The New Techno-Orientalism As Manifested In Ghost In The Shell Franchise By Mamoru Oshii

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Orientalism has evolved into a more complicated term when it comes to the 21st century, the era of globalisation. The changing form of this discourse has been even more striking when considering Japan’s economical and technological advancement since the eighties. In this essay, I will situate my analysis on Ghost in the Shell franchise (highlight on the animated film by Mamoru Oshii in 1995 and Rupert Sanders’ live-action film in 2017), to explore the ways in which Ghost in the Shell constructs the modern visual image of Japan in a new form of self-orientalism. (three-way dialogue)

To open the discussion of the new form which Orientalism has now taken in Japanese anime, we ought to understand what is meant by Orientalism in a wider academic field. Firstly coined by Edward Said, the term Orientalism comes from the Orient, which is an ‘European invention’ that has helped define the Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality and experience perceived by journalists and readers in Europe. Such an idea of binary oppositions gives a rise to Orientalism, which Said suggests, “is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Said is aware of the difference in the concept of the Orient accepted in Europe and United States of America; Europe sees the Near East (the Middle East) as the Orient while America sees the Far East (China, Japan, Malaysia and so on). Although Said systematically examines how Orientalism functions in scholarly writings on the Orient and why such academic approach is problematic, the Far East remains off centered in his study.

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It is, when globalization and technological advancement gradually break the geographic boundaries across the globe, that Japan has caught great amount of attention in the study of Orientalism. In his essay “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism”, Toshiya Ueno explains, while Orient is invented by the West, Techno-Orient is invented by the world of information capitalism. Techno-Orientalism occurred as Westerners realized the previous binary oppositions (culture and savage, modern and pre-modern, and so on) no longer fit into the case of Japan’s fast-paced modernization progress since the 1980s. The eastward-moving technological innovation is embedded in the discourses of Orientalism, and so in the representation of Japan or Japanese in Western media texts. David Morley and Kevin Robins argue that Japanese are represented as cold-blood machines, and otaku (refers to youngsters who lost in between the real-world reality and the computer reality) culture is now one the most precise examples of Japan’s image. What has been a result of such representation is that Japaneseness is perceived as strongly associating with robotics, cybernetics and artificial intelligence-things connote the future we imagine. As Morley and Robins note: “[i]f the future is technological, and if technology has become “Japanised,” then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese, too. The postmodern era will be the Pacific era. Japan is the future, and it is a future that seems to be transcending and displacing Western modernity.”

Picturing Japan as a centre of Techno-Orient has never been a privilege of the West, despite the numerous media coverage during the anti-Japanese period after WWII. Interestingly, Techno-Orientalism appears to exist in plentiful anime made within Japan. Particularly in the genre of science fiction. Stories which cannot be told in live-action television series or feature films are unfolded by relying on one’s imagination and technically a computer graphic software. On the top of this less restrictive production process, Techno-Orientalism flourishes in Japan also as a manifesto of nihonjiron-the idea of an essentialist Japanese superiority that was integral to its imperialist project. In her study of Japanese cyberpunk, Kumiko Sato suggests cyberpunk’s crucial role in waking up the nihonjiron spirit: “this proud announcement of revived Japaneseness requited through the cutting edge of American culture means that the two separate histories of the West and Japan-the former modernizing, the latter behind-coincides in the discovery of Japan in American cyberpunk.” The discourse of Orientalism is no longer only the West’s apparatus to scrutinize Japan but also a mirror for Japan to reflect itself in media texts produced these days. Ghost in the Shell, with films made by both Japan itself and Hollywood under the same title, therefore is a franchise worth further scrutiny in order to understand Japan’s self-orientalism in comparison with the Western visions of Orientalism.

As I mentioned before, anime is encountered with less constraints in the genre of science fiction than live-action films. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, the film’s Techno-Orientalist implication lies in the visual aesthetics created by Mamoru Oshii. On the one hand, the visual design is indicative of the main character’s cold-blood personality I discussed earlier. On the other hand, this cold-blood ‘personality’ or nature of Kusanagi remains skeptical which is the issue I shall address later.

