Identity in the Posthuman world of Oshii and Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell

Editor’s Notes: This is a comparative essay on the original anime adaption of Ghost in the Shell and the american adaption of Ghost in the Shell. It’s not out to prove one is better than the other (there are plenty who’ve said enough about it) but instead meant to compare ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism and how it differs between both directors and two different cultures. It actually made a viewing of a film with questionable content more interesting because of the thematic concerns of the world of Ghost in the Shell. This was for a Digital Humanities course on Technotopias. Another one of my more preferred University courses.

In a world of ones and zeros, who are we beyond names? Identities tend to be tied largely to our biology: race, gender, sexuality, ability and even our species. We see ourselves in increasingly intersectional fashions, endless identities that we grab onto for further individuality. All of these many identities that extend beyond us are nevertheless deeply tied to our bodies, to the physical identities we are given at birth. Identity will have deep ramifications on our line of work, our living situations, our political views, our taste. Some of us will choose to defy our prescribed identity or at the very least explore the space between the dualistic identities given to us by society but we nevertheless choose to define that in the identity space that has already been created before us that is to say we do not create new identities without first considering those offered to us by society. It’s difficult to imagine a world outside of defined biology-based identities because it largely formulates the whole of how our thought processes and intellectual identities have evolved. Identities shape our perspective on things, the way we are treated and treat others, and thus the way we acts comes to formulate our identities and sense of selves so how do we imagine individuality and thought in a world where we have become bodiless, and we have had children born as data and evolved as data, and multiple generations have passed as such so as to there being no more lived experience within the human identity spectrum that cant tie itself to these posthuman beings? That is to say, what formulates the identity of a bodiless posthuman being who knows nothing of ethnicity and sex and ability. It is difficult to contemplate and rare are the works that our open to going there. Instead, we are limited to the very genesis of posthuman worlds with only a glimpse at what identity and thought for a posthuman being might appear to be. This paper will explore the intersection of identity and posthumanism in the works of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Rupert Sanders’s American adaption, Ghost in the Shell (2017) where we are presented with worlds that may well be on the cusp of posthumanism.

Posthuman tends to be a concept largely incorporated into Cyberpunk worlds. When we conceive of a posthuman world, we conceive of the self disembodied from the human corpse into a cyberspace where we may be merely ones and zeros. We can be re-embodied if we so choose, given shells of our own taste or in the case of a cyberspace landscape, we can simply generate whatever identity we want to take on. Cyberpunk deals with ideas of artificial intelligence and cybernetics (cyborg; cyberspace; cyberbrain) though it tends to associate such technological advancements with dystopic worlds where technology has gotten out of hands and soured the natural world. Considering cyberpunk as being a cautionary tale in the same vein as early science fiction, this paper may deal more extensively with what science fiction editor Lawrence Person calls the postcyberpunk. He explains in his Notes Towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto that “postcyberpunk uses the same immersive world-building technique, but features different characters, settings, and, most importantly, makes fundamentally different assumptions about the future. Far from being alienated loners, postcyberpunk characters are frequently integral members of society (i.e., they have jobs). They live in futures that are not necessarily dystopic (indeed, they are often suffused with an optimism that ranges from cautious to exuberant), but their everyday lives are still impacted by rapid technological change and an omnipresent computerized infrastructure.” He goes on to define the postcyberpunk character in relation to the cyberpunk character, “postcyberpunk characters tend to seek ways to live in, or even strengthen, an existing social order, or help construct a better one. In cyberpunk, technology facilitates alienation from society. In postcyberpunk, technology is society. Technology is what the characters breathe, eat, and live in.” The world I wish to explore replicates the postcyberpunk far more than the cyberpunk; I will explore posthumans in worlds that do not intend to demonize them, as might be expected in cyberpunk worlds, but instead attempts to consider what becomes the norm or what the norm hints at becoming in a postcyberpunk world that can conceive of posthuman characters.

