Call me a romantic if you must, but I’m one of those people who believes in the one. If you find yourself at a loss out in the dating circle, take heart: there is a perfect match for everyone. I know that because I found Ghost in the Shell, and I hope you can be even half as happy as we are. For me, Ghost in the Shell is electric to the touch. The premise of the world, and the perspectives through which we engage in that world make for the most stimulating meditations on human nature, on existence itself, building toward spectacular releases in mind-bending action. This is thought-provoking science-fiction, one of the quintessential anime, period. The arrival of any new installment in this media franchise which has spanned manga, film, television, books, and video games means that so much is again possible as we return to such a richly-imagined world. But it’s also a moment where I reflect on what makes a good Ghost in the Shell? What are the fundamentals that I’d like to see reembodied each time, so to speak? Now ideally, a top five listicle like what follows is more of a celebration than a list of demands, but I think outlining what I most appreciate and look for in Ghost in the Shell will help me evaluate what comes next.
So we start with number five, politics. This is actually to do with aesthetics and tone more so than strictly subject matter. In my adulthood, I’ve picked up an appreciation for things like Mad Men, Moneyball, Show Me a Hero, Foundation by Isaac Asimov — I really like it when characters are in a room solving a problem. The most relevant example here is Shin-Godzilla. Look at these boardrooms, the geometry of the composition — it brings a tear to my eye. In Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, you have Section 9, Prime Minister Kayabuki’s administration, and the Cabinet Intelligence Service all trying to create or deconstruct each other’s society-involving machinations. I like this approach because it keeps the tone relatively grounded, which helps the extraordinary elements, like the Major, feel that much more special.
And then, speaking to subject matter, I do appreciate the density of that exposition. It is, appropriately so, complex. And I like that not because it makes me feel smart — Ghost in the Shell does not make me feel smart, it makes me feel like an idiot because I never understand it — I like it because on top of already intriguing subject matter like corporate malfeasance and social manipulation, we work our way through a tangle of conspiracies and bureaucracies in order to reach the truth. In the world of Ghost in the Shell, we see how evil can be made invisible. Section 9 roots out that evil, peels back those layers, and in doing so, we see they are indeed elite. If the problem on the conference table before Section 9 isn’t complicated, why am I impressed when they solve it? So this grounded approach also dodges lesser storytelling habits in similar procedural stories. The conspiracies that Section 9 are investigating are difficult to unravel because of the layers of misinformation and the inherent protection of politicians, not because of a mole inside the unit or a love triangle or anything like that. Powerful people can always hide their criminal acts, and the fact that Section 9 is often investigating white collar crooks like politicians and corporate executives makes it the only police procedural I can actually enjoy. It’s a downright escapist fantasy.
4) The Artist’s Hand
At number four, we have the artist’s hand, and this is kind of abstract, but one of the big differences between Ghost in the Shell I like and Ghost in the Shell I don’t like is when the creative force behind the work has something to say, and they’re able to use the Ghost in the Shell canvas as a vehicle for something personal and meaningful. And that vehicle is a spider-tank. Probably the examples which first spring to mind are the two movies by Mamoru Oshii, whose films are always very personal and very thoughtful. Watching these movies, I feel like I can get a sense for the mind of another human being.
I mean, this is how you have good storytelling anyway, by beginning with a storyteller. But it’s only number four here because honestly? I can take a C+ Ghost in the Shell any day of the week. If we’re talking about elements that I absolutely require to enjoy Ghost in the Shell, being good is kind of just gravy, and that’s the difference between a fan and somebody with a better grasp on objective reality. But maybe that’s a misapprehension on my part. I claim to love it when the Major spin-kicks someone, but if she spin-kicks somebody I don’t care about, is the spin-kick any good?
3) Combat Puzzle
Keeping spin-kicks well in mind, number three this is a big one for me: the combat puzzle, something I’ve only so far witnessed in glimpses. So, I’m sure you remember the episode of Stand Alone Complex “Not Equal.” Very action-packed, but look at how this action unfolds. A rocket launcher blows away like a dozen guys at a time? Is this something that we could only see in Ghost in the Shell? For a contrasting example, I actually look to Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie, a theatrical release from 2015. There isn’t a lot of action in The New Movie, but at least two set pieces involve the entire team and feel a lot more tactical than this rocket launcher business. Section 9 here is infiltrating a submarine, and wouldn’t you know it? Invisible spider-tanks. So you splash them, and you lay down suppressive fire, use Tachikomas to advance on their position. There’s a problem-solving aspect, and if Section 9 is problem-solving with the investigations, with artificial intelligence, and sometimes with their personal lives, why should action in the field be any less thoughtful?
