Director Mamoru Oshii has a certain apprehension for interviews. The reclusive artist has said that any good artist is a liar, and therefore unreliable in any casual setting; that everything a fan would want to know about him can be learned through his work. But in an uncharacteristic moment during an interview with A.V. Club, way back in 2004, Oshii got candid when talking about his 1995 masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. “People tended to think that ideology or religion were the things that actually changed people,” said Oshii “I think nowadays, technology has been proven to be the thing that’s actually changing people.”
Though it touches everyone, Major Motoko Kusanagi, the top officer in anti-terrorism unit Section 9, undergoes the most profound change because of technology. It’s a transformation that reflects the world of the late 20th century when this film first premiered and maintains its philosophical relevance decades later.
Ghost in the Shell’s title sequence, scored by Kenji Kawai’s new age chant “Making of Cyborg,” shows the manufacturing of Motoko’s current body. This is a process she’s familiar with as she has transferred her cyberbrain between prosthetic shells to match natural maturation. Although this is a routine practice for Motoko, this memory comes to her as a dream. Here Oshii begins his argument, asking the audience to consider whether memory and fantasy–lived experiences and imagined occurrences–bear any difference to the human mind.
The main conflict puts Section 9 against the Puppet Master, a terrorist, and hacker that’s turned a garbage collector into one of his victims. The garbage collector unknowingly assists the Puppet Master in his hacks, which draws the attention of Section 9 and leads to his arrest. During interrogation, the garbage collector is given evidence that his estranged wife and daughter don’t exist. These people exist only as false memories, modified data placed into the garbage collector’s cyberbrain.
While Motoko has to go through the whole film to reach the same transformation, it takes one scene for the garbage collector to reject the possibility that what he remembers to be true isn’t, then accept that the data he consumed through his life has no predetermined value, then turn to technology in hopes of moving beyond the limitations of his mind. This works as a thesis for Ghost in the Shell as a whole.
As the garbage collector comes to the realization that his life as he perceives it is a lie, Motoko looks on with interest, but is yet unable to process his newfound understanding. But Section 9’s heavy hitter and Motoko’s unofficial second-in-command, Batou, understands what’s transpired in the garbage collector’s cyberbrain and can articulate it with clarity.
That’s all it is: information. Even a simulated experience or a dream; simultaneous reality and fantasy. Any way you look at it, all the information that a person accumulates in a lifetime is just a drop in the bucket.
If memory is indistinguishable from manufactured data how can one be deemed more valuable than the other? And if those memories a person holds to be true and immutable, are no more or less authentic than fantasy, what good are they when it comes to informing a person’s identity? Oshii believes that the whole of humanity struggles with these questions in a world of advanced technology, and he uses his protagonist to explore them in a way that attaches some universality to his philosophy.
In a direct rejection of Motoko’s highly sexual and feminine depiction in Masamune Shirow’s original manga and the series and films that followed Oshii, she appears quite androgynous in 1995. Her face seems arranged with features that are neutral, while her physique reflects traditionally feminine and masculine expressions given the situation. Physically she’s a personification of a binary sex construct that meets at the nexus of a man-machine hybrid, as if to say her person–her physical body and internal image–are reflective of the changes the world is experiencing through their continued interaction with technology. The real and simulated within the same shell.
“Ghost City,” Kawai’s second chant, plays while Motoko drifts on a barge through the city. Though this is meant to be Japan in the year 2029, the city she calls home is one that resembles Hong Kong in the early 1990s, just before the British relinquished control of their colonial grip. As she sails through she takes note of changes to her surroundings. The city isn’t quite Japanese nor Chinese. There are shops with English signs to accommodate diverse shoppers. Motoko sees them as she cruises through channels with floating garbage. It’s a city of contradiction, an amalgam of peoples and cultures. All this exists in a calm neutrality that floats by without concern. And all around this calm is the faint impression of continuous construction, reaching high above double-decker buses. Even the more high-end stores sit stories above the streets. The city wants to perfect itself, modernize, but ignore the human trash at its lowest levels.
For a moment in this scene, Motoko notices a woman, just like her, housed in a similar prosthetic body, look down at her from a cafe high above. There is an understanding that not only is Motoko not unique, but that the variables that make her who she is could easily be replicated in an entirely separate being.
This scene also brings back the basset hound that silently haunted the garbage collector’s actual existence. Where he saw his a wife and daughter in a photograph and a happy home life in place of a TV set, there actually was the droopy face of this little brown dog. Seeing it for the final time, just a few frames after Motoko notices her doppelganger, informs the audience that the truth value of her experience sailing by in the city’s channel–indeed all she’s ever experienced–is equal to the sense of comfort the garbage man felt when thinking of his phantom family.
The deliberate hybridity in all things is at the center of Motoko’s identity crisis. In the same moment, she feels secure in who she is as a person but questions the validity of what she knows to be true about herself. Though highly cyberized, Motoko has a past (kept from fans for a time until properly fleshed out in Stand Alone Complex and Arise) and it’s stored in an organic brain sitting inside a titanium case. Like any other person, she has memories to drawn upon and recall the story that is her life.
Memory is foremost in providing the data needed to inform a person who they are, a sort of source code to give shape to their individuality. Motoko is a little further along the coil of experience and recall that shapes humanity, allowing her to question the validity of her memories.
