Japan has always been an unusually insular country. While the past centuries have seen most nations and cultures develop symbiotically through trade, migration and colonisation (imagine Britain without tea), Japan steadfastly remained very, well, Japanese for hundreds of years. For a long time the country had a policy known as Sakoku which sought to keep Japan as an isolated and inscrutable fortress, somewhat similar to modern North Korea, which only ended in the mid-nineteenth century under pressure from the Americans. Eighty years later, Japan was occupied by the Allied powers after its defeat in World War Two, the first (and currently only) time Japan has ever been controlled by a foreign power.
Unlike Germany and neighbouring Korea, Japan was administrated by the Americans and British with the Soviets having no influence, which contributed greatly to the liberalising of the country. In 1952, Japan’s governmental sovereignty was restored. The new Japanese government was eager to maintain a good relationship with the West, and one way they sought to achieve this was the exchange of Japanese and Western culture.
From the 1960s onwards Japanese culture began to diffuse into the West, bringing with it concepts such as sushi, video games, J-pop, Hello Kitty, Godzilla, Pokémon and, perhaps most influentially, anime films. This helped reinvent Japan’s post-war image from one of fascistic brutality to one of quirky innovation and trendiness, turning the country into a cultural superpower known informally as “Cool Japan”.
Anime was first developed in Japan in the early 20th century, but did not reach the West until 1963 with the TV series Astro Boy, the first anime to be broadcast outside of Japan. In the wake of Walt Disney’s popularisation of animated films, many Japanese anime producers became inspired to produce full length films themselves. However, while Disney generally stuck to family friendly entertainment, the Japanese creators began to explore more intellectual and heavy themes. In 1988 Katsuhiro Otomo’s adaptation of the manga series Akira became a landmark for anime. The success of the film propelled anime from being considered a curiosity to a serious art form in the Western world, and began a fandom that brought with it more quality films from the Land of the Rising Sun.
In 1995 came Ghost in the Shell, a cyberpunk thriller set in a future where people’s brains are connected to what is essentially an internet system. A live action remake with Scarlett Johansson is soon to be released (the jury’s still out on that decision), but the original version will always stand as a milestone of Japanese cinema. The story follows Motoko Kusanagi, a cybernetic woman (a human mind in a synthetic body) who works for a law enforcement agency, and must track down a mysterious entity who is hacking into people’s minds and causing all kinds of havoc. Japanese films often deal with issues of technology gone rogue, perhaps with good reason – as the only country to have suffered a nuclear strike, the Japanese have a unique perspective on the potential horrors of unrestrained technological advancement. Ghost in the Shell’s world is one where people are only interested if they can achieve something, and never stop to think whether they should.
Ghost in the Shell explores themes of humanity’s relationship with artificial intelligence in particular. In a world where people are upgrading themselves, not just their bodies but their minds too, Kusanagi becomes increasingly disturbed by questions about whether she is even human anymore – as she says, “sometimes I suspect I’m not who I think I am…maybe there never was a real me”. In a world where artificial intelligence is so advanced that is indistinguishable from that of a human, Kusanagi ponders “what would be the importance of being human?” If all you are is a collection of thoughts and memories, and those memories can be altered, deleted, new ones put in their place, then are you any more “real” than a computer? Are you anything more than a collection of files?
The film takes us to a world where a human mind can be manipulated and reconstructed, where artificial intelligence is so advanced that it yearns for all parts of the human experience, including death, where barriers are blurred and accepted ideas become dubious. The message of Ghost in the Shell is pretty clear: as the computer-born mind attests, “humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerisation”.
Book your ticket to Ghost in the Shell here.