The Philosophy, Storytelling & Visual Creativity of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Anime Film, Explained in Video Essays

Ghost in the Shell is not in any sense an ani­mat­ed film for chil­dren,” wrote Roger Ebert twen­ty years ago. “Filled with sex, vio­lence and nudi­ty (although all rather styl­ized), it’s anoth­er exam­ple of ani­me, ani­ma­tion from Japan aimed at adults.” Now, when no crit­ic any longer needs to explain the term ani­me to West­ern read­ers, we look back on Ghost in the Shell (1995) as one of the true mas­ter­pieces among Japan­ese ani­mat­ed fea­ture films, mature not just in its con­tent but in its form. Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, takes a look at how it express­es its philo­soph­i­cal themes through its still-strik­ing cyber­punk set­ting in his video essay “Iden­ti­ty in Space.”

Puschak first high­lights the pres­ence (in the mid­dle of this “sci-fi action thriller” about the hunt for a want­ed hack­er turned self-aware arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence) of an action-free inter­lude: a “three minute and twen­ty-ish sec­ond-long scene” con­sist­ing of noth­ing but “34 gor­geous, exquis­ite­ly detailed atmos­pher­ic shots of a future city in Japan that’s mod­eled after Hong Kong.”

Its plot-sus­pend­ing visu­al explo­ration of the film’s Blade Run­ner-esque urban space of “a chaot­ic mul­ti­cul­tur­al future city dom­i­nat­ed by the inter­sec­tions of old and new struc­tures, con­nect­ed by roads, canals, and tech­nol­o­gy,” empha­sizes that “spaces, like iden­ti­ties, are con­struct­ed. Though space often feels neu­tral or giv­en, like we could move any­where with­in it, our move­ments, our activ­i­ties, our life, is always lim­it­ed by the way space is pro­duced.”

Just as all of Ghost in the Shell’s char­ac­ters exist in space, the main ones also exist in cyber­net­ic bod­ies, regard­ing their iden­ti­ties as stored in their effec­tive­ly trans­plantable brains all con­nect­ed over a vast infor­ma­tion net­work. The half-hour-long analy­sis from Ani­meEv­ery­day just above gets into the philo­soph­i­cal dilem­ma this presents to the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, the cyborg police offi­cer Motoko Kusana­gi, exam­in­ing in depth sev­er­al of the scenes that — through dia­logue, imagery, sym­bol­ism, or sub­tle com­bi­na­tions of the three that view­ers might not catch the first time around — illu­mi­nate the sto­ry’s cen­tral ques­tions about the nature of man, the nature of machine, and the nature of what emerges when the two inter­sect.

Film Her­ald’s briefer expla­na­tion of Ghost in the Shell (which con­tains poten­tial­ly NSFW images) points to three main themes: iden­ti­ty, Carte­sian dual­ism, and evo­lu­tion, all con­cepts that come into ques­tion — or at least demand a thor­ough revi­sion — when the bound­ary between the nat­ur­al and the syn­thet­ic blurs to the film’s imag­ined extent. “My intu­ition told me that this sto­ry about a futur­is­tic world car­ried an imme­di­ate mes­sage for our present world,” said direc­tor Mamoru Oshii, and now, more than two decades lat­er, Hol­ly­wood has even got around to remak­ing it in a live-action ver­sion star­ring Scar­lett Johans­son in the Kusana­gi role. That does pro­vides a chance to update some of the now-dat­ed-look­ing tech­nol­o­gy seen in the ani­mat­ed orig­i­nal, but there’s no improv­ing on its artistry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Blade Run­ner Spoofed in Three Japan­ese Com­mer­cials (and Gen­er­al­ly Loved in Japan)

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.