The Two Faces of Ghost in the Shell

by eternal on January 29, 2010

Ghost in the Shell is the kind of show that doesn’t need to be written about, partly because it speaks for itself and partly because it’s an obligatory gateway anime that must be watched to earn one’s Aniblogger Badge. Still, as I was watching the Laughing Man OVA the other day to refresh my memory of the franchise, my brain started spinning all over again. What is it about the show that makes it so good? In a nutshell, it’s everything – the technical details of animation and music are top notch, the characters are solid, and the story treads on the shades of gray within social and philosophical issues.

I’m sure most people who have seen the summary OVA would condemn it for cutting out important character and world-building details, but the opportunity to view the entire series compressed into a couple hours lends a broader perspective. For me, it brought to light the two sides of the story that make Ghost in the Shell what it is.

The Laughing Man’s arc is an exciting pseudo detective story filled with all sorts of twists and turns, but when you view it with prior knowledge of the plot, it’s easy to see how thematically straightforward it is. The story’s direct references to JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are the obvious key point.

As far as I know, Holden Caulfield is a bit of an icon in society, and he even has his own Wikipedia page if you’re unfamiliar. I haven’t studied Catcher formally yet, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume that it’s about the frustrations with society that are caused by the stubborn idealism of youth. In the Laughing Man’s case, his own sense of ethics and justice kept him from accepting the deception of society. The “phonies” had to be stopped. Like any young adult who has witnessed the lies and sophistry of the corporate world, Aoi viewed himself as a rebel and devoted his life to fighting a just cause.

When we tie this basic social issue to the futuristic setting of Ghost in the Shell, it creates an effect reminiscent of Planetes. The future is, in fact, not as much of a mystery as we make it out to be. Cyberbrains might still be a far-off fantasy, but the realities of corporate crime and the eternal issue of ethics still plays a role in society. The Laughing Man’s logo couldn’t be more clear: what I thought I’d do was, I’d become one of those deaf mutes. The quote represents Aoi’s – and Holden’s – rejection of society.

On the opposite side of this, we also have the metaphysical issues associated with Ghost in the Shell. This part of the story is more emphasized in the original film (after all, the TV series is called Stand Alone Complex for a reason). However, the story is woven in such a way that every aspect touches on every other aspect.

In SAC, the rapidly blurring line between conscience and artificial intelligence is applied to the social issues that the show addresses. The screencap up above is an Engrishy justification of the name.

GitS takes place in a time of disconcerting change, in which society operates like a collective being yet still retains some element of individualism. The ambiguous, metaphysical question of the identity of the soul (as represented through the ghost in the show’s title) comes into play because it affects Motoko on a personal level and because most of Aoi’s character hinges on it.

In their final conversation, Aoi reveals his plans – and his mistakes – and we learn that he was also isolated by the society that is neither fully physical or metaphysical. Aoi’s fixation with the hard copies of information in the library reflects the aimlessness that he was left with after his quest to shine light on the phonies was completed. In essence, the show’s conclusion analyzes the series of crimes and deceptions from the perspective of the society that they live in, while maintaining the feeling of hollowness that pervades Aoi’s and Holden’s characters. It forces the viewer to recognize that the metaphysical side of GitS is not purely philosophical or ethical – its social implications in Stand Alone Complex are just as, or possibly even more important.

From this perspective, the first season of GitS: SAC runs parallel to the first film: they’re different, but they’re two sides of the same coin. While the movie explores the concept of artificial intelligence from a philosophical standpoint, analyzing the nature of the soul and utilizing Oshii’s signature religious references, Stand Alone Complex focuses on what its title implies: society. The technological advancements of the GitS world have just as many significant implications on the role of the individual in society as they do on abstract concepts like religion and self-perception.

