Alienation and augmented humanity

Mike Belbin reviews: 'Ghost in the Shell' Rupert Sanders (director), general release

Geisha robot

Does this story sound familiar? A person’s mind, taken from their previous existence, is given a new physique, a body supposedly enhanced. However, their mind is unstable, perhaps suffering some trace of the past or a desire for human connection. At some point, the inventor of this new entity wants to discard their creature as the ‘experiment’ has thrown up something too challenging.

Many readers will probably think of Frankenstein - either the Mary Shelley classic or subsequent Hollywood movies. Others no doubt will come up with more recent ‘new body’ films like Robocop or the android tale Blade runner. There may even be some who suggest that it sounds very much like history, like Britain’s industrial revolution, where the people from one sort of life - on the land - were ‘given’ a new one in the factories and towns of modern capitalism. Maybe some will recognise an analogy with the even earlier days of plantation slavery, when millions were taken from their life in Africa and ‘remade’ in the Americas and Caribbean, becoming that new being: a ‘negro’. All these are quintessentially modern tales of transformed people.

The Ghost in the shell began as a picture-strip series, or ‘manga’, by Masamune Shirow in 1989. This Japanese story told of a dystopian city, where a young woman’s brain - her mind the ‘ghost’ - is placed in a manufactured body, the shell; as this new entity, Major, she joins a state security team called Section 9, combating criminal threats in cyber and material space. Later in 1995 there was an anime (cartoon) film, available under the same title, followed by various sequels and TV series. All the different manifestations displayed both heavy gunplay in grubby cityscapes and reflection on robotics, computers and the human/technology interface. Amongst it all Major and her colleagues chased and faced hackers and subversives with names like Puppet Master and the Laughing Man. Now DreamWorks have released a (mostly) live action film based on the same story world.

So have director Rupert Sanders and his range of Asian, European and even New Zealand collaborators taken a Japanese mythos and reduced it to a crude action movie sub-Robocop?

Ghost is truly in the tradition of Japanese ‘cyborg’ stories as well as western science fiction, where artificial, but by no means totally enhanced, beings find a new consciousness of their situation, claiming their human selves. Yet this particular version, whether it knows it or not, outstrips the rest, managing to allude to all the texts mentioned above, but in a simple, clear-headed, even, poetic way that could stir you to think about just how old this idea of a transformed human is - of just how many kinds of remade, and then redundant, people there have been in our history.

Ghost is a futurian text, not a far-off space-opera like Star trek, but a fiction that projects current trends into possible near-futures. It was once called ‘cyberpunk’, but now could encompass any story, speculation or gesture about where we are going or being taken, socially, politically, technically or even in fashion. For example, recent observations about the way cities are developing in line with the movements of the global business class, from Russian oligarchs and Shanghai investors to Israeli security expertise and western arms hardware for Saudi princes. Futurian discourse can be complacent or critical - the newest app or the latest troll - trans-sexual, post-human or anti-establishment, but also providing sharp comment for those pursuing a more human world with the new technology.

Ghost speculates too on the possible urban landscape. For example, simulations abound, not only Major’s prosthetic body (curiously sexless in its stereotyped bumps and curves), but also in holographic communications, appearing solid before you and then disintegrating like smoke. Nearly every character here has something prosthetic about them: Major’s bear-like buddy, Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbæk), acquires new eyes during the plot and even the scientist-designers have artificial limbs - which might classify them as cyborgs or just mechanism-assisted humans, as with spectacles and hearing aids.

Even a full robot - the geisha-sniper who is dissected after being shot up - has memory banks like an imagination. Scarlett Johansson’s Major mentally travels ‘inside’ it and glimpses degraded images of a night club, which she will later visit in the city’s red-light district. Haunting her own memory is a mental picture of something like a Shinto temple, which later turns out to be a hologram too and a gateway to her actual past. Meanwhile the city roads and side streets she and her comrades move along are overhung with advertising holograms as tall as the towers they nestle between and presenting bland figures enjoying the good life of perfect family and consuming life.

