There’s a 3 minute and 20-ish second long scene in the middle of the animated sci-fi action thriller Ghost In The Shell that doesn’t really qualify as sci-fi action or thriller. It’s a sequence of 34 gorgeous, exquisitely detailed atmospheric shots of a future city in Japan. that’s modeled after Hong Kong. And I’m tempted to make an-hour-long video, dissecting each shot individually, but I really want to look at what this interlude accomplishes as a whole by itself, and in the context of the film and its themes. The first thing to note is that this montage is full of what Scott McCloud has called aspect-to-aspect transitions. McCloud is the author of an absolutely essential graphic novel on
the art and craft of comics, and in it he describes the kind of panel to panel transitions that have become popular in different parts of the world. In American comics, for example, the majority of transitions are action-to-action. Fitting for a goal-oriented culture, interested in telling stories about goal
oriented characters. Japanese comics, on the other hand, have long featured a kind of transition that is really very rarely seen in the west, the aspect-to-aspect transition, in which time is virtually abandoned for the exploration of space. These kinds of transitions evoke a mood. They activate the senses and imagination, and they have a rich tradition in Japan’s use of maze-like and often cyclical works of art. The emphasis is on being there, instead of getting there. And it’s that emphasis at play in this interlude from Ghost In The Shell. Though this is animation, and not comics, the aspect-to-aspect categorization is, I think, pretty accurate. I mean people and things move in these frames but it’s impossible to tell if the shots are meant to be read as temporally sequential and I think it’s pretty obvious that question is really just irrelevant. What director Mamoru Oshii accomplishes here is to expand and draw attention to the audience’s perception of space in the film. and what kind of spaces it? It’s the space of a chaotic multicultural future
city dominated by the intersections of old and new structures, connected by roads, canals and technology. Humans move about like electricity along these avenues plugged into the body of the metropolis. The relationship between body and mind, shell and ghost, is of course a central theme of the film, which tells the story of a female cyborg police officer, who, with her team, hunts down a notoriously hacker, only discovered that he’s an incorporeal AI who wants to merge with her and create a new higher life form. Since most bodies in this future world or at least partly artificial. People locate their identities in their ghosts or their minds, but with the troubling knowledge that these also can be hacked memory, identity and humanity are all called into question. “All your memories about your wife and daughter are false. They’re like a dream. Someone’s taken advantage of you” So how can a meditation on space illuminate the problem and theme of identity in Ghost In The Shell? Well, maybe the first thing we should say is that spaces, like identities, are constructed. Though space often feels neutral or given, like we could move anywhere within it, our movements, our activities, our life, is always limited by the way space is produced. In most places, but especially in big cities that production is controlled, not by the people, but by gigantic moneyed interests, state governments or both. And the same is true for identity. Spaces and identities are constructed and not always by ourselves. In this respect, Hong Kong was the perfect city to model for this film. It’s a city layered with histories and cultural memory. Believe it or not, when Ghost In The Shell came out in 1995, it was still a colony, or territory, of the United Kingdom. It had two years left on a 99 year lease signed in 1898, which was interrupted during the second World War by a four-year occupation by Japan. Now it was about to be handed back to communist China, with which it had little relation in both politics and economy. So who are the Hong Kong people supposed to be then? Indeed, how to define identity was and is a vital question in the post-colonial world as the old empires faded but left their centuries of subjugation and influence in the very streets and minds of multicultural cities like Hong Kong and its inhabitants. You don’t want to maintain the often racist identities imposed on you by the colonizers, but you really can’t go back to what you were before either. “You’re talking about redefining my identity. I want to guarantee that I can still be myself” “There isn’t one. Why would you wish to? All things change in a dynamic environment” “Your effort to remain what you are, is what limits you” Look closely at the city, and you can see these dilemmas played out in space. Cyberpunk has always featured these uneasy composites of multiple cultures. These are not utopias, but they don’t have to be imagined as dystopias either. The philosopher Michel Foucault called spaces like this heterotopias, places that exists in a dynamic state of layered and changing meanings. Heterotopias don’t succumb to those forces that try to make everything the same. They are marginal spaces for the voiceless to construct identities for themselves. Cyberpunk’s great radical hope was that the blending of man and machine would have the same effect on personal identity that multicultural cities like Hong Kong would have on collective identity. It would break down the constructs of gender, and race, and class, that had defined us for so long without our say. You can see that hope in the main character of Ghost In The Shell. The three-minute aspect-to-aspect interlude in the middle of this film by its strong break from the rhythm of the plot forces us to consider the parallels between city and body, network and ghost. To drive this home, the rest of the film is framed with characters set against the city they live in. Yes, spaces are made by humanity, but humanity is made by its spaces, too. It’s a feedback loop, a cycle made virtuous or vicious based on the choices we make together. Ghost In The Shell wants to show us that the dynamics of ourselves and our spaces are one in the same. Hey everybody, thanks for watching and welcome to everybody who came in from last week’s Children of Men video, the response was absolutely nuts, so thanks for spreading it around. I wanted to say thank you because this is actually the 10th video that I have made since I started to produce the nerdwriter full-time and it’s been an incredible 10 weeks and it’s all because of you guys supporting me on Patreon. It wouldn’t be possible without you guys. I know, some of you do it to get, you know, the rewards, mugs and stickers but most of you do it because you believe in this kind of relationship between creator and audience. And I really do too. There’s nothing between us. There’s nothing between me and you. And I think that’s really a model for the future. So, thank you for supporting me on Patreon. I am about $850 a video. Now, I wanna try to get it to $1,000. That’s the big video just to make this financially feasible. There’s more rewards coming. Next week there’s probably going to be a Google hangout with me. So if you are a Patreon patron, check on the messages for that and I’ll let you know when it is. Thank you again. I will see you guys next Wednesday.