Identity and Hong Kong: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ at 25

Inspired by Hong Kong's political situation in the '90s, 'Ghost in the Shell' remains powerfully relevant 25 years on.

Production I.G

Halfway through Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, there’s a montage. Comprised of 34 shots — each making up a tableau of daily life in New Port City, the cyberpunk metropolis which serves as the film’s setting — the montage does nothing to contribute to plot or character. Where it fits within the temporality of the film is also impossible to discern. Mood and theme are the only concern: slow and meditative, we see people move about the city, traveling down canals and highways like neurons through a wire, each human being a cell making up the body of the city.

This is the film’s driving question in action: what is the relationship between body and mind, machine and man, space and identity, and what delineates these binaries? The entire sequence is shot at eye-level; we witness everything from the perspective of the film’s protagonist, Major Kusanagi (voiced by Atsuko Tanaka in the original Japanese). As a cyborg, Kusanagi is the personification of these blurred binaries, and by seeing the city through her eyes, the film calls attention to the fact that the audience, too, are cyborgs.  

The screen is an extension of our bodies. Our emotions are influenced by the action we are witnessing. For the runtime, our perception of reality is shaped by the film, an artificial machine that we take into ourselves. By highlighting that strange relationship, Oshii calls attention to the idea that unites all 34 shots of the montage. People sit at devices in offices; drivers follow directions given by signs, reliant on vehicles to get about — each of them, in some way, is a cyborg. We’re left to wonder, are these binaries really binaries at all?

Production I.G

The design of New Port City was inspired by Hong Kong, a city with a storied history. Its urban geography reflects its cultural and historical landscape, layered and hybridized. In short, Hong Kong is a real-life embodiment of Ghost in the Shell’s themes.

A coastal city on the southern edge of mainland China, Hong Kong has been at the heart of centuries of conflict, colonial occupation, and political unrest. Because it’s at Asia’s nautical center, control of Hong Kong means control of Asian trade. And if you control Asian trade, you control Asia.

Questions about who held sway over Hong Kong were in the zeitgeist when Ghost in the Shell was released. In 1995, the city and its islands were still a colony of the United Kingdom, having been leased out on a 99-year contract in 1898. When the lease was set to expire in 1997, Hong Kong’s sovereignty would revert to China.

This imminent reversion posed a unique problem: Hong Kong’s socio-political landscape was far more democratic than the rest of China’s. As a colony of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong had been allowed to develop its own government of elected officials who represented its people, advocating their interests to their colonizers.

In an attempt to reconcile Hong Kong and China’s opposing ideologies, a unique political system was proposed. Hong Kong would maintain its government while also reverting to Chinese control, with the latter overseeing the former — but, for the most part, not intervening (at least in theory). This was called the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, and it was slated to last for 50 years in order to avoid a rapid, forceful assimilation by allowing Hong Kong time to find a new cultural access point with China.

When people think about Ghost in the Shell, it’s almost always as a piece of pop philosophy. The film’s driving question is rarely interrogated beyond face value. Human identity and how it is influenced by technology is, after all, a pretty substantive theme on its own. But this outlook undersells the fact that Ghost in the Shell is also a hugely political film. The Hong Kong situation is wrapped up in the film’s philosophical musings; they blend into each other, a political-philosophical hybrid. Consider the film’s opening crawl:

In the not-so-distant future,

when corporate networks

fill the Earth with electronic

and optical communication lines

but society has not yet been

too computerized

to erase nations and races…

The crawl foregrounds the influence of organizations and institutions in shaping personal identity as the fundamental idea upon which the entire film is predicated. While the idea presented by the crawl — that technology and infrastructure, and the people who control it, dictate identity — may seem like an overstatement, it is anything but.

We think of identity like we think of space, as something that we can move about in and control at will. But in reality, this is never the case. Space dictates action, not the other way around. You can enter a house, but only through a door; the walls obstruct you, they shape your action. Action is an expression of identity: we do, or don’t do, things based on interest and desire, and if our actions are shaped by space, then it’s safe to say that our identity is shaped by space too. Therefore, the people who control how space is constructed also control how the people who move about it in think — or in other words, they control identity.

