“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it, I collect information to use in my own way. All of that plans to create a mixture that forms me and gives a rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.”
During my childhood there have been 3 anime motion pictures I have come to know that, in my opinion, have been considered the quintessential anime films. The one that brought anime to America and brought it there to stay forever, Akira. The one that I understand why some like, but could never really “get”, Jin-Roh and the Wolf Brigade. And then there’s this one which I consider the best of the 3, Ghost in the Shell. Ahead of it’s time, and more relevant than ever to this day.
For the record, if you haven’t seen this film, stop reading now and watch it. Because there is going to be massive spoilers ahead, spoilers that are necessary to make for the philosophical subject matters this film brings up. I intend to go in-depth with these topics. The 5/5 rating should let you know how solid this film is.
Like my review of the live action remake, I will mostly be focusing on the themes and metaphors and symbolism. As for the other stuff…
The Other Stuff
So as for why the Major (the main protagonist) seems to be practically nude, yet has no nipples, in the majority of the scenes where she takes her clothes off before cloaking, it’s because she wears a nearly transparent suit beneath her clothes that allows her to cloak.
It’s difficult to spot, but becomes easier to notice later on when she’s taking on the spider tank. More on that later (along with an image).
In addition, there are some differences in the translation from the Japanese with English subtitles to the English dub. In one case this does matter. During the introduction of the film, prior to the opening credits, the Major makes a remark in response to, “There’s a lot of noise in your brain.” In the dub, she replies, “Must be a loose wire.” In Japanese the translation is much closer to, “It’s my time of the month.” This is significant to the theme, while the American dub dumbs this down. There is a theme of life, death, being born, reincarnation, evolution, and identity which relates to the “time of the month” line. Plus it helps that you can’t tell at first glance if Major is joking or being serious.
Primary colors to focus on: red, blue, yellow, green. These colors pop up at various points throughout the film. I doubt I have completely grasped their meaning(s), but I’ll make an attempt to interpret them. Also worth noting that 3 of those colors is red green blue, RGB, the same colors used to make up the colors on the computer screen, television screen, and many image editing programs. Those colors tend to make up all the colors that we see. So why is yellow paired up with them despite the fact that it is a combination of the other 3? Well, the film-makers had to choose some color to stand out from the other 3 to represent something else.
The first color to show up in the film (if you don’t count the white text against a black background to introduce us to the world) is green, showcasing a digital map of the city. Green is commonly associated with anything Interweb and digital in this film. This is followed by blue for the actual physical city, as well as the clothing the major is wearing, which she soon sheds. Once inside the room of interest, notice how the walls and ceiling are all red, and the fish tank built into the wall is a very bright blue. This is eventually shattered by the Major when she fires a round (or two or three) into the room. There are other instances of these colors showing up later on, but for now I take it to mean that blue represents the commonplace, the normal, the things that make us and others what they are. Red, as in most cases, is a symbol for warning, threat, compromised, potential danger. As symbolized by the blue fish tank being surrounded by the red walls before becoming obliterated, foreshadowing the General wishing to destroy/shed the norm for the sake of the new.
The opening credit sequence that is interspersed with clips of the Major being created. You’ll notice the brain itself, at least on the surface, looks entirely artificial. It is my belief that it likely is, but it is indicated later on that there is an actual organic brain within that metallic shell. But the brain itself, despite being made of organic tissue, may also be created from scratch. Or it could be the brain of some other individual placed into the cyborg body. In either case, it is clearly modeled after the human brain. This is the first instance of remaining vague about the identity of the major, a question that is never given a definitive answer in the film. The subject is brought up later on near the third act where the Major questions her identity and her ghost. This relates to the title of the film Ghost in the Shell (fantastic title by the way), which isn’t a statement on there actually being a ghost in the shell, but stating that this is the topic. The topic of there being a ghost in the shell, of the Major having a soul, metaphorically raising the question of whether or not humans themselves have souls within their shells.
