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. This is part 5 of a pan-franchise series (find previous parts here: 1, 2, 3, 4)
Ghost in the Shell: Arise is the franchise’s current period. Several animated features, three currently released (this entry in my series covers the first, Ghost Pain, and second, Ghost Whispers; Ghost Tears, the third, deserves its own spotlight), plus an ongoing prequel manga — this is another reboot, where everybody except Togusa is obviously younger. The Major, even, appears to be in an “earlier” body. She looks young. I polled @womenoncomics and my own twitter followers, how old does she look? with the image to the right, and guesses came in at 15 – 25, with a split skew towards either the late teens or precisely 22. I’m older now than I was when I discovered Ghost in the Shell, when I first got to enjoy this world, but I didn’t expect to be twenty seven and older than the Major.
That’s how things are now. Roll with the punches. Of course, within the story world, adult characters decades older than me become used to being younger than youthful-looking women. Is that important?
This Major wears a version of the military attire seen in the manga, that I grew accustomed to in Stand Alone Complex. Her figure is unemphasised, the fabric lies across her chest quite reasonably. This is undercut by her superior officer — Lieutenant Colonel Kurtz, an older woman who wears her shirt open past the ribs, under a heavy coat. Either this shirt is fixed in place somehow, or a woman’s nipples no longer make much of a splash when they’re revealed on-base. We know that Ghost in the Shell‘s world celebrates the girlish sexbot — has this futuristic culture learnt that “sexual” is only a sometimes-descriptor for nipples? The various audiences’ worlds haven’t, and we’re not actively encouraged to consider the possibility. Kurtz uses fond, petting language to talk to the Major. We’re given sexual tension to work with.
The Major’s body language is never suggestive in Arise. Seen from a distance she looks like a child. Balance this change with the addition of regular high heels. Expressions she uses in conversation with her superior, and later with Aramaki, are naive, vulnerable, and entirely new. Her tiny hands clench. Her movements are artless and almost unsure at times; within the first episode she literally does not own her body. It belongs to the military, and she is asked to sign over a lifetime’s service in order to earn the money to pay for it. It is not hers. She is told this in a dark room, by a council of three men, before a huge window onto an aquarium. It’s intensely sinister. But the Major can’t burst her banks, she’s confined too completely. She signs the papers.
Within Arise, joining Aramaki in the group that will become Section 9 is a way of escaping this military ownership. Aramaki offers her a position on his prospective team out of respect for her talent, and is not obliged to provide the means to secure her autonomy in exchange. He chooses to. Section 9 has always been a police group which uses force and ethically questionable surveillance techniques (we as an audience trust and enjoy them because we know they are Good; we couldn’t share the same confidence if they were real humans in a governing structure whom we were forced to “trust”), but Aramaki is confirmed as a man with respect for the individual. He’s morally legitimised through his anti-patriarchal action… which he is able to complete because he has a great deal of patriarchal privilege. He’s morally legitimised through his handling of the ownership of our protagonist’s life — which is a dirty power, a power nobody should have over anyone.
A rival character calls her “just a girl” and threatens that, as a full-body cyborg, she will not be allowed to leave the military. Now that the possibility of autonomy is in play, her lack of self-ownership is used to punish her. Previously it was stated dispassionately as a reasonable economic fact.
Strange: in both Ghost Pain and Ghost Whispers, the Major’s body is partially destroyed, as usual. Director’s there whispering in your ear; remember that Ghost in the Shell is a famous film with many iconic scenes? Yes — I do. The Major takes lasting and traumatic damage and will undoubtedly need extensive rebuilding. This goes… unmentioned. This body that is so expensive, and so rare? This body that’s been valued by capitalism and is worth more than freedom? Destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and so on (in fact into the third episode, where the arm loss is xeroxed again). This should be calamitously repercussive! It doesn’t impact the woman who lives it. It doesn’t impact the military council who could impound it. It doesn’t affect Aramaki, who engineered his government’s loss of this machine and who pays and is professionally responsible for her. It doesn’t even affect the internal monologue; no talk of turning off pain receptors or rerouting this or that. Perhaps something is lost in the subtitles, but this apparent forgetfulness of status of the Major’s body seems like the fault of a writer who does not appreciate the opportunities special to their franchise. Body all smashed up? If you don’t care, then I don’t care.
Within the Arise continuity, the Major was not yet born when a fully prosthetic body became necessary for her survival. Instead of having been cyberised as a child, she has now experienced a fully created physical reality. We’re shown her false memories of her childhood; the only woman among men is not real, and by the end of the episode she’s been forgotten/erased. The Major, as far as we’ve seen, is a physical creation of men (art recognises life). Of course, it’s Batou who emotes about this. Precious Batou. All dressed in white armour.
We see the Major nude, but not in the course of her duties. She’s home alone, in the shower, and we see her bare bent neck with exposed access plugs before we see the rest of her body. Leaving aside the erotic capacities of a woman’s neck, as I am not familiar with them, it’s not lost on me that these are entry ports. Her head is bowed, she looks defeated. Her body isn’t seen beyond the shoulder blades, but twin bottles (shampoo and conditioner? What does cyborg hair need?) in the same colour as her flesh have rounded tops and reddened tips.
Her full body is revealed to the audience in subsquent shots. Foreshortening and ‘tweens make her the opposite of Shirow’s lissom gynoids. Her buttocks are flat, unrounded, they curve up instead of down; she’s not plump for your delectation. When she turns and we see her breasts, for the first time there’s an extreme inframammary fold. Previously, the Major’s breasts have been effectively spherical — imagine clay balls smoothed at the sides onto a clay torso. In previous entries, minimal inframammary folds have made a feature of their pertness. Here the fold starts at her armpit and continues all the way around, until the sternum, a “flatter” chest, a less secure breast. Now that we see her body, her nipples aren’t tinted at all.
