The Major, or Motoko Kusanagi, is the protagonist of each incarnation of the Ghost in the Shell manga-anime-merchadise franchise. If you care to google, Motoko Kusanagi is autocompletes to “a man” and “is hot,” then “in bed with a boy” and “in bed.” For a science-fiction philosophy character named for her military position, we (the audience — although I don’t limit this to those who have experienced the fiction, as the Major is iconic) sure are caught up in thinking about her gender and sexual status. Why could that be?
As a long-term fan of the property, and the Major (ask my hairdresser [me]), I wanted to read about the Major’s body. The Major is a cyborg, her visible body is 100% manufactured. Does that relate to the interest in her physicality? I couldn’t find much, so I wrote something myself — one chapter per piece of the franchise. This is the first on Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated feature Ghost in the Shell. I’m starting where I started. VHS off eBay. Can I anime?
In Ghost in the Shell, the Major is often nude or seemingly nude. In her opening scenes, for example, her nipple shapes are visible and she has no apparent genitalia. A line at neck level, visible in some short shots, and some possible cloth bunching during a crotch-level close-up suggest a flesh-colour bodysuit to the eagle-eyed viewer. Her breasts are individualised in a way that would have to be designed into a piece of clothing purposefully: how does the fabric adhere to the sternum? Why design a bodysuit that hugs tight as a thong? Apparent nudity, such as later during the water fight scene, is emphasised by the addition of thigh-high boots and low-slung belts at her hips, emphasising the hourglass of her torso and suggesting a sensual pelvic tilt. Her posture is natural, unstudied, and not innately sexualised.
During the credits sequence which follows the creation of a body identical to the Major’s, perhaps a body that is the Major’s, the nipples are focused on and coloured, while the barest hint of genital shape is effected through momentary shapes of light.
Her full-cyborg status is emphasised again in her morning routine immediately post-credits; upon waking, all it takes to be ready to leave is a short moment in another room — an unbroken cel featuring her bedroom and window — followed by the addition of a coat. No washing, no bodily functions, no breakfast.
Advertising for the film features the Major fully nude, penetrated by wires of varying thicknesses, gun in hand and back arched so that her left breast is clear in profile and her buttocks are rounded and elevated, head tilted back.
After the Major’s iconic invisible fight in shallow water, Batou puts his large coat around her shoulder, mirroring the traditional image of the chivalrous man who covers the accidentally uncovered woman, saving her from shame (apparently irrelevant), the elements (the Major cannot be at risk of catching a chill, as she is a cyborg), or both. Later, together on a boat trip, Batou is stirred to see the Major unzip and remove the top half of her wetsuit. He grunts, and looks away, in apparent respect for a modesty she does not appear to require. In the subsequent boat scene, they talk in detail about the (non-sexual) functional differences between an organic and a cyborg body.
It was not translated for American dub audiences, but early in the film the Major makes reference to her menstrual cycle (as a cyborg, she doesn’t menstruate — I’m ignorant on whether her organic brain may retain hormonal alerts related to the expected menstrual cycle). This reproductive/cyborg theme is returned to in the climactic scenes as the Puppetmaster effectively tells the Major she will bear his compu-babies if she agrees to merge with him.
In this film, men appear fully clothed and in many roles, at many levels of society. The puppet master is referred to as male — although this is not confirmed as being for a reason other than default, based on their reputation as a terrorist and/or awakening as an aware being — and appears in a naked, female-designated stock body. At a late stage the Puppetmaster talks with a low voice, spoken by a male voice actor. The Puppetmaster’s nipples, centred in full breasts, are clearly double-tiered and delicately drawn; carefully shaped. Their nose is not detailed in this way, and the mouth is not animated to move with the character’s dialogue until late in the scene (this is subconsciously explained by “it’s a cyborg,” but remains a professional choice made by the filmmakers). This is not an outlandish appropriation of normative women’s breasts, it may be intended similarly to the huge sugar labia of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby; “But what you see from behind is what happens when a nude woman bends over, raising a question of whether it’s a gesture of sexual passivity or not.” They may not be intentionally “idealised” — breasts may be too culturally charged to be able to appear non-sexual without being actively off-putting; perhaps these breasts are designed to be as unremarkable (through their uncomplicated “perfection”) as possible. Why were breasts necessary? Why must the Major be a woman? Why must the Puppetmaster wear this breasted body? Why the nudity? Are these aspects necessary to deliver the story (or more importantly, the thought experiment)?
Imagine the intent of the filmmakers was to neutralise female nudity; avoid sexualisation and use it to float some philosophical musing above a character study on existential crisis. Is it responsible to call the Major, naked, sexualised?
Perhaps unbalanced detail is put into the realistic, subtly emphasised nipples of these woman-designated bodies. (later in the same interview, referenced above, Walker concedes that her Sugar Baby sculpture is “sexually overt,” and resultantly “discomfiting.”) While groundbreaking and challenging in many ways, the film does not escape objectification of what the collective unconscious considers “the female body.” This may be purposeful, it may be useful, but it remains inescapably sexist. It exists within a sexist system before a sexist audience, many of which will not interrogate the sexual and gendered questions that the film succeeds in asking for many viewers. As a
teenaged viewer, I was extremely uncomfortable with the semi-conscious awareness that
this was how #notallmen considered my body: naked, as a default, whilst they all remained clothed. No matter how much I could achieve, mentally or physically, philosophically or emotionally, my body and face are observably female-normative, so I’m rendered nude. Even when clothed, before mentor, colleague, subordinate and victim. I’m the audience, watching the Major, knowing she’s me, knowing I’m a speck in a dust cloud.
I was interested, though. This was food for thought. And she does get things done.
The Major doesn’t let people best her, she sets her own course. She had great hair.
I got something from the Major, which was why I kept paying attention.