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Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 Japanese animated film directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito, and based on the eponymous manga by Masamune Shirow. It takes place in a 2029 metropolis obviously based on but never explicitly stated to be Hong Kong. A cyborg, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and other cyborg and non-cyborg members of the public-security agency Section 9 are investigating a hacker known only as the Puppet Master. In their search, they find and arrest two men who are working for this hacker. One is a garbage man who believes himself to be hacking ex-wife’s “ghost” (that is, their mind and soul) in order to find his daughter. The other believes himself to be an assassin working to disrupt diplomatic talks. Both of them, however, are found out to have been taken over and manipulated by the Puppet Master. Their original memories have been overwritten with new ones meant to further the Puppet Master’s own goals.
The Puppet Master produces for itself a cyborg female body, which turns out to be a trap by rival agency Section 6 to confine the hacker’s ghost. As Section 6 arrives to take the body, the Puppet Master begins to assert that it is an entity that has never had human form. After Section 6 covertly and violently steals the body, Section 9 investigates and confirms that Section 6’s stories don’t add up and that the Puppet Master is a legitimately sentient being. Project 2501, which Section 6 claimed was created to fight the Puppet Master, actually developed the Puppet Master itself: a program designed to hack into peoples’ ghosts for intelligence purposes. After enough time spent out on the net, however, it developed a consciousness of its own.
The Major confronts the Puppet Master and his massive hacked tank in a final battle. With help from fellow Section 9 agent Batou, Kusanagi connects directly with the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master explains their purpose, their nature, and their desire to reproduce. The Puppet Master and the Major fuse their ghosts together. The film ends with Kusanagi overlooking the city, contemplating and accepting her new merged self.
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The world of Ghost in the Shell is one in which human enhancement, especially the introduction of cyber-brains, is seen as relatively normal. Partial and full cyborgs are commonly encountered throughout the film. In fact, it is stated in the film that the only member of Section 9 who has not undergone any cybernetic treatments whatsoever is Togusa. Ghost in the Shell, therefore, illustrates a future in which the advancement and acceptance of technology, human enhancing or otherwise, has simply continued as it almost always has. This portrayal of cyborgs is, in a way, optimistic. Despite such massive integration of technology directly into human beings, the world remains a mostly familiar one. War and politics and poverty and crime are still present, but there has not been any massive and unbearable catastrophe brought on by machines. The general acceptance of cyberization by the general population as well as the Major herself shows how, in a way, it is now merely another element of their existences, a fact as prevalent, inescapable, and perhaps even mundane as today’s usage of phone and internet.
Ghost in the Shell, like Blade Runner before it, has a fundamental preoccupation with the idea of identity. When we replace the organic with the inorganic, the natural with the manmade, what is left to make us human? Much of the movie, through various introspective scenes and conversations, focuses on Major’s questioning of her inner nature and self. She is fully prosthetic, almost as a machine that happens to possess a ghost.
This concept of a “ghost” is central to the film and the franchise as a whole. The “ghost” is the mind and the soul, the deepest and most fundamental essence of our human nature and consciousness. In a world in which bodies can be entirely artificially constructed, it is this “ghost” which allows the transmission and retention of human identity. It is the only separator left to uniquely identify humans. The Puppet Master, a being who generated their own ghost, is a great upset to this divide. Some such as Section 6 deny the Puppet Master’s possession of a ghost, while others such as Makoto, who herself has deeply pondered what it means to be human, are more accepting of it. The acceptance or rejection of machines with ghosts of their own is deeply tied to the acceptance or rejection of technology itself. To reject the advanced form of artificial life that has been created is to reject current and future technological advancement.