Resize text+=

Fundamental Comics: ‘The Ghost in the Shell’ and the Anxiety of the Machines

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

*Note:  Mature content is included in this article.

The Ghost in the Shell / Mobile Armored Riot Police (Kōkaku Kidōtai)
Writer: Masamune Shirow (Masanori Ota)
Artist: Masamune Shirow (Masanori Ota)
Letterer: (US) Tom Orzechowski & Suzie Lee
Editor: (JPN) Koichi Yuri & Junji Seki (US) Chris Warner
Translator: (US) Frederik L. Schodt & Toren Smith
Publisher: (JPN) Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo (US) Dark Horse Comics
Publication Date: (JPN) 1989-1990 (US) 1995
No. of Issues: (JPN) 11 (US) 8


Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk science-fiction manga series, Kōkaku Kidōtai: Ghost in The Shell, is also known in Japan under the working title of Security Force Kokatu, the literal title Mobile Armored Riot Police, or the official title of Armored Shell. In the West, it is most famously known as The Ghost in the Shell, the comic book source material for Ghost in the Shell, the acclaimed 1995 anime movie directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the progenitor of numerous other franchised adaptations in film, television, comics, and video games.  Like the manga itself, there is no singular entry point to The Ghost in the Shell.

Both the manga and the adapted anime feature Major Motoko Kusanagi as their central protagonist. The Major is a full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human, meaning that she possesses a robotic body, with all the accompanying perks, while retaining her biological brain and all the benefits of human consciousness.

Set in the early years of a futuristic 21st Century, Kusanagi works for Public Security Section Nine, an International Hostage Rescue Unit of the Japanese Government. Section Nine’s remit is to act as a Special Power-Suit Assault Force, heavy-handling cases that largely exploit social mechanisms within their own country.

All iterations of Ghost in the Shell showcase “brain dives” and networked consciousnesses; the act of scrubbing memories or “ghost dubbing” identities onto individuals; and a range of technologies that make the user super-human, sub-human, or even post-human. In this imagined future, there are sexy robots strutting next to walking AI tanks (Fuchikomas), both serving and resisting their manufactured functions across techno-landscapes.

Stretching science-fiction anime tropes across the backbones of “some Grade-B cop movie”, as one of the characters puts it, these worlds and narratives encourage a consideration of an alternative post-World War II Japanese government, their military, and native corporations as they generally come to terms with, then exploit, the historically unique situation of their country.

A further set of cyber-lenses also encourage us to reflect upon more universal and existential topics such as human consciousness, artificial intelligence (AI), the nature of the soul, and the body-mind dichotomy.

Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of anime; Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of manga, but these two works are fundamentally different from one another.

Oshii’s coolly beautiful film is presented as the completed work of a director defending their serious philosophical and sociological thesis. By contrast, Shirow’s chaotically explosive comic shifts gears from the flippant to the morally overwrought, from the microscopic neurochip to the macro-metropolis society, showing us a mangaka (manga creator) who was actively trying to grapple with, and work through, the messy complexities of what it might mean to be a ghost in a shell.    

GitS PLOT cc9
The Plot of The Ghost in the Shell  

While the Western reader is likely to encounter the comic in a single volume, the structure of The Ghost in the Shell follows the form of the serialized manga, presenting eleven consecutive stories that cover a future time period from March 5, 2029, through to September 9, 2030.

Shirow describes the setting on page one:  

It is the near future. The world has become highly information-intensive, with a vast corporate network covering the planet, electrons and light pulsing through it. But the nation-state and ethnic groups still survive.
And on the edge of Asia, in a strange corporate conglomerate-state called “Japan”…

This strange state is where most of the action happens. In “01: Prologue”, a Far East Trade rep, an Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce, and an Executive of the Union find their shadowy meeting rudely interrupted by Japanese Public Security forces, who are investigating the assassination of their Prime Minister. As the diplomats are smugly claiming immunity, and offering political asylum to the guilty Japanese contingency in the room, an unknown and invisible third party is outside the window with a sanctioned third option. This is Major Motoko Kusanagi and she does not hesitate to pull the trigger on the delegation, resolving the crisis and annulling any future embarrassment for the government. The prologue sets the bar for everything that follows.

The Ghost in the Shell trails the Major as she joins and leads the newly formed special forces unit, Public Security Section Nine. Answering only to the (new) Prime Minister of Japan and Aramaki, their “ape-face” boss, the other members of the unit include Batou, a cybernetic-limbed Arnie-clone with extensive combat experience and glassy lensed spheres for eyes, and Togusa, the only family man and former cop, who refuses augmented enhancements for the urban battlefield, preferring his trusty revolver over modern weaponry.

