Essays · Movies

Navigating Sexuality and Utility in ‘Ghost in the Shell’

Mamuro Oshii’s 1995 anime is a fascinating examination of the female cyborg and her assumed sexuality.
Ghost In The Shell sex or utilitarian
Palm Pictures
By  · Published on March 29th, 2021

According to the science fiction genre, the future will be full of female androids — mechanical beings with an idealized sexual body carefully constructed by men to embody their fantasies. However, there is a full-body cyborg that stands in stark construct to the typical female robot, one for which nudity is utilitarian instead of being associated with sex: Major Motoko Kusanagi of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime cyberpunk film Ghost in the Shell.

In futuristic Japan, the human body is enhanced or even completely replaced with cybernetic technology that augments physical abilities. Superstrength, built-in night vision, invisibility — the possibilities are endless. Major Kusanagi is the leader of an assault team in Public Security Section 9, which is completely made up of cyborgs. She is on the hunt for the notorious hacker The Puppet Master, and during her journey, she questions what it means to be human as the physical body is increasingly modified using metal parts and wires.

A crucial point of Kusanagi’s navigation of her own humanity is the representation of her nude body and its lack of sexuality, which is established immediately in the film’s opening scene. She is perched on top of a skyscraper, listening to the world around her and scanning for her target. As soon as she pinpoints his location, she unbuttons her jacket and reveals her entire naked body. It is that idealized female form with large breasts and a flat stomach, which sets an expectation of sexuality. Yet, this is not a sexual moment; she is actually preparing to perform her job. Nudity is necessary for thermo-optic camouflage, which renders her essentially invisible.

Not once in the entire film is Kusanagi shown engaging in sexual activity or using her sexuality as a weapon. Her consciousness doesn’t contain carnal desire. That opening scene quickly establishes a tension between her body as a tool of the state within the film’s diegesis and her body as a tool of sexuality to the viewer. Within that tension lies an examination of female nudity on screen and how the female body is so quick to be perceived as sexual.

In the subsequent opening credit sequence, the viewer is shown Kusanagi’s construction, which involves close-ups of her body, particularly her buttocks and breasts. Here, she is a spectacle to behold as she is shown as a literal product being pieced together. But the male gaze is still very present as she is viewed in parts of a whole, both in her cybernetics and in her body. A close-up on her nipple doesn’t offer any examination or questioning of that gaze, but it does offer that spectacle and fan service expected in anime.

Again, there arises that tension between sexuality and utility. The male gaze is sexualizing the body but is also examining it with fascination as these plastic parts that make up Kusanagi’s body appear so realistic. Spectacle is being used here to make the viewer consider who decides what is a sexual object and how nudity does not always play a role in that construction.

In contrast, in one of the film’s final scenes, Kusanagi’s nude body — once again exposed for the purpose of camouflage — fluctuates between feminine and masculine as her body essentially explodes during the climactic fight. She crouches on top of a tank and tries to rip it apart. But there is no moment of full front nudity exposing her ideal body. This time, Kusanagi’s body openly defies its feminine coding.

As she exerts herself, her technologically advanced muscles start to bulge, and her body shifts into the image of the stereotypical man in anime with a ridiculously exaggerated musculature including perfect abs and massive biceps. The nude female cyborg body, which the viewer is accustomed to, rapidly changes before their eyes, again working to shift the perception of Kusanagi’s body as a tool rather than a sexual object.

Even when Kusanagi is not connected to maintenance machines, she bears marks of cybernetics, such as the four plugs in the back of her neck. Ghost in the Machine never wants to hide the obvious constructed-ness of Kusanagi and the rest of humanity — when everyone has a technologically improved body, there is no shock. This is another way that Mamoru Oshii wants the viewer to contemplate what it means to be a human. As flesh, organs, and muscles are replaced with wires, does that diminish one’s humanity?

In Ghost in the Shell, the subconscious that carries memories, desires, and opinions is called the ghost while the shell is the physical body in which the ghost is contained. Kusanagi’s seemingly sexualized shell is never discussed or perceived as anything but practical. Yet there is no denying that her exposed body is viewed through an intrusive male gaze and with a sense of wonderment. Within this tension of the body as a tool versus the body as an object, Ghost in the Shell complicates the perception of these constructed bodies on screen. 

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)