Cool Things: Ghost in the Shell

Welcome to our final installment of manga and anime month at Nate Chen Publications. So far we’ve examined a selection of what I would consider “entry level” series. They’re aimed at a younger audience but deep enough and well enough executed to be interesting to many people. Just like Harry Potter was aimed at young people but found widespread acceptance among people of all ages, so with TrigunRurouni Kenshin and Azumanga Diaoh.

The Ghost in the Shell franchise is not such a story. The story began with the work of author and illustrator Shirow Masamune. The original manga was published in the 1980s and became an animated movie in the 1990s. That movie is credited with codifying many of the ideas that would ultimately find expression in Hollywood with The Matrix.

While the manga and movie were engaging and interesting the ideas in them are so dense they didn’t really find full expression until a season length animated show was produced. That show was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. As the title implies, this adaptation was not connected to the movie in any way – except, of course, for theme.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world where every part of the human body can be reproduced synthetically. The entire human body can be transformed into a cyborg and memories and personality transferred into an artificial brain. At the same time virtual reality has progressed to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from regular reality. Questions of identity, humanity and the nature of truth run throughout the series. Of course, the plot of the series has as much to with cyberterrorists, corruption and secretive government agencies as human identity.

Events revolve around Public Safety Section 9, which deals with counter-terrorism and particularly cybercrime. Led by Motoko Kusanagi, a retired JSDF Major and total conversion cyborg (meaning body and brain are artificial), Section 9 has to figure out the motives and goals of the hacker known as The Laughing Man. Their work is frustrated by his extreme skill and a number of copycats, and the fact that ol’ chuckles was partly working to uncover corruption in the government. A number of corrupt officials will interfere with Section 9 to avoid exposure.

It’s hard to explain exactly how The Laughing Man ties in with the themes of Ghost in the Shell without spoiling things. But I can say that a lot of time is devoted to the ideas of the Ghost – what defines human identity – and how much our body – or the Shell – defines it. At the same time no one attempts to hand the audience a pat answer, which is always nice.

Now if a story of corruption and the nature of human identity sounds too dark for your tastes be assured that there’s plenty of other things going on here. There’s a subtle romantic subplot between the Major and one of her colleagues, the diverse backgrounds and personalities of Section 9 are played for both laughs and insight and there’s plenty of well rendered action as well. It’s hard to believe the series was animated over ten years ago.

Oh, and there’s Tachikomas. Little blue, crab shaped mecha running AIs with the disposition of cheerful five year olds who are convinced they are RPG characters. The closest thing to dedicated comic relief, even these weird little AIs manage to be interesting characters and active participants in the plot. It’s an impressive achievement.

Serious sci-fi is as rare in anime as it is in any other medium but Ghost in the Shell manages to be serious and, at the same time, accessible and entertaining. That’s an impressive achievement in itself. But it also manages to do it in a context that will make sense to anyone from a modern developed country, not just people from the islands of Japan. And that makes it worth noting here.

Like many series licensed for distribution in America, you can find Ghost in the Shell on Youtube here.

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2 responses to “Cool Things: Ghost in the Shell

    • It’s definitely the kind of show that needs a lot of time investment to appreciate fully. I had to watch it twice to get a clear picture of what happens at the end and even then I’m sure there are nuances I’ve missed.

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