her. So far as cinematic language is concerned, their two identities are already thoroughly intermingled by the time the Puppet Master proposes they merge consciousnesses.

Death rains upon them, but in the denouement we learn that Motoko’s severed head has been salvaged intact. When she wakes from her ordeal she announces to Batou that she is, contrary to appearances, not the person she was before. She may retain her likeness but her soul has not remained constant within. Ghost in the Shell maintains to the end its inimitable tension between an efficient and procedural plot, tersely concluded by Batou, and the indescribable transfiguration that has happened to Motoko. She goes forth to explore the net and we have only the vaguest notion why. She is simply beyond our ken.