What happens when we lose ownership of the body? The mind? We think about the body and mind as inextricably linked, but what about when we shift that paradigm? What, then, happens when the mind and body become fundamentally disconnected from one another? Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell engages in several parallel conversations about identity politics, and asks, ‘what does it mean to own the body?’ The Major’s body and mind belong to Public Sector Section 9, but through the course of this film, she co-opts them and reclaims ownership over herself through a process of reconsideration, reidentification, and ultimately, redefinition—but this does not come without a cost.
At minute 64 of the film, the Major encounters the tank that is protecting the Puppet Master’s body. At first glance, this is the climax for which viewers have been waiting (the Major’s erotic climax notwithstanding): human-machine versus machine-machine—the showdown to end all cybernetic showdowns. This is not the case. The battle that the Major fights here is not an external one, but one where her own body and mind go to war. She is naked atop the tank and is trying to pull it apart with her bare hands. The tank represents the Major’s relationship with her mind—her ghost. We see her struggle, and try, with all her synthetic might, to break the tank down into each component part. The musculature on her body is immensely articulated, stressed. She is struggling. Her mind is winning.
Earlier in the film, at minute 42, the Major experiences an existential crisis: “I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I’m not who I think I am. Like maybe I died a long time ago, and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic.” Batou goes on to suggest that she may be “doubting [her] own ghost,” and he is right on the money. The fight between the Major and the tank—the battle for the Puppet Master, and therefore, the answers—is the Major’s way of interrogating her own ghost. Who am I? What does it mean to be ‘me’?
As the battle continues, the Major’s cybernetic arms are torn from her body. The remnants—nuts, bolts, and wire; flesh, skin, and blood—fly everywhere as the tank throws her off its back. The Major is effectively defenceless without her arms. She falls to the floor and struggles to get up. The tank is winning. Her mind is winning. The tank grabs her by her head and lifts her. It is about to crush her head; however, the prolonged physical life of her head does not matter, because her mind is outside of her body—with the tank.
Later in this scene, once the Puppet Master has taken control of her ghost, he proposes a radical idea: “I want us to merge… a unification. A complete commingling and fusion of our separate beings to create a new and unique identity.” The Major’s mind is still fighting: “You’re talking about redefining my identity. I want a guarantee that I can still be myself.” She knows that this is not possible. They will become each other. An entirely new identity. The Puppet Master says, “We resemble each other’s essence, mirror images of one another’s psyche … We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside our bonds and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.” His proposal to become one—and become all—tempts the Major. She wants to be the best. But at what cost? She is, after all, human—flawed.
Earlier in the film, at minute 28, we see the Major resurfacing from a body of water. As she approaches the surface, we see the horizon splitting the screen diagonally, from top-left to bottom-right: the sky and water divide her consciousness. She sees her reflection in the sky, almost lifeless. At the last moment, we see over the Major’s shoulder as she breaks the water barrier. Her reflection ripples away before her eyes. This filmic representation of the body versus mind struggle constructs for us this notion that even cybernetic bodies are ephemeral. Shortly after she resurfaces, at minute 32, the Major becomes hypnotic and quotes the Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror. Then we shall see face-to-face.” These are not her words, and she does not realize what she has spoken. The Major’s unconscious reference to 1 Corinthians is almost introspective—and again, telling of what is to come. Near the very end of the film, she realizes the context of the quotation and rattles off the remainder: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways.” Motoko has accepted her new identity as an amalgamation of the Major and the Puppet Master. Bodies are disposable. Bodies ripple away.
What, then, does it mean to lose the body? Our protagonist’s shift from ‘the Major’ to ‘Motoko’—her reclamation of her mind—allows her to reclaim her body. By becoming one with the Puppet Master, Motoko ‘solves’ one identity crisis—but enters into another. She asks us, teasingly, in the last spoken line of the film, “And where does the newborn go from here?” She is speaking not only of her new mind as ‘newborn’, but also of her black-market body. What does Motoko constitute as ‘birth’? In what ways does this deviate from our constructions of birth and life? Motoko is also navigating these existential issues. With a new body and a new mind, she is grappling with the same questions we are. Motoko is now, ultimately, just a ghost in a shell.