Ghost in the Shell: The Matrix of Sci-Fi Anime

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In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. Coming soon, our article about the Hollywood remake. 

 

In my mind, anime can be categorized into two varieties: action-based/artistic ones, and teenage school kid soap operas. The former is what western critics typically consider to be “good”, anime like The Cat Returns or Cowboy Bebop, which contrast beautiful hand-drawn landscapes and well-trodden stories with violence and distinctively weird characters that could only be thought up in Japan. Along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the big grandfathers for sci-fi anime, and more importantly black leather-clad sci-fi such as The Matrix. Even in the ‘making of’ videos for The Matrix, creators shamelessly admit they wanted to take Ghost in the Shell‘s stylish film noir settings and fight scenes and recreate them in live action. With the newest full-length film in the Ghost series, Kōkaku Kidōtai – Shin Gekijōban, released in late June and in theaters until July 17th), and a live-action version on the horizon, it’s important to look back to see what it was about the original film that turned the manga into an international favorite.

Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 film directed by Mamoru Oshii, revolves around a group of cyborg law-enforcers in the future tracking down a hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks into the minds of unsuspecting civilians and erases their memories in the process of controlling them. One of the cops does refuse to grade-up and is 100% flesh.  The protagonist is the beautiful but coldhearted Motoko Kusunagi, a cyborg cop and one of a handful of heroic female protagonists in anime.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t cater to the male sexual fantasies many have about robo-cop girls in the future. Viewers might be a bit puzzled after one of Kasunagi’s final fight scenes in which she celebrates her victory by tearing off her clothes (the film claims it allows her to scan the room, but it doesn’t explain the two other times she fights criminals naked). It does vary from similar western sci-fi films in that Kasunagi is never treated like a damsel in distress requiring someone like Neo to save her, but it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that director Oshii is simply giving viewers that dreamlike fantasy they unknowingly coveted in Japan’s workaholic society. It’s suggested in Roger Ebert’s 1996 review of the film that Japanese salarymen become so exhausted and dehumanized by the 80-hour work weeks that they “project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters.”

Aside from the cop chases and virtual missions Kasunagi embarks on within the minds of those possessed by the Puppet Master, the deeper question the film’s moody plot somewhat attempts to ask is whether robots should start being considered human. Most of the conversations between Kasunagi and Batou (Kasunagi’s friend and fellow cyborg-cop), consist of debating whether their ability to think makes them human, think Descarte’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Thankfully Ghost in the Shell throws in a couple one-liners to make sure it never takes itself too seriously:

Motoko- “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny.”

Batou- “You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.”

Much like Akira, the draw of Ghost in the Shell is the stunning and complex drawings of the futuristic city. In daytime scenes, it looks orange and very much apocalyptic. However, when Kasunagi enters someone’s mind or tracking someone at night, the futuristic scenery seen in Gundam and Akira takes center stage. However, one thing that distracted me from the beautiful futuristic settings were the eyes of the characters. In both this and Akira, the eyes are much more akin to those in a western comic book, rather than more recent anime that give characters blocky, rectangular eyes. The more realistic character designs create the effect of each character having a certain ‘fleshiness’ to them. This is great if the main focus over the top violence and sexiness, but I believe it reduces some of its artistic merit. The extra contour lines provide more opportunities for limbs and blood to go flying in the fight scenes, but it does so at the expense of placing characters in an uncanny valley of halfway between realistic and cartoony, thereby taking viewers out of the experience. Just as we increasingly demand our fruit to lack any blemishes or obscurities, anime has come a long way in shrinking noses, rounding eyes and turning lips into straight lines for the sole purpose of immersing you in its universe. I once read a book on the history of cartooning that explained how we more easily identify emotions when complex facial details are taken away, and by the end you are left with blank dots and lines for faces (see Gudetama, for example).

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Aside from the characters the film succeeds in its mission to create the coolest futuristic vibe that had been seen so far in anime, something that inspired many movies after it, both anime and live action.

Several Ghost in the Shell films have been made, along with the original 1989 manga and an upcoming live action film set to release in March, 2017. This live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be featuring Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kasunagi. However, many took to social media to state their displeasure that a white actress is taking the role of a well-known Japanese heroine. Personally I don’t find much wrong with it considering the history of anime characters combining aesthetics of Asians and westerners. Porco Rosso, one of my favorite movies of all time, takes place in a fictionalized Italy with clearly white humans everywhere. But that doesn’t take away from Porco (the main character) being a distinctly Japanese character in how weird the anthropomorphic pig man is. As long as it can recapture that image of the rainy neon-lit streets with robo-cops fighting huge mech tanks, it won’t really matter who’s doing the killing.