In 1995, Mamoru Oshii would direct an anime adaption of Masamune Shirow’s famed manga, it would be Ghost in the Shell.  One of the most popular works to conceive of posthumanism outside of literature, it would go on to have an American adaption directed by Rupert Sanders in 2017. A comparison between both works is immensely relevant here because of how identity is conceived both in the text and the paratext of each work. Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell deals heavily with ideas of sexuality, gender identity and reproduction (what becomes of reproduction in a posthuman world where we may not necessarily have any need to procreate, we are immortal) and how tightly memory and genes are intertwined with who we are as people. It is all too fitting that the opening title card to his film professes an inevitability: “the advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.” This will be a more relevant factor when we discuss Sanders’s adaption whose film veers more, intentionally, or not, in the direction of ethnic and racial identity in posthumanism.

The principal character of Oshii’s work, Motoko Kusanagi, is a human without memory inside of a female cyborg body. We do not know what might be made of her past identities as a human, only that she is now within a female body. In a world where her body is a mass-produced model, those physical traits that define us become almost redundant and this is highlighted in a simple scene where she spots another cyborg with the very same body as hers, and they make eye contract, nothing more needs to be delved of the matter outside of the images provided by those powerful few seconds. We are defined by an amalgamation of endless identities that intersect to make us who we are, and we can remain satisfied knowing that there is literally only one of us even among seven billion individuals on earth. Motoko Kusanagi knows that she is essentially a dime a dozen. Motoko’s identity as a female is played upon heavily, as a cyborg, we are aware that she does not have the typical biological traits that might be expected of a woman: she does not menstruate, and she cannot reproduce as a woman might. Her identity as a woman is superficial. Nevertheless, considering the initial sequence depicting her literal construction as a female cyborg, and the visuals of her nude-bodysuit, we are never wholly detached from envisioning her as a woman.

The other principal cyborg in Oshii’s film is a being (a life form as he refers to himself as) called the Puppet Master. You may regard him as an artificial intelligence, but he chooses not to defined himself as that, when called an AI, he disagrees “I am not an AI.,” he states, “my codemane is project two-five-zero-one. I am a living, thinking entity that was created in the sea of information”. This is our first genuine hint at what a posthuman being looks like, a name is still necessary for individuality, but beyond that, he appears to note that a key part of it all is merely the ability to think recalling Descartes’s famous line. Unlike Motoko, he can traverse cyberspace freely, but he nevertheless does not consider himself complete without that very human biological need: the need to reproduce and procreate. He identifies what he believes to be a key problem in posthumanism, the idea that once we have transcended mortality we will have lost needs for reproduction, a biological need for the preservation of our species. The Puppet Master appears to posit that we still need to continue evolving, still need to continue dying and being born anew.

The Puppet Master also serves as another means of subverting sex and gender expectations. He plants himself inside the body of a distinctively female cyborg yet Oshii makes the decision to appoint voicing duties to male voice actor Iemasa Kayumi and in the English dubbing, male voice actor Tom Wyner, both with distinctively male voices. Furthermore, it is highlighted that while he is called a ‘he’, no one knows his gender. It almost makes you think this film might have been released at the height of the rise of gender identity as a spectrum. The intention is obvious: to blur the lines between what we associate as distinctively male and distinctively female in the same way that non-binary gender identities do when brought into contention with ideas of posthuman beings like the Puppet Master.

Mokoto and the Puppet Master share a common trait, they feel both incomplete; the former because of her entrapment within a body and the latter because he is not able to reproduce but Mokoto presents an opportunity to accomplish what he feels is necessary of a life form. The notion of human reproduction, a biological operation between a male and female, is subverted under the image of these two cybernetic female bodies reproducing at the climax of the film. In his analysis of Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Stray Dog of Anime, Brian Ruh views the cybernetic body, this artificial human body, as a physical prison by which Motoko is controlled, he says that “she is inserted into a hierarchy in which she has little choice but to participate, as the government can use her body against her as a prison for her mind (131)”. Considering the history of patriarchal domination over the female body, and the thickly bound links between hierarchy and identity, one might observe the necessity for those at the top of the hierarchy, and those in positions of power to want to trap the free-roaming posthuman mind in a body, even one that is cybernetic. Ruh regards overcoming this prison, not by means of “overcoming the confines of the body, but rather through the further blurring of the mind/body and organic/artificial dichotomies (131)”. At the end of the film, Motoko and the Puppet Master’s reproduction has resulted in their merging, they are now in the body of a younger girl (the only shell Mokoto’s friend could acquire). The body itself is irrelevant, as the Puppet Master and Mokoto have shown, now as one, physical identity is redundant in the posthuman world that is beginning to emerge. It ends with the optimistic line that perfectly encapsulates the idea behind a postcyberpunk work, “and where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.”