What I really want to highlight is the opening hostage rescue sequence in The New Movie. This, to me, is the apotheosis of Ghost in the Shell action. I like the cat-and-mouse between Section 9 and Section 4 at the end of 2nd Gig, but when two symmetrical special operations teams go at it, you got to bring the heat, because that’s so cool. What’s great about this sequence in The New Movie is how the team brings to bear their individual specialties while working together as a unit. And speaking of specialties, the design of their attack is basically an alley-oop to get the Major in range so she can do what she does best, which is kick somebody’s ass. Generally speaking, though, I just want to see more tactical action in movies and TV shows. Remember Heat and how cool it was to see this fire and movement? Nowadays, everything is John Wick-inspired, and previous to that, everything was kung fu. People, you’re not gonna do it better than Keanu. Instead of chasing trends, why not tailor the action to what’s appropriate? In Section 9’s case, that means tactical — the battlefield is their chess board, especially since the battlefield is usually a major metropolitan area like Tokyo, and there’s no way our utopian police force is gonna be shooting rocket launchers. Instead I want to see the gadgets and the hacking and the enhanced cyborg bodies put to work, though who can deny the occasional standard issue big gun?
So this next one definitely falls more on the side of “list of demands,” because it is somewhat aspirational. I always forget that the original Ghost in the Shell manga is so vibrant and full of life, and that the movies and TV series can be so affecting. I can’t watch Innocence nowadays without crying, and moments in the endgame of the 1st and 2nd Gig are quite emotional. It’s easy for me to forget because the emotions of Ghost in the Shell are purposely understated. And we can provide reasons why. This is a series about ideas, not emotions. We could say this is simply Japanese-style storytelling, none of that weepy, shouty American stuff we see on HBO. Or, you know, perhaps a show about the line between man and machine should feature people who blur that line. I think that’s all okay, but this demand is also a matter of story structure. When two characters are talking in Ghost in the Shell, there’s pretty much two modes: exposition and speaking between the lines. Batou is unable to tell the Major how he feels, as if the Major doesn’t already know. She knows everything, dude. However, I want to hone in on the exposition.
Something I’ve learned about writing dialogue is that you must, as the writer, locate the conflict within each exchange. Even in crass terms, if you turn on CBS right now, you’ll see two characters arguing about something relatively innocuous. You kind of wonder why there’s an issue — like, just go along with it — but this is the formula laid bare, without any garnish. You want to move the plot along, and you want to involve the viewer in that plot by eliciting in them emotions. You can’t do that if the characters are just listing off the facts of the case. I mean, even right now, it’s the difference between me saying “Ghost in the Shell is good” versus you saying “Ghost in the Shell is bad,” to which I then respond, “Ghost in the Shell is good. When my whole family was murdered by an illegal-model Chinese cyborg, Ghost in the Shell was there for me, man.” You don’t have that potentially characterizing supporting argument if characters are only exchanging facts.
Ghost in the Shell is probably better about sharpening its exposition toward human dialogue than it’s given credit for, as my own faulty memory generally attests, but I would like to see a little bit more. Even if it’s just for one time, I want to see what it’s like when these characters do speak and argue like their American counterparts. Look at scripts by Scott Z. Burns, like The Report or Contagion. These are good examples of identifying the drama in seemingly nondramatic information dumps. It could just be a bias of mine, because I do enjoy American TV dramas, whose effectiveness sometimes peaks with shouting contests. You don’t really see that in anime, and granted, if we want anime to remain anime, perhaps Ghost in the Shell is fine on this account. But then I’d just point to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, which affected me the same way as something like Rectify. For reference, it’s actually Moribito and not Stand Alone Complex that’s kept my faith in Kenji Kamiyama for good. That show is serious, serious business.
Before we get to number one, I should mention some essentials that are, to me, kind of give-or-take, but nevertheless should be mentioned: technology, philosophy, and music.
For technology, yes, Ghost in the Shell is technically a work of cyberpunk, though I prefer the application of postcyberpunk here, because there’s nothing punk about an elite special operations police team shooting people in the name of the state to achieve an abstract justice. Cyberpunk anime is Akira and Cyber City Oedo and the Bubblegum Crisis spin-offs. What was punk about the original 1995 movie was the movie itself, that it’s this new thing from the futureland of Japan and look at how confronting this poster is:
To me, Ghost in the Shell is “cyber,” period, but the problem with even that part of it in the year 2020 is that goddamn it, it’s the year 2020. We’re closer to Stand Alone Complex’s fictional future than we are to its original broadcast. I’m sure you wanted to hear that. And what that means is the cyborg is very much a reality, and it’s difficult to be futurist about that technology when actual cyborgs are watching and feeling evaluated. And also, for me, statements about technology are never the point. Ghost in the Shell is always about human nature, and Stand Alone Complex in particular is downright sociological. So I guess when I say that technology isn’t an essential for me personally, I just mean I’m perfectly fine with shotgun arms, and I don’t need to think about why it’s a good or bad thing. My mind’s made up on that front.
