From the 2017 live-action remake trailer itself, I already knew there were two major narrative alterations to the original 1995 Original Video Animation (OVA) that I didn’t like and didn’t agree with. Watching the film only confirmed my suspicions that these were poor changes to make.
For the purposes of this entry, I will refer to the 1995 OVA as Ghost (1995) and the recent remake as Shell (2017) cuz that’s how i feels about them >_<
Existential Crisis in Ghost (1995)
In Ghost (1995), having android parts was more or less status quo. There was no evil corporation out to exploit their human customers. This streamlined the animation’s philosophical enquiry into the nature and value of human existence. It allowed the film to create multiple characters that functioned as clear foils to one another, with each character adding more and more focus to the central question of what is a “ghost.”
There are the side characters with token android enhancements like the super speed typing android fingers, or Batou’s electronic eyes. These characters represented the norm. Then, there were the two extremes – Togusa who was transferred into Section 9 because he is mostly human, and Major Motoko Kusanagi who is all android, except for her human brain. In a poignant exchange between Togusa and Kusanagi, the film weaves in an explanation of how these characters are meant to function as counterpoint to one another (without sounding like heavy-handed exposition):
Togusa: … There’s something I’ve wanted to ask ever since I’ve started. Why did you transfer a guy like me from the Police Force?
Major: Because we need a guy like you… except for a slight brain augmentation, your body is almost completely human. If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable. And there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple. Over-specialise and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.
Togusa, thus, is the human element – random, creative, supposedly not overspecialized the way the other members of Section 9 are. Much like the random mutation in a genetic code, he is generative of new potential, he introduces diversity/diversification. And to be sure, this film is about the evolution of humanity, from man to android. Togusa’s role in the thematic scheme of things is reinforced by how he is the one to spot that Section 6 has been infiltrated by someone wearing thermoptic camouflage. Unfortunately, in the live-action remake, Togusa plays a much reduced role.
So, together, these three categories of characters places the human experience in this fictional world along a spectrum and implicitly asks audiences to consider what constitutes humanness. This line of questioning is mostly carried by the main character, Major Kusanagi who struggles with her identity .
If we have an android limb or android organ like a liver that can help us breakdown alcohol faster, are we still human? Most people would say, yes. But in the case of Kusanagi who only has a human brain, is she still human? If you say, yes, what does that say about the way we value the brain – repository of memory and experience – as the locus of identity? Is humanness found in the brain/mind or the body? If you no longer look like you, are you still the same person? The Ghost in the Shell manga, actually has Batou sourcing for a male android body to store Kusanagi’s mind in; at the end of the OVA, Major’s mind is transferred into a child android body since her original body is completely destroyed.
The film also asks if having a completely android body, changes the brain/mind and makes a person less human? Consider the end of the film when Kusanagi rips up and destroys her own body trying to disable the spider tank. The lack of self-preservation instinct, the willing and careless destruction of the body, is something most humans cannot fathom, but is something Kusanagi with her android body can do despite her human brain. It’s an act that screams how unlike a human she has become.
What further complicates the film’s focus on questioning the boundaries of authentic human existence and its value is the introduction of the Puppet Master – a spontaneously occurring Artificial Intelligence. With the appearance of the Puppet Master, the value previously attributed to Togusa gets short-circuited. In the face of a fully sapient, hyper-intelligent being, the value of human identity and human consciousness is undercut. It would seem that all we’re left with is the next step to the evolutionary process, the true hybridization of man and machine. This is represented by Kusanagi’s decision to join the Puppet Master at the end of the OVA.
By joining with the Puppet Master, the text opens up. It becomes generative, it prompts thought experiments, and intelligent guesses about what comes next. What is this larger existence/android consciousness that Kusanagi now gets to experience?
In some sense, I can’t help but feel that Her (2013) is like a spiritual sequel that represents what this other android-consciousness-led world is like. When Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) tells Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is having 8,316 other conversations while she is talking to him and admits to being in love with 641 others, there is an expansiveness to the cybernetic universe she exists in, and a freedom from human taboo because she’s not just involved in polyamory but polyamory on such a massive and inconceivable scale.
Instead, we got the 2017 Live-Action remake. Right off the bat, instead of asking audiences questions and giving audiences an opportunity to work things out on their own, we’re given a hefty chunk of exposition explicitly telling us what a “ghost” (Your mind! Your Consciousness!) is and what a “shell” (Your Android Body!) is.
