Ghost in the Shell
The soul in the machine
This is the most inclusive and progressive version of the story.
By Tym Stevens
“The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments. …Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be a man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?”
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949)
This is actually the fullest fruition of the story. (Hear me out.)
It does so by turning regressive aspects of the sources into progressive, while bringing the hero's human soul to its fullest fruition.
Ghost in the Shell has been told in three media, emerging more fully formed from the larva process each time: Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime, and Rupert Sanders’ 2017 film. At the heart of each story is the Major, a “female” cyborg. In Shirow’s serial manga stories, she starts as a sidewise pinup who drifts into becoming the catalyst for a metaphysical finale. In Oshii’s finely wrought anime, she takes center stage as a person, questioning the political machine she’s a cog in and then her own identity within all structures. Where Shirow narrowed on her form, Oshii focused on her feelings, streamlining the story closer to its title import.
The manga and anime had many strengths but notable flaws. Shirow had great tech, intricate art, interesting cyber-transcendentalism theorems, and cyberpunk intrigue, but was undertowed by misogyny, militarism, and national isolationism. Oshii’s prudent focus directly on the Major stripped the excesses, centered the story, empowered her, and made her existential crisis poetic, but also ironically fetishized her physical form while doing ultraviolence ballet.
Sanders’ film advances the Major’s evolution in multiple ways by exploring the intent of the title. If an identity/soul is ephemeral, then all vessels around it are constructs, and all the illusory social constructs—gender, race, culture, country—are likewise regressive projections. If Shirow’s secondary women were simply hentai dolls, in the film the Major’s soulful communion with the sex worker (Adwoa Aboah) is conversely sex-positive, ennobling, and inclusive. Refuting Shirow’s isolationism, the manga cast was translated into French, Chinese, Danish, Australian, Romanian, and Nigerian actors, which subliminally questions the idea of nationality itself.
Despite this global range, the American lead Scarlet Johanssen was reflexively singled out for criticism as “whitewash” casting. But the concept of “whitewashing” is a progressive intention undone by retrograde thinking: a generic absolute that only reinforces separatism at the expense of the diverse equity it intends to champion. (In reality, there are no separate races: “White” is genericist thinking; culture is fluid and unowned.) This criticism misses the point of both the title and the casting, as seen in the context of the film, which specifically bears out the core idea—that consciousness transcends any outward forms. Would the criticism have still missed this point if the lead actor had been Lupita Nyong’o, Asia Kate Dillon, or Rosa Salazar?
“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.’ The soul in the machine, spirits in the material world: identity is too ineffable to be codexed or confined by false generic constructs like race, gender, or nationality. To do so is to trap the ghost in an arbitrary shell. The entire point of the title (or the realization of its potential) is that the soul is beyond all our simplistic machinations.
The Major embodies transcendence from the chrysalis.