The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 83 – Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex

This week we are looking at one of the most successful of anime and manga franchises. This is a series which began in print in 1989, and has been adapted into various anime: film, TV and original video anime (OVA) releases. It has also produced one of anime’s most iconic leads.

Ghost in the Shell’s first anime version was a feature film in 1995. Then there was two spin-off TV series which ran from 2002-05 known as Stand Alone Complex. This was followed by were two films: Innocence in 2004, which was a sequel to the first film; and Solid State Society, a sequel to the TV version in 2006. Most recently there was the Arise OVA, a four-part spin-off prequel brought out between 2013-14. So there is plenty to get through.

Ghost in the Shell is a mixture of crime and cyberpunk. It is set after a nuclear World War III and a non-nuclear World War IV in the mid-21st century. The action takes place in the fictional New Port City in Japan. At this point in time technology has advanced to the point where people can have “cyberbrains”, where their brains can interact with computer networks. You can also have cybernetic prosthetics such a robotic limbs. You can even become a cyborg with a fully prosthetic body, such as that as the lead character and heroine of the story: Major Motako Kusanagi.

Major Kusanagi works for Public Security Section 9, a task-force mostly made out of ex-soldiers and police officers, which mainly deals with political crimes and counter-terrorism. Other members of Section 9 include Batou, an ex-soldier who has artificial eyes; Togusa, formerly from the police who has not undergone any cybernetic enhancements; and the director of Section 9 Chief Daisuke Aramaki, who frequently puts his career on the line to protect his unit.

While much of the series focuses on the crimes that Section 9 has to solve, it also deals with humanity’s relationship with technology. One recurring element is Kusanagi often saying that her “ghost” is leading her to the solution to a problem. Does this ghost count as a soul? Can Kusanagi have a soul despite being mostly machine?

This series features lots of different elements that give the series popular appeal. As just stated, there are the philosophical issues relating to our use of technology and how we use it. It deals with cyborgs, hacking, artificial intelligence etc. There is plenty to get you thinking. You also have the technology and machines created by the original author Masamune Shirow: Kusanagi can use “thermo-optical camouflage” to make herself invisible. There are also the “tachikoma” – “think-tanks” that are robotic weapons which at first have child-like intelligence but then learn new information.

Balanced with this are the more action-packed sequences. There is the thrill of the police chase, fighting between cops and robbers and all the usual things that you expect in a crime thriller. There is also a slight touch of the erotic: Shirow is famous for his more adult works as well as his cyberpunk series. The animation looks brilliant in most versions of the series, especially in the online locations.

Ghost in the Shell is one of the most iconic anime around, and Motako Kusanagi has become one of anime’s most recognisable characters: a great heroine who is both intelligent and great physical fighter. You could even argue that she is a sex symbol thanks to Shirow’s erotic leanings. There are many incarnations of the series and you can dive into pretty much any of them and enjoy this anime.

The one incarnation of the franchise that might be problematic however is a possible forthcoming Hollywood live-action directed by Rupert Sanders and with Scarlett Johansson playing Kusanagi. I say worrying because as far as I know there has never been a Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese anime or manga that has been given universal praise, and some have just been totally terrible. Whether they can do something different remains to be seen.

All incarnations of Ghost in the Shell are released by Manga Entertainment. All the films are available in DVD and Blu-Ray, with the original film also released as a Steelbook. The Stand Alone Complex TV series are released on DVD. The first two Arise episodes are on DVD and Blu-Ray.