Embracing the end of the world

Neon Kusanagi

I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell many times; the most recent happened to be Friday night. It is a beautiful film, both beautifully animated and beautifully directed, only 80 minutes long too, and just as importantly, every time I watch it, I feel like I’m interpreting it in a slightly different way.
I first stumbled across Ghost in the Shell as a young teenager and was almost exclusively interested in the film’s iconic visuals. You know, like Batou pulling his gun in the crowded market-place and the abrasive sound of the gun fire, the Major’s brief yet brutal kung-fu fight in the midst of that shallow river; only her shadow visible against the calm water. The list goes on, yet with each new viewing, it is the film’s more introspective moments that continue to haunt me.

This all began with the Anime World Order’s recent review of Angel’s Egg, probably the most infamous film of (director) Mamoru Oshii‘s career. In the film (which I haven’t seen, incidentally), a lonely girl aimlessly wanders about a desolate landscape, carrying with her a precious egg that she believes incubates her dying world’s last saviour. All her hopes and dreams are pinned on this (Angel’s) egg, but in the end, it breaks. The egg is empty.
Notably, the AWO review discusses how Oshii was an extremely religious person in his youth and had even intended to become a Christian priest, until something happened in his life, some pivotal moment that obviously pushed him towards his career in anime. Quite what that something was remains unknown, but it is suggested that Angel’s Egg is Oshii‘s criticism of religion, or rather, the blind faith that it encourages. Such was my mindset as I approached this latest viewing of Ghost in the Shell, the film’s very title an allusion to the human soul.

Kusanagi after diving

If one can presume that Oshii had lost his faith, then Ghost in the Shell could be seen as a film about Major Kusanagi’s struggle to find some meaning in, or proof to, her existence, in a world where everything is manufactured; where even her body is artificial.
In her free time, Kusanagi dives into the depths of the sea, but since her cyborg body is too heavy to swim, she relies completely on her equipment to carry her back to the surface. She knows that any tiny malfunction could be fatal, but she does it anyway, precisely because it is frightening and dangerous, because to fear death is to value life, and in that brief moment, she feels alive.
One can imagine Oshii‘s struggle. If someone grows up believing in a god, believing there is an underlying purpose to everything that happens; only to suddenly lose faith, that person would feel lost and alone. That feeling mirrors Kusanagi’s own melancholy and search for what it means to be alive. People often think of their souls, that essence of their individuality, as invisibly residing within their own flesh and blood, but without even her own body to fall back on, what else is left for Kusanagi to call her own? Likewise, if such a deeply religious person suddenly loses faith in the existence of his soul, what is it that defines his reality? What proves that he is alive?
The straightest answer is death. Life has no meaning without it, hence, at the end of Ghost in the Shell, the Puppet Master (Project 2501) has realised that the only way he/she can genuinely evolve into something that is alive is by acquiring the power to die. He chooses to ‘merge’ with Kusanagi because she shares similar doubts; her life may be artificial, but at least by agreeing to the Puppet Master’s plans, she has taken control of her own fate, and even if that path leads to her demise, it was through her own choice; if just for a few minutes, it proves that she was alive.
My own interpretation is that Ghost in the Shell is a film about the importance of free will, that the ability to act to one’s own accord, even if it means self destruction, is always preferable to a life with no purpose other than to blindly serve. I don’t know if that sounds depressing or not, really, I just know that I still love this film after all these years.

9 replies on “Embracing the end of the world”

Nice review – it reminds me of how much I enjoyed it too. I don’t suppose this is the latest ‘remastered’ version you’re talking about here? I still think that, after all these years, it’s a wonderful looking film so I’d be curious to see how much of a difference the revamped footage has made.
I guess these issues have been covered a lot in science fiction since the first GitS movie came out but I remember being enthralled by the the Major’s inner doubts and so on from the first time I watched it, and still find it fascinating. Innocence didn’t strike such a good balance between the action and philosophy, but this one still gets the right mixture of head-scratching and butt-kicking.
Angel’s Egg is…interesting. I think I still have a fansub of it on a CD-R somewhere but beyond it looking gorgeous I didn’t get much out of it from a thematic or storyline point of view. Maybe I ought to give it a second look after sampling more of Oshii’s style of direction since then. After I’ve seen the Sky Crawlers too, perhaps.

