Hideo Kojima on the Philosophy Behind 'Ghost in the Shell'

'Metal Gear Solid' creator shares his love of the original, and questions whether the new live action movie captures the same spirit

Scarlett Johansson in 'Ghost in the Shell' Credit: Paramount Pictures

Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima is widely regarded as one of the true video game auteurs. Though the 53-year-old is most closely associated with his work leading the production of some of the most beloved narrative games of the past 30 years, his original ambition, prior to joining Konami in 1986, was to become a movie director. His passion for film has long informed his work in games, leading most recently to a collaboration with director Guillermo del Toro on his upcoming PS4 game, Death Stranding.

Though Kojima is extremely secretive about his new game, he's eager to share his passion for movies. When we spoke with him recently about what drives him as an artist, he asked us if we'd be open to him sharing his thoughts on cinema in a monthly series of short essays.

With Ghost in the Shell in cinemas March 31, he was eager to share his thoughts on Masamune Shirow's original 1988 manga, Mamoru Oshii's subsequent 1995 anime and Rupert Sanders' latest theatrical interpretation, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Read Kojima's essay below:

The title “Ghost in the Shell” is inspired in Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book, The Ghost in the Machine about philosophical psychology. Koestler’s concept is a critique of 17th century philosopher René Descartes’ mind-body dualism: the idea that humans have a mind with free will, and a body that executes the mechanical movements, both existing independently and interacting with each other. The basic idea is that our "mind" doesn't really exist corporeally, but the body and mind cannot be clearly separated. The concept of "The Ghost in the Machine" is that a human is actually a ghost (mind) living in a body (machine).

The original manga [Japanese comic book], and subsequent 1995 anime swapped "machine" for "shell." If a human is a ghost existing inside a machine, what then is a ghost that dwells inside an artificial shell? This question, posed by both Masamune Shirow in the manga and filmmaker Mamoru Oshii in the anime, extends beyond the boundaries of the work itself, giving it great depth.

This depth is why Ghost in the Shell has continued to inspire new creative works since it first burst onto the scene in 1988, nearly 30 years ago. Rupert Sanders' 2017 Hollywood live action film Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson is just the newest incarnation. A new shell for the same basic ghost of an idea.

I’d like to discuss the relationship between a ghost and a shell briefly, by substituting the idea with the relationship between an original work and how it's represented. If the "ghost" is the spirit, theme and other essential elements of a given work, then the "shell" is the media and methods used to represent it.

Before Masamune Shirow's commercial debut, he was already highly-regarded as something of a genius. His Ghost in the Shell story was brimming with imagery and drama built upon his deep understanding of everything from networks, information technology, weapons and gadgets, to philosophy and psychology.

At that time in Japan, manga were mostly weekly publications, and the most important elements for major sellers were cliffhangers that would lead to the next week's purchase, and stories that were quick and easy to read. Shirow’s works, however, contained such a huge amount of detail, and were packed with so much information, that it was impossible to digest it all in one reading. Ghost in the Shell was written with a hardboiled action touch, riddled with jokes and lively characters, but it was unconventional.

The success of the manga was largely due to having been first published in a magazine – Kodansha's manga anthology Young Magazine – before being repackaged as a standalone book (another shell) where it could be read over and over again.

Being published in the atmosphere of the late Eighties must have also contributed to the manga's success. In the original story, an information network covers the globe, but at the time, the internet had yet to be commercialized. The story was written at a time when there was a real sense of promise when it came to the possibilities of information technology, so readers came away feeling hopeful. Of course, the story didn't blindly praise technology, but it was generally more positive than Oshii's Ghost in the Shell anime. In Japan, the year 1995 – when the anime was released – is sometimes referred to as "year zero of the internet," when the first big pushes toward commercialization had begun, and this must have influenced Oshii's interpretation.

At that time, if such an edgy, speculative action movie had been released as a typical Hollywood production in the West, it may have achieved cult status, but it’s unlikely that it could have been a hit in the US. As a straight-to-video release through Manga Entertainment in 1996, though, it achieved far greater success – it was the first anime movie to hit the number one spot on the Billboard video charts.

the respect that the movie shows in mimicking the anime is unquestionable. As a real fan of the original works, though, I can't help but feel that the production was trapped in the shell of the original, and as a result, it fails to come into its own.

Just as Shirow's manga required repeated readings, the animated version was the kind of work that needed to be seen time after time to truly digest. And to do that, being packaged in the correct "shell" was ideal – a video rather than a theatrical release.

So, both Shirow's and Oshii's works both ultimately came to reach global audiences by being delivered in the right shells. So how does Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell fare?

As a Hollywood movie, it finds a certain degree of success by interpreting the "ghost" of the story – the fundamental theme – through its visual presentation, and it's actually extremely successful at fitting into the shell of a Hollywood blockbuster. For viewers that might shy away from the reflective and philosophical leanings of the manga or anime, this is definitely the version to see.

It's interesting to consider how the relationship between the original work (the ghost) and movie (the shell) deviate from the expected norm. In the Marvel cinematic universe, for example, the shell (the look of the movie, the setting,the modernized performances and presentation) and the ghost (the characters' identities, the themes) are often transformed in service of the movie. However, for this film, the shell itself is actually surprisingly loyal to the original anime. Of course, the latest VFX technology gives the visuals a fresh coat of paint.

Even with all the latest visual technology, though, the film basically boils down to a series of faithfully recreated scenes from the anime. This is not a bad thing per se. As a fan of the manga and anime, it was a pleasant surprise, and the respect that the movie shows in mimicking the anime is unquestionable. As a real fan of the original works, though, I can't help but feel that the production was trapped in the shell of the original, and as a result, it fails to come into its own.

One of the core themes of both the manga and the anime was the dissection of the dualistic theory of body and mind, and the philosophical exploration of the notion of human free will. They each posed the question, "What is it to be human?" However, this new movie replaces that theme with a far simpler question: "who am I?" Without spoiling the plot, it's basically The Bourne Identity in a futuristic world connected by a vast information network. It's a story of the heroine played by Scarlett Johansson on a quest to find her identity.

The core mystery is slowly uncovered as the protagonist picks up clues, and the eventual resolution is satisfying. Simply watching Scarlett Johansson carry the weight of her uncertain identity while engaging in thrilling action may be all that's really needed to enjoy the movie. However, upon leaving the theater and returning to the real word, the characters stay behind, locked in their "shell," unable to break free. It lacks the wide-reaching influence of the manga and the sheer impact of the anime. That being said, it may not actually be the movie's fault.

In 2017, one cannot simply whisper "the net is vast and infinite" and hope for the impact such a statement had 22 years ago when it was uttered by Motoko Kusanagi to such great effect. In 1995, the internet was a mysterious, brave new frontier; today, it's a known quantity. Smartphones are glued to our hands, and we are constantly connected. For us, the net doesn't feel vast or infinite.

In this modern world, then, where is the ghost of this latest Motoko Kusanagi to reside? When looking for a new shell, portraying individual identity by returning to the shell of oneself may have been the only choice.