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Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese media franchise, I guess it can be called, that began with a manga and has since become several anime movies and at least two anime TV series. Thus far I have seen the two seasons of the first TV series, first aired in 2002–3 and 2004–5. There is going to be an American live-action movie of Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlett Johansson as the Major, the film’s one important female character, a kick-ass woman with an entirely prosthetic body. I am not entirely happy about this movie. I figure what’s charming and interesting about the anime will be swallowed into a bloated Hollywood action flick. In addition, they are transforming a Japanese series, set in Japan with Japanese characters, into a film populated with white people, set probably in the US.

I discovered the TV series when a friend loaned me the first season on DVD. I loved it and watched the second season on YouTube. I then bought DVDs of both seasons. What follows is an attempt to introduce you to a lovely show. This won’t be easy, because Ghost in the Shell is complicated.

The series is set in 2030, after a Fourth World War, which has left Tokyo badly damaged and mostly abandoned, inhabited (apparently) only by refugees, many of them from China. The Chinese were allowed in after the war because Japan was short of labor. Now, most of the Japanese want them gone. The Japanese capital has moved to a new city, Niihama, which does not yet exist.

The world we see is much like ours today. The cars look like our cars. The cities are more futuristic, but not by much. The real change is cybernetics. Most people have at least some cybernetic enhancements in their brains. Many people are cyborgs, and some people are entirely prosthetic. In addition, there are robots, some of which look human. My favorite robots are the tachikomas, which look like giant, bright-blue insects and talk in high-pitched, girlish voices. They are “think tanks,” war machines that may be true AIs. While they speak in their squeaky, girlish voices, they also fire off rockets.

So, a world much like ours, except the line between machine and human is very unclear. The “ghost” in the title is one’s soul or spirit. In theory, machines don’t have ghosts, though cyborgs do. One of the questions the series asks is what is a human being? Do the utterly adorable tachikomas have souls?

In addition to robots and cyborgs, this world has a shared cybernetic space. Thanks to their enhancements, the characters can talk mind to mind, and they can dive into the Internet, a place of brightly colored, geometric patterns. When we watched this, my friend Patrick said, “This is what William Gibson imagined.”

The heroes in Ghost in the Shell are a team of super cops: Section Nine. Most are cyborgs. The Major, the leader of the team, had a terrible accident as a child, and her brain was moved into a totally artificial body. Instead of growing up, she apparently got new bodies periodically. She has a ghost and is human, though it isn’t clear how human.

War shadows the show’s Japan. Tokyo, as mentioned before, is a ruin, inhabited by refugees from the Fourth World War. Most of the members of Section Nine are ex-soldiers, with some pretty dreadful memories. There is a peace monument on Okinawa that’s important in one of the episodes. (I checked. There is an actual peace monument on Okinawa, but it’s for the Second World War, not the Fourth World War.) Another episode is about an American soldier, who has turned into a serial killer as a result of his actions during the war. In the story that occupies most of the second season, a department of the Japanese government decides to take care of the refugee problem by having the US Navy lob a nuclear missile into Tokyo. This must resonate for Japanese viewers.

The relationship between Japan and China is fraught, as it is in the real world. The Second World War (in Asia, at least) began with the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. There is a lot of bad history there. Killing Chinese refugees with an American nuclear bomb feels to me like the combination of Hiroshima and the Rape of Nanking.

My sense is that two wars shadow the TV series: World War Four, fictional thus far, and the very real World War Two.

The other shadow over the world is corruption. As far as we can tell, all the world’s governments are corrupt. Certainly the ones we see—Japan, Great Britain, the American Empire—are corkscrew crooked. The CIA shows up in several episodes and is vile. Corporations are no better than the governments. In addition, there are some perfectly ordinary gangsters and terrorists, who seem—for the most part—less awful than the governments. 

Section Nine works for the Japanese government, but they are like Raymond Chandler’s idea of a private eye: he is the honest man in a dishonest society, the person who walks down the dark streets like a knight on a quest. Much of the time, our heroes are fighting their own employer, uncovering corruption and nailing crooked officials.

The reference to Chandler is not accidental. Ghost in the Shell has the feeling of American noir crime novels and movies. I don’t know where the noir comes from. The writers could have gotten it from cyberpunk, which is very noir, or from Akira Kurasawa’s samurai movies. According to Kurasawa, Yojimbo was influenced by The Glass Key, a movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s noir novel.

Cyberpunk and noir are very familiar to Americans, so these aspects of the show are easily understandable. I don’t have trouble with the questions, “What is it to be human? What is it to have a soul?” Those are questions American SF writers have often asked. Are robots human? What about aliens?

But there are other aspects I don’t really get. I don’t understand the first season’s “stand alone complex,” which (as far as I can figure out) is the phenomenon of copycat crimes, though apparently without an original crime. I also don’t understand the terrorists in the second season, the “eleven individuals.” Both story lines seem to be talking about the relationship of individuals to the group. Both seem to be asking, “What is an individual? How can one be an individual in a corporate society?” But I’m not sure.

I also don’t understand the importance of J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye or of the American Marxist cultural critic Frederick Jameson. Why are these referred to so often? What I really want is a scholarly academic analysis of Ghost in the Shell, full of quotes and footnotes.

The appeal of the show is not its complexity, though that is interesting. It’s the action, the settings, the neat characters, the humor, the tachikomas. Imagine bright-blue, insect-like tanks with little girl voices and emerging personalities. 

Imagine a heroine—the Major—who has spent most of her life in a prosthetic body.

There are two male heroes. One is Togusa, who is almost entirely human, except for a few brain enhancements, and who has a wife and children and an ordinary life, unlike the rest of Section Nine. The other is Botou, who is a cyborg and a tough ex-soldier. According to Wikipedia, he is based on Steven Seagal’s character in American action flicks. The most human things about Botou are his smart-ass sense of humor, his love of his vintage car and the tachikomas (especially the one tachikoma he considers “his”), and his obvious affection for the Major. This is a man who expresses his humanity through his love of machines.

The boss of Section Nine, Aramaki, seems no more enhanced than Togusa and we get hints of his personal life. What we have here is a machine-human continuum, going from the tachikomas through the Major and the rest of Section Nine and ending with Togusa and Arimaki. Specific episodes give us other characters on the continuum: androids who appear human, but apparently are not, a dying man who has his brain transferred into a war machine. . . .

The show is a mixture of cyberpunk, noir, and Asimov’s robot stories, while remaining (to my mind) completely Japanese. I don’t want to emphasize an American influence too much. Popular culture is international. Pacific Rim is a Hollywood movie about characters from Japanese pop culture (kaiju and robots), directed by a Mexican director. Kurasawa’s samurai movies influenced Hollywood and Italian westerns decades ago.

In any case, I urge you to get Ghost in the Shell from Netflix, especially the two seasons of the first TV show. It is a lot of fun. Then, if you want, you can see the Hollywood live-action version.

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
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