Wow, what a terrific post – it suddenly makes me want to see this film a second time. Personally I’d taken the end of Ghost in the Shell as being somewhat deterministic. Perhaps because I didn’t empathise much with The Major, her embrace of the machine felt like an inevitability rather than a gesture of free will. Unable to forge her life into a meaningful narrative the only meaning left to her was the undeniable imperative of material progress.

Fantastic post as usual 🙂
Kusanagi has been quite an iconic character. I see her all over the place.
To be completely honest though I’ve avoided GiTs cause I keep on hearing that Oshii seems to delve into sci-fi gibberish more times than not. I used to have a very bad tendency of creating and formulating my own closure for a show if it gets too hard to understand. Thats a few years back though, so I think I’m finally ready for some Crazy Oshii directing 😛 heres hoping I don’t end up butchering GiTs ending with one of my crazy hypothetical what ifs 😛 hehe

Truthfully, I never got as much as you did from the film. The film gave me great mood and atmosphere, a visually rich Hong Kong setting [->], and an awesome mecha fight [->]. The insights you got, I got out of the superlative manga.
I should qualify, I did got something like it from the film. After all, the Major’s final transformation drove everything home quite strongly. But the rich concept and even more solid grounding in the setting I recommend the manga. I’ve been told that Stand Alone Complex blends both superlatively, but I had not been able to stay interested in the TV anime.

Good insights! I’ve also enjoyed this movie a few times over the years and seen different things at different times. I think your thoughts about the exploration of the soul and free will are right on.

Well said. I watched Ghost in the Shell a couple years ago, and while I think I grasped the overall, general, and fairly blatant meaning involving the true definition of a person and a “soul,” I think you just pinpointed what I’ve been looking for. At least with respect to the movie, your analysis appears to succeed in explaining a few nuances of the themes; things that I had seen distantly but was never able to put my finger on. I always knew the franchise was good, but I think I can now see it in a far clearer light.

@coburn: Thanks! The movie is well worth watching again, Oshii’s style is such that every frame is crammed full of ideas and feeling, and, perhaps, a lot of it is noticable only on second, third, or even fourth viewings.
I guess you’re seeing Kusanagi’s end as more of a resignation than an escape? I suppose I don’t think (or don’t want to think) she’s given up on life, she just wants to feel something that proves she is alive, which is kind of where I’m drawing allusions to Oshii himself, who, I think, was using her as a means of understanding his own spiritual unease.
@Martin: Yeah, it was Ghost in the Shell 2.0, but to be honest, the new style didn’t convince me. In some sections, they’ve gone the full CG route with the Major, and she looks fairly unnatural/Appleseed-esque, which is at odds with the rest of the more ‘flat’ animation. It doesn’t look right at all; it’s a bit like George Lucas going back and adding new footage to Star Wars– looks alright at the time, but a few years later, the CG will have dated. The original film has a perfect aesthetic anyway.
@Ivy: Good luck! Ghost in the Shell is possibly the perfect marriage of Oshii’s introspective style and pure exciting entertainment, the film is so tight and well crafted, it just effortlessly passes from scene to scene. No time wasting, just a long natural progression from A to B. That said, I basically know this movie inside-out by now, so I might be a bit biased!
@ghostlightning/Anyone: I’ve always wondered, how does the GITS manga compares to the movie? I’ve often considered the film more of Oshii’s work than Masamune Shirow’s. I get that the general themes are probably the same, but I wonder if, for example, the diving scene is in the manga too?
@okiru14: Thanks, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my thoughts on the film (and nice to hear from you again, too). I guess I found this to be a fairly difficult/complex thing to write about, and I was anxious to see whether I was going in the right direction or not.
@ETERNAL: Thanks also. I think a big part of understanding the film is understanding Mamoru Oshii. I wish more information about anime directors (and creators in general) was more readily available. Guys like Oshii and Hosada (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) have some fantastic back-stories to their careers in anime.

sorry off topic
but I dont know where to comment on your side bar
you like sports anime
really you should hurry and watch slam dunk
as for ANN reviews
I really have never liked their reviews ,I find all of them to be bad
specially after the hilarious HxH 1st DVD reveiew
I will give him that HxH really starts slowly ,but he made a compared HxH as a whole to naruto after watching only 15 episodes ,I call that unprofessional
as much as I like naruto,the difference in quality is as day and night
imo HxH quality>berserk
and I just cant wait for the reviewer to watch the rest of HxH to laugh at himself

It’s funny – a lot of what you mention here could be applied to Sky Crawlers. I wouldn’t necessarily link the two films on first glance, but thematically they share an awful lot.

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