Paramount Pictures and the lead actress to the American adaption, Scarlett Johansson, may have been disappointed by the controversy leading to the production and release of Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell but it has led to a more intimate study of ethnicity and race in the face of posthumanism, and had even forced writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (though Wheeler claims even more writers worked on the script making it not wholly clear who or how many people had an impact on this particular part of the narrative I will be looking at) to incorporate into the narrative. As with a great deal of foreign adaptions for American markets, lead characters have had their ethnicities changed for an American demographic in this adaption, and the lead character, Motoko Kusanagi (renamed Mira Killian) is played by Caucasian actress, Johansson. Inevitably, controversy followed and rumors that tests were made to make the lead appear more Asian only stowed the fire. The irony is evident in that there is controversy behind the identity of the actress casts in the role of the ambiguous being that is a cyborg; a makeshift shell whose physical identity should be irrelevant in the grand scheme of the posthuman world in light of what we have seen of the 1995 version. Those against the backlash towards Sanders’s film claimed that the thematic concerns of identity beyond the body (as Puppet Master and Motoko’s ambiguous sexualities and gender showed) and in the same way that Ruh stated, the blurring of organic and artificial boundaries, made the race of Motoko or Mirian irrelevant. As I have mentioned, the controversy following the casting pushed the film’s writers to incorporate race and ethnicity into the narrative and what will become of it in the face of posthumanism.

There are significant differences between the 2017 and 1995 adaption beyond the cast’s ethnic identities and I believe they revolve around one theme, and that is posthumanism. While I would staunchly regard Oshii’s adaption as a pro-posthuman work, Sanders is reluctant to follow the path laid by Oshii. Key in Mokoto Kusanagi’s identity is her lack of past and history, but Mirian Killian is not without those key components which is emphasized as what makes an individual across the film. She is given an initial backstory as a survivor of a cyberterrorist attack that killed her parents but left her alive. The body she now inhabits with her former destroyed in the attack, devoid of past memories, is a cybernetic one. We are never given an indication of Mokoto’s past in Oshii’s adaption. Where Mokoto was a dime a dozen, Mirian is the very first of her kind in Sanders’s world. Dr. Ouelet, responsible for the creation of Mirian’s body, tells her that she is “what everyone will become one day,” and where Mokoto may feel herself as redundant when there are so many like her, Mirian retorts to the doctor, “you don’t know how alone that makes me feel.”

Wiped of her memory, Mirian must battle with herself as to what formulates her identity: memories, or actions. The theme of memory is spoken of by Mirian herself, “we cling to memories as if they define us, but they really don’t.” Oshii’s world may dispute that, the Puppet Master says that “a human being can only be an individual only by memories. Even if memory is a synonym for illusion, humans live by their memories.” Those actions we take, the things we do are done according to past memories and experiences, illusion or not, they define how we act. That might very well be why Sanders’s work argues against the value of memory as identity, when Batou says that “fantasy, reality; dreams, memories. It’s all the same,” I feel that this is almost a self-contradiction to Mirian’s early statement. Batou’s claims that the factuality of memories does not matter comes off the knowledge that whether these memories are real or not, if we regard them as memories, we will take actions based upon how they have to come to formulate our identity. This could merely be Sander’s building up to a change of mentality for Mirian but as the concluding line of the film will show, she does not veer from opposing memory as identity.