Section Nine resolve delicate situations with indelicacy. Japanese political scandals always need to be avoided (which is the sole point of orientation offered by their superiors), with the team finding that their militaristic methods are the most highly effective deterrents, especially when on home soil. As Aramaki succinctly explains: “Its results we’re interested in, not ideals” (“08: Dumb Barter”).  

Using Fuchikoma tanks, robotic Active Protector Suits, neural hacking software, and building-levelling ordinance, in the early chapters the team take out a government brain-washing “Human Factory” that “got out of hand” (“02: Spartan”); they deport a Colonel of the liberated Gavel Republic back to the country he was attempting to overthrow (“03: Junk Jungle”); and they solve the case of a cyberbrain SOS, where a “ghost dubbing system” was being used to copy the minds of drug-addled children onto robots for “very special clients” (“06: Robot Rondo”).

The second half of The Ghost in the Shell expands and contracts the universe further. The Soviets become involved with a Japanese “giant octopus-like” corporation that has grown through land embezzlement (“07: Phantom Fund”), Section One assist a known terrorist against Section Nine as part of a misguided sting operation (“08: Dumb Barter”), and an Israeli plan to assassinate the Foreign Minister is uncovered (“10: Brain Drain”).
Throughout the plot points, there is constant chatter about the increasingly blurred distinction between artificial and human life-forms.

The short early chapter devoted to the revolt of the Fuchikomas and the rights of robots (“04: Megatech Machine 1”) is followed up with a chapter looking at how cyborgs like the Major are manufactured (“05: Megatech Machine 2”). Towards the end of The Ghost in the Shell, these concerns become amplified into a central theme across the final three chapters with The Puppeteer, who resurfaces from “03: Junk Jungle.”

Called “one of the most extraordinary hackers in the history of cyber-brain crime”, The Puppeteer is labelled “a program designed for self-preservation” by the government, but considers itself to be otherwise: “I am not an AI. I am a life-form spontaneously created from the sea of information” (“09: Bye Bye Clay”). The Puppeteer is both a ghost and a living being, and in the final chapter, “11: Ghost Coast,” the Major fuses with it, leaving their collective future unclear.    

Reception Upon Release

There are thousands of articles that attest to the genius of the manga and how Oshii’s film adaptation gained Shirow more fans, but I would like to draw historical context from Frederik L. Schodt’s introduction to his interview with Shirow for Wired magazine, 1998, on the American success of The Ghost in the Shell:

In 1986, the head of San Francisco-based Studio Proteus, Toren Smith […] realized that Shirow’s otherwise un-Japanese style might appeal to U.S. comic book aficionados […] As a result, Shirow received wide exposure in North America and the U.K. before he achieved mainstream popularity in Japan. He is perhaps the only major Japanese manga artist who has had all of his paperback compilations published in English.

By the time Shirow’s cyber-net-AI-metaphysical adventure, Ghost in the Shell, started appearing in English in 1995, Shirow had an American cult following. As of this writing, nearly 30,000 copies of the $25 dollar, 350+ page English compilation of Ghost in the Shell have reportedly shipped in deluxe paperback form. (See Schodt’s full interview.)


Critical Analysis

The Ghost in the Shell was first published in a serialized format for the Japanese publication, Weekly Young Magazine (Shūkan Yangu Magajin), across 1989-1990. In Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, Paul Gravett explains that Young Magazine and other producers of seinen (young adult) manga content “could deal directly with the sort of subjects that had been previously been possible only in rental-library gekiga [mature style comics] or experimental magazines” (Gravett, page 96) because their audiences were growing up alongside the developing history of manga. Alongside this, “The maturing of manga’s audience coincided with the economic bubble of the 1980s” leading seinen manga “to exceed the children’s circulation in 1991 by over 100 million copies” (Gravett, page 101).

Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell, together with titles such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982-1990) and Yuzo Takada’s 3×3 Eyes (1987-2002), represent the cultural and critical boom of seinen manga and Weekly Young Magazine in the late ‘80s. Within this setting, Shirow was afforded an opportunity to publicly work through the ideas that were percolating in his previous shōnen (male teen) work.

The Ghost in the Shell prominently features nubile robots, ’80s machismo, and kinetic pulp violence. In many ways, this checklist makes it no different to the genre work of Shirow’s preceding comics. Black Magic (1983), Appleseed (1985), and Dominion (1986) all feature a young, kickass, female figure of authority in a science-fiction cyberpunk setting. The blurb for Dominion (Dark Horse Comics edition) calls it an “ecological-dystopian-police procedural adventure/comedy,” which is a fittingly complex description for all of Shirow’s manga stories.

A good entry point to Shirow is through Oshii’s comments on his adaptation of The Ghost in the Shell: “I had read the manga. There was a lot of difficult stuff in it, though, so I wanted to make something that was easy to understand. People still said it was hard” (see page 155 of Ghost in the Shell, Readme: 1995-2017). Shirow’s manga has always been densely packed with ideas. Below the surfaces, which are themselves meticulously designed and frequently footnoted by the author’s technical research and personal philosophies, shared revolutionary and evolutionary themes begin to emerge.

Governments are in a constant struggle with their citizens to define and enforce the boundaries of autonomy and stability; authorized urban warfare is highly militarized on domestic land while their citizens seem to be perpetually on the verge of uprising. As “eco-parables”, the world is also continuously under threat from mankind, be it by toxic air, World War III, or the overreaching avarice of individuals. Scientific advancements jostle alongside moral imperatives, often leaving the villain of the narrative in danger of appearing entirely rational in the face of an arbitrarily imposed order. For as advanced as these engineered worlds appear to be, they are always on the brink of an imminent implosive collapse.
If we strip away the power-suits and the power-plays, maybe even down to the bare nakedness that frequents his work, Shirow’s concerns can be distilled into one central theme: the anxiety of machines.

It is the refinement of these anxieties, tied in with a cultural encouragement to foreground them, where The Ghost in the Shell begins to surpass Shirow’s earlier work and becomes somewhat “difficult” or “hard”.

The Ghost in the Shell is largely about the seduction of technology. The better the tech, the more that can be accomplished. This mindset affects everyone, including the Major who is “only in this for the thrills, the money, and the best body maintenance possible” (“07: Phantom Fund”), so it is not a case of Shirow presenting a simple diatribe on the evils of technology. Yet, when cybercriminals exploit the interface between humans and machines to create malleable drones or “puppets” for the benefit of themselves, their clients, or their countries, the focus tends to shift away from the hardware itself to those that are behind it, creating or using the tech for their own ends.

Technology drives the engines of Shirow’s work, but as Steven T. Brown reminds us in Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture, technology itself is not always reducible to “technical machines, hardware prosthetics, and high-tech implants.” Alongside the play and manipulated disruption of biological and mechanical processes, there are also the “abstract machines”. These can “include social machines, political machines, economic machines, scientific machines, ecological machines, and even aesthetic machines.” Critically, “Such abstract machines never operate in isolation but always in relation to larger arrangements and concrete assemblages” (Brown, page 172).


This is something that Shirow is keenly intent on investigating.  

Considering economic and political machines, The Ghost in the Shell, for example, looks back towards Anpo (the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, signed in 1954) which has underpinned the real Japan’s relationship with the West ever since. Created by the competing tensions of outwardly enforced and inwardly self-created identities that spin out from this moment, the manga explores themes that resonate directly with Japan’s evolving sense of national identity.

In “03: Junk Jungle” there is a democratic nation state that was formerly led by a military government, and there are concerns of a return to an old social order that shares qualities with Imperial Japan. One of Shirow’s notes for the chapter make this historical tension with the present quite clear: “Since Japan did make a mess out of Asia in the past, and this is still having an effect on the area, it’s probably best to regard the aid as a type of compensation for past exploits.”

In “01: Prologue” there is also talk of the Japanese government guaranteeing not to interfere with the policies of other countries, so long as it does not conflict with trade, their new way of exerting control: “After all, if a nation of slaves withholds its services, the master nation starves,” which is, the politicians and diplomats agree, “deviating a bit from Socialism” and any notion of democratic equality, as they are now a mercenary capitalist economy.

The Ghost in the Shell does not shy away from the modern problems and contradictions that Shirow believes are facing Japan’s outwardly-facing, commodity-based national identity. One such viewpoint rises to the surface when, after having to get aggressively involved with Israel, the “Arabs”, and the “struggle in the Mideast”, the Major spits out “We’re such a globally conscious nation aren’t we? If those peace activists would just deal with reality a little more effectively, we wouldn’t be placed in these situations. They’re so hypocritical, emphasising a lifestyle based on consumption is the ultimate violence against poor countries” (“10: Brain Drain”).

Further addressing the confident economic boom of the ‘80s, the machines of science and ecology are also closely tied in with Japan’s national consciousness and the existential crisis that can arise within such an accelerated society, where the Greater Good for public bodies and collective systems makes the increasingly invisible singular body a collateral casualty of expansion.

The link between identity and electronic consumerism, for example, is examined in “06: Robot Rondo” with one Section Nine officer offering that “there’s such an information overload today that a hollowing of the spirit is taking place. They also say rampant commercialism has amplified unusual desires… But I think these [uprising] robots just want us to stop throwing them on the trash heap.”

The robots, who are shown to have the ghost-dubbed mind-sets of society’s youth, don’t want to be disposable, they want to be indispensable like, they believe, the adults around them. Later in the story, it is suggested that “people get caught up in worldly events and seek nothing but pleasure, becoming machines pursuing profit and efficiency, or mere consumption units…” So ironically, there is little to no differentiation between the two groups, except that the robots/youth are driven mad by an impotent realization of their worth in a system owned by adults. Although, with all their agency and capacity for individuality, the people of Japan, it is implied, just continue to mechanically consume and be consumed in cyclical obliviousness.


Towards the end of The Ghost in the Shell, The Puppeteer – a digital entity – has a similar quandary. He recognises that to avoid catastrophe but also preserve the equilibrium that guarantees his existence, he can’t remain static. His problem, though, is that he is limited by a system that has no slack or play in it. When an exact version of himself is duplicated, it can be destroyed by single virus; when he generates a copy with a little variation, the copies would reinforce their deficiencies as they merge. By unifying with another person/culture/society/ideology, either party, The Puppeteer believes, “would change slightly in [their] totality”, but would at least have the capacity to reach their “full potential” (“11: Ghost Coast”).

The Puppeteer seeks out a number of bodies across his story, each one serving a specific function. If we look at the social and aesthetic machines together, The Ghost in the Shell is a whirring cultural mechanism that remains firmly focussed on the presentation of the body.

The vocal backlash to Scarlett Johansson playing the Major in the 2017 Hollywood live-action adaptation, directed by Rupert Sanders, was centred around whitewashing (See Fanbase Press’ discussion.), but not just in that the actress did not look aesthetically appropriate for the role. On a deeper cultural level, the casting was perceived to be a transgression of the social make-up of the story. Motoko Kusanagi is a distinctly Japanese cultural product even if she does not look specifically Japanese in her ethnicity. As Shirow describes her in his author notes, “Major Kusanangi is deliberately designed to look like a mass-production model so she won’t be too conspicuous” (See page 156 of The Ghost in the Shell, Kodansha Comics edition).

With The Ghost in the Shell, Shirow is experimenting with his interest in ningyō (human-shaped machines). Brown, takes this further to offer that along with the works of Mihara Mitsukazu, Shirow has “practically created a cottage industry devoted to such sexy robots,” although there is also “more to the narratives of cyber-punk sexuality in Japan than such post-Metropolis robot pinups might suggest” (Brown, Page 60).

Kusanagi is one such “sexy robot”, fetishized in a variety of poses and states of (un)dress. Although in the end, when she’s in the “shell” of a male, her colleague still finds her attractive, giving Batou a crisis of his own to consider. The golf-caddy in “06: Robot Rondo” is a “sexy robot” wearing a see-through swim suit, presumably at the behest of their owner, but it is revealed that there was a child’s mind trapped inside the robot.  In “05: Megatech machine 2”, the chapter features the making of a “female mold” cyborg by a “sexy robot” nurse, with the increased sexuality of the scene contrasting with a serious discussion on the topic of cyborg technology, starting with the author directly instructing the reader to read Biomaterials – An Approach to Artificial Organs by Dr. Yoshito Ikada.  

It wasn’t until 2004, that Dark Horse Comics released an uncensored volume of the English language The Ghost in the Shell, with the censored version being later republished by Kodansha Comics in 2009. The pages that were cut and altered feature Kusanagi having a visually graphic lesbian-orgy aboard a small yacht. Censorship is perhaps the wrong word because Shirow himself was “tired of getting flak over the pages (even in Japan) and decided to remove the pages,” making his own official amendments to the text. While this deleted scene may appear to be titillating and gratuitous “fan service”, as Adi Tantimedh reframes the discussion: “It also establishes firmly that Major Kusanagi is bisexual, possibly omnisexual, and therefore Queer. She’s an LGBT heroine who’s been stuffed back into the hetero closet by the censorship. The TV series hints she has girlfriends but doesn’t come out and say it” (See Bleeding Cool’s article dated February 23, 2017 here).


The presence of Shirow’s “sexy robots” are a product of the seinen and shōnen manga tropes of the cyber-punk genre and their circulating cultures, but, before we congratulate Shirow on his subtle reversals and his occasional deconstruction of gender archetypes through exploring ningyō, it may also be useful to pause and consider Shirow’s career. His later art work, such as the Greaseberries book series (2014) and his Galgrease erotic-manga poster books (2002), drop the sociological and philosophical examinations of The Ghost in the Shell in favour of heavily objectified (and “greased”) pinup porno poses. The cogs of the machine, with their consumerist demands, keep turning for Masamune Shirow’s cottage industry.

Returning to Brown’s concept of the “abstract machines”: “Abstract machines operate as an exteriority that becomes immanent in the human subject” (Brown, page 172). Couched in the cyberpunk setting of The Ghost in the Shell, the existential anxiety of a group or individual within society that can be used, controlled, or manipulated by “abstract machines” manifests itself in discussions of machines, both digital and mechanical. We’ve already discussed this with regards to robots and AI that believe they are real, but it also directly interrogates the metaphysical nature of reality and the existence of the soul for those that are considered human.  

In “10: Brain Drain” when discussing her execution of an enemy agent, Kusanagi reflects “I didn’t know whether he was ‘himself’ or even a ‘human’. But I did know that he had awakened from his program – from his bad dream. […] what really killed him is the person or persons who originally programmed him, not me. I was just an unwitting accomplice.” And in “09: Bye Bye Clay” she ponders, “I wonder if the network I’m in is part of the basic structure of the vast electrical cloud that creates life itself…” When an unwitting accomplice has had false memories implanted within his mind, Section Nine cannot erase his waking “dream”, because “Whether it’s a simex [simulation] or a dream, the information that exists is all real… and an illusion at the same time” (“03: Junk Jungle”).

Ultimately for everyone, the anxiety is introduced not only by the machines of every kind interjecting in daily life, but by a recognition of them being there in the first place. Time and again in The Ghost in the Shell, having the capacity to question the framework of existence is not the same as having all the answers. There are no answers. This great unknowability is most ably articulated by The Major and her classic cyberpunk reframing of the Cartesian rubric, “I think, therefore I am:” 

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve already died. And what I think of as “me” isn’t really just an artificial personality comprised of a prosthetic body and a cyberbrain [….] You’ve never seen your alleged grey matter. Maybe you’re just assuming you’ve got it because of the situation you’re in. Maybe someday your “maker” will come, haul you away, take you apart, and announce the recall of a defective product. What if all that’s left of the “real you” is a couple of lonely brain cells, huh?  (“05: Megatech Machine 2”)

Without waiting for their maker, at least through experiencing The Ghost in the Shell, the reader can start to reprogram themselves as best as they can.


Relevancy Today

The robots, the sexy ladies, the dissatisfaction with reality: these are not new inventions by Shirow. Fritz Lang got there in 1927 with his film, Metropolis, and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam before that in 1886 with his novel, The Future Eve. By the time The Ghost in the Shell was published, Osamu Tezuka’s manga, Astro Boy, was no longer so young, being already 37 years old, and the Japanese genre was full of jetpack suits and techno-babble-justifications. Alongside these texts, and in closer proximity, we can add Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner (1982), Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga, Akira (1982), and William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (1984) for their cyberpunk influences, as technology and the question of digital-humanity come to the foreground.

This brings us to Shirow’s manga, The Ghost in the Shell, which through genre-iteration and philosophical-elevation notably brings itself within this sequential time-line of classic texts.  Not only has The Ghost in the Shell birthed an acclaimed franchise empire, it has laid the groundwork for how manga adaptations can retain their cultural nuances and explore their serious philosophies, largely without artistic compromise (although, with the Hollywood adaptation your mileage may vary).  

So, while the greatest influence of Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell is undoubtedly on Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, films such as the Wachowki’s existential The Matrix (1999) would not exist without his work, neither would James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015). Video games such as Ion Storm and Eidos Montréal’s Deus Ex series (2000-) or Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series of games (1987-), would not look quite the same either.

Furthermore, as a mechanized world becomes increasingly reliant upon digital connections to connect societies and individuals, The Ghost in the Shell not only becomes more relevant, it becomes increasingly prescient, and that may not be such a good thing.  

Other Points of Interest

In the Western world, the fortunes of Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell manga and Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell anime are more inextricably linked with one another. The anime was released in 1995, the same year the manga was first translated and published in English by Dark Horse Comics. Given that Shirow’s Appleseed (1985-1989) and Dominion (1986) manga were adapted into anime and released in the West by Manga Entertainment in 1988, the adaptations – themselves an integral part of the VHS anime boom – are more likely to have shaped general audience tastes than the original manga that preceded them.

Masamune Shirow’s real name is Masanori Ota. “Masamune” was borrowed from the legendary 13th Century Japanese Swordsmith. If Masamune makes the best weapons, then it is fitting that “Kusanagi” (Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi) is the name of the equally legendary “Grass-Cutting Sword.”

Carl Wilson, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor



Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top