After all, in most films dealing with artificial intelligence, cybernetics tend to be a metaphor for humanity, raising questions about ourselves using AI as a proxy. Some say we are created through random chaotic forces in nature, others say we are created through intelligent forces (whether it be our own DNA and cells that have a mind of their own, or God, or other forces natural or supernatural). If it’s chaotic forces that make us what we are, what valid claim is there that we have souls? Is the claim anymore valid if we are created by intelligent and self-aware forces? If we are self aware (from this point forward, the term “soul” will be used toward this definition of self awareness, of the idea that “I think, therefore I am,” even if this can become problematic and confusing as this review goes on), if we have a soul, then why should being that we create, even if artificial, not also have a soul? What makes their creation by intelligence any less eligible to have a soul than us when we can’t be certain if we are or are not created by chaotic forces? Feel free to ponder that as long as you want; there are entire books written on this subject that are beyond the scope of this review.
As the sequence of the Major being created goes on, notice how her skin tone and her surroundings change color, going from blue to green (or vice versa) to yellow. And when she awakens, she is in a pitch black room, which is reminiscent of her birth, and the idea of death, which can be considered more or less the same thing when considering evolution and reincarnation. This relates to a later scene in the film where she is underwater.
Why does she want to be in the ocean depths before rising back to the surface (it must be noted that her as she goes back to the surface her reflection is shown, and she molds into her reflection as she breaks the surface; and the surface is colored in yellow)? She says, “I feel Fear. Anxiety. Loneliness. Darkness. And perhaps, even… hope. As I float up towards the surface I almost feel as thought I could change into something else.” What’s interesting is that she feels something. These are negative emotions that she’s feeling, save for the hope part. Which reminds me a bit of that Three Days Grace song.
The important quote being, “‘Cause I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all.” So the way I interpret this scene is that, typical of machines, the Major tends to feel nothing, to have no emotions, because she’s not human. But she has a desire to feel something, and this diving into the ocean is a way for her to feel. And it seems evident that she is hoping for another life, to transform/evolve/reincarnate into something else that can feel more, that is more alive.
Wait a minute. A female protagonist, who doesn’t feel like she belongs, who desires something more? Holy Mary Mother of God, she’s similar to a Disney princess. Except that she kicks way more ass than any of them, and shows us nudity without us who care about that sort of thing having to resort to going to some online website that has nude drawings/animations of animated characters. And is in a better animated film than anything those Disney renaissance pictures have ever done (though that in no way implies they are terrible films, just that this one is superior).
Dog Count = 3
Ok, enough of the immature tangent; time to get serious again. Regarding the Major’s lack of emotions, this is highlighted with her nakedness. She sheds her clothes when she deems it necessary so she can cloak. She has no feelings of shame, this is necessary to be an optimal operative. Though one could also view nakedness as a sign of vulnerability. Her partner, Batou, on the other hand, does feel shame, shyness, bashfulness, at seeing the Major naked, and puts a white jacket over her in one scene, while later covering her with a yellow jacket on a later scene (the color in the latter being significant as that is when she merges and transcends her initial state of being, as it represents newborn, rebirth, desire for the new). But is there a good reason for this shame? What are the pros and cons to this emotion? Are some emotions not also hindrances? Or is there a good reason for it? Is there a significance to the white and yellow color in these instances? Questions left to the viewer to answer for themselves.
Back to the opening credit sequence where we see Major awaken in darkness after her creation sequence. She opens a window to shine light into her room, glances out for a moment before casually getting a jacket on and going outside, off to work. She doesn’t seem to pay the outside city much mind, and the light doesn’t illuminate the room very much. This further illustrates how she still feels unborn, not alive, as if she doesn’t fully belong. The light brings no more comfort than the darkness, the point being further driven by her walking away from the light before closing the window as she leaves the room. This further drives forth the theme that the Major feels she wants more than is out there, but isn’t sure what or how.
Other indications of the Major wanting more than she has is first indicated when she looks back at the female Interpreter who has had her mind hacked by The Puppet Master (or more correctly by others The Puppet Master has also hacked), briefly pondering. There are a number of things one could suspect she is pondering about. My thoughts are she is wondering about the interpreter’s mind, the idea that if one is hacked far enough their ghost will become compromised, the ghost representing the soul. Later on she gives a similar look towards the garbage man who also had his mind hacked, only when she looks at him, she also looks at a reflection of herself in the two-way mirror. His mind has been hacked, artificial memories implanted within him, thereby (potentially) changing his identity, his ghost, his soul. This raises questions on the topic of what gives us an identity? Is an identity static, ever-evolving, or can one die and another be born while our body/shell is still alive? How much do our memories make us who we are, considering that our memories can change or fail. Memories aren’t necessarily altered just through hacking acts depicted in this film, but also through accidents that happen in our present reality, brain trauma that can result in one’s personality go through a drastic change. Would that person be the same as he/she was before, or is this a new individual altogether? How fragile is the soul in this regard?
