Ghost in the Shell’s Patchwork Canon

By Claire Napier


Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a 2002 animated series in the Ghost in the Shell media franchise, creatively produced by writer-director Kenji Kamiyama.

It defines its title-phrase, a “stand alone complex”, as the change in society wrought by a memetic misunderstanding of actual events; the disruptive and impactful behaviour of copycats who don’t realise, or don’t acknowledge, they’re working originally. When circumstances, considered in hindsight, coincidentally appear more cohesive than their instigators’ actions truly were, this can enter the collective consciousness as the most engaging reality — therefore, the appropriate reality. People wish to participate in a cooler world, and so they choose to believe in the best-branded version of events.

It’s unclear whether this was an active metaphor for the juggernaut franchise Kamiyama was already working within — but either way Ghost in the Shell has continued to exponentially expand its commercial and cultural real estate. Not only does Ghost in the Shell’s reputation reach further than its audience, but it’s canon has the impression of being better established than its texts.

As of the end of 2015, there are four core voices to the combined chorus of Ghost in the Shell’s narrative. The original manga by Masamune Shirow, the 1995 animated film by Mamoru Oshii, Kamiyama’s anime Stand Alone Complex, and Tow Ubukata and Kazuchika Kize’s 2014 feature-length miniseries Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Each of these examples have supplementary, follow-up entries; sequels, prequels, novelisations, etc, which increase their power in greater amounts the more similar their production to their founding entry. Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, for example, is visibly, audibly, and tonally different to the film Ghost in the Shell, so it augments their section of the franchise in a lesser sense that Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig, an essentially identical but more sharply focussed second season to the Stand Alone Complex animated series, does. Video games and virtual reality shorts also feature, with less narrative impact.

Unusually but not uniquely, each creator’s adaptation covers very similar ground: as many series in the Transformers franchise features good Autobots led by Optimus Prime, so each version of Ghost in the Shell centres upon Section 9, the cyber crime law enforcement unit, and the eight members who make it up. What’s unusual is the extent to which each creative headliner chooses to retread old ground — what’s fascinating is how every new layer in the harmony creates the impression that there’s a conductor standing just behind you. A True Knowledge, or “real event log,” that each entry in the franchise is trying to express, and enjoyably failing. In experiencing each subsequent piece of the continually expanding whole work, the suggestion begins to form that there is something within Ghost in the Shell which is unbreakable, and sacred. There begins to be a right way to do things.

It’s easy to see how this may have started. Oshii’s success with his animated adaptation outstripped the fame of Shirow’s original manga. 1996’s American release (March in cinemas, June on VHS) of the motion picture Ghost in the Shell was critically acclaimed, and more importantly critically validated as cinematic fare for normal adults. Roger Ebert, despite calling the film “too complex and murky [for blockbusting]” began his April ‘96 review with “Ghost in the Shell is not in any sense an animated film for children.” There was nobody of a similar level of influence to do this for imported, black and white comic books from a noticeably non-American illustrative tradition. So while the manga was available to English-speaking audiences legally, translated and collected, Ghost in the Shell became a popular foreign, philosophical art film about which the chosen few could whisper facts. “In the book, it’s like this”. “In the original text, it’s revealed that this character does that!” As an exotified text with a source, the property gained the image of something that is as it is, but is also more, and different.

The protagonist (or most observed character?), Major Motoko Kusanagi, became somebody about whom one could have viewed a complete work, a whole profile, while aware that others knew things about “her” that couldn’t be denied, because they came from the original. The two works became entwined more deeply than they were destined to be as original and adaptation. They became symbiotic, and the ghost started to haunt us.

