Ghost In The Shell – How the Anime Form Helps To Politicise a SciFi Narrative


With the release of the Ghost In The Shell remake this month, I decided it was appropriate to revisit the original 1995 anime release. Widely considered a masterpiece, the anime’s exploration of human consciousness in an increasingly technological and interconnected world is just as cutting and as relevant a social commentary two decades later. But why exactly has this film’s message survived so well, when similar ’90s Sci-FI cinema has faded away? Does the anime form of Ghost In The Shell allow to maintain it’s comments on gender and identity better than a live action film exploring similar themes? Science Fiction always must be political – what follows after the break is me trying to explore how animation may enable that.


Within Japanese animation, or anime, it is not uncommon for the narrative to adopt the form of science-fiction as a way to explore the themes surrounding the notion of identity.  Anime may in fact have certain benefits over other forms of science fiction. For example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is arguably hindered by the technical limitations of 1920s Germany, and a film like Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is hindered by the real-life landscape of South London where most of the film was shot. An anime film however is limited only by the imagination of the director and the animators involved, so is potentially able to go deeper into the “fiction” element of “science-fiction”; it is a form that can potentially radicalise the novum more than other forms than science fiction. The critic J. P Telotte uses the work of Darko Suvin to define science fiction as a “readily recognisable form” that has “it’s own repertory of functions, conventions and devices” which creates “a literature of cognitive estrangement, that is a form intent on defamiliarising reality through various generic strategies in order to reflect on it more effectively”.⁵ In other words, science-fiction as a genre exists to take an idea or concept which is recognisable within our contemporary society and in someway make it unrecognisable; in doing so, it allows the viewer to consider the issues surrounding the original concept within their own society. Science-fiction anime is no exception as Telotte himself notes in his passage “The Anime Influence”. He states that “the many works in this form illustrate [Japan’s] increasing wariness of it’s many technological achievements and the direction those achievements seem to be signalling for what remains, at it’s core, a rather traditional culture, as well as an anxiety over how much the traditional Japanese sense of self is being rapidly reshaped, constructed and controlled by a bewildering variety of external forces.”⁵ These ideas can be applied to the 1995 film Ghost in the Shell which is an adaptation of the manga of the same name. The film is set in the year 2029 in a world where a network of information, similar to the Internet, has become so all encompassing that humans have begun to technologically enhance themselves to gain constant access to it; the Anime form  allowing such a radical idea to be presented upon the screen. The main character within the narrative is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a soldier/assassin for Section 9 who investigates a mysterious hacker, named Puppet Master, who has gained the ability to hack into cybernetic humans. Although the film does deal with the death of traditional Japanese culture (after-all Japan is now a world super-power named Section 9) as well as contemporary fears concerning computer hacking, the narrative uses it’s science-fiction generic code primarily to explore problems in self identity; Ghost in the Shell is about Major’s struggle to find her own identity in a world not only where humanity is increasingly inter-connected, but where human consciousness is not necessarily linked to biological humanity. Oshii’s film therefore use the conventions of science-fiction to exaggerate the difficulty in cultivating a personal identity within a post-modern society.

One of the key forms of identity which is complicated within the technologically advanced world of Ghost In The Shell is that of gender identity. The film opens with Major sitting atop a rooftop wearing only a trench coat, plugged into the network via four ports in the back of her neck. After a discussion with her colleagues, the Major removes her coat to reveal that she is naked, before jumping off the roof to assassinate a criminal. Initially, Major’s femininity is coded by her nudity. As Laura Mulvey notes in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, “in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for a strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness[sic]”.⁴ Therefore, one can argue that the opening to Ghost in the Shell adopts “the traditional exhibitionist role” in regards to Major so that the audience may gaze at her; the film plays with the typically eroticised female form to cause the viewer to “gaze” at Major and recognise that she is feminine. Although, the nudity is not only for eroticism and is rationalised within the narrative by the nudity allowing Major to use a cloaking device and retreat to safety; therefore linking Major’s femininity and her work as an assassin/soldier. The definition of Major’s gender identity in the readily accepted modes of eroticism and work is complicated by the four connection ports in the back of the neck. Whilst the gaze on some level aims to define her as the erotic feminine, there is simultaneously a focus on the technological aspects of her body. The opening sequence not only works to sexualise Major, but also highlight her as the other; it is immediately unclear whether she is a real woman, or technology that has adopted it’s eroticised form.

