Oh how the anime is a-changin'
Recently I re-watched the first Ghost in the Shell movie and have since been reminiscing about great shows of my youth gone by. See, in elementary school and middle school, falling off in high school, I was a pretty big anime buff. I would always get home from school right in time for Toonami on Cartoon Network and stay up late for adult swim. If you don't know, Toonami was a block of time during the day where a small bomber-man-esq 3D guy named Tom hosted various anime shows aboard his sleek 3D spaceship. He acted as a buffer between the show and commercial breaks and would narrate special trailers for upcoming shows and movies. Tom was pretty awesome. Adult Swim had a similar "buffer" attitude, however instead of fancy animations, there would be an all black screen with [hard bracketed] white text full of irreverent humor. Often because of how easy those slides were to make, the producers would include fan/hate mail and respond to it with the anonymous white text.
Toonami was generally aimed at younger teenagers, so most of those shows were heavy on action and humor. Examples: Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Zoids, One Piece, Samurai Jack, Gundam, Megas XLR, Dragon Ball Z, etc. Adult Swim, on the other hand, was more adult oriented as the name suggests. AS had many more drama oriented, sexual themes, and/or gore filled anime: Wolf's Rain, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Beebop, Samurai Champloo, Trigun, [dot] Hack, to name a few. These two blocks of programming have sadly deviated from the glory days: Toonami was taken off the air in 2008 after many poor programming and scheduling choices, and AS now is no longer limited by foreign content for both better and worse. But really, these acted as gateways to the world of anime where there remain many more fantastic shows and films that couldn't be aired. Some because of the violence, gore, sex, or lack of English translation, while others because they were far too dramatically involved, or too esoteric to be popular. For me some of these included: Bleach, Afro Samurai, Blood: Last Vampire, Perfect Blue, Akira, Interstella 5555, Read or Die, Paprika, Dead Leaves, and others.
And of course, one of these was Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell 2.0 was what primarily aired; the network strayed away from the original Ghost in the Shell film and most of the first series was considered to be outside of the target demographic for Cartoon Network. Poor ratings showed that because of the higher abstract thinking involved, many viewers would skip it with the exception of the few die-hards. While the shows did have easy enough to follow plots, ideas, and action for entertainment, I always felt that there was a fairly steep learning curve involved with understanding exactly what the "ghost" was. That learning curve is what drove viewers away but attracted the inquisitive eye of media based academia and questioning. I'll briefly explain the curve so you can understand: On a basic level, you can understand that the "ghost" is a person's conscience. But only on a basic level. As the series developed, and expanded on from the 1995 film is that the "ghost" is really undefinable: it differentiates man from robot but that line is entirely blurred by the cybernetic nature of the futuristic society. The Major herself, the central character, was once human, but after technological transformation is entirely machine with the sole exception of her ghost, (enhanced and augmented) brain, and (enhanced and augmented) muscle structure. The question is repeatedly brought up whether or not she really is, or was, human at all or rather a sentient machine. Other repeated ideas and questions were: can machines spawn sentience, become aware (humans are after all highly complex carbon based machines); do cyborgs count as humans, have human rights; what kinds of benefits and risks does a tech heavy society have, do the pros outweigh the cons? For example: The Major has to rely on additional expensive equipment to experience water and risks flat out drowning to experience something that any normal human can do for nothing. Cyborgs have to put complete trust and fully rely on "doctor-mechanics" on a regular basis just to survive while humans only do if they get severely sick. Cyborgs can be hacked into and used.
The Puppet Master and Laughing Man arcs are prime examples of how a few talented individuals can become nearly omnipotent when the world is transformed into usable tools. The puppet master would purely manipulate people, ultimate identity theft where a person's ghost can't even put a thought (possibly reprogrammed). On the other hand, The Laughing man was my favorite villain as a kid because of how sheerly inventive he was: he would hack into cybernetic eyes and security cameras to erase and hide his identity, replacing his face with a highly stylized and symbolic logo. He was able to adapt to the cybernetic world and fully exploit the weaknesses of a culture dependent on technology. When I was young I was amazed by his cleverness, but now as I study uses of media and see the growing dependance on technology, I see him as a giant warning. In a world where people put themselves under the rules and restrictions of technology everything and anything is possible as long as it too conforms to those rules. The Laughing Man conformed to those rules by staying within the limits of technology, and the world was unable to see his face because they were trapped by those same limits. Another example from the series: a GPS was hacked to show a road block that didn't actually exist, the police thought they tracked down the Laughing Man but he had "planted" the road block and went down the "blocked" road scott-free.
(the Laughing Man logo):
Ghost in the Shell, any iteration of it, is an extrapolation of the current use and reliance on technology in our world. As a cautionary tale, I would suggest that we all take heed to the warnings and be a little more skeptical of the conveniences of technology, especially social media. Social media connects us all and could be potentially used against us all. Or at the very least, we should be aware of the risks of putting all our eggs in the basket of technology. Also, don't ever be so quick to judge or condemn anime based on adolescent-aimed shows like DBZ when there is some fantastically thought provoking and artistic anime out there. Give it a chance....Oh, and bring back Toonami so the kids of today actually know that anime exists as a legitimate medium for both high and low culture entertainment.