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Imperialism of Hong Kong through Ghost in the Shell

Updated on January 7, 2012

Do you know what the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the concept of an East Asian Federation have in common? Aside from both sounding eerily like Star Trek groups, they are topics that I discussed in a research paper for my Idea of Asia course this last semester, that the average anime fan would not be at all interested in. But if you were wondering, that paper was on Ghost in the Shell, and allowed me to fulfill a life-long goal of writing a paper about anime. I wouldn't dream of subjecting any of you to a nine-page academic paper on the subject, but I thought a slimmer version that touched on the most interesting parts might be relevant to someone's interest. So here it is!


Ghost in the Shell is a timeless classic, whether taken specifically as an anime, or more generally as a film. Visually, it is stunning, and is certainly a feast for the eyes. Furthermore, the film’s complexity lends itself well to philosophical discussion. Ghost in the Shell raises many thought-provoking questions related to the idea of what constitutes life. But I think that's a method of analysis that's been done-to-death by this point. Instead, I'd like to examine it from an entirely different angle: that of Japanese imperialism. This method of interpretation is less accessible to the average viewer, since it requires a certain amount of familiarity with Hong Kong's unique history. But as I said, this is going to be a slightly "lighter" version of my original research paper. So everyone should be able to follow it, and hopefully you'll learn a few interesting things along the way!

The city portrayed here is recognizably based upon Hong Kong.
The city portrayed here is recognizably based upon Hong Kong. | Source

Ghost City of Hong Kong

To start with, let's make it clear that the city of Ghost in the Shell is meant to represent Hong Kong. Taken directly from Atsushi Takeuchi: "Ghost in the Shell does not have a definite chosen set, but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious that Hong Kong is the model." (Yuen, On The Edge of Spaces)

So there's that. We're definitely talking about Hong Kong here.

So what was the deal with Hong Kong that made it unique at the time of Ghost in the Shell's development? Well, Ghost in the Shell was released in 1995. History buffs will recognize this as being two years prior to Hong Kong's return to China, following an extended period of colonization beginning in 1839. In 1995, a lot of Asian movies depicted Hong Kong as being something of a hub for international activity -- a metropolis of the future.

Does that quotation remind you of any scene from the movie? It's probably the most famous scene of the movie. The "Ghost City" scene: when Makoto Kusanagi travels through the city by boat, while Kenji Kawai's "Making of a Cyborg" plays in the background. It's easy not to think about during a casual viewing, but try. The billboards are in both English and Chinese. A clothing store with an English name has an African-American display model in the window. Even the busses have English text on them. It's meant to be international. And that water that she floats along on? It's the physical representation of the information around her -- of the diffusion of the West into the city. And as abstract as that sounds, I'm not pulling this from thin air.

In the same publication quoted before, Atsushi also explains:

"As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded... There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different, 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!"

But that's not the interesting part. I promised you'd learn something interesting, and I shall deliver.

An illustration of the myth of Amaterasu hiding in the cave.
An illustration of the myth of Amaterasu hiding in the cave. | Source

Amaterasu the Sun Goddess

Ever think about what the lyrics of the song in the Ghost City scene meant? They're in classical Japanese, so even most native speakers of Japanese fail to grasp it. Well, it roughly translates to:

When you are dancing, a beautiful lady becomes drunken.
When you are dancing, a shining moon rings.
A god descends for a wedding
And dawn approaches while the night bird sings.
God bless you. God bless you.


Let's talk about that.

It refers to the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu -- yes, the wolf from Okami. Well, as this one myth goes, Amaterasu became upset with her brother for killing one of her weaving maids. She was so upset, in fact, that she decided to hide in a cave. Due to her being the sun god, this resulted in the world becoming completely dark. All of the other gods and goddesses tried to coax her out of hiding, but they did a pretty lousy job, and so Amaterasu remained in the cave. Eventually, they found a method that worked: they placed a mirror outside of the cave. Amaterasu was so fascinated by her own reflection, that she was dumbfounded, and captured. Then, later, she was married off to another god.

But the cool part is, these lyrics work as an analogy for the plot of the movie, even before it unfolds. Makoto sees a woman who looks exactly like her in one of the windows, as her boat passes by; and the "marriage" refers to her fusion with the puppet master at the end of the movie. It's all done purposefully. And to build upon that, I'd argue that the same analogy can be applied to the fusion between Hong Kong's history, and the "information" coming in from the west.

Our mythology discussion doesn't end here though.

An illustration of Orochi.
An illustration of Orochi. | Source

The Eight-Headed Serpent, Orochi

What's in a name? Specifically, what's in Makoto's name? Kusanagi has historical significance: it refers to one of the three imperial regalia of the Japanese imperial family. Specifically, it is a sword; and in mythology, it is the name of the sword that was used to kill Orochi, the eight-headed serpent monster (who, like Amaterasu, was popularized for Americans through Okami.) So Makoto is symbolized by this strong sword. That's a reflection of her strength as a protagonist, sure. I think most people would buy that. Would you also accept that she represents Japanese imperialism of Hong Kong? Would you like some more evidence?

