Imperialism of Hong Kong through Ghost in the Shell
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!
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.
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.
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?