Imagine a world where technology is so advanced that people can have a “cyber-brain” that allows them to interact directly with technology, and even contain their consciousness within cybernetic bodies, like a cyborg. That is the world in which Ghost In The Shell (GITS) is set.
While it may be better known in its anime formats (and soon as a Hollywood blockbuster starring Scarlett Johansson, opening in cinemas here on March 30), GITS actually began life as a manga.
Created by Japanese manga creator Masamune Shirow, the manga was first published in Kondansha Publishing’s Young Magazine anthology as “Kokaku Kidotai” (“Mobile Armoured Riot Police”), and ran from April 1989 to November 1990. Shirow later wrote a sequel – Ghost In The Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface – which ran from September 1991 to August 1997.
The manga spawned three feature-length anime movies, Ghost In The Shell (1995), Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence (2004), and Ghost In The Shell: The New Movie (2015); two television series – Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002), Ghost In The Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG (2004); and an original video animation titled Ghost In The Shell: Arise (2014). There were also several hugely popular video games based on the franchise.
So what is it about Ghost In The Shell that made it such a hit?
For one, Shirow’s manga is a brilliant piece of world-building and intelligent storytelling.
GITS is set in a futuristic mid-21st century Japan and revolves around main character Major Motoko Kusanagi and Public Security Section 9, a high-tech counter-cyberterrorist organisation.
The title “Ghost In The Shell” pays homage to Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book about philosophical psychology, The Ghost In The Machine. In GITS-speak, a “ghost” is an individual’s consciousness, or soul; if someone still has a ghost, it means that that particular person still has that which defines him or her as a human being even if, in the case of the Major, it’s just her brain encased inside a cybernetic body – in other words, there’s a “ghost” in her “shell”.
With his manga, Shirow created a world where the differences between man and machine are unclear – humans are enhancing themselves with cybernetics, while robots are fitted with human tissue to make them look more, well, human. The world of GITS is a complicated one, and much of the manga is spent explaining the intricacies of the technology and the jargon he uses. He even includes little footnotes and explanations in between panels to make his thoughts clearer.
The manga’s story revolves around Section 9’s battle against cyber-terrorists and cyber-criminals that exploit the connections between humans and machines. Led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki, the team reports directly to the prime minister of Japan, which gives them a whole lot of leeway to fight these crimes the way they see fit (which can end up quite messy and violent at times).
The team’s main male member is Batou, the Major’s second in command, who will be played by Pilou Asbaek in the movie. The main muscle of the team, Batou’s body has augmented cybernetic prosthetics, and his completely white-coloured prosthetic eyes give him a pretty intimidating appearance. Batou plays a prominent role in the manga, though he more often than not ends up being bullied by the Major. He was the lead character of the second anime movie, Ghost In The Shell: Innocence.
Other members of the team include information specialist Ishikawa, and Togusa, a former police detective who is the rookie of the team and the only one who does not have a single cybernetic enhancement in him (though he does have a cyber-brain).
Oh, and let’s not forget the spider-like, multi-legged “think tanks” (Fuchikoma in the manga, Tachikoma in the anime) that the agents pilot. Equipped with a child-like artificial intelligence, these cute little things (OK, they’re not exactly little, since they are able to fit a full-size human inside them) are as much a part of the team’s dynamic as the human members.
There have been two iconic villains in the GITS franchise so far: The Puppet Master from the manga and anime movie, and the Laughing Man from GITS: SAC. As far as we know, the live-action movie is not going to focus on either, making another character, Kuze, the main antagonist instead (though we wouldn’t rule out the Puppet Master or the Laughing Man being mentioned at some point).
In the original manga, the Puppet Master is a notorious cyber-criminal who commits a large number of crimes by “ghost hacking” humans with cyber-brains, planting false memories in them, and forcing them to do his bidding. The villain turns out to be an artificial intelligence project that was created by Section 6, the Treaty Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but which became sentient and is now contemplating its own existence.
See, told you the story was deep.
Unfortunately, the upcoming Hollywood movie has been plagued by criticism about the “white-washing” of the lead character. While the lead character in the manga and the anime is Major Motoko Kusanagi, Johansson’s character is actually just called “the Major”, so technically, you can’t really say she’s Major Motoko (though it would have been great to see a Japanese actress in the role, she probably wouldn’t have been able to sell more cinema tickets than Johansson).
Even the director of the 1995 anime movie, Mamoru Oshii, has come out to defend Johansson’s casting: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her,” he told online portal IGN.
“Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”
Whether or not you agree with the casting of Johansson as the Major, there’s no denying that the character in the movie, or even the anime, is a far cry from the one in the manga.
Shirow’s original Motoko was a feisty, almost comical character, constantly berating and teasing her compatriots, getting drunk, and early on, even using her cyber-brain to force a politician to punch himself in the face.
Oshii’s animated film focused more on the Major’s search for her true self, and as a result, she was a lot moodier and even contemplative. In the GITS: SAC TV series, she is like a cross between the two: serious and downbeat, but also showing flashes of humour and humanity.
Ghost In The Shell is more than just a science fiction story – it is a masterpiece that contemplates our humanity and the consequences of allowing technology to take over our lives. Ultimately, whether Johansson does the Major justice or not is besides the point. Personally, I feel that as long as the filmmakers get the other-worldly technology and philosophical parts of Shirow’s original stories right, this is one ghost that deserves to be let out of its shell.