Major’s gender identity is further complicated through her language during this sequence. When discussing the job with her colleagues, Major is told to “focus on the task at hand” to which she replies “sorry, I must be on my period”. This works to yet again define Major’s gender identity as female, but unlike before it defines gender not in a socially-constructed way but in biological terms. The reference to menstruation is arguably the clearest designator of Major’s gender as it is symbolic of biological womanhood; “the period” here is used as a metonymy for the process that defines “female” in scientific terms. However, it is not possible to say that this one line of dialogue presents Major as biologically female, as the comment is clearly meant to be flippant in tone. It is therefore never truly clear whether this line is only a snappy retort, or whether it is also ironic in nature — if Major is entirely cybernetic is the joke that she doesn’t have a period? In bringing the concept of biological gender to the forefront, the narrative blurs the distinction between human/cyborg even more and Major’s introduction never explains whether she is an enhanced human woman or completely a machine in the form of a human woman. More so, the narrative moves to completely remove any link between gender identity and biology; even though the audience is never entirely sure whether she is biological or cybernetic, they still recognise her gender as female. Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble states that “because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender”; in other words, because gender identity is not necessarily linked to biological “facts” it is instead reinforced through performance.ⁱ This concept can clearly be applied to Ghost In The Shell as although Major is not even necessarily human, the audience recognises that the form, the behaviour and the language she appropriates is feminine and therefore her gender identity is female. Ghost in the Shell therefore uses science-fiction conventions to deliberately destabilise the notion of “biological gender identity” to exaggerate the ways in which gender created through performance; gender is entirely performative within the filmic world as biology has been assimilated or replaced entirely by technology. Anime as a form therefore works to exaggerate post-modern concerns regarding gender, a common trope Science-fiction, through constructing the extreme destabilisation of gender — the cyborg.

The concept of “biological identity”, whether in relation to gender or otherwise, is a recurring problem throughout the narrative and can be seen not only through Major, but also the Puppet Master. Major is ultimately afraid that she is a shell without a ghost (or soul) and in one scene seeks respite through diving into the ocean alone, as she experiences “fear, loneliness, anxiety darkness and maybe a little hope”. The image of Major alone in a dark ocean is certainly a lonely one but it is somewhat comforting; it is a deliberate loneliness cultivated in response to the emptiness she feels inside. As Susan Jolliffe Napier notes “Kusanagi appears to be attempting to discover a core self, one that is accessible through the technological apparatus of her diving gear but is encased within the organic womb of the sea”.³ That is to say, loneliness is not forced upon Major instead she chooses it; she surrounds herself with the combination of technological and organic (a composition not unlike herself) in an attempt to discover her identity in relation to these two states. At the same time, as Batou points out, this process is inherently destructive in nature — if the diving apparatus fails, the heavy technological components will cause Major to drown and die. Yet even destruction seems both an enticing and comforting prospect to Major. She “wants to escape the physical, be it technological or organic,” definitions of herself and have a “ghost” that lives on without her “shell”; in other words, she seeks to find an identity not created through her unclear physical fugue state of organic/machine, but rather an individual sense of self that transcends her cyborg nature.³ Even if her physical form dies, either her ghost will “live” on (and therefore she will have succeeded) or she was correct in her fears that her shell is in fact ghost less and frees herself from her identity struggles. Therefore water, at least for Major, represents an attempt to find her personal identity through either situating oneself within the binary of biological/technological or through letting these elements destroy you.

