When discussing the pinnacles of both the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction and the medium of grown-up anime, there are two titles that shoot straight to the top of any lists: Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 film Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell. They both certainly comply with the visual characteristics of cyberpunk (future cities, technology mixed with dilapidation, high tech and low life), but I feel like the two couldn’t be more different otherwise. While I’ve always seen Akira as a masterwork of sci-fi and animation, Ghost in the Shell has always left me cold and wondering what I’ve missed. After watching both films again in succession, I think that’s absolutely the point.
Made seven years apart, the two films are also separated by a common theme. The central question in both seems to be: “What is humanity?” Really, that’s the central theme of a lot of science fiction, and cyberpunk specifically, as we get closer and closer to a world where technology merges with organic matter (which, by the way, we’re seeing in real life all the time). Both films are based on very popular and long-running manga that have to be trimmed down immensely for film form. Ghost in the Shell has had several sequels and TV series to continue to explore its themes, while Akira has only ever had, to date, the one film. Even that speaks to the two vastly different approaches taken to their core ideas.
To over-simplify slightly, Akira is about losing humanity and Ghost in the Shell is about finding it; Akira explores its themes externally while Ghost in the Shell is all about looking inward.
Akira takes place in a literal post-apocalyptic world, opening with a mushroom cloud in Tokyo in 1988 which sparked World War III. 30 years later, Neo-Tokyo is a hive of crime, corruption, overpopulation, disaffected youth, and political and social unrest. It’s a city full of people searching for something that’s missing in their lives. Though that ultimately comes in the form of destruction as Tetsuo’s rapidly expanding mental powers cause more and more damage and his body becomes less and less his own.
The future world of Ghost in the Shell has taken a different path. It supposes that, at some point in the future, humanity decides to connect itself through a massive neural network, allowing people to communicate without verbal speech and to access data and memories from anywhere. The physical form is still deemed necessary, but there are constant synthetic upgrades and even completely fabricated bodies (shells) that contain the spark of the human brain (ghosts), which is located somewhere. Humankind is clinging to the notion that something organic still exists.
Perhaps fittingly, Akira focuses its story on teenagers, the most irrational beings on the planet and ones that are, in the classic sense of the word, punks. The two leads, Tetsuo and Kaneda, grew up together, helped each other, became like brothers, and cruise around Neo-Tokyo on motorcycles looking for other gangs to beat up and, in some cases, kill. But Tetsuo has always envied and resented Kaneda’s status as the “leader”, the cool one in the group, and this is objectified by the iconic custom red motorcycle Kaneda has that Tetsuo is pawing when we meet him at the film’s beginning.
Slowly, after Tetsuo’s chance meeting with a grey-skinned child (old but perpetually small), he begins to exhibit psionic energy and eventually telekinesis and technokinesis. He’s become like a god, looking for the ultimate being known as “Akira” who we learn was responsible for the blast in 1988, which had nothing at all to do with nuclear weapons fire after all. But Akira only now exists in the abstract, as jars of matter which still possess untold power, and as Tetsuo becomes more and more powerful, he also becomes less and less human. After losing an arm, he creates a new one using metal and wires, but it begins to connect itself to other technology and before long, Tetsuo is nothing more than a giant, hulking mass of organic and synthetic matter — all that remains of him is his mind.
In contrast, Ghost in the Shell takes place in a world that doesn’t have that level of unrest, one where humans have already embraced the machine world. The protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, isn’t a natural being at all. She’s in a “shell,” a specially designed cyborg body that is both flesh and machine, but none of it originally hers. In the opening credits scene, we see her body being assembled, with the flesh being put on over the skeleton of machinery. Because of this, she has increased physical ability, but the consequences of getting hurt in this form are pretty inconsequential. Repairs and routine maintenance are all she needs to get back to fighting form.
However, what does bother Kusanagi is the idea of not being as “real” as she thinks she is. When the hacker known as The Puppet Master starts hacking people’s ghosts, making them think and do things they would normally never do, it brings up the idea that what she currently believes might not be true. Her “Ghost” might not actually be the human mind in a room she thinks it is. Once it’s revealed that the Puppet Master is a self-actualizing A.I., made by the Company in secret, the idea of what it means to be “human” changes. Kusanagi’s whole body gets destroyed toward the end of the film, yet she’s still able to think and speak through the neural network. The physical is completely secondary to the mental; it doesn’t even matter what body they stick her in.
In Tetsuo we have a physical human becoming completely neurological being and in Kusanagi we have a completely neurological human attempting to become — or at least understand — what it means to be a physical being. These are the two opposing approaches to the same idea, and their aesthetics are part and parcel of the films as a whole. I think this the point from where my initial feelings about the movies stem: Akira is a visceral and destructive story about the end of a friendship, as well as the world as we know it; Ghost in the Shell is about beings clinging on to the idea of humanity and, hence, is much colder and more clinical about the abstract idea. Look at the faces of the characters in each to figure out the tone. Tetsuo is all facial expression; Kusanagi is blank and impassive.
It’s interesting to note how these two films always appear side-by-side on lists and yet couldn’t be more different in execution. Cyberpunk as a genre has been around for awhile, but it really felt like its heyday was right in the period of time between the two films. Both influenced The Matrix and other such sci-fi, and both are heralded as masterworks of the genre. If we look at them as bookends, one is about emotion destroying the old world while the other is about intellect ushering in a new one. The end and the beginning. There’s humanity to be found at either end, if, like the characters, you’re interested in searching.
Kyle Anderson is the weekend editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. You can follow him on Twitter.