I recently lamented how Robert Rodriguez’s cyberpunk action flick Alita: Battle Angel suffered due to a bloated script and lack of any real themes. It was a fun popcorn movie, but considering the genre, there was potential for so much more. While Alita may have failed to ask some of the harder questions, Ghost in the Shell on the other hand asks them in spades. Without that 1995 anime hit, we may not have gotten The Matrix, which in turn, means Keanu Reeves may not be playing Johnny Silverhand in the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 game.
Based on the dystopian/cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow, the 1995 Japanese anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell follows counter-terrorism operative Makoto Kusanagi (AKA The Major) as she embarks on a hunt to track down The Puppet Master, a mysterious figure who is “ghost-hacking” VIPs in order to complete political assassinations. Ghost-hacking is a process where a target’s memories are replaced with artificial ones to complete a mission. A garbage man may perform illicit hacks under the belief that he has a wife, when in fact, he’s never been married. His entire life is now a lie, but believing his fake life is his real life, his motivations change. Confused? Let me back up a bit.
[Credit: Shochiku]See, just like in video games like Cyberpunk 2077, in the world of Ghost in the Shell, people can be heavily augmented with cybernetic parts. But despite all the computer parts, they’re still human because they retain a “ghost”, which is another way of saying consciousness, within their “shells”, the bodies that house their brain. In other words, despite replacing so much of what makes them human, at the end of the day, they remain irrevocably human (see what I did there?)
But on the other end of this spectrum is the Puppet Master himself. I’m going to say “him” simply because the voice is masculine, but the Puppet Master is a much more complex character. He’s an advanced AI who gains sentience and questions his own existence. If he has memories and free will, can he claim political asylum? His argument is that his programming dictates he must “self-preserve”, which is exactly the same programming DNA has. Suddenly, a movie about counter-terrorism and cyborgs is asking much deeper philosophical questions, essentially “I think therefore I am” from Descartes, which is what makes for a great cyberpunk tale.
Not only that though, but the manga and by association, the film’s deep questions and visual aesthetics would later go on to lay the foundation for the 1999 hit cyberpunk movie The Matrix. There’s a lot of similarities between the two properties, from the green text against a background, to jacking into a simulated world from inputs in the back of the head. More importantly, both properties explore the concept of free will, but in very different ways. Ghost asks if non-human creatures can have the same rights as humans because they can think and make choices, whereas The Matrix asks us if there is such thing as free will, or is everything predetermined. Both are difficult questions to ask with equally difficult answers.
To this day, The Matrix remains one of the most iconic films in the sci-fi genre. It’s been imitated and parodied to death and was the start of a huge multimedia franchise, including three sequels (Reloaded, Revolutions and an untitled third in production), animation and video games. But without the visual cues from this Japanese manga, the Wachowskis likely wouldn’t have thought up the concept of The Matrix. When pitching the original film to Warner Bros back in the day, the siblings showed Ghost to the production team and said “we want to that for real“. Obviously, they didn’t just do a live-action remake of the anime, but cherry-picked various ideas, themes and visual cues from the film to build their own world. But considering how beloved The Matrix franchise is, many people should check out this anime not only to see the origins of that Keanu franchise but because it’s a hardboiled, wonderfully animated and thought-provoking cyberpunk thriller.
For more cyberpunk goodness, check out our two Blade Runner pieces, where we sing the praises of the original Ridley Scott film and then get a different author’s take on Blade Runner 2049.