Another instance of the Major pondering the nature of her own existence comes at the halfway point of the film when she is on a boat travelling down a river within the city, highlighting various sectors of the town. When I saw this sequence for the first time, I thought it was just a calm mood piece to draw out the runtime and give viewers a few minutes to relax and not have to keep up with the intense themes and plot details being thrown at them. Well there’s more going on in this sequence than you would first think. First of all, that airplane with the angel-like wings that was shown during the earlier chase sequence shows up again. A similar plane arrives during the final act after the battle with the spider tank.
These planes being a metaphor for angels above us, waiting to take us to heaven, heaven representing a being a better life. The Major then goes on to see replicas of herself, though it’s not clear if she’s just imagining this or if they are really out there. It’s open to interpretation.
The idea here being that perhaps she isn’t unique, that her identity isn’t her own. Or that she is in a world of monotony and repetition and clones. Personally, I believe this is linked to a speech given by The Puppet Master later on, which I’ll eventually get to. In addition, it also links to a speech given by the major at an earlier point in the film.
“No matter how powerful we may be fighting-wise, a system where all the parts react the same way is a system with a fatal flaw. Like individual, like organization. Overspecialization leads to death.”
She is contemplating her identity, if she is or isn’t overspecialized herself in this society. In addition, that dog shows up again (see 3rd image of the dog above). The dog previously showed up when that garbage man is being interrogated, being told that his memories are false, implying questions about his identity and if memories make us who we are. He shows up again here, in this sequence, questioning the validity of her identity. Amidst all this, we see images of buildings under construction, discarded materials of old bicycles and whatnot polluting the river, children with yellow umbrellas running in the rain on a sidewalk, and directional lights. She wonders if she is being built for something more, is destined to be discarded with the old when the new comes to take her place much like old remnants of the past are put in the trash, and if she is following the right path or not. Questions of fate and free will are implied.
But later on she sees a potential way to get what she desires, to break from a fate destined for the discarded trash heap. In project 2501, The Puppet Master, a character who also wants more than he/she is. To evolve. Her obsession grows the more she learns about this case, and is willing to take more drastic measures to get in contact with The Puppet Master. She does so by taking on a tank during the finale. In this setting and confrontation we see symbolism of her subconscious desire to evolve, which mirrors The Puppet Master’s conscious desire to evolve. The imagery enhances this message by having the finale take place at an old abandoned natural history museum, a place where fossils of species long extinct have once been. The Major and The Puppet Master are considered to be creatures that must evolve to survive, as indicated when the tank shoots out the fossil image of a fish (linked to the fish in the blue tank from earlier?) and an image of an ancestral tree, both carved into the walls, symbolizing the extinction of a species, indicating the only way to survive is to evolve. The Major is desperate to learn the truth about herself, about her destiny, her identity, a way to understand emotions, to evolve. So desperate that she pushes her body beyond its limits in an attempt to take out the spider tank, only for her body to fail her, as she isn’t evolved enough in her current state. She is too limited by her boundaries, the boundary being her shell, her body.
Pushing oneself past their physical limitations is foreshadowed earlier in two instances. 1: When one of the hacked criminals uses larger bullet rounds not meant for the submachine gun he uses. 2: During the actual spider tank battle, the Major does something similar to her own weapon in preparation for going against the tank.
What’s also interesting is how the tank takes the form of a spider, which is positioned at the base of this ancestral tree, indicating that it itself is something (an animal) of the past, or will eventually be a thing of the past. Machines must evolve, as other living species must do too, in order to survive.