After meeting the Puppet Master for the first time she refers to it as a robot, and it triggers the first true questioning of her identity when speaking with Batou. This follows a scene of Motoko diving in the sea just beyond the city, something that particularly dangerous for her prosthetic body due to the potential for drowning. Her friend sees it as unnecessarily risky and foolish, though she sees it as transformational, as though she were becoming a different entity altogether. It’s a concern that weighs heavily on her.
Motoko: Well, I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.
Batou: You’ve got human brain cells in that titanium shell of yours. You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.
Motoko: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?
Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.
Motoko: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?
To learn that the individual bears no significance in the world that they live in is to trigger an existential crisis, magnifying the insignificant smallness one life has in a world of billions, in an expanding universe with no conceivable end. Cultural considerations aside, there’s a sense of importance connected to having a physical presence, a degree of ownership to the space that a body occupies. To Oshii, this notion has been the subject of debate at each great technological leap in human history, and the development of technology has come closer to rivaling the importance of individuals in physical spaces. The answer to addressing this conundrum, to advance along with a world that works earnestly to leave people behind, is to accept it as new data and apply it to the development of new identities.
When the Puppet Master finally reveals himself it’s revealed that he isn’t a man as everyone refers to him but a rogue program which evolved on its own to become an artificial intelligence. Unlike the common concept of an AI, the Puppet Master organically developed and evolved, another refutation of the absolute properties of nature; like memory, evolution isn’t sacred in the eyes of technology. When interrogated by Aramaki and Nakamura, heads of Section 9 and 6 respectively, the Puppet Master responds to the suggestion that he is just a program trying to avoid deletion by saying:
It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.
Insisting that he is a consciousness as valid as any man is to suggest that Motoko lives in a time of evolutionary change. Much like the meeting of Neanderthals and humans, humans and AIs are set to enter conflict with one another for space in the physical realm. If the two cannot distinguish which is superior (real memory vs simulated experience) the value system that gives individuality its meaning calls into question the sanctity of life itself.
Continuing to reference the Puppet Master as male is intentional on Oshii’s part. Being an AI, the Puppet Master would likely have no need for a gender identity. However, he’s given a deep baritone voice and is confined to a more traditionally feminine shell than Motoko’s, which reflects her own mixing of the masculine and feminine in the same body. The reason for this is easier to pick up for those who speak Japanese. Everyone else would’ve had to look up the lyrics to Kawai’s chants to know that they translate, in part, to “Proposing marriage, the god shall descend.”
Following the visually arresting tank battle in the third act, complete with the artistic destruction of a family tree, Motoko and the Puppet Master are both incapacitated and understand that they are not adversaries but are on the run from government agents looking to bury their program that evolved into an AI. They must rely on each other in order to survive. So the Puppet Master proposes to Motoko that they merge their ghosts and together slip into the net and away to safety. In truth, this is a proposition for sexual reproduction, not at all unlike the interactions between archaic humans that bred new life.
The urgency of the moment is what makes the decision for her, but Motoko still has apprehension. Will she remain the person she is now if she merges with technology further? What guarantee does she have the individual that she is will be given any consideration once they flee into the expanse of data that is the net? Motoko needs to be reassured, to be convinced that she exists and matters as an individual in a world that seems so ready to discard her, just like all humans do.
To this, the Puppet Master, the highest form of life in this film, replies “Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.”
The desire to cling to old forms of thinking and the fractional acknowledgment that there exists a furtherance of what she knows as her humanity is emphatically called into question.
Motoko has continually sought means by which to transcend what defines the humans around her, blurring sexes, uniting flesh and machine, and now she’s given the opportunity to move another step further by adhering to the chant, a wedding song, and lie down with the Puppet Master. And when she does, this high-tech consummation results in a pre-death experience where Motoko sees a godlike figure hover above her before both prosthetic bodies are destroyed by the government agents that pursued them.
Though this new organism that Motoko and the Puppet Master merged into could turn into any form it comes back in the body of a child cyborg. It’s the completion of a life cycle, giving birth to a completely new organism that can begin the human journey again, better equipped to interact with the digital world, collecting the information necessarily to prepare what is now human for the next evolutionary rung.
Oshii refines his philosophy on technology by observing people, how they live in physical spaces, how they allow the stimuli to influence them. The individual seeks to have a life that bears some degree of difference from those around them, a way to claim that they lived, laughed, loved, feared, but most importantly that they were present and their presence had been noted. There is a permanence people want to ascribe to their existence and it can’t be compromised by inauthentic experiences. It must be experienced, recalled. It needs to be real as “real” is defined by every sense they can draw upon to inform them that they stand in a solid reality. Yet people inhabit a world where technology continually redefines what is and isn’t an authentic experience, ultimately changing the value of accurate memory.
People are all the same in both regards, which proposes a paradox that renders the value system used to determine the worth of an individual identity null. Moving forward, Oshii saw a future where the digestion of information by digital means and organic ones collapsing into one another, eventually infiltrating the body and chewing away at the flesh until only machine remains. For Oshii, the future of humanity is robotic, and it is indifferent to those who’d wish otherwise. The only questions he sees for those living in this era is whether to cling to regressive models of humanity or embrace technological change and the boundless possibility that is a new human experience.