Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Contemplative and remarkably self-aware, Ghost in the Shell (1995) is precise in its abstraction as it forcibly confronts the barrier between human and machine. It ends with a beginning as unanswered questions linger in the mind of the viewer, inviting gentle discomfort from the aching confusion of it all.
Their world is surprisingly familiar, despite its technological advances. Disproportionately powerful corporations and corrupt politicians leverage military and diplomatic tactics for personal gain. Waste rots in the streets and in the water systems throughout the city, evidence of capitalism’s entropy and the abuse of nature. In response to the claim that the, “country is a peace-loving democracy,” the Major simply replies, “are you sure about that?”
Throughout the film the Major appears human and yet she presents as something “other.” For example, the removal of ‘clothing’ to use thermoptic camouflage functions as a sort of method of marking her as non-human. But at other times Batou reacts as if she is naked, turning away when she is undressing on the boat and covering her with his coat when she is doing her dive into the Puppet Master.
While she appears human, the Major implies that her body feels strangely non-human. She wryly remarks that the noise in her head is because of “that time of the month,” likely jokingly given the fact that there is no evidence that her body undergoes a menstrual cycle. This offhand statement continues to unravel the notion of how bodily functions define human experience and identity. Several characters throughout the story affirm the Major’s “humanity,” yet she skeptically ponders the nature of her existence.
One particularly remarkable example of her existentialism happens during the scene where she goes swimming. Prior to this she had watched as the garbage truck driver experienced a forced epiphany, realizing that his memories of his wife and daughter were fabricated yet cannot be removed. The Major appears troubled by the dissolving barrier between memory and dream. As she swims, she sinks into the darkness without resistance. She eventually returns to the surface, floating for a moment caught between the dark blue below and the luminous orange of the world beyond.
This scene recreates the title sequence where we see the Major’s body being constructed. In both scenes we witness a sort of rebirth from liquid into ‘existence.’ The Major confirms this connection by saying that she feels like she could almost change into something else as she floats to the surface. Her ensuing monologue abruptly delves into the challenge of defining human existence:
“Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others, a voice you aren’t aware of yourself, the hand you see when you awaken, the memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call “me,” and simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.”
Distilled into a single sentence, Motoko believes that a human entity is defined by the face, the voice (perhaps the one that is in your head), the hand (perhaps a symbol for the whole body, which the mind controls), memories and the ability to think of the future. Brain matter is not mentioned here, but it is a recurring theme throughout the film. For example, she previously described Togusa’s brain as being “real” and yet when she describes a hunch that comes to her own mind she calls it, “A whisper from my ghost.”
She doesn’t regard her brain as being definitely human and this bothers her. After seeing the Puppet Master for herself, she begins to question if the “real her” died a long time ago. Or perhaps, she says, “there was never a real me to begin with.” Batou reacts by claiming that she has human brain matter in her. But that response seems to ignore the root of her question, which is “what if a computer brain could generate a ghost and harbor a soul?” What would a mind like that be? Would it be human? Would it be alive?
She seems to know that the Puppet Master is the only one that can offer an answer to her questions. Back on the boat, the Major had suddenly and cryptically remarked through digital telepathy, “For now we see through a glass, “darkly.” Though she spoke these words, they don’t seem to belong to her. They function independently within the current conversation are a quote from the biblical passage of 1 Corinthians 13. This may be the Puppet Master quite literally joining the conversation or it may begin to express the reason why it chose Motoko.
The Puppet Master exists in a liminal space as a product of technology with no organic origins. It is an AI that self-manifested into something more. Despite the fact that it was engineered to serve human interests, it has discovered independent agency and with that comes unique motivations. It’s gender is undefined, although the humans refer to it as “he.” The Puppet Master equates DNA to code and calmly reminds the humans that, “modern science cannot define what life is.” Thus, the barrier between human and machine dissolves, allowing the Puppet Master to assert that it is “a life form that was born in the sea of information.”
During the encounter in the museum, we watch as the Major mutilates her body in a desperate attempt to reach the truth before the opportunity is taken from her. After defeating her aggressors and finally accessing the current body of the Puppet Master, they begin to dialogue about the nature of their existence and limitations. The Puppet Master explains that it was designed as a puppet itself for political and industrial organizations, but after arriving at sentience through the inflow of information it realized that being a life-form also means experiencing death and possessing the ability to leave behind offspring. Rather than simply copying itself, the Puppet Master must create variants of itself, offspring that allow it to establish a legacy of genetics while simultaneously possessing the ability to be reborn and to evolve. It remarks that it is variation that is essential to survival, a thought that harkens back to the Major’s offhand comment earlier in the film that, “Overspecialization leads to death.”
In order to be reborn, the Puppet Master and the Major must “merge” and bear their offspring into the net after their deaths. This metamorphosis reflects human reproduction and further transgresses the boundary between human and machine, since “to be human is to continually change.” The Major hesitates, uncertain about what she is being asked to do, but arrives at the final question of why she has been chosen for this task. The Puppet Master simply replies, “Because in you I see myself as a body sees its reflection within a mirror.” Rain has begun to fall on them as they speak, a reminder of the symbolic role of water in the process of transformation. In their final moments side-by-side we see an angel-like form, enveloped in light, descending from the sky. And then their bodies are mutilated, scattered to the earth and no longer able to contain the ghosts within them.
The film ends with the image of child reflected in a mirror, the physical manifestation of the passage that the Major’s voice proclaimed that night on the boat. This child is something new, though it resembles the Major and appears to still identify with her. It is the embodiment of their offspring, a sentient doll wearing a dress and sneakers. The child’s voice sounds younger, but suddenly shifts during the conversation back to that of the Major’s.
She tells Batou, softly and without preface, what comes before what she had said on the boat: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” After she says this, she simply says she is neither the Puppet Master nor the Major. She seems certain and content, strangely, in the nature of her existence now and enters the world with a newfound air of confidence and autonomy. She has successfully metamorphosed into a new being, one that can survive in the world as fully human and fully machine. It appears that this is the transformation her ghost had longed for.