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With Such a Large Franchise, What Makes Ghost in the Shell Great to Begin With?

The 1995 Ghost in the Shell film is remembered for being a sci-fi landmark, but how has the franchise overall contributed to its lasting legacy?

Fewer anime franchises are more influential than Ghost in the Shell. A seminal cyberpunk work, the original manga by Masamune Shirow spawned the landmark 1995 film that went on to invigorate the world of sci-fi both in and outside the realms of anime and manga. In addition to the initial film, the Ghost in the Shell franchise consists of several anime adaptations and films that either continue or reimagine the original concepts set up in the original manga. With an ever-growing franchise, it’s worth examining just what has allowed Ghost in the Shell to succeed and endure. What makes its particular brand of cyberpunk so compelling, and how does it contribute to the many adaptations embodying the lasting legacy of its most iconic works?

The originating manga debuted in Kodansha’s seinen magazine Young Magazine Kaizokuban in 1989. It was followed in 1991 by the manga Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human Error Processor and, in 1997, Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface, each running in Kodansha’s Weekly Young Magazine. The Ghost in the Shell film arrived in 1995, followed by its standalone sequel in 2004, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. In 2002 the first anime series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, debuted and was succeeded by Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 in 2020. An OVA re-imagining of the established continuity, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, was released in 2013. Both the Stand Alone Complex and Arise installations received film follow-ups in their respective continuities in 2006 and then in 2015. In 2017, the franchise received its first live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson.

The overarching themes in the original manga and its subsequent adaptations center on the nature of identity and the human consciousness and how those concepts are affected by advancements in technology. While the franchise is steeped in political intrigue and cyberterrorism, the complexities of what defines humanity are a consistent through-line across installations. To varying degrees, the different versions of Ghost in the Shell provide audiences a chance to contemplate human existence and the ways in which memory functions. Humanity is metaphorically deconstructed consistently throughout the franchise, with the prevalence of cybernetically enhanced bodies and the Major’s full cyborg body and doubt of her human memories being the catalyst for driving the conversation.

In addition to its philosophical tone, the franchise’s stunning visual design, immersive world-building and generally dynamic animation are all worthy of attention. Shirow’s original manga features incredibly detailed footnotes that explain different parts of the technology and cybernetic augmentation processes that appear in Ghost in the Shell. The inclusion of these details enriches the reading experience and has carried into the anime, typically through dialogue, providing not only insight into the inner universe of Shirow’s personal beliefs but also a chance for anyone engaging with Ghost in the Shell to ruminate on the potential that technology has to alter the human experience. The stories are introspective and complex, but still engaging and accessible in how discussions of identity and dehumanization are interwoven into the pensive atmosphere of political intrigue.

While each adaptation operates in its own continuity, utilizing the same characters but re-interpreting Section 9 and the world at large, the underlying thematic elements unite them all. Each series or film offers a different version of the experience laid out by Shirow’s manga, allowing each one to be its own unique story that stands out for its differences in execution and style. The concepts and iconic visuals presented in Ghost in the Shell have also gone on to inspire numerous creative works outside anime and manga, wholly or in part, with notable examples including The MatrixWestworld and Ex MachinaGhost in the Shell‘s legacy cannot be understated, and it’s easy for someone to encounter a reference to the original film without knowing it due to how pervasive Ghost in the Shell‘s visual language has become.

The undeniably enticing aesthetic of cyberpunk and the degree to which it’s explored in the franchise are huge draws for Ghost in the Shell. However, the integration of its themes, especially with regard to the Major’s personal journey of coalescing her sense of self, makes the franchise just as engaging. The evolution of technology will continue to be a constant, as will the struggle to understand one’s identity and purpose. Ghost in the Shell has successfully latched on to two captivating ideas and found a way to blend them seamlessly together, making for a captivating set of series and films whose influence continues to spawn adaptations and inspire creators 33 years since the manga’s debut.

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