Instead of a spontaneously spawning AI like the Puppet Master, the villain is the company. So while it’s still a film about Man against the Machine, it’s man against the corporate machine. Unfortunately, by celebrating the human individual, the narrative shuts down the exploration of an alternate state of consciousness – one that is larger and beyond our own. Instead we sink back to a human consciousness that occludes all other possibilities. This is selfish and restrictive.
And while Shell (2017) does try valiantly (?) to explore the mind-body split, using race (supposedly) to augment the discussion of identity by suggesting a post-racial future, this narrative thread only fed the flames of the film’s white-washing controversy.
So, spoiler alert, but the trajectory of Major’s search for her identity, leads her to discover that she’s been Motoko Kusanagi all along! A Japanese woman’s brain trapped in a white woman’s body! And don’t let me get started on the gravestone they gave her……….. ergh. So ugly. Tolong arh, more effort, can or not?!
The thing that struck me the most about this film is how the trajectory of her search takes her into the past instead of the future. This closes off the text, takes away the generative potential of the original narrative, and ultimately makes for some very regressive story-telling.
I understand that the film tried to do with race what the original did with gender, which is to turn it into a lyrical mode of expression, and a means by which to explore the subject matter. However, in order for race to have been used more successfully, it would have to have been seeded much earlier, and with greater frequency throughout the text.
This leads me to the other thing I didn’t like about the remake – the way the took gender out of the equation.
Gender in Ghost (1995)
The female body in Ghost (1995) is more than just the character’s physical form, it is the means by which the subject matter of the OVA is rigorously interrogated:
It is also possible to argue that, rather than making Kusanagi a feminist icon, Oshii is instead using her vulnerable female body and the “feminine” lyrical mode of the film itself to underline the vulnerability of all human beings in a world that is increasingly governed by oppressive and incomprehensible outside forces.
- Susan J. Napier, “Doll Parts” from Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle
This means the female body and elements associated with the feminine lyrical mode like water to represent the fluidity of the female identity and its potential for hybridization makes Ghost (1995) a film that uses gender as a tool or technique to express ideas about the subject matter.
What’s more impressive is how these ideas are often represented subtly, and non-verbally.
This actually reminds me of my first contact with the film. I was in Secondary 2, and the year was 2000. Back then, Singapore still had Premiere 12 as a channel, and every month there would be Wednesday night movies, all programmed to fit a theme. Ghost in the Shell was one out of 4 animes being shown that month (the others were Spriggan, Wolf’s Rain, and Yu Yu Hakusho).
I remember turning the TV off after the first 5-10min of the OVA after watching Kusanagi disrobe to activate her thermoptic camouflage. I immediately thought it was one of those exploitative OVAs that fit the stigma that anime had that all of it was hentai in some way.
Looking back now, that reaction wasn’t so far off from the truth. It is uncomfortable watching the nude female form on broadcast TV. It is awkward to get nude-ish to fight. The sense of discomfort and awkwardness comes from the enculturated knowledge that the female form is delicate, vulnerable, kept hidden. Yet the film really plays up its use of the female form. From Kusanagi’s creation sequence to her thermoptics get-up to the final fight in the film where her body is completely torn up.
The dislocation of gender from denotative meanings is represented most acutely by the Puppet Master. As a non-gendered (over-gendered?) AI, he is a male voice issuing from a nude female body. Kusanagi’s own dislocation between mind and body is seen in her lack of embarrassment from being almost nude a lot of the time. This is seen in not just her thermoptic suit but how she undresses in front of Batou and he is the one who is embarrassed.
So for audiences the cognitive dissonance comes in the form of female bodies not behaving like female bodies – Major who is an accomplished fighter, male voices in female bodies, destroyed female bodies.
This cognitive dissonance helps to imbue Kusanagi with a subtle sense of otherness where even her smaller gestures add up to make audiences doubt her humanity despite her human brain.
Kusanagi’s otherness is also reinforced by how attempts to humanize her continuously comes from external sources – namely Batou. In the OVA, his attraction to her, his awareness of her femaleness and his need to clothe her, help to include her as part of the human race. Kusanagi even says at one point:
That’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.
But eventually, her Otherness, her femaleness, her predisposition towards hybridization because she is woman, lead her towards union with the Puppet Master.
All of these subtleties were of course jettisoned in the Live-Action remake because there was no Puppet Master, no AI, just a Japanese boy (Hideo) in a caucasian android body.