Not Giving Up the Ghost
A “cyborg” refers to a human whose body has been partially or almost completely altered by the use of substitute artificial organs or body parts. — Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell
Beautiful and dangerous, Major Makoto Kusanagi operates in the shadows along with the rest of Public Security Section 9. They are the few specially-equipped to handle the impossible jobs no one else will tackle — from covert operations to weed out corrupt public officials to confronting terrorists — in a future world where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish what it means to be human.
Ghost in the Shell (GITS) by Masamune Shirow made its debut in 1990, within the pages of Kodansha’s Young Magazine Kaizokuban. It was later adapted into a feature-length anime movie, directed by Mamoru Oshii, that introduced even more people to the wildly popular series, published stateside by Darkhorse Comics. Part political thriller, part action-adventure, part philosophical drama, GITS raises the bar for both storytelling and art due to Shirow’s all-encompassing and meticulous attention to detail.
The prologue sets the series’ pace. However, it only gives readers a glimpse of the “external” story — a complex and dense plot full of deadly subterfuge, international terrorists, thrillingly-realized action sequences and an ironic sense of humor. Gradually, readers are allowed to see that a majority of the S9 team members, including Kusanagi herself, are not all they appear to be. Several are cyborgs, according to Shirow’s definition. As the team handles its various cases, what it means to “be a cyborg,” from both biological and technical standpoints, comes into focus. Then the “internal” story, which has remained secondary until this point, takes over. Readers and the characters are intentionally left to wonder, does a biomechanical being become human at some point? Is there a point when a human, after a certain degree of enhancement, is considered a machine? The questions become increasingly pressing as Shirow explains the technology behind these advancements and makes it clear that those of mechanical origin can be programmed to think human. Even more startling, the human brain can be programmed like a computer. What does this mean for the soul? Can it also be “faked”?
For all of its fireworks, Ghost in the Shell is not for those expecting to find a simple, action-packed, roller coaster ride. Shirow intended for his audience to think, something made very apparent by the complicated, fictional technology he created. (There are 10 pages of tech and philosophy-related “author’s notes” in the graphic novel!) Beyond his detailed approach to the mechanics of his creation, he was just as dedicated to the development of his characters’ personalities. This is Kusanagi’s story, and she is multidimensional. She has strengths, weaknesses and emotions that are very human, despite her superhuman exterior. Her closest friend, Batou, is also a cyborg, and he is portrayed as a stand-up guy who looks after his comrade whether she wants him to or not. Their “Fuchikoma” robots share a singular artificial intelligence and come across as having personalities of their own. For comparison and contrast, Togusa is the one, un-enhanced team member. He wrestles with both insecurity (about his status on the job) and stress (about providing for his family), as he engages in a dangerous line of work.
Each of the characters finds himself or herself asking tough questions about where the soul or “ghost” fits into this highly technological world. Major Kusanagi, alone, finds answers to her questions in an unusual place.
Shirow manages to present philosophy in a memorable and entertaining package, and people have been trying to emulate his achievement ever since its debut. Ghost in the Shell is a must-read for fans of smart storytelling.
GHOST IN THE SHELL © 1991 by Masamune Shirow. All rights reserved. First published in Japan in 1991 by Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo. English translation arranged through Kodansha Ltd. New and adapted artwork and text © 1991, 1995 Studio Proteus and Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.