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Ghost in the Shell - A Dissertation About Identity and Evolution

The Franchise

Ghost in the Shell is a product of Masamune Shirow's genius, so much so that the cyberpunk-themed manga would quickly grow into a staple sci-fi franchise. Shirow's extensive usage of violence, powerful visuals, and profound philosophical reflections played a role in such popularity; however, I would risk arguing that Mamoru Oshii's first film adaptation of the series was final for its success. His work with other incredible animators created the most visually stunning pictures in any animated movie of the 1990s, influencing a whole generation of sci-fi, such as Matrix (1999), Ex Machina (2014), and Westworld (2016). If you enjoyed any of those, perhaps you should give this 1 hour and 22 minutes experience a shot; it is available on Netflix, but please check the parental rating before watching it.


Space and Identity

In moments of silent appreciation of the world, we get closer to understanding ourselves. For instance, staring out a window is paradoxically an act of inner, not outer, reflection; we usually uncover the contents of our minds instead of that external environment. Ghost in the Shell draws upon that philosophy: a 3-minute silent sequence of shots of the futuristic city in which the story plays out interrupts the plot mid-film. This interlude may seem like a poor choice for a Western audience devoted to nonstop action and explosions; hence, it is an ode to manga culture. While comics in the West use ‘action-to-action’ transitions with goal-oriented stories and characters, Japanese comics work with ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transitions, where the chronology of the story is abandoned to emphasize the space in which it occurs. This idea dichotomy -- evidenced in Ghost in the Shell -- was defined and coined by Scott Mcloud in his book Understanding Comics.


Through this technique, Oshii showcases the neverending dance between humanity and space; he demonstrates the contrasts between old and new and the several cultures of the film's bright metropolis. An interesting example is the presence of multiple construction sites in the ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transitions, symbolizing that while we build spaces, they also form our identities, thus implying identity itself is a construction that is not always of our authorship.


Space and Identity

The Theseus Paradox, AKA the Ship of Theseus, is one of the oldest concepts in Western Philosophy and was discussed by Heraclitus, Plato, and Plutarco. This philosophical exercise, which disserts about the metaphysics of identity, consists of the idea that if an object has its element replaced incrementally over time to the point where none of the original remains, is it still the same object? The Ship of Theseus version debates the same thing through a hypothetical situation around the Greek Legend of Theseus. In Ghost in the Shell, it takes place in the cyberization of the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and her colleagues in Section 9. The protagonist, that is, personifies the Ship of Theseus as she becomes more machine than human, thus raising the question of until what point is she still human, the original? If you replace your whole self with mechanical parts, are you still you? Does a soul remain inside of your shell (hence, the title)?


Hegel

According to German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), progress results from the clash of forces, the creation of something new. This idea is the basis of Hegel’s dialectics. However, do not confuse yourself. His dialectics are not a form of argumentative discourse as explored by the Greeks but the mechanism of progress itself (clash of forces). From Hegel's lens, this clash results in ‘Sublation,’ which is a combination without a loss that results in a unique and superior product that accommodates both forces. Another idea of his dialectics is the concept of masters and slaves, which means that the masters are accommodated because their subordinates (slaves) do everything for them, thus stagnating while others develop.


But how does that relate to the movie? Generally speaking, the movie is centered around the dialectic between the human and the digital world. Major Kusanagi feels restrained by her own identity and knowledge. The Puppet Master, the hacker whom the plot develops itself around, has a broader understanding because he is an incorporeal AI but lacks a personal identity. Each has what the other needs, so they merge, as evolution shall go beyond humanity.


Sublation is also seen in the very composition of Section 9, as there is a non-cyborg member whose reason for being a part of the group is explained majestically by the protagonist:

"If we all reacted the same way, we'd be predictable... what's true for the group is also true for the individual... overspecialize, and you breed in weakness."

Moreover, we can relate the idea of master and slave to the hierarchy of Section 6. While the chiefs of both institutions are stagnated by the politics and bureaucracy of their world, the Puppet Master learns and acquires self-consciousness.

The best, at last, the product of Sublation was denominated by Hegel as ‘Geist’, which can be translated to ‘Ghost!’ Coincidence or not, that is a mind-blowing curiosity.

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