In contrast, the Puppet Master seeks to find an identity not through the destruction of the physical self, but through the creation of a physical self. Quickly within the narrative, it becomes apparent that the Puppet Master is neither recognisably human, or even corporeal. Instead the Puppet Master is a Section 6 (the USA) spy code that has gained sentience; he initially only exists as a sequence of binary code that resides within the network at large. Yet again, anime is being used as a radical form of science fiction as it has allowed Ghost in the Shell to present a consciousness who is not biological or even corporeal. Unable to breach the firewalls of the government computers, the Puppet Master decides to create a cybernetic body as a means of escaping through the physical world; he hacks into the official cyborg manufacturer’s factory to create a “soulless” shell (a female body) in which he can eventually transfer his consciousness. The puppet master defines himself as “a life-form” as although he is just self replicating data he argues that human “DNA is also just a self-preserving program”. Major and the Puppet Master therefore exist as a binary. Major, unable to reconcile her sense of self in regards to her physical biological/technological form, seeks to find her identity through her potential destruction. The Puppet Master however defines himself as biological and seeks to define himself as this through the creation of a technological form; for Major biological identity is a limit to existing within a network, but for the Puppet Master biological identity is the freedom to exist separately from the network. Major and Puppet Master represent both sides of the struggle at the narrative’s core — how do we define ourselves as individuals in a world which is increasingly more interconnected? Ghost in the Shell can therefore be read in terms of David Harvey’s theory of “Space-Time Compression”.² This is a postmodern idea that states that as technology, particularly communication technology rapidly improves both space and time get shorter and the world is increasingly homogenous; the world gets smaller as everyone becomes connected to a global capitalist network. Ghost in the Shell uses the novum of cyborgs and cybernetic humans to take Harvey’s idea to it’s logical conclusion; in the filmic world the characters are often literally connected to a global network. More so that than, the film also offers us Puppet Master — a consciousness who is solely borne from this network. Both Major and Puppet Masters narratives exist as attempts to transcend the problems of a world that has been rapidly space-time compressed; in a technological world where human consciousness has literally been amalgamated into one single large network, both Major and Puppet Master seek to try and carve out a space for the individual. These narratives exist to exaggerate and highlight the postmodern concerns of the 1990s and early 2000s from which the film was created. The narrative takes existing fears about personal/cultural identity in a rapidly advancing world, and cognitively estranges them through unfamiliar technology.

Ghost in the Shell is ultimately a film which uses it’s science-fiction world to as a “fantasy exploration”  of human identity in a post-modern world; specifically it uses anime as a hyperbolic way of removing human identity completely from biological humanity. In one hand, the film works to destabilise the distinction between personal identity and our biological/physical identity. Major’s position as cyborg works to deliberately destabilise the commonly accepted mode of understanding gender identity. From the offset of the narrative the audience is aware that Major is not biologically female, yet still readily accepts her gender identity as female; therefore identity has been removed from any biological/female fact. On the other hand, the narrative is an exploration of the attempt to create space for the individual within a homogenous society. Postmodern ideas of an interconnected capitalist network are exaggerated and made literal within the text as a technological network through which all humanity is connected. Ghost in the Shell is a film which seeks to reconcile the figure of the individual within a technological culture, as an exploration of the individual in the late-capitalist culture in which the film was made.


Children of Men, dir. by Alfonso Cuaron (Universal Pictures, 2006)

Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Mamoru Oshii (Bandai Visual, 1995)

Metropolis, dir. by Fritz Lang (UFA, 1927)


Butler, Judith, ‘From Gender Trouble’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edn, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010) pp.2540-2553ⁱ

Harvey, David, “Time-Space Compression and the Postmodern Condition” The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Condition of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989)²

Jollife Napier, Susan, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)³

Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. by Sue Thornham (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999) pp. 58-69⁴

Telotte, J. P., Science Fiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)⁵


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