The setting of Ghost in the Shell fits precisely into the way that the western Cyberpunk literature imagines in the eighties. William Gibson illustrates the typical setting of a Cyberpunk world through urbanized, almost dream-like landscapes in his novel Neuromancer. The production team of Ghost takes Hongkong as their blueprint for the design of the city-New Port. New Port is depicted as a city upon canals with dazzling neon light and mandarin signboards hanging haphazardly on the side of buildings. According to the designer Atsushi Takeuchi, Hongkong’s cityscape fits the outlook of New Port the futurist Megacity: “There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two…are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called modernization! It’s a situation in which two entities are kept in a strange neighboring relationship.” However, New Port is not merely a plain backdrop in Ghost-it becomes a part of Kusanagi’s story. The film is soaked in flooding canals and pouring rains. A significant amount of screen time is given to the canals running through New Port, often packed with garbage and obsoleted machinery. The flood serves as a symbol of excessive information in the cybernetic world. The sea of data is depicted as being flooded as people (or cyborgs) are unaware of its excess, reasoned Atsushi. After Kusanagi failed to open the hatch of the tank later in the battle scene, her damaged body was flung down to a puddle, faced down and lifeless. At this moment, Kusanagi’s image echoes the floaters on the canals as if there were no difference between them.

After the opening sequence showing all the titles of film production crew, the first shot we are given is our protagonist Motoko Kusanagi opening her eyes then staring at the camera. It is an empty gaze. Even though the gaze does not last uncomfortably, Kusanagi’s hollow eyes are still very noticeable not only because it is the first shot but also because eyes often give out information about one’s identity as a human. Ridley Scott once responded about the shot of the kickback on a replicant’s retina in Blade Runner (1982): ‘despite all their technology, the genetic designers of Blade Runner’s world still hadn’t quite perfected their product’s eye-balls. So that kickback you saw from the replicants’ retinas was a bit of a design flaw. I was also trying to say that the eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot. A glowing human retina seemed one way of stating that.’ What Scott suggests is the symbolic meaning of human beings carried by one’s eyes, and such a humanity symbol is so irreplaceable even in a technologically advanced world where cyborgs can be made just like human. In Ghost, Kusanagi’s lifeless eyes throughout the film state her existence as a cybernetic product, an enhanced humanoid to protect the city from crimes. There is, perhaps a more significant example of this deliberate facial design of characters. Batou, Kusanagi’s male partner in Section 9, got his eyes fully replaced by artificial eyes which look like a pair of telephoto lenses.

The eye is not the only part which Oshii stresses on Kusanagi’s questionable existence in terms of character design. Along with the story of Kusanagi’s search for mental enlightenment, we observe a change in her physical body as well. Prior to the title sequence, Kusanagi strips herself on the top of a skyscraper to activate her cloaking device (thermoptic camouflage as called in the film) before she falls to assassinate a government official through the window. Kusanagi’s body as a female is strongly sexualized by the explicit portrayal of her ample breasts and narrow waist in this scene. It is no doubt, as Joseph Christopher Schaub notes, many viewers in their first impression might see the film “as part of the sexploitation subgenre of anime, which typically shows ‘Barbie’ doll-like females performing a variety of sex acts with their animated male counterparts.” In the discourse of Techno-Orientalism, a sexualized female body often signifies the authorial power that the patriarchal West has over the East. Gibson’s Neuromancer serves a good example of depicting Tokyo as exotic and erotic. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun reaffirms this idea in her essay of Orientalism in cyberspace:

Cyberspace—unlike the physical landscape—can be conquered and made to submit. Neuromancer counters American anxieties … with a medium that enables American penetration. It turns sexual threat into sexual opportunity by rehearsing themes of Oriental exoticism and Western penetration.

However, as we follow Kusanagi’s journey of self-discovery, her sexualized body is eventually destroyed in the battle scene as she is trying so hard to open the hatch of a tank in the end of the film. In this scene, she is again naked, but what overrides her imagery nudity is the phallic muscle showing up as she is pulling the hatch with tremendous efforts. The following image shows Kusanagi ripping herself apart as her cyborg body no longer bears the strength. That, in the same time, also indicates the destruction of the patriarchal fetishized gaze towards her body. Kusanagi as a cyborg is blurring not only the boundary between humanity and machine, but also between female and male. The subversion of Kusanagi’s body complicates the exoticized image of Japan insisted by the West. In his study of mecha-anime, Schaub acknowledges that Kusanagi’s body serves as a battleground for conflicting representations of power in an era of global capitalism. If we see the first scene of Kusanagi’s naked body as an epitomized image of Japan in Gibson’s Neuromancer, then the scene of Kusanagi’s self-destruction disavows this Orientalist way of restructuring Japan by the West.