Book Review: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” (日本人はなぜ美しいのか) by Kaori Shoji

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Amazon book link: http://amzn.to/1yxEKjj 

Here’s a question: why is it that everyone else in the world gets to wax eloquent about the virtues of their home country, but the minute a Japanese does the same thing, we get lambasted for (A) being an ultra nationalist rightist Imperialist and/or (B) having a Prime Minister who would dare visit the Yasukuni Shrine, whoever that Prime Minister happens to be at the moment.* (Editor’s note: It would help if the Prime Minister visited a different shrine, as former LDP bigwig Koga proposes and Japan stopped denying war atrocities and retracting apologies. Obviously, there is a lot Japan has to be proud of but definitely not the war. Just sayin’)

That’s okay. We’re Japanese: the most self-effacing, self-deprecating, self-loathing people on the planet. Needless to say the stress-factor involved with all this can be so damaging as to send the entire nation spinning into a black hole of depression. That depression is the driving force of the bad economy (no wonder it’s taking forever to recover) and now that the failure of Abenomics is official…oh, forget it.

Gentle cough.

Let’s turn our minds to this book: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful,” by Shunmyou Masuno (枡野 俊明) published earlier this year by Gentousha Shinsho (幻冬舎新書). Professional Zen gardener and one of the most influential Zen masters of our time, Masuno heads the Kenkouji Temple in Yokohama. For the past 6 years, he has written extensively on Zen and how to deploy it in our daily lives, but this is the first time he has linked Zen to the Japanese national identity. “We are beautiful,” Masuno writes, “because Zen resides at the very core of the Japanese existence.”

“Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” opens with a revealing (if self-congratulatory) episode about being commissioned by Mark Shuttleworth – the Cape Town wunderkind who founded investment company HBD and later flew to the International Space Station via Soyuz. Shuttleworth was building a botanical garden on the Isle of Man and was keen to put in a Zen garden. Masuno writes about how Shuttleworth picked him up in his private jet and flew with him to the Isle to start work on the garden. “When you stop to think about it,” writes Masuno, “many iconic IT billionaires are deeply influenced by Zen.”

Among them, Masuno cites Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who bought a villa on the grounds of Nanzenji in Kyoto. “There must be something about Zen that speaks to super successful people,” writes Masuno, and it’s probably true. Even on this archipelago, Nikkei Business magazine has consistently promoted Zen as a way of optimising work quality and achieving serenity. Zazen sessions have become a secret boom among young OLs and salarimen. Even Shinzo Abe goes to a temple in Yanaka, Tokyo once a month for Zazen and meditation.

Zen has its roots in India. It then crossed over to Chinese Buddhism before winding up in Japan. “Ours is the only Asian country that adopted the teaching with such earnestness, merging the country’s lifestyle to Zen philosophy,” writes Masuno. That merging, according to Masuno, is what makes the Japanese so distinctive and “beautiful.”

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Zen actually resides in every facet of the Japanese mind,” writes Masuno, and the foremost example of that is seen in the way we work. “The dedication to craftsmanship and the reverence for precision and discipline is unparalleled.” He also points out the endearing peculiarities of the Japanese aesthetic, and how it revels in the flawed and incomplete. Evidence to that is seen in the imperfect, spontaneous energy of a Zen garden. Or how the Japanese refuse to throw out cracked bowls and plates, but will find a way to mend them with gold dust. Masuno writes, “Ruptures, cracks, creases and wrinkles — the Japanese will find beauty in these flaws because Zen is a philosophy that accepts and ultimately forgives everything.”

The book goes on to explain:
“Western aestheticism is about adding things. Its objective is to express and celebrate the self. Japanese aestheticism is about subtraction. The objective is to erase the self, in order to be at one with nature.”

No doubt about it – even a cursory reading will make you feel better about being Japanese, which is more than we can say about Asahi Shimbun. (Their goal seems to lie in crushing the Japanese spirit under the ghostly heel of a WWII military boot.) And Heaven knows we need this sort of boost; after all, no one else was going to stroke our egos if we didn’t do it ourselves.

Having said that, the book falls short of addressing the real and immediate problems among the Japanese today. Zen may be effective in achieving inner peace, but it’s not doing much to bridge the ever-widening generation and income gaps, the super-aging of a society where children are treated like rare and precious specimens or ruthlessly exploited, the deep and abiding discrimination against women, and so on.

The ills are still here, whether we’re beautiful or not. And on a bad day and standing in the Yamanote Line, I’m tempted to think the Japanese (including myself) are the saddest, least attractive people on the entire planet. Even if we were tapped into the beauty of a Zen garden, few of us have the time or inclination to sit on a rock to contemplate it.

Still, Masuno’s book is hugely inspiring, if only because it makes us realize the seeds of beauty are within. All we have to do is become aware of it, and from that moment something will have changed. It may be an inflection in the voice, or a change in the way one holds an umbrella, or yes – even the way one stands in the Yamanote line. Zen is the one method that beautifies the physique, as well as the way one perceives the world, free of charge.

So Mark Shuttleworth can keep his expensive Zen garden because the Japanese already have theirs – right in our own backyard. We only have to dig a little.

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 “There is a simple way to become buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.”

“A fool sees himself as another, but a wise man sees others as himself.”

“Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”

― Dōgen, Zen master, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism