Who am I? What makes me, me? These are the types of mysteries that have obsessed mankind for at least as long as we’ve kept records. Depending on your culture, you might have profoundly different answers to these questions, and these answers in turn, subtly impact your world-view. Like many science fiction movies, Ghost in the Shell explores these ideas by placing its characters in extreme situations where they can’t help but confront these philosophical quandaries. The film takes place in a world where people are freely able to modify their bodies in order to enhance their functioning. The agents of Section 9 like Batou and Kusanagi, for example, can flush alcohol out of their systems at a moment’s notice, allowing them to drink while on standby. Batou has replaced his eyes with sensors that enhance his perception. Kusanagi, rather than modifying her body, is almost entirely mechanical, with a brain being her sole remaining organic component.

In some ways Ghost in the Shell paints an optimistic vision of the future. Science has demystified the operations of biological life, and technology has stepped in to improve upon the haphazard mechanisms left to us through evolution. And yet Kusanagi, with her perfectly engineered body, is deeply troubled by her state of being. Repeated shots of her perfectly manufactured form are juxtaposed against her existential anxiety. She fears that being a brain in an artificial body might make her something less than a person. In this way, Kusanagi, throughout Ghost in the Shell, acts as a stand-in for the Japanese conscience grappling with the meaning of personhood in a world where humans are free to alter their bodies and minds as they please.

Kusanagi’s worries reflect a longstanding concern in Japan over Western medical technology, and organ transplantation in particular. While Japan is a world leader in technology, it has been loath to embrace transplantation. In Japan, 315 transplant operations were performed last year, compared with over 13,000 so far this year in the US. This reluctance to embrace a proven lifesaving technology stems, at least partially, from the traditional Japanese conception of the relationship between the body and the mind. It is this same unease which we see expressed by Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.

The Western notion of personhood is dominated by the concept of mind-body dualism, wherein the mind and the body are distinct from one another. In this world, the consciousness controls the body, but isn’t part of the body. An individual, then, is an expression of the mind. While this world-view seems abstract, it has profound consequences on how we treat our bodies in the West. The body is viewed simply as a biological machine controlled by the mind. This disposition makes medical procedures like organ transplantation or body augmentation a technical feat rather than an ethical problem. The transplantation of a brain into an artificial body, like that of Kusanagi, isn’t a cause for existential anxiety. The world of Ghost in the Shell on the surface seems to fully embrace this concept. It is a world where a mind can be transplanted into a machine, and a person can gradually swap out all of their biological parts for mechanical ones. It is a world where we have transcended the limitations of the physical body.

Unlike the other characters in Ghost in the Shell, Kusanagi stops to ponder what giving up her biological heritage means for her. In the traditional Japanese concept, the soul and the body are inextricably intertwined and inseparable. Furthermore, the individual is seen in Japanese culture as emerging from society. We are individuals because society reacts to our bodies and behaviors in a specific way. The contemporary Japanese philosopher Hiroshi Ichikawa, for example, expresses this view:

“…it is wrong to see the spirit and the body as two existential principles, and to grasp reality in their intersection and separation. Rather, we should consider this unique structure as itself fundamental, and regard the spirit and the body as aspects abstracted from it.”

This worldview partially explains why Japan didn’t legalize the harvesting of organs of brain dead donors until 1997. To the Western eye, a brain dead body is no longer a person; it’s simply a mechanism without an operator. In Japan, a brain dead person, still warm to the touch, still breathing and digesting and salivating, remains a person. The person is not deceased when some scientific criterion is met but rather when society is ready to admit that he’s passed away. Removing an organ from this body is tantamount to removing a part of what constitutes an individual. 

Through this lens, Kusanagi’s concerns come into sharper focus. What does it mean for humans when they replace portions of their bodies with machines? What does it mean when we replace our bodies entirely? The Puppet Master, an emergent artificial life form existing without a body, scoffs at mankind’s unequivocal embrace of body enhancing technology when it says, “While memories may as well be the same as fantasy, it is by these memories that mankind exists. When computers made it possible to externalize memory you should have considered all the implications that held.”

Viewing humanity as an outsider, the Puppet Master understands what is obscured from everyone else: as beings made of inseparable bodies and souls, modifying our bodies and their capabilities fundamentally change what it means to be human. A conversation between Kusanagi and Batou elucidates this point further. Kusanagi observes, “There’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood… All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me,’ and simultaneously confining ‘me’ within set limits.”

What does it mean, then, for the individual when we are able to change some of these things? Do I remain the same person if I alter my countenance? From a mind-body dualist standpoint, the answer is likely ‘no.’ From the viewpoint of Kusanagi and Japanese ethics, caution is in order. We may accidentally alter something fundamental about ourselves without realizing it. 

The world of Ghost in the Shell feels like it’s far in the future, but there are signs of it already. Chances are that in the past year you’ve spoken to someone with an insulin pump, cochlear implant, or pace maker. There are some people implanted with artificial hearts as they await transplantation. Even in our everyday lives, we offload our memories to artificial devices like smartphones. These technological marvels often improve our lives significantly, and yet it’s important to remember that they come with costs. The individual might be far more sensitive to its environment than we would care to admit. Perhaps we all need embrace Kusanagi’s anxiety as we march unrelentingly into the future.