So then we have philosophy, which is most embodied by the original 1995 movie. Our understanding of that movie is inevitably extended by The Matrix, which is then in turn extended by the Matrix sequels, so I think I get it in my head that Ghost in the Shell is all about the philosophy. I mean, it’s kind of notorious in this regard, and I’m not even really sure what it means that it is. So, the central dilemma for Motoko here is that she can’t be sure of her selfhood, because she is the ghost in the machine, and this calls to mind Descartes and Sartre and all the people directly quoted in Ghost in the Shell 2. But again, I never saw this aspect of the text as the point, only a means to an end, and as such, could be substituted for something else if necessary, like sociology or geopolitics. What interests me about the Major is not necessarily the questions she raises about the nature of existence, because I personally don’t care about whether I exist or not. I mean, philosophically — I’d prefer to remain alive. To me, the philosophy is how these characters work through their problems — existence in the first movie and grief in the second. As already mentioned with my number three here, I’d like to see what would happen if these problems were worked through in less opaque terms. As much as I can appreciate this strange style, I can also easily imagine Ghost in the Shell without it. I mean, I don’t know what these Tachikomas are ever talking about. I love these big blue robots, but I do not understand this, and counterintuitively I’ve enjoyed most if not all Ghost in the Shell without really getting it.
For music, I think it’s kind of a coincidence that two pieces of the franchise have such outstanding music: the two Oshii movies and Stand Alone Complex, by Kenji Kawaii and Yoko Kanno respectively. Personally, I’m not one who’s ever gonna look forward to a really good soundtrack for something, so don’t put that in the trailer. Music is always an element I interface with in the moment or in retrospect, but always as a part of the experience, and when we talk about the works of either composer, it’s often this separate thing. I mean, The Wire has no diegetic music, and it’s a riveting drama. A lot of the CW shows I happen to watch could be vastly improved by removing the score. In each case with Ghost in the Shell, the music serves a narrative function. The Oshii movies are so much about mood that the alien sounds are perfectly unsettling. And the ethereal cool of Stand Alone Complex with the international cadre of women’s vocals help center the story as the Major’s. I always felt like I was in her headspace, and in fact, tracks like “Torukia” and “Cyberbird” are practically my only access to that headspace. It’s a very interesting but probably necessary way to have a protagonist who’s very much an enigma. And that brings us to our number one.
1) The Major
Funnily enough, the Major is not a requirement for me to love a piece of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Innocence is one of my favorite movies of all time, and the Major is barely a factor. 2nd Gig is hands down my favorite season of television ever, and she pretty much sits out the finale. But as much as I am a Ghost in the Shell fan, I think I might be a bigger Major fan. She is the first and final metric by which I measure any new Ghost in the Shell, and if she’s there and she sucks, that’s an almost impossible hurdle for me to overcome. Having a weak Major is basically an unforgivable sin. This is my all-time favorite character in fiction, and it’s primarily because of her portrayal in Stand Alone Complex. In the movie, she’s super strong and badass, but also quite cold. In the TV show, she’s a warrior queen. She makes the plays, and she executes, and she is so scary — she’s basically like the grim reaper. If she’s after you for whatever reason, there’s no escape. Seriously, where you can possibly hide? You better rip those nodes out of your neck; you better not even touch a computer, because she’s gonna jump from building to building, she’s gonna part traffic like the Red Sea, drive a spider-tank, hack all your security systems, beat up a robot or two and she is gonna get you. And that’s not gonna be a pretty sight.
That’s the Major I like to see, that’s the Major I’m talking about. I don’t know what Major you guys are talking about, but I don’t want to see a pale imitation of what we’ve already seen and know as totally cool. I want to see some big jumping, some purple shades, maybe an extrajudicial killing or two if she’s in the mood, and I want to see those spin-kicks.
So, Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 will be out soon. I think the worst Ghost in the Shell we’re ever gonna see is behind us. I’m trying to be level in my expectations, but either way, each new installment is only the latest interpretation. I love how this series works, that there is no canon, no definitive take on what Ghost in the Shell is. So if a new entry has something novel to add or anything cool to show or say, that’s all I ask. I just know that this franchise never goes away forever, and that baked into its core are the ingredients to both make masterpieces like Innocence and 2nd Gig and appeal to my harebrained inner fan. Strong prediction, I’ll have a review of 2045 over on the website, so be on the lookout for that. Otherwise, be well, and don’t do any cybercrimes, kids, because you know what happens next.