We don’t see her defy gravity without clothes on, and so we can’t know how far the fold extends up her ribcage from the bottom of her breast. She’s seen in a sports bra, instead of a basque or bodysuit, and the fold is echoed in the bra’s design. But her breasts don’t fall towards her armpits when she reclines, so there’s some stability built into them.
Perhaps there is no stability built in; perhaps the artists for these scenes do not have much familiarity with breasts, or breasts of this type, or sports bras. I don’t know them. Perhaps with illustrating breasts there are certain things that just aren’t done.
Why the changed breast design?
Within an illustration, or character design (a world of symbols that may or may not be helpful to real people), these breasts are less aggressive than their predecessors. They don’t project as intensely, they don’t “jut”. They’re unsupported, unemphasised; they appear more “natural” (of course, they’re not: she’s fully prosthetic). They’re not sexualised breasts! But: aren’t they?
This is the instance of the Major’s nudity I’m least comfortable with. For several reasons: she’s been de-aged, she’s been made observably vulnerable through both character design and plot events, she’s under literal military ownership, and she does not have the same relationship with her body as I have grown used to. This time around full prosthesis is all she’s ever known; it’s her complete reality, and that makes a difference to me. Prosthesis isn’t something that “happened to her”, now, it’s everything physical that she is. To her, a prosthetic body is as granted as an organic body is to me. The distance from the problem as outlined in part three (sexist, voyeuristic observation of the body as an object) is removed. Showing her nude without actively sexualising her feels like a betrayal; the way that locally acceptable women’s toplessness has been repeatedly appropriated by international anthropologists from cultures which regard women’s naked breasts as taboo. You’re pretending it’s not sexual, because it’s not sexual to her — but it is to you. For me, it adds nothing. It’s theft. It’s appropriation. The anthropologist example I use is a racist action; it’s not here, until Arise is exported to a non-Japanese audience. Which of course… it immediately is. White English person right here. Teen years spent on DeviantArt discovering that some boys like “asian girls”. You’re not helping that, Arise.
In character design, breasts communicate age and/or sexual maturity. If they’re high, it means young (which dual-means “inexperienced”). If they’re lower (read: if they have more of a fold, because, as seen above, extra lines confuse the eye), it means older — or more sexually advanced. Out of all of her alternates, why does the youngest Major have breasts which suggest maturity? The nearest she comes to sexual encounters onscreen in Ghost Pain and Ghost Whispers is to exist within the same space as sophisticated older woman characters with up-dos, fond or condescending expressions, obvious breast outlines and a diminutive attitude towards her.
It feels like voyeurs are having their cake and eating it too; she’s sexual but non-sexual. Why do we see the Major naked? What does it symbolise this time?
She’s definitely not wearing a bodysuit. We just saw her get out of the shower. We know for sure now that the Major does not have pubic hair — I guess we’ve known since 1995. Why is it more obvious to me here, with her naive and inelegant movements, than it was in the 1995 film’s languid factory credits sequence?
“Why would she have pubic hair? Women remove that anyway, and she’s a cyborg. It’s her choice.” Let’s imagine somebody said that. I’ll reply: Okay, let’s float the idea that pubic hair taboos are the same in futuristic Japan as they are in 2014 Anglocentric countries, and pubes (as well as leg hair, armpit hair — any hair other than scalp, eyelash and eyebrow) Are Gross on a Woman. But who gives her the choice to have it at all? Her military-issue prosthetics consultants? Do they even think to? Would she have to ask for it? Why go to the trouble of asking for it when your default is to have your body built by technomedical professionals? Does she even know that organic bodies grow hair there?
Do you know how much pubic hair is “normal”? When did you learn?
The Major appears naked when we see her access the net or review her memories; her mindscape avatar resembles her physical body exactly, and she’s seen in foetal position, clutching her legs as she squats before her “screens”. Watching these scenes feels like a violation of her privacy. Look at that hunch. She’s not happy.
Don’t put a sad girl on show. We really, truly, already know they exist.
Some of us have been them.
Every time we talk about this mini-series, my friend JoJo mentions how disappointed he was that the Major’s classic hairstyle was redesigned almost to the point of not actually being her classic hairstyle. Every time I come back to reconsider Arise, I agree more. It’s a nice haircut, but it’s sectional now: not objectively worse but different. And we’re not objective. We’re deep into franchise context.
I sigh big, but maybe I’m not really sure that I recognise this character as the Major. In fact, she’s promoted to Major within the first episode. Showing us your hand as you show us her body, creative team: this is someone who doesn’t know their role.
Instead, it leaves questions hanging in the air as to the vulnerability of Kusanagi and whether she truly is as invincible as her persona would have you believe — Reel Anime Review
Splitting apart the Major from her toughness, her dauntlessness, and her almost unlimited capability is breaking the toy. You’re breakin’ my balls, Arise. And also, a little, my heart. 2nd Gig had the same shady intentions but it delivered hella better. We’ll get to that.
Next: The Arise prequel manga, ~Sleepless Eye~
(Older thoughts & incidental Arise comments we can chat about: Why’s Paz’s nose so different? Why is Saito such a sack of shit? Why is Togusa an adult if everyone else is so far back in their timelines? Nothing in this show is explainable, except for the references to previous iterations. Batou shoots guns at ‘koma units in Arise! Hey buddy, no, and fuck you.)