This connection is two-way, because Ghost in the Shell (originally Kōkaku Kidōtai) is a comic whose value would, without Oshii’s reframing it as creative benefactor to an internationally recognised art feature, be up for dispute. Shirow has countless skills in background inference, character and object design, draughtmanship and world-building. On the other hand, his narrative composition, emotional impact, and ability to arrange the explication of ideas within the flow of a story are much less complex. Ghost in the Shell’s English-language release from Dark Horse Comics retains the backmatter of the collected Japanese release: a number of afterthoughts and footnotes from Shirow, adding details, character facts, research trivia, creative regrets, and more. For comparison, imagine editions of Harry Potter with supplemental extras consisting of eight pages of J.K. Rowling’s post-publication unprinted encyclopedia tweets.

Experiencing multiple tellings of Ghost in the Shell is an exercise in pattern recognition. Some of the patterns are recognisable for their textual repetition. Some are notable for their apparent groundlessness. These find their root in Shirow’s footnotes. What if he had told the story he actually meant to; what if Ghost in the Shell’s ultimate source looked like both the initial creator and loyal audience imagine it does? What if we replicate what’s not there yet?

Recognizing the Ghost

So what are the recognisable elements? There are two layers to it. There’s character and motif. Of course, these overlap.

Section nine is run by Daisuke Aramaki and led in the field by Motoko Kusanagi, also known as the Major. She is a full-body cyborg, with only her brain remaining of her organic tissue, which makes her physically formidable and existentially unflinching, and she is a wizard-class hacker. The rest of the team is made up of Batou, an ex-military cyborg; Togusa, an almost entirely organic human and recent police detective; Ishikawa, Bohma, Paz; and Saito, who is a sniper with one bionic eye. Batou has grey, rounded cyber-eyes that have no mobile pupil or iris and the basic overall shape of Steven Seagal. The Major has a bobbed, shaggy haircut that’s longer in front that it is over her neck, and bangs. She is athletically beautiful and has no qualms about public or partial nudity. Ishikawa has a moustache and beard and is older-looking than the rest of the team, bar Aramaki, who is bald on top, short, and has an ape-like face. Saito looks affable and has very short hair, Paz has his hair combed back and is liable to do sleazy-looking, barlike things, while Bohma is mountain-shaped and rounded, bald, with orange eyes. Togusa has a shaggy, mouse-brown mullet, a nondescript handsome face, and a young family. Togusa is the greenest member of the team, until somebody else joins. Batou is over-invested in the Major’s intimate life, the Major is unsentimental about personal attachment and is drawn to philosophical and individual transcendence.

The Major’s body, being fully prosthetic, fully engineered, can be destroyed without endangering her life, and this leads her to engage with physical opponents who can maim or break her body. She is liable to see her arms destroyed as she desperately exerts herself in combat, and to be picked up and swung by her head. She tends to lose her body to outside influence, and be forced to inhabit a more juvenile, or sexually ambiguous, form. Togusa carries a revolver, which is derided as old fashioned, Batou loves his car, and the Major makes period jokes about herself and enjoys lesbian sex parties. Paz begins his working relationship with Kusanagi as an adversary and Ishikawa enjoys pachinko. Kusanagi engages in sex work and her body is a production-line sexbot model, augmented with classified technology.

The Major is often seen sharing scenes with vacant robotic bodies owned and programmed for sexual service; mercenary sexuality and the production of bodies as pornography are recurrent. Spideroid robot units are used by Section 9, and Batou (who trains new and prospective recruits) becomes fond of them. Kusanagi’s selfhood is threatened by a pale, long-haired, sexually unsettling harbinger. Kusanagi leaps backwards from the viewer, dropping down into a flattened cityscape, as her digital camouflage kicks in and she flickers out of sight.

