While it is often likened to The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999) because of its visuals, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) is actually much closer to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) when it comes to what the film is stating. Set in a not-to-distant future where technology is advancing faster than it perhaps should, Ghost in the Shell is afforded the ability to examine the humanity of its subjects by way of what they are physically, mentally, and spiritually. Even though most of the characters in the film are relatively unconcerned with the state of their humanity, the film is still sure to examine exactly what they are made of and how it affects them. Chief among those that Ghost in the Shell examines is Motoko Kusanagi, who is much more unsure of her own humanity than many of those that surround her. While the technology that penetrates almost every aspect of daily life is not particularly fantastic to any of the characters in the film, Kusanagi is the only one that expresses a personal concern with this feature. It cannot be argued that technology has not fundamentally altered the characters of Ghost in the Shell physically, that much is visually apparent, but what the film argues is that the same technology has changed and is changing the very essence of the existence that makes up these characters.
By way of her augments and advancements, Kusanagi has become more powerful and much more skilled than any unaltered human could ever aspire to be. But with these advancements come the price that Kusanagi’s body is no longer her own. It belongs to Section 9, the special forces unit that she is a part of; and while she is free to leave at any time, doing so would mean that she would have to forfeit her augmented body, or shell, back to them. But it is not only her physical form that would be taken away from her, as Kusanagi and anyone else who decided to leave would also have to relinquish their memories of their time in Section 9. This fundamental altering of their non-physical being is just one example of the many ways in which technology has changed the definition of what it means to be human beyond the simple physical modifications. However, because of these changes, the nature of the humanity of those that have been altered can and is called into question. Kusanagi is chief among those that do so. Concerned that she is not longer human, and even that she may have never been so in the first place, Ghost in the Shell’s protagonist begins to search for the answers of her own existence.
As the film evidences by way of its unfortunate garbage man character, even the very nature of the memories in a person’s head is not certain. Implanted with the memories of life he has never lived, this character is led to do things based on his fake memories that he would never do otherwise. Even when he is faced with the truth, the garbage man must also face the fact that he will likely never be rid of these memories. For this character, his non-physical existence has been fundamentally and permanently changed. Kusanagi fears that something similar has happened to her in the sense that she cannot ever be sure of who and what she is. Through these concerns, Ghost in the Shell examines what happens to humanity when the fundamental definition and essence of it is no longer certain.
By the conclusion of the film, the definition of what Kusanagi is has changed in almost every way possible. Faced with something that is not human but also not an AI, Kusanagi discovers that the definition of humanity is even more convoluted than she can imagine. But in an effort to discover truly what she is, Kusanagi agrees to merge with the being, known as Project 2501, and become something that neither of them could become on their own. In the end, Kusanagi is no longer fundamentally Kusanagi, but some part of her is. The being that is the result of the merger between Kusanagi and Project 2501 is more of an offspring of the two rather than a hybrid of them. The film portrays the result as a small child because of this and she is filled with an appropriate amount of wonder about the world. However, this new being is not a child in the typical definition as it carries with it an extraordinary sense of knowledge about the nature of its own existence.
Kusanagi’s merger should not be considered as her death though. Even though Project 2501 states that it will “achieve death” as a result of the merger, the exact effect that it has on Kusanagi is different. In one sense, Kusanagi evolves as a result of her experience. She has done something that an un-augmented human could never do, and that is become one with a being that is not human and does not have a physical form of its own. Following the merge, the being proclaims that it is not longer Kusanagi, but it is also no longer Project 2501. Instead, by way of her actions, Kusanagi has created a being that is beyond herself and the being she merged with. Simply put, she has transcended to another state of being. She is not longer a being that is grounded in the physical in terms of how she perceives the world. Following the merge, the new being considers the world first by way of its virtual aspect, and with all other aspects coming behind it. The new being does not see the world as a human does, but at the same time it exists in the physical realm, something that a program could never do. Kusanagi and Project 2501 have created something greater than themselves, and in doing so they have taken a step forward in evolution, though this evolution is not necessarily a human one.
Ghost in the Shell does not explore many alternatives to the statement that the technology demonstrated in the film has changed what it means to be human. Going even further, the film calls into question the humanity of many of its characters by questioning if they can still be considered as such given their augmentations. In the end, Kusanagi is certainly no longer human, but Ghost in the Shell indicates that its protagonist may have not even been human before her merge. Even though the film seems to emphasize her humanity by showing her bare form, it often undercuts this by showing and talking about all of the modifications that have been made to it. Kusanagi’s body is not actually her body; it is just an artificial shell in which her ghost resides. But Kusanagi and the film are not convinced that the simple presence of a soul is enough to define someone as human. After all, in many ways Kusanagi and Project 2501 are the same. Both reside within bodies that are not their own and they both seek to fully understand what they are and why. The only significant different between the two of them is that Kusanagi was at one point human, or so she believes. Project 2501 believes this as well, and this is why it seeks to merge with her as it hopes to experience some of the humanity that is not native to it. But following the merge, Kusanagi’s humanity has been lost, or rather, sacrificed for the sake of the next step in evolution.
Throughout the film, technology is portrayed as both a monumental achievement of humanity, and also the driving force that will lead to the end of it. However, this end is not one that will be brought about by way of incredible weapons, but rather by the integration of technology into the existence of humans to the point that they no longer meet the definition of what they once were. Kusanagi experiences this firsthand, as she transcends into a being that is no longer of the physical realm by way of nature. But while external forces primarily drive other forms of evolution, this evolution is driven by humanity itself. After all, Kusangi’s humanity has been sacrificed for the sake of a new existence, and in many ways this is a release for her as she was no longer sure of her humanity in general. Technology has made her unsure of her own existence, and eventually it is technology that allows Kusanagi to alleviate these concerns by allowing her to move into a new form of existence. Ghost in the Shell argues that technology has altered the souls of humans, and because of this their humanity will eventually be inevitably lost. Humans, in this way, have brought about their own evolution, but also and at the same time, their own destruction.