As I mentioned, race and ethnicity end up woven into the narrative. Dr. Ouelet tells Mirian that “we gave you false memories,” and Mirian equates that with “nothing I have is real.” It’s a false equivalent, Mirian has been the exception to the actions as defined by memory, she has never dictated her actions based on her manufactured backstory, that’s because her memories are more like a story told to her than something she feels she has lived through and so she would have a hard time letting it dictate how she acts. She was told her family was killed by cyberterrorist, but it never plays into her character, the narrative never pushes her into being anti-terrorist to any relevant fashion and she never shows the same command for her peers in the way Mokoto does in Oshii’s adaption to emphasize passion for her work. It is revealed to us that Mirian was actually a young Japanese adolescent called Mokoto Kusanagi, firmly against augmentation. She ran away from home to continue her opposition to the rapid industrialization of her world and was eventually kidnapped, operated upon, wiped of memory, and turned into Mirian. All her mother was told was that she killed herself and so he was presumed as dead. The antagonist in this film, a Puppet Master alternative called Kuze, was once a friend of Mokoto, also a victim of the attack engineered by the company Hanka Industries. One of the preceding failed experiments that would result in Mokoto, he survived but in a rather poor shell compared to Kilian’s. Kuze has already envisioned of a world beyond the physical body and has created a network where “when I die in this world, my ghost can survive there and regenerate.” It is no mistake to make it so that one of the film’s antagonist has envisioned of a posthuman world and unlike the Puppet Master, chooses immortality over death and reproduction. Race becomes key here because Hanka Industries, responsible for the experiments on Kuze and Mirian,a company composed of distinctively Caucasian individuals (in a film that features plenty of tertiary ethnically diverse characters) have envisioned of the future of humanity (recall Ouelet’s “you’re what everyone will become one day”) as the flawless Scarlett Johansson and the failed but nevertheless Caucasian Michael Pitt (playing Kuze). Perhaps they see a posthuman world as being a postracial world where… everyone happens to be Caucasian. Of course, like sexuality and gender, race is never actively brought up in Sanders’s work, whether because he has no interest in that aspect of identity politics or because he believes a posthuman world would forego all of that, but the African diplomat at the start of the movie who cautions against the headlong rush into cybernetic enhancements and says that “no one really understands the risk to individuality, identity, messing with the human soul” amidst persuasion on the part of Hanka Industries to help Africa advance, does not realize how wise he is in this unintentional preservation of his ethnic identity.

Key in Sanders’s cautionary tale faced with posthumanism is how he posits humanity as a virtue, something we should hold dear. More than Oshii’s world, the cyber is everywhere. We get glimpses at the inhumanity of cybernetics within Oshii’s work but Sanders’s pushes the inhumanity forward in his 2017 adaption. There is a schism between those who take pride in cybernetic upgrades and those who are content without it. Togusa, one of Mokoto’s coworkers, takes pride in his lack of cybernetic upgrades, stating that that “I’m all human, and happy. Thanks,” while chastising another character for upgrading his liver to ensure he can drink more alcohol. The inhumanity of cybernetics is played up in terms of how it disfigures the characters. Robots will alter their anatomy to resemble arachnids for ease of mobility, and humans will have visibly metal jaws, and prosthetics that do nothing but make these characters aesthetically displeasing and inhuman. Batou’s character in Oshii’s work has cybernetic eyes though it is never played or remarked upon. Sanders’s chooses to give Batou, like Mirian’s character, an origin to his cybernetic. Batou loses his eyesight on a mission and upgrades it to ease his work, but though he chooses which eyes he will have, he takes no pride in it, and has to asks Major to feed the stray dogs he had a habit of taking care of because “I don’t want to scare them.” Batou’s views on the disfiguration of technology, his requests for Major to say something nice to him when she sees him with his cybernetic upgrade may be how Sanders’s views the cybernetics himself. Time and time again, we are given instances of characters having to disfigure themselves, remove eyes, expand fingers into endless limbs in order to accomplish superhuman feats and Sanders appears to ask us if the posthuman world is worth it, look at how we have become; humanity is our identity. Is it staunchly anti-technology? Certainly not. After all, it’s those cybernetic upgrades that allow Batou to keep seeing, and Dr. Ouelet herself highlights that even as “we changed her entire identity (…) her ghost survived.” Sanders appears to hint as something deeper at our core that makes us individuals beyond memories and identity, a human nature perhaps?