Remember how Ghost in the Shell takes place in Hong Kong? Does it then seem odd that virtually all of the characters of Section 6 and Section 9 are Japanese? There's Nakamura, and Aramaki, and Togusa... In fact, there's only one character without a Japanese name. Batou's name is written with katakana, signifying that it is a foreign name. And if you were wondering what it means. Well, actually, it comes from two Chinese words: 八头 Do you know what that means? It means eight-headed. The one Chinese character in the movie is named after the monster that was slayed by the imperial regalia of Japan.

Interesting, isn't it?


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 

      2 years ago from Illinois

      That is an interesting theory. I had no idea what the song meant. I thought of it as ambient singing intended to create the mood, nothing more.

    • profile image

      Cory C 

      7 years ago


    • Chris Qu profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Qu 

      7 years ago

      It's nice to have someone who enjoys a good discussion. But I'm sorry, the film takes place in Hong Kong. That's not a personal theory. I've already quoted the key animator, and layout designer. If that's not enough, it's been stated by the producers in the making-of feature that's on the blu-ray (it might be on the DVD, I'm not sure). The TV series is something different, entirely. But this article was only ever meant to address the film.

    • Jarn profile image


      7 years ago from Sebastian, Fl

      Sorry, but I think you're skewing available information to fit with your theory when there is a slightly more probable explanation. While I'm not arguing that there are strong elements of Japanese imperialism in the story, I still think it took place in Japan. If you'll recall the backstory, events supposedly took place following Non-Nuclear World War 3, in which the economic stability of the West was left shaking and mainland Asia was left completely destitute. Japan would've had the same problems happen to it had they not developed micromachine radiation scrubbers, which put them at the top of the pile from an economic and technological standpoint. Clearly, Imperialism needn't be carried out simply by taking land. Taking money and dictating terms to the rest of the world would probably work better, and it requires fewer soldiers. But I'm getting off topic.

      The Hong Kong appearance of Japan can be explained by the influx of mainland Asian refugees following the war. I believe the TV series addressed that problem in detail numerous times, though it was downplayed in the manga's adaptation to the initial film for space reasons. With so many Chinese living in Japan, it stands to reason that they would attempt to recreate a bit of the landscape and culture that they had known. And with the prejudice they faced from Japanese citizens, much like how Americans show so much prejudice toward immigrants from Mexico and South America, it is quite likely that those areas hosting a large Chinese immigrant population would do everything in their power to tout their culture and preserve it rather than let it be subsumed by that of the native Japanese. Cultural integration in a hostile economically polarized environment tends to bring differences to the surface rather than gloss over them.

    • Chris Qu profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Qu 

      7 years ago

      AnimeHime: I'm glad you found it so interesting! I'm actually an Asian Studies major, and the course I was taking required as to watch a number of different films. The fact that Ghost in the Shell was one of them, and was an anime, was a coincidence. A lovely coincidence. So for the paper, I just responded to it as if it were a film (which it is), assuming only that the reader has seen it.

      Jarn: What you need to remember, is that Japanese people, and Japanese organizations, do not equate to Japan. After all, there are Japanese embassies in other countries that answer to the Japanese government, right? The thing about Ghost in the Shell, is that it is visibly Hong Kong. Check out this link for some interesting photos comparing the movie to real places.

      The thing about the Japanese being in a position of power in the film relates to the theme of imperialism that I discussed in the article. :)

    • Jarn profile image


      7 years ago from Sebastian, Fl

      I'm probably slow on the uptake here, but I could've sworn that Ghost In The Shell took place in Japan, what with Section 9 answering to members of the Japanese Diet. How does that relate to Hong Kong?

    • AnimeHime2011 profile image


      7 years ago from Greensboro, North Carolina

      I had been wondering about the lyrics to the Ghost In The Shell Song Lyrics and after learning all of this. Amazing! Makes me wanna read this paper of yours and man I am serious that you should get a Grade that's better than an A. Btw for the non-anime people did you have to describe Ghost In The Shell a little bit more, I'm pretty curious.

    • Chris Qu profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Qu 

      7 years ago

      Emma: Definitely! I never gave too much thought to the song, but my professor explained the meaning to us. Pretty interesting stuff.

      Benoit: I didn't receive a grade for it, but I got an A in the course, so it couldn't have been too far below that.

    • Benoitsmidget profile image


      7 years ago from Boston

      This was pretty interesting. What did you actually get for a grade on the paper? Just wondering. Good job.

    • emmaspeaks profile image


      7 years ago from Kansas City

      WOW! I had always wondered what language the song was in and having studied Japanese for five years I was positive it wasn't Japanese, but now it makes sense. This was a very interesting article. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. It is so true that anime often times can be traced back to some historical or social event. This was spot on!


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