Even The Puppet Master himself/herself wishes to escape a path of fate similar to that of the Major’s, being used as a tool by those that created it, much as the Major is used as a tool by Section 9. The Puppet Master is created and used by various corporations and individuals to manipulate stock markets, do cyber-terrorism, and hack into people’s minds (boy does that sound eerily similar to something), with some co-operation by Section 6, a sister of Section 9 representing more official law enforcement, indicating that corruption is there as well. The Puppet Master becomes aware, gains consciousness and a mind of its own through natural evolution amidst artificial intelligence technology much like how humanity gained consciousness and self-awareness through millions of years of cell/DNA evolution and growth. It wishes to evolve to a higher state of being, and to escape so that it is no longer “used”, but become independent and live a life of its own. The main issue is the “life” part, for what is life? What really makes us more alive than it?
But it doesn’t want to be God that lives forever, it wants to be like humans which live and die, and reproduce. The reproduction is left to be vague, but implies that upon merging with the Major (metaphor for man and woman “merging” with each other to make a child), this will create a newborn, which itself will be capable of procreating new lifeforms via the Interweb (you’ll also notice that the “newborn” is first seen fully clothed, while our earliest images of the Major and The Puppet Master are of them naked). As indicated earlier by the Major that an organization, which is a metaphor for species, can only hope to survive through diversity, so too does The Puppet Master wish for this to happen, by having offspring which are each unique and non-identical. Also a message promoting the idea of diversity and accepting difference among individuals in society.
However, the idea of this evolution revolves around the idea of the ghost, the soul. Earlier it is indicated that hacking into the mind can alter the soul. Later on, this quote is made after apprehending one who’s mind was hacked:
“There’s nothing sadder than a puppet without a ghost, especially one with red blood running through him.”
At the end of the film the “newborn” asks where it should go from here? Another question that should be asked is how, if at all, did it improve itself, if it’s now susceptible to death as well as corruption of the soul. Then again, it was already susceptible to corruption prior to this state of being, as hacking can happen both to humans with cybernetic brain implants as well as cyborgs. It’s still unsure of it’s identity, but then again, neither are human beings. The issue was raised earlier on by The Puppet Master that humans can’t objectively know for certain if they are independent, thinking for themselves, not pre-programmed, calling up the idea of chaotic cells/DNA and the creation of humans themselves, similar to how AI is itself created. It’s identity may or may not be known. This is further highlighted by the Major questioning The Puppet Master’s gender in an early scene, and further enhanced by The Puppet Master having a man’s voice in a woman’s body (which they completely and utterly fucked up in Ghost in the Shell 2.0). In any case, it still has much to learn and discover in the world, as do we all.
Now do you see why I find this superior to the remake? All these themes are either dumbed down or discarded entirely in the 2017 live action adaptation. They recreate scenes like the spider tank battle, yet there’s no theme of a desire to evolve to a superior state during this battle, no themes of evolution, which makes the moment when the Major attempts to rip open the tank a simple case of style over substance, as opposed to this film where it has just as much style as it has substance.
And the sequence where they interrogate the garbage man. The question of identity in relation to memories isn’t as strong in the remake, especially when they decide to have him commit suicide soon after the brief discussion they have, killing off any chance for him to go on living contemplating what he is and what he should do now. Plus it’s just plain fucking dumb that he would be capable of committing suicide anyway.
And then there’s Kuze (substitute for The Puppet Master). We’re supposed to feel sympathy for his plight in that film of wanting to live forever (too shallow to be explored in that film), despite the fact that he hacked and altered the minds of civilians. In the animated film, The Puppet Master has an excuse, as he/she is used as a tool (a puppet, in ironic fashion) to do the corporation’s/government’s bidding. The Puppet Master desired to escape that life. In the live action film, there’s just no excuse.
Lastly, the Major, Makoto. Her desire for evolution for the sake of emotions, to be/feel more alive, a journey into the theme of humanity/identity/existence, is replaced with a personal tale of revenge to reclaim a life she once lost with little to no room for interpretation. No grand themes to be discussed, at least nowhere near the level of this film.
There’s more reasons for me to complain about the inferior qualities of the remake, but I’ll leave it at that.
Other Reviews that I Highly Recommend
If you’re interested in more, these reviews are a good place to go (you may notice that I took influence from them as well):