Beyond the Shell

Unlike other art forms such as literature and theater, film provides a medium to not only discuss philosophy, but to visually realize it in order to show how it might play out if it were our reality. The visual medium of anime does not limit the potential of this discussion with its 2D framework, but instead opens the door to craft limitless possibilities. In Ghost in the Shell, this freedom is used to explore the nature of identity in a world melded with high technology.

The series started as a manga by Shirow Masamune, published in 1991. It was then adapted into a movie by Mamoru Oshii in 19951, as well as multiple anime series, the most famous being by Kenji Kamiyama in 2002. This column will focus on Oshii’s highly-praised movie, which is also the basis for the upcoming live-action Hollywood adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson.

Cityscapes of New Port City, the setting for Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell portrays an Asian urban setting, modeled after Hong Kong, where most of humanity is connected through the Net, an expanded form of the internet. It is now commonplace for people to undergo a process called cyberization, where parts of their body are replaced with cybernetic counterparts. Unlike our current state of prosthetic technology, these cybernetic replacements are actually superior to their natural counterparts, making them desirable augmentations. This process can also include portions of their brains, allowing people to connect to the Net directly. Technology has reached the point where it is embraced in even the most intimate of human spaces, the mind. Information is transformed from organic signals to digital ones, and artificial intelligence blurs the line between automatons and human beings.

Fully cyberized individuals maintain that their residual selfawareness, known as a ghost, is the one thing that separates them from a fully mechanized robot. Multiple people fall victim to “ghost hacking,” in which their memories in the cyberized sections are overwritten like pieces of data, leading them to behave differently due to false memories and preconceptions. This very early on introduces us to the dangers of cyberization, namely manipulation and corruption of one’s most private space. As humans our memory is already subject to loss through decay, but the film brings up the question, “Do we really remain the same person as those bits of information fade away?” While a consciousness is clearly more than the sum of information, how we define ourselves is reliant on that same information, which ultimately shapes our identity as individuals.

A cyber brain being installed (from the introduction)

The main character, Major Makoto Kusanagi, is one such fully-cyberized individual, essentially gaining a completely new body, as shown so dramatically in the movie’s introductory sequence. Throughout the movie, Kusanagi ponders what it means to be human when almost nothing is left of her original body, and everything she perceives is information fed by artificial sensors. Despite all these physical modifications, she dissociates from her body and still identifies as the same individual, when she states, “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. […] All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my consciousness.”

Kusanagi identifies herself based on her nonphysical aspects, namely her thoughts, her memories, and her ghost. However she continues, “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.” While she has transcended the physical capabilities of a human body with her cybernetic enhancements, these same enhancements now trap the very source of her identity within a physical shell of metal and circuits; she becomes the titular Ghost in the Shell.

This title was drawn from the essay by Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine, though while Koestler argues the ghost is a primitive element that dominates higher logical function, Shirow defines the ghost as a more general phenomena of self recognition emerging from systems as complex as the brain.

Makoto Kusanagi and her partner Batou, both fully cyberized

This might lead one to wonder whether a ghost could emerge from an artificial system of sufficient complexity, which is right where the story leads us when a rogue cyborg body is found with no cyberized brain, but still possess evidence of a ghost. Kusanagi surmises that if information can be fabricated to such a degree that a ghost can emerge on its own, how can she be sure her own existence is not artificial as well. She postulates, ”What if a cyber-brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?”

The Puppet Master, now confined to a physical body

Up to this point, even though memories and thoughts could be erased or fabricated, self-recognition endures as something allowing individuals to identify themselves as unique. This rogue ghost generated without need of an original human component identifies itself as “a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.” This sea of information is already emerging in real life, with the copious amount of data kept online through social media and online services. Much like the rudimentary machine learning algorithms to recognize your face in photos, this rogue ghost was born by being tasked to sift through similar data and learn from it. However, this are not to something to fear, as the tools themselves make no moral decision, only the people who wield them.

You might ask how a collective intelligence like the one presented in Ghost in the Shell might claim sentience, but that question is equally difficult to answer when directed at ourselves. Bodies, thoughts, and memories are all subject to change, yet one’s concept of self somehow remains constant. The expression of this self may take on different forms, but simply acknowledging the existence of this self as separate from the previous three aspects is the fundamental component for claiming sentience. Having realized its own sentience, the new lifeform now seeks to fulfill its role by merging with another consciousness, such as a ghost from another cyberbrain, to preserve its essence through diverse offspring across the Net.

This union is the critical event the entire movie has been building toward, starting at the very beginning with the introductory song, which is a wedding song to foreshadow and commemorate the event. Such a decision cannot be made lightly, nor is it fully understood by the audience. However, due to its disassociation with the physical body, this union creates a new merged entity without name or gender, reveling in its newfound freedom with the movie’s closing line, “The Net is truly vast and infinite.”

The closing shot, blending the city lights with the data of the Net

When Ghost in the Shell was made in the early 90s, the Internet was but a fledgling of its current self. Now it encompasses not just people’s lives but also many of the machines we already rely on for daily living. Already many of us are constantly connected through networked devices, and we offload memories and ideas in a small way through posting to social media. As this technology continues to develop and the barrier between man and machine blurs, it will become important to recognize that what makes us individuals is not any one physical feature, but the self-awareness that binds them all together.


1Ghost in the Shell 2.0, directed by Mamoru Oshii (Chicago, Il: Manga Entertainment, 2008), DVD

Ankur Dhar is a third-year PhD student in the Quantum Wave Microscopy Unit, using electron holography to study spin ice. Outside of the lab, he enjoys reading copious amount of books from all over the world, as well as assembling Gundam plastic models to adorn his bookshelf and off ice.