Gender, sexuality, and the concept of heterosexual reproduction have all been done away with in favor of conceptions of memory and actions and how it defines the self in Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell. Oshii does theorize as to how we can come to trust our conceptions of the self in an increasingly cyber world. Those who operate on them and build their cybernetic parts are only human, and in many ways, untrustworthy. As we have seen with both the Puppet Master and Kuze, and Hanka Robotics, memory and identity are so easily manipulatable when we become only data. Data can be changed and altered all too easily. At various instances in the film, Mirian has to tell Dr. Ouelet that “my name is Major Kilian and I give my consent” to allow the alteration of her data. When Dr. Ouelet is revealed to have manufactured her memories and appears to intend to kill her, Kilian clings to this helpless statement, “I do not consent.” Fittingly, Dr. Ouelet revealed what we always presumed was true, “we never needed your consent. Yours or anyones.” This idea that she could give or refuse to give her consent was all play acting. Oshii decides that there is little to be done contemplating if we are who we are or if we are merely someone another person has altered but Sanders advises that we should be skeptical of handing over access to our identity to another person. Under the sight of Mirian’s agency being taken from her, we are told not merely to accept this fate as the 1995 adaption shows us, but by demonstrating the horror of being powerless, we are terrorized into refusing to hand over our identity to powers of authority.

At the end of the film, we are given a situation that closely resembles Oshii’s adaption. Mirian and Kuze lie disfigured and broken with the fate of their cybernetic shells on the line. Of course, Kuze is in a male body and it is not a question of reproduction and evolution, in this case, Kuze offers Mirian an escape into cyberspace, to ensure they live on. “Come with me into my network,” he says, “we will evolve beyond them.” He proposes the posthuman. Mirian replies, “I’m not ready to leave. I belong here.” In many ways, Mirian is the stand-in for humanity where as Kuze, the disfigured and failed experiment chooses to leave for the posthuman. It’s not a pretty picture painted by Rupert Sanders. Mirian returns to work for Section 9, her life goes on as normal outside of the retention of her memories and it’s why one of her last lines proves puzzling: “My mind is human. My body is manufactured. I’m the first of my kind but I won’t be the last. We cling to memories as if they define us but what we do define us.” It isn’t something you may be inclined to accept when memories are what guide a lot of her final decisions, the decision to save Kuze, the decision to remain in her body to return to her mother. More poignant is the film’s concluding line, “humanity is our virtue.” If there is anything that stands more steadfast against the posthuman than a celebration of the human, I’m not sure what it is.

Sanders’s Ghost in the Shell is a call to take pride in identity and humanity amidst a muddled message on how memory may intersect with that. Despite coming twenty-two years after Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, it is far more cautionary in the face of the rapid rise of technology. Oshii is far more optimistic in the face of technology, sure, like Sanders, he is cautionary about technology and considers very well how it may alter our very being, but he blurs the line between good and bad in the same way that he blurs the lines between the organic and the artificial, between the male and the female. Sanders may be afraid of the posthuman but Oshii is optimistic, he sees a vast playground to play with and does not shy from that. In that respect, Sanders may very well align himself with the transhumanism and reflects Julian Huxley’s views on it in Transhumanism, “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature (13).” We might then say that the key difference between Oshii and Sanders’s adaptions are that the latter will not go beyond the human and the former is very willing to go posthuman.



Work Cited

Ghost in the Shell. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Manga Entertainment, 1995.

Ghost in the Shell. Directed by Rupert Sanders, Paramount Pictures, 2017.

Huxley, Julian. New Bottles for New Wine: Ideology and Scientific Knowledge. Chatto & Windus, 1957.

Ruh, Brian. Stray Dogs of Anime. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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