The Laughing Man’s story resounded with me when I first watched the series, but it didn’t intrigue me until now. I had always considered Ghost in the Shell to be solely focused on Oshii’s abstract philosophy, but this cyberpunk retelling of Holden’s battle against society got me thinking that there might be more to cyberbrains and the ghosts of the shells than clever detective tricks and semi-coherent existentialism.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

digitalboy January 30, 2010 at 8:35 am

Skipping most of this post (that I assume is In Loving Memory of the recently deceased Salinger) but I wanted to point something out…

>>Ghost in the Shell is the kind of show that doesn’t need to be written about, partly because it speaks for itself and partly because it’s an obligatory gateway anime that must be watched to earn one’s Aniblogger Badge.

Confused me. I thought this was going to be a post about the movie after this statement, becasue the movie is so influential and a gateway for so many, and while I actually think WAY fewer anibloggers have probably seen it than you’d think, I could see it as a gateway. But SAC? I haven’t seen SAC myself, and I don’t know that even so many bloggers would have… I’ve certainly seen very little discussion about it. And I also am not sure if we are supposed to think of it the same way as the movie, which is why I was hesitant to try and agree or disagree with anything in the post about the series when all I know is the movie. After all, it’s a Mamoru Oshii film. Nothing can quite agree with it.

I dunno, just thought I’d put that out there. Critically acclaimed as it may be, I wouldn’t overstate the influence of SAC. Sorry for being off-topic >_<


Ryan A January 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I took it as the movie, not SAC. I would probably guess most anibloggers have seen the movie, but I am also in the boat of having not watched SAC.

You should read the rest of the post -_-


ETERNAL February 3, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Strange, I always thought that most people watched SAC and the movie together. Obviously the movie is more popular, but somehow it feels like the series is extremely well-known. It could just be that everyone references the Laughing Man.

That said, I’ve seen the Patlabour movies and I haven’t seen the TV series, so….


Ryan A January 30, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I’m not sure I ever brought the societal view into the GitS story (in viewing perspective). Sure they underly a great position on autonomous fabrications (cyborgs), but I don’t recall any direct conflict between society and the concept of ghosts.

Something closer to this target might be Chobits or Time of Eve… if I am understanding correctly; rejection (or discontent) of society based on the conforming views towards artificial life or intelligence.

Haven’t made up my mind :) Nice stub, I think it could be extrapolated around the sphere.


ETERNAL February 3, 2010 at 9:48 pm

I don’t think it’s as much of a conflict as it is a different perspective (as in, the movie and the series have a completely different focus). SAC feels like it applies the concept of ghosts in a more practical, societal sense by talking about isolation (and by referencing Catcher), while the movie is more about the philosophical concepts of the soul, AI, etc.


Ryan A February 6, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Gotcha! That is why I would miss this connect. :)


super rats January 31, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Salinger wrote a short story that was called The Laughing Man before he wrote Catcher. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, just it seems the few posts on this show I’ve seen never connect it and only mention Catcher. It’s a story within a story, where The Laughing Man is a tale being told by a scout master to the narrator and the narrator is recounting that time and telling the story of the scout master some years later. May or may not be worthwhile to consider if it adds anything new to interpreting Aoi.


Animewriter February 1, 2010 at 1:07 am

I doubt that I would say the the GitS series would be considered a gateway anime for today’s new anime fans, but you can’t underestimate the impact that original GitS film had on creating new anime fans. I can remember back in the late 90’s (97-00) when one of the largest nightclubs near my house used to play the GitS, Akira, and Heavy Metal movies on TV located around the club.

What I find interesting about the GitS universe is its coverage of whole load of social issues that will arise as mankind begins to merge their biological functions with machines. After following this subject for many years, I feel that GitS pretty much takes the most believable path on the subject, and a lot of those advancements have been predicted by Ray Kurzweil in his books, The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), and The Singularity is Near (2005) such as robot rights and Artificial Intelligences claim to be conscious and openly petition for recognition of the fact by 2029, and mind uploading by 2030.


ETERNAL February 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm

@ super rats/Animewriter: You have inspired me to bookmark a couple novels on Amazon. I’ll look into this.


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