Major Kusanagi embodies this notion. Every element of her physical body, aside from her mind and nervous system, is fabricated. And those fabricated elements are owned by corporations, who loan them out to governments, who then finally loan them out to her. If she were to step down from her position as the leader of government agency Public Security Section 9, she would have to return these parts. Her body — her identity — is controlled by corporations and the government, the same people who construct physical spaces. The most iconic shot of the film sees Kusanagi —after assassinating a foreign diplomat — leaping from a building and becoming invisible, virtually indistinguishable from the city below her. Again and again, Oshii parallels Kusanagi with New Port City (and thus with Hong Kong). In Ghost in the Shell’s thematic language, they are all synonyms.

Production I.G

The climax of the film sees Kusanagi face the question of her identity head-on when the film’s antagonist, an artificial intelligence program called the Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi), proposes they join to become one identity. The Puppet Master, like Kusanagi, is (or, rather, was) the government’s property, created to function as a free-thinking algorithm. That programming led to his gaining sentience and ultimately rebelling. Now, all the Puppet Master requires is a body and a soul, both of which Kusanagi has. When she questions this proposition — “You talk about redefining my identity. I want a guarantee that I can still be myself.” — the Puppet Master replies, with as much mirth as an emotionless program can have, “There isn’t one. Why would you wish to?”

As a genre, cyberpunk is built upon an optimistic belief that the fusion of man and machine — a fusion the genre pioneers see as not only inevitable, but already a reality — can be a benefit, rather than a detriment. Every time we use a piece of technology, we become a cyborg: phones connect us to the internet and cars give us wheels, for instance. The only difference between what we already have and what cyberpunk projects is that technology has not yet been integrated into our physical being. Ghost in the Shell views Hong Kong, with all its cultural, technological, and infrastructural hybridity, as the staging ground for such an integration. Exiting from colonial rule into a brave new world of independence, it was a perfect opportunity to shape diversity into human progress. The fusion of Kusanagi and the Puppet Master is the optimistic reading of that opportunity: both of their identities are subsumed, and a new being emerges, one that is unrestricted by government and corporate control, and thus free to fashion its own identity however it sees fit.

25 years on, the ideas underpinning Ghost in the Shell remain timely, as does its connection to Hong Kong. In June 2019, the Chinese government proposed a new set of security laws that would directly oppose the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement. These new laws would allow Chinese officials to operate a secret police state in Hong Kong. Any Hong Kong resident could be arrested and extradited to the Chinese mainland, where they would no longer be protected by Hong Kong’s legal system, thus granting China the opportunity to destroy Hong Kong’s democratic government and establish totalitarianism in its place. Moreover, once these laws were instated, it would be easy for China to quell any resistance, as any form of pushback could be punished to whatever extent Chinese officials see fit.

The ongoing Hong Kong protests have been a last-ditch effort to protect the political freedom of their population, but the gambit has ultimately failed, as a new security law was passed by the Chinese legislature in June 2020. The exact social and political ramifications of this remain to be seen, but if history has taught us anything, it doesn’t bode well for Hong Kong or her people.

That Ghost in the Shell should have as much significance today as it did 25 years ago is an indictment of the failures of our governments, whose advocacy for Hong Kong stopped short of aid. Or perhaps it is an indictment of the lack of power given to Hong Kong to begin with: after all, when British occupation expired, instead of fighting for sovereignty, neither the colonizers nor the global community at large pushed for more than a half measure. Hong Kong was never a part of China, but nor was it entirely independent either; rather, it was classified as a Chinese Special Administrative Region, neither protected by China nor independent from her. The steady slide towards totalitarian rule in Hong Kong was built into its structure — a structure that informed space, which in turn informed identity.

Art isn’t often an effective tool for protest or mobilizing change; rather, when change occurs, art tends to adopt a reflective position. Ghost in the Shell reflected the prospect of change in 1995 through an optimistic lens: soon, colonial rule was to be ripped from the fabric of Hong Kong’s culture, and in its place, progress could be sewn. From our cultural position 25 years on, that promise now feels hollow. 

Early on in the film, Kusanagi is asked by a non-cyborg subordinate why she brought him onto her team: surely a cybernetically augmented operative would’ve been the more tactically prudent choice? Kusanagi’s response is that a unit comprised entirely of cyborgs can only view a tactical situation in one way: “Overspecialise and you breed in weakness.” In battle, diversity is the key to success. The same is true in reality, just as it’s also true that the conformist demands of totalitarian rule mark its own undoing. Maybe, then, there is hope for Hong Kong. 

Joshua Sorensen

Josh is an editor at Flip Screen. Films starring Holly Hunter are to him what lamps are to David Byrne.

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