“Major? Are you there?” An indistinct male voice communicates with Major Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), a cyborg working for “Section 9” of a 2029 dystopian Japan. “Yeah, I heard you,” she responds though her mouth doesn’t move, her telepathically transmitted words buzzing with an electronic echo. “What’s with all the noise in your brain today?” he asks. She answers with a joke, spoken aloud: “I’m on my period.” Kusanagi pulls out the wires connected to her neck, drawing sparks of electricity. She then proceeds to disrobe, her nude body on full display. In just the first few minutes of Ghost in the Shell (dir. Mamoru Oshii, 1995), Major Kusanagi’s identity is made paradoxical through her self-reflexive joke. The 1995 anime, set in an (arguably) post-human universe, dips its toes into a post-gender world by exploring the paradoxes of identity in its subjects.
In the Japan of an imagined future, humans have become cyborgs, hybrids of machine and organism. Major Kusanagi’s body is a shell, quite literally a vessel for her “ghost,” a jumble of human memories and consciousness. Kusanagi’s identity––conscious and otherwise––exists separately from her body: an overt separation that immediately deconstructs the “illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality” (Butler, 2497).
Major Kusanagi actively expresses desire to become someone else, someone not confined by the walls of her government-controlled shell––which challenges the supposed natural relation between body and identity. Her body––or rather, her shell––is a construction; its surfaces do not reflect her own autonomy. However, though her body is secondary, it is not quite expendable: “the nature of the body is irrelevant in determining ontology. But since a “ghost” (evidently) cannot exist without a container, the body is not (yet) a disposable element of selfhood” (Orbaugh, 447).
Kusanagi’s body is given scrutinized attention, her nakedness marking her (sexual) difference from the other cyborgs around her. Firstly, Kusanagi is gendered as female by speech, referred to as “she”––in contrast to every other character existing in the diegesis, who are all coded as male “he”. Unlike her male counterparts, her body is rarely clothed, and when it is, she often chooses to disrobe. Her naked body is not inherently sexual, but her body is explicitly politicized, made gendered and erotic by the voyeuristic look of the audience and the characters around her.
One scene makes this obvious: after diving in the ocean, Kusanagi changes out of her wetsuit. Her body is framed by the doors of the boat’s cuddy cabin, constructing the space as private and the gaze of the audience and Batou (Akio Ōtsuka), her second-in-command (and the audience’s screen surrogate), as illicit. She faces away from the gaze, her “to-be-looked-at-ness” all the more emphasized in her unawareness of it. As her nude back is revealed, Batou looks away, an expression of guilt enveloping his face. He averts his gaze, implying that he derived pleasure from looking, the sexualization of her body making it all the more illicit, and gratifying. Kusanagi does not conflate her body, nor her nakedness, to her sexuality. But through this active fetishism, “the physical beauty” of her body is transformed “into something satisfying in itself” (Mulvey, 1961). In a following scene, Batou covers her bare chest with his jacket. This action, cites normative constructions of sexuality and gender, reinforces the understanding of her (female) body as a source of sexual pleasure. The illusion of voyeuristic separation is maintained precisely because the non-diegetic looks are downplayed; the troubling female agency never intrudes.
In some respects, the way Kusanagi is gendered brings to the surface the politicization of her body. Though her surfaces are coded as female, they are not stable. When she engages with a tank-like robot, her body transforms: the softness of her body metamorphosizes; enlarged by hard, sharp muscles. Her muscles tense rapidly, so much so that she dismembers herself. Much like drag, which Butler recognizes can subvert correlations between appearance and identity, in this short scene, Kusanagi’s transformation serves as a “double inversion”. It suggests that “ ‘[Kusanagi’s] ‘outside’ appearance is feminine. but [her] essence ‘inside’ is masculine.’ At the same time it symbolizes the opposite inversion; [her] appearance ‘outside’, is masculine but [her] essence ‘inside’ is feminine’” (Butler, 2497-2498). Akin to the separation of her ghost and shell, this play on her inner and outer appearance breaks down the naturalness of her identity. Yet, the anime’s lack of departure from a gender binary speaks to its incomplete embrace of a post-gender world.
In the anime’s continual attention to selfhood, it begins to depart from traditional conceptions of gender identity. The cyborg is a blurring of human and machine; its body is not associated with its consciousness, nor are its body’s surfaces stable. However, as Donna Haraway states in her cyborg manifesto: “Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exceptions.” Kusanagi’s body is subjected to voyeurism; the power of the male-gendered gaze is not absent. Regardless, Ghost in The Shell’s cyborg imagery does suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” (Haraway, 2299).
**Ghost in the Shell is free on YouTube, or available––the dubbed English version––on Amazon Prime
Butler, Judith. “Revisiting Bodies and Pleasures.” Theory, Culture & Society. 16.2, April 1999: 11-20.
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B., et al. New York: Norton, 2010, pp 2485-2500.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B., et al. New York: Norton, 2010, pp 2266-2299.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B., et al. New York: Norton, 2010, pp 1952-1965.
Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity.” Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, Ed. Christopher Bolton et al., University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 172–192. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttc8f.12. Accessed 7 May 2020.