Putting the Pieces Together

These are all specifics, which are seen in Shirow’s, Oshii’s, and Kamiyama’s Ghosts in the Shell. Beyond this there are further set-pieces, puzzle pieces, case premises and relationship hints which are picked up, glided past, or borrowed and reassembled. The order in which the sections of this franchise are enjoyed becomes irrelevant. Each reimagining to this point functions both alone and as an adaptation, a work based on a previous impression (even the original manga, read today and inextricable from the impact of the backmatter footnotes as canon, literal “word of god” unsullied by the room for inference that must be left by assembled fiction, functions as an adaptation of Shirow’s mental sourcebook). Their symbiosis is undeniable — they all appear to take place at the same point in the team’s suggested chronology — but the different genre in which each piece sits divides the franchise into a tryptich. Shirow’s manga is a cyberpunk jaunt with guns and buns, Oshii’s film is existential sci-fi, and Kamiyama’s anime is a sociological detective procedural. Their disparity focuses the idea of a transcendent core, Ultimate Ghost in Shell, in the way that demographic brings together many communities. The subconscious impression that if these different types of individual can all be connected, then that connection must be deeply meaningful and resonant.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise retains many of the recognisable details and patterns mentioned above, and also borrows narrative structure and directorial flavour from those that came before it, but does not take care to move one step away from its mama. Once more, Ghost in the Shell is an animated series that follows Section 9 as they solve & combat successive cyber crimes. The element that means to allow this entry to stand alone is the movement of the characters on their hazily established timelines.

Now is when we see Section 9’s formation, and a Motoko Kusanagi who struggles with individuality crises and ennui from a more naive perspective. To compound this theme of widespread inexperience, the majority of the team members have been redesigned to look younger. Togusa hasn’t. He does not look like the oldest member of the Arise team, but to a member of the pre-existing Ghost in the Shell audience — someone aware of “the facts,” in touch with that suggestion of the True — his loss of authority has been the smallest. This has the effect of reframing Togusa as the most mature, the most established, member of the team, where he “should be” the rookie.

Arise’s primary function is in putting a filter on that which came before it. Where previously everything seemed more or less blue, this red layer of dissonance makes Ghost in the Shell’s gently-established familiarity stand out in black.

Nothing that Togusa does in Shirow’s work is definitively something that he wouldn’t do in Oshii’s, or Kamiyama’s.

Their design template is the same, their roles both textually and metatextually can be identically summarised, their name is the same and they “are the same character”. Nevertheless they can be recognised and differentiated in one’s imagination by feel, because their contexts have rubbed off on them. Their creators have shaped them in passing, as they shaped their own versioning of the source code. Nothing Kize’s Togusa does is outlandish, as a Togusa, but this doesn’t result in a deep feel-match for the Togusas who came before. He’s like Togusa; a similar textual role with an matching face. An individual Arise viewer may or may not reject this newer, more authoritative Togusa and his necessarily changed place in this new, differently contextualised Section 9. Rejecting or accepting it, they must perceive his difference.

Arise goes out of its way to present an alternate backstory semi-applicable to every section of a franchise it also aims to represent and define for a new wave of viewers. It’s an attempt at history or prequel that presupposes and ousts the possibility of being non-alternate; the motifs and character beats retained from “later” in Shirow, Oshii and Kamiyama’s creations are too recognisable to allow them to remain viable aspects of these characters’ futures. Arise is a new puppy and there’s no room for your old dogs any more, no matter how well they managed to get along; Shirow, Oshii and Kamiyama creating and determinedly recreating the same approximate moment for their shared visions allowed each to share the same pitch without crowding. An intellectual, imaginative bunk bed. What a space-saving solution! What sleepover fun was had! Arise brought a futon, and it wants your room.

From my perspective, Ghost in the Shell: Arise saw the meme misused, no longer a stand alone complex giving rise to progression and change. The current face of Ghost in the Shell is a reaction to a reaction, less refracting impressions than copying, perhaps filling in the gaps with knockoff content from other zeitgeist properties. Progressive force turning in on itself, and bending over, winded.

A viewer experiencing Arise or post-Arise franchise products before encountering any other head of the hydra (or should that be Orochi? From whence came the legendary sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi) may have a quantifiably different experience of the Ghost in the Shell beast — the ghost in the Ghost in the Shell — than the audiences who came before them.

Claire Napier is the editor heading Comics Features at, and a writer and critic at various publications. She’s written at length on objectification and the body in Ghost in the Shell, and becomes more powerful daily.

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