Character Trope: Motoko Kusanagi and the Ghost in the Shell

I warned you a while ago I might think of something to say about Ghost in the Shell.

Okay, there are three characters I think about as having sufficient similarities to make one of them remind me of the others, and sufficient differences to make them have interesting contrasts among themselves. The three are Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Alita from Battle Angel Alita, and Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell.

Rei is a (genetically) human girl raised to believe she is a tool, not a person.
Alita is a human brain installed in a mechanical body, a cyborg.
Motoko is also a human brain installed in a mechanical body.

Fundamentally, each of them is an exploration of the nature of humanity (the ghost, as in Holy Ghost, or soul, if you prefer) and the tension between the nature of humanity and the future of medicine. Prosthetic devices are getting smarter, stronger, and more reliable every day. It’s not so far in the future that a person might only be human as a ghost.

This can work a couple ways. Rei and Alita are alike in that their character development leads them to become more human. That works for me. The tension between their mechanical identities and their human identities creates conflict in their series and the theme is deeper and more thoughtful their stories than in a lot of manga and anime. Of course, it’s also a “happy ending” for the character, regardless of how the series turns out.

Motoko is really fascinating, though, in that she is not becoming more human. She is becoming less so.

Motoko Kusunagi

Alienated much?

I think to most of us humans the idea of humanity going digital, to call a spade a spade, is a concept that is simultaneously deep philosophically and also frightening. Being meat is one of the things that defines humanity, literally DNA that creates the species, and, since we’re human, that’s what we want to be. Alita and Rei both desire it, making them relatable to the audience. But Motoko rejects it.

If you read science fiction, and you should – it’s good for you – this is territory Fred Pohl explored extensively at several times, for instance, in his brilliant Heechee cycle. Start with Gateway. It’s a mind blowing book. But by the time you get to Heechee Rendezvous, the idea of a human identity stored in a machine, and what that can imply, starts to be explored. (Pohl also goes there in Man Plus, where astronaut Roger Torrington is rebuilt into a machine that can survive on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit. Roger has a lot in common with Motoko except that we meet Motoko after she’s rebuilt but we go through the process with Roger.)

Motoko’s rejection of her humanity starts in her natural cynicism, a cynicism that Alita and Rei both lack. That makes sense: They’re kids, essentially. But Motoko is an adult. She’s aware of the fact that she’s been used – the point is made that she can quit the section IF she gives up her cybernetic augmentations, and that if she does, there’s very little left of her. She’s essentially a slave.

That’ll bring out the cynic in you.

Plus she’s older than the others, and she is a cop. Doing that sort of job will make you cynical in a hurry, too.

Motoko already knows that life sucks so far as she is concerned. If you’re Motoko and you have a choice between humanity and machine life, machine life is a much more attractive alternative than it is to the other two young ladies. It makes sense that she would merge herself with the machine intelligence called the Puppet Master, despite the fact that she is cop and Puppet Master is criminal: at this point in her life, to the extent we want to call it a life, she has more in common with the Puppet Master than she does with humanity.

Batou knows. Batou understands. There’s not a lot of human left in Batou, either.

Alita learns to love, and learns to love humanity. Rei learns to love, and learns to love Shinji. Motoko learns to love, and learns to love Motoko, in the best possible way. She learns what she is meant to be and embraces it.

I think this is what’s fascinating about Ghost in the Shell. The shell, of course, is the body, mechanical in the cases of Motoko and Alita, meat in the case of Rei Ayanami. I think all three series arrive at the same conclusion, that the shell is not what defines the person. I think even non-fiction is beginning to realize this, although there are people who cannot accept that. Consider the person who feels they must have sexual reassignment surgery. The ghost says one thing and the shell says another.

All three characters (and their creators) decide it’s the ghost that matters, the mind/soul/whatever that resides inside the shell that defines what it means to be human. Whatever they are, Alita and Rei are lovable because their ghosts yearn to be human. Motoko is frightening and fascinating because she chooses to head in the other direction.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

3 thoughts on “Character Trope: Motoko Kusanagi and the Ghost in the Shell

  1. Fascinating analysis! I thought no you’re spot on. And frankly, one of the reasons I love Ghost is because of the different choice Matoko makes. It sets it apart and shows a new path forward for humanity. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s easy for an author to make the Pinocchio choice, to have the character become a real boy (well, girl with Rei and Alita),since that creates a lot of sympathy with the audience. It’s a lot more interesting to go the other way, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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