Small and friendly

In his comprehensive book Manga Paul Gravett suggests that Japanese fiction has a different approach to robots and prosthetic humans than the west:

They are conceived as tools and weapons for humans, often youngsters, to drive like a vehicle or operate by remote control, or to wear as suits of armour. Robots in manga who have their own personalities tend to be small and friendly … By and large, the bigger the robot, the less likely it is to be independent or individualised (p57).

Post-1945 Japanese capitalism became famous, of course, for its reliance on new technology as the key to international competition, from compact motorbikes to mini CD players. This followed the Pacific war, when Tokyo scientists conceived of new human-operated fighting machines, which, as the war neared its end, would win the battles against the US flying fortresses. Subsequently, post-war manga and ‘anime’ had an interest in characters part-human/part machine long before the recent internet-inspired notions of the ‘digital human’. Yet compare the British attitude shown in the Daleks from the British TV series Doctor Who, where some alien people’s original soft tissue has long since been reduced inside mini-tanks to hateful mechanicals existing only to ‘exterminate’.

The original manga of Ghost took the concept of the cyborg even further and added computer interface too. On those pages, Major met and melded with her opponent - the Puppet Master - ‘inside’ the data of an extensive PC. DreamWorks’ Ghost does indeed owe much to this difference of approach, but in mixing it with the Frankenstein theme achieves a truly international (check the credits) futurian work that acknowledges both east and west, criticism and possibility.

One unexpected turn in the plot is where - not to be too spoiler precise - the enemy turns out to be the key to where cyborgs similar to Major went: those failed experiments of Hanka Robotics no longer fit for purpose, like brawny steelworkers in the US rust belt.

In fact anyone identified as a ‘terrorist’ in this movie is finally exonerated as closer to the truth and the need for justice than the counter-terrorists. Major is changed from an official ‘weapon’ to a person conscious of her source and almost looks as if she could cross the floor to total opposition. There are, of course, no options other than inside the status quo or its disruption, no movement to join or start. There is an unseen prime minister, who can be appealed to and who sanctions summary justice from Section 9 against the one ‘corrupt’ corporation exec. But this climax is so brisk that it is not exactly an example of due process which restores our faith in the state. It is not underlined, but it is the nearest a big-budget film like this has got to being, so to speak, pro-‘terrorist’.

In some internet debate the film has been accused of racism and cowardice in not casting an east Asian as Major. Her other name used in all the previous incarnations, Motoko Kusanagi, does finally emerge here. However, the fact that Major’s current shell is superficially European is a vital part of the story. When she discovers a relative from her previous life, they turn out to be Japanese. There is a moving scene between them. The Section 9 team itself is multicultural and mixed, while the recurrent imagery of the whole movie is that of mixing and trans-whatever (cue visual joke of an apparent woman using a male urinal). Major is initially given the name ‘Mira Killian’ and encased in a white body, but this is the denial of her past by her designers, not just the usual star casting for a film. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson is asked to do more than in some previous roles, playing Major with a range of emotion subtly conveyed by changes in her facial expression (compare Luc Besson’s Lucy).

You could probably keep on finding allusions to previous futurian movies, such as The matrix and various pop videos, as well as Robocop and Blade runner. If you have seen theoriginal 1995 ‘anime’ you will appreciate how this Ghost echoes its design, incorporating high-rise and street-level Hong Kong. Blade runner’s city is also referenced; the difference being that here the occidental/oriental mix is integrated with the themes of simulation and exploitation and not just a series of exotic distractions. Furthermore, the humanism of the DreamWorks company - Major proving herself not “merely a robot” - amounts to something more than a preference for the traditional flesh and family.

Ghost avows that there is nothing wrong with being augmented, but the movie is not afraid to raise the challenge - what do these new creatures serve and are they entitled to the treatment they receive? It would seem thatsuch issues cannot be avoided. Major reconnects with her ‘old life’ not to return to it, but to challenge the masters of her new. By implication the workers and the slaves need not return to the joys of feudalism, but can work out a new relationship to their transformed life.

Do I read too much into a popcorn movie? Or is this a reading based on the text’s very themes of alienation and augmented humanity? Isn’t pointing out such implications and connections what a vanguard is for?