Despite there are anti-Orientalist readings from Kusanagi’s androgynous body, the overall narratives of Ghost in the Shell comply to the generic tropes embodied in the Western fantasy of Japanese Cyberpunk. The viewers are shown a female cyborg who constantly pondering her existence, but meanwhile an emotionless humanoid whose nature as an artificial being could not be altered. In his genre studies of Japanese cyberpunk, Mark Player observes “bodily mutation through technological intervention, dehumanization, repression and sexuality” as the major themes of cyberpunk in Japan. Kusanagi confirms Player’s idea by her cybernetic body and the way she interacts with her male companions: Togusa and Batou. Unlike Kusanagi, Togusa only upgraded a part of his brain to get access to the vast sea of information. More importantly, he lives a normal human’s live with his beloved wife and daughter. Togusa is more humane than Kusanagi almost in every sense. Before the first car chase scene, Kusanagi asks Togusa if he still insist to use a revolver this time. Togusa replied yes. Togusa’s persistent enthusiasm towards using a revolver is frequently teased by Kusanagi and Batou–who always prefer more powerful automated weapons. Revolver is a symbol of humanity (for it requires more manual operation), which is rare to find in the case of Kusanagi and Batou. The contrast between Togusa and Kusanagi is heightened when their armored car is bombed. Kusanagi is too busy minding the bad guy on the loose to check if Togusa is still alive after the explosion. This dehumanized character of Kusanagi is reinforced in her interactions with Batou. Kusanagi undresses in front of Batou on a boat after diving. It is beyond the capability of her computerized mind to understand the sophisticated conventional behaviors of humans. Although the glaring feminine appearance claims Kusanagi’s physical identity as a woman, the concept of gender and sexuality do not exist inside her deceptive “shell”. Afterall, when the Puppet Master expresses to Kusanagi his concern of being unable to reproduce like a normal man, Kusanagi simply replied: “But you can copy yourself.” In the age of computerization when everything can be programmed, reproduction lost its meaning and so has sexuality.

Twenty-two years after Oshii’s first Ghost in the Shell, this Japanese cyberpunk paradigm sees a reboot by Hollywood. It is rather thought-provoking to see how this Japanese take on Techno-Orientalism travels back to the West where the theory originated, and its direct impact on one of the most predominant film industries in the West. Many of the Techno-Orientalist symbols in the original anime has transformed in the new adaptation, which is not surprising since decades have past and it was almost only ten years till the actual time the film was set in. If we take a closer look into Rupert Sanders’ adaptation, it is not hard to find this once highly Techno-Orientalist cyberpunk franchise has now molted its Japaneseness “shell”. Sanders’ Ghost is a major transnational collaboration: production companies includes those from the US, India and China; its actors are from the US, England, France, Australia, Romania, Japan and more; same pattern applies to the artwork except Japan’s absence. This radical shift from being a national production to a transnational one signals global capitalization is now taking over the discourse of Techno-Orientalism. Michal Daliot-Bul argues in his comparison study of the two films, Sander’s Ghost “seeks to capitalize on the Japaneseness of its product while aiming at a global audience with an adjusted story that has all the characteristics of an anticipated American Hollywood blockbuster.” To clarify, an adjusted story referred by Daliot-Bul means a story with reduced intention of exoticizing Japan but more on keeping a balance between moderate Japaneseness and the Western mainstream values.

The evidence of this reduced Techno-Orientalist intention lies in the amendment made Sander’s adaptation. Unlike Oshii’s Kusanagi who neither has interest in finding her past nor shows any hatred towards her artificial body, Sanders’ Mira Killian (Kusanagi) actively searches for her past as a human and mourns the loss of her organic body. Perhaps the most noticeable narrative divergence in Sanders’ Ghost is Killian turning down Kuze (the Puppet Master)’s invitation to be an immaterial entity with him. Despite being a full cyborg, Killian eventually recognizes herself as a human after acknowledging her past: “humanity is our virtue. I know who I am, and what I’m here to do.” The ambiguous boundary between human and machine in Oshii’s Ghost seems like a clear cut in the Sanders’, where humanity transcend all the non-human entities. In her research of American cyberpunk, Susan Napier sees the American films “privileging a kind of individual humanism as a last resort against the encroaching forces of technology and capitalism.” On the contrary, Japan’s animistic belief states the alternative view on humanity. According to Robertson, Japan’s indigenous religion, known as animatism, believes spiritual energies or forces (kami) are present in all aspects of the world and universe, including non-human organics like trees, streams, rocks and human creations like cars and robots. Oshii’s ending of the reproductive merging of two semi-finished cybernetic products, the Puppet Master’s “ghost” and Kusanagi’s “shell”, elaborated Japan’s animistic culture. Yet, this more recent Hollywood production replaces the Japanese core ideology towards cyberpunk with the Americanized one.

My research of Ghost in the Shell franchise in terms of Techno-Orientalism is not to argue the notion of Orientalism is losing its currency, but the way we understand Orientalism should be contextualized. Japan’s rapid economic and technological development in the 1980’s lifts Said’s Orientalism to the next level in the era of computerization. Meanwhile, out of Japan’s national essentialism (nihonjiron), Techno-Orientalism is appropriated by Japanese in their culturally exclusive art form: manga and anime. This practical transnational exchange of Orientalist theory offers a refreshing perspective of looking it.


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