Director: Mamoru Oshii
Writer: Kazunori Ito
DP: Hisao Shirai
Editor: Shuichi Kakesu, Shigeyuki Yamamori
Score: Kenji Kawai
Producer: Yoshimasa Mizuo, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
Starring: Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Iemasa Kayumi
Length: 1 hr. 22 min.
During the opening credits, we see the creation of a body; parts of it are mechanical and parts of it are biological, but all are synthetic. In the background we hear music, a song called "The Making of a Cyborg" whose lyrics come from a traditional Japanese wedding chant. It celebrates the marriage of body and mind. Or does it? Are they two separate things that can be united, or are they already so closely intertwined that a "marriage" loses all meaning?
First, it's worth asking why Ghost in the Shell would raise that question. The film has been discussed in terms of Japan's unique relationship to technology, especially in the economic climate of the 1990s. In the wake of the westernization and demilitarization that followed World War II, Japan gained a new global presence through the production and, notably, the international distribution of technology and media.
The characters in Ghost in the Shell are cyborgs, and they connect their brains to a vast network of information for the sake of their jobs. When it asks what relationship our minds have to our bodies, it asks what relationship our identities have to the way technology connects us to the rest of the world. The main character of Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko Kusanagi, struggles with this. She leads a task force under the law enforcement agency Public Security Section 9, and for the sake of improving her agility, durability, and strength, her brain was placed into a cybernetic body. We don't know whether the body we see being created in the opening credits is actually her body, or if it just looks like her; in fact, later in the film we briefly see another person in a body of the same design as hers.
The Major laments that despite the breadth of knowledge and power that technology has afforded her, she still feels limited. She's in awe of the very concept that she has an individual consciousness, but as a cyborg she's keenly aware of her own body's physicality. She wonders if her own memories are even real; many of the criminals she faces off with are people whose memories have been rewritten to serve the purposes of hackers. If something like that is possible by her physical nature, who's to say that her mind is any different from the commodities that make up the rest of Ghost in the Shell's dense world?
She's drawn to the sea, one of the few places that remains untouched by human hands. Her friend Batou is disturbed by her passion for diving, believing it to be a dangerous hobby. She tells him that she dives to feel the isolation and darkness deep underwater, and that when she surfaces she feels the sensation that she's becoming a new person. When she dives, the imagery recalls the sequence at the beginning when we saw the creation of the cybernetic body; by pushing the boundaries of her own life, by feeling danger and instinctual fear, she gains a brief reprieve from the disparity she feels between her body and mind.
But just after the diving scene, a wrench is thrown into the works. Once again, we hear the wedding chant, and Ghost in the Shell becomes a sort of twisted romance. The Major is introduced to the possibility of a mind that exists without a body, which has no constraints and is free to move about within the "vast and infinite" network of data. In her attempt to understand this thing, just as she pursued tranquility through diving, she pursues an answer to her existential questions by walking into danger.
The characters in Ghost in the Shell voice their opinions about the film's themes straightforwardly, but this is not so much for the audience's sake as it is for the sake of the film's sci-fi setting. Director Mamoru Oshii described the characters' philosophical speeches as "texture," meant to reflect what conversation would be like among people who have a near constant connection to a flow of information and whose basic needs are all fulfilled by technology. Major Kusanagi is straightforward about every aspect of her psychology, expressing her internal life as a way of attaining individuality in a world where someone else could have exactly the same body she has.
The Major's relationship with Batou gives what would be an icy film some highly appreciated warmth. His care for the Major comes across in small gestures, and they reflect the humanity that lies beneath cold metal: he worries over her safety, or offers her his coat even though she doesn't feel the cold. They talk to each other jokingly, saying things like "you must be drunk" despite the fact that neither of them is physically capable of getting drunk.
In accordance with the lyrics of "The Making of a Cyborg," Ghost in the Shell ends with a kind of marriage, but it's not between body and mind. The final shot makes a clear statement, but denies any easy answers: it starts with the Major standing over part of the city, then the camera tilts to reveal the rest; she towers over the city, but the camera still has to leave her behind to capture its whole breadth. Simultaneously, she has gained dominion over human creation and has become subsumed by it.