The World of Ghost in the Shell

Andrew Osmond on Masamune Shirow’s imagined future

The Net is vast, Major Motoko Kusanagi reflects more than once across the multiple versions of Ghost in the Shell. So, indeed, are franchises. Ghost in the Shell has been going twenty-five years, and seems capable of renewing itself for at least as long again. Fans haven’t tired of taking those long, sensuous high dives with Kusanagi, whether down the face of a skyscraper to carry out a gory head-bursting assassination, or into the sea of online information to revel in a trillion libraries’-worth of data. And wearing her thermoptic camouflage (or Predator invisibility suit, if you’re a 1980s action film fan), she’s spread to franchises which don’t even bear the Ghost name.

Ghost isn’t actually so complex as a franchise. There are four main strands – one manga, three anime – plus various tributaries from each. Moreover, each is associated with a particular creator. Shirow Masamune started it all with the first manga; Mamoru Oshii directed the two anime cinema films; and Kenji Kamiyama took on the Stand Alone Complex version for TV. For the newest iteration, Ghost in the Shell Arise, the big name is the writer, Tow Ubukata, who’s best known for Mardock Scramble.

Ghost in the Shell

Shirow’s original manga ran in Young Magazine from 1989 (alongside the last chapters of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira). If you come to it after the anime, you’ll be startled by its look. It’s much more cartoony than any of the other versions, with Kusanagi’s white-haired team boss Aramaki looking positively simian. But if you think Shirow’s writing will be similarly light, then you’re in for a shock. It’s actually an incredibly dense read, at times requiring a doctorate in Advanced Cyberpunk. “Gosh, where did you find an equaliser with up to five times the number of tactile zones?” Kusanagi asks in one scene. “I put it together myself!” replies her friend. “It’s a prototype microslave application…”

Those lines come from the manga’s most notorious scene, when Kusanagi is enjoying a naked (and very tactile) threesome with her cyborg playmates. It was censored in some Western editions; if you’ve got an unexpurgated copy, take care if you read it on a crowded bus! But Shirow’s manga is more excessive in its cerebral concepts than its cyber-girl antics, leaving some reviewers reeling as if they’d been brain-hacked. The manga has been collected in three volumes, the second subtitled Man-Machine Interface and the third, a midquel, designated ‘1.5.’

It’s the first book, though, that’s clearly the basis for the anime versions. The 1995 Ghost in the Shell film takes bits of different episodes – for example, the whole set-piece involving the cyber-duped garbage man is direct from the manga, as is the opening assassination. However, the film’s director, Mamoru Oshii, wanted to tell the story his own way. Interviewed by anime critic Carl Horn, Oshii said he “had the freedom to put Ghost into my world, without having to ask (Shirow’s) further approval.”

That’s obvious if you watch Oshii’s Ghost alongside his earlier Patlabor 2, which has the same lyrical, unapologetically arty combinations of urban tableau and weighty monologues (though Ghost separates those elements into adjacent scenes, so that its famous canal sequence is unencumbered by human commentary). There are plenty of other authorial touches in Ghost, such as the delicate, suggestive scene after the titles, when we see Kusanagi wake in her apartment, a solitary black ghost against the high-rise city. The film sets the male glass-and-steel towers against the feminine waterways in their shadow.

Ghost in the Shell - Innocence

Oshii’s cinema sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, is more arty yet, with Kusanagi’s mountainous colleague Batou – now the main character – breaking into philosophical speeches much as enchanted Disney princesses break into song. Or you can tune that out, and luxuriate in the film’s sleek beauty; the future-noir alleys, the time-warping crystal palace, the steel Tartarus of dead-eyed killer mannequins. Aside from the monologues, which muse on the relationships between humans, dolls, dogs, gods and children, the story is easier to follow than the first film’s. It’s actually borrowed from a minor story in Shirow’s original manga (the sixth part, “Robot Rondo”).

The second film spawned a prequel print novel, Innocence: After the Long Goodbye, written by Masaki Yamada. However, Oshii’s own last involvement with the Ghost universe was to oversee a revised version of the first film. Called (very confusingly) Ghost in the Shell 2.0, this revision inserted some new CGI shots, changed the colour-scheme from blue-green to gold-brown, and switched the gender of the Puppet Master character’s voice, from male to female.

Ghost in the Shell 2.0

The puppet master (or puppeteer) is a pivotal figure in both the films and the manga. He, or she, changes the destiny of Kusanagi, and takes her away from her colleagues in the Section 9 security team. However, the TV version, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, was a complete reboot, a parallel universe story where Kusanagi doesn’t encounter (a version of) the puppeteer until the saga’s very end. Stand Alone Complex was made by the same studio as the Oshii films (Production I.G) and had the same Japanese actors (Atsuko Tanaka as Kusanagi, Akio Ohtsuka as Batou), but it’s as different from Oshii’s take as Daniel Craig’s 007 is from Pierce Brosnan’s.

In the Oshii films, the angsty Kusanagi felt semi-detached from the Section 9 team from the start. In contrast, the series highlights how individuals relate to each other, how they form bonds in an increasingly impersonal society. Kusanagi is much more a team member amid comrades. Their sympathetic adversaries channel the rebel counterculture spirits of JD Salinger, Che Guevera and Japan’s own Yukio Mishima.

As mentioned above, the director of Stand Alone Complex was Kenji Kamiyama, who had served as part of “Team Oshii,” a project team coached by Oshii himself. Kamiyama’s TV version has room for much more future world-building than the films, drawing on elements from both cinema and manga versions (though free to contradict both). In particular, the spider-like ‘Tachikoma’ mechanoids, based on robots in the original strip, became the show’s stars. Debating the theories of Richard Dawkins or James Lovelock, the Tachikoma are adorable, witty, smart and – on more than one occasion – tragic, though they have the survival abilities of metal cockroaches. They were even the heroes of their own miniature anime-in-an-anime, the reliably silly “Tachikoma Days.”

Of the biped characters, Kusanagi and Batou have many moments of warmth and humour. They’re never cuddly, but there’s no doubting these cyborgs are human. The change in characterisation is telegraphed by a sweet scene in part one, where Kusanagi gently chides the rookie Togusa out of his self-doubts.

Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex

One of the most prestigious, lavish and expensive TV anime ever made, Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex ran for two twenty-six part seasons, the second subtitled ‘The Second Gig.’ This sequel was an intricate geo-political saga, but made more digestible by a bravura, epic action finale and a story tying into revelations about Kusanagi’s human childhood; Shirow was credited with the story concept. Each of the two TV seasons was compiled into a feature-length digest, including some new footage. The first season was compiled as The Laughing Man, and the second as The Individual Eleven.

Solid State Society, on the other hand, was an all-new sequel to the TV show, taking the characters some years on from “Second Gig.” It paid tribute to Oshii’s 1995 film, amid visual nods to Michael Mann and David Fincher. The TV series also spun off more novels, written by Junichi Fukasaku, as well as new manga, which shouldn’t be confused with those by Shirow. (Yet another non-Shirow spinoff manga followed in 2013, based on the new Arise series – see below).

Moreover, Stand Alone Complex has reverberated through other anime made by Kamiyama for Production I.G, including the fantasy serial Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (which features another strong woman warrior) and Eden of the East (a comedy-thriller-conspiracy show with many teasing echoes of Ghost). Most obviously, the series is referenced prominently in Kamiyama’s spectacular cinemas film Re: Cyborg 009, which revives a far older cyborg team from the 1960s – in effect, splicing Section 9 with their ancestors.

Meanwhile Tow Ubukata, the writer of the newest version of Ghost in the Shell, is linked to a cyberpunk title which feels like yet another iteration of the franchise. Ubukata has written a trilogy of novels called Mardock Scramble, published in English in one volume. The plot – about an abused young girl who’s resurrected as a vengeful cyborg – feels like Ghost in the Shell meets Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It seemed even more Shell-ish when it was adapted as a trio of anime films.

Ubukata is now writing Ghost in the Shell: Arise, four films being released to Japanese cinemas before being put out on DVD (the same way Mardock Scramble was serialised). Although the studio is still Production I.G, the credits are changing, with new designs and voice-actors. Kusanagi, now a younger, less confident figure, is voiced by Maaya Sakamoto, who voiced the child version of the character in the “Second Gig” series. Kazuchika Kise is Chief Director, apparently his most prominent credit after a decades-long under-the-line career working on masses of anime, including animation direction on Evangelion: 1.0 You Are Not Alone and animation and layout on Oshii’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell.

And when Arise is finished… Well, we guess Production I.G has ideas, and that long-in-development live-action movie from DreamWorks is still a possibility. Whether under her name or others, Kusanagi has inscribed herself into the conceptual DNA of anime and cyberpunk, able to emerge wherever she likes. Time to climb to the top of that skyscraper, as the wind caresses your synthetic skin, and take another deep, deep dive…

Ghost in the Shell will be appearing at selected Picture House cinemas later this month, and will be available on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.


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