Ghost in The Shell and the Shadow of World Powers

Ting GUO received her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and has worked for the European Studies Centre, University of Oxford and the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University. She is interested in questions of human autonomy and political freedom within the conjunctions of religion, culture, and society, and how the structure of world powers is manifested in the intellectual interpretations of critical social theory and philosophy. She writes bilingually and contributes for outlets including Los Angeles Review of Books. She is currently working on a project on how “love” as an affective concept made its way into the Chinese vocabulary where previously such meaning was absent, and the ways in which it has been appropriated as a political discourse and a social force in modern China.

Based on the bestselling manga Ghost in The Shell 攻殻機動隊 (1989), Hollywood released the film version of it with the same title in April 2017. It attracted not only curious eyes, thanks to the casting of Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, but also sci-fi lovers and thoughtful audience who reflected on the cultural dynamics of this production. Many of our Religious Studies colleagues, for example, detested the casting of a white woman (Scarlett Johansson) to play a Japanese girl despite recent debates and protests on racial issues in the US.

However, it would be too easy a critique to dismiss Ghost In The Shell as another Hollywood whitewashing. The original manga itself arranged the “shell” of Motoko, the protagonist, to be a hyper-sexualized Caucasian woman, which follows the tradition of most Japanese manga. The imbalanced structure of world power does not merely lie in how the West dominates the ways in which the rest of the world thinks and conducts their politics and economics, but more importantly, in how the non-Western world has inherited the aesthetics, ethics, and the shadow of such power.

Here I will briefly review the issue of gender and power in Japanese manga, in particular as Japan struggled and negotiated with Western powers in the nineteenth century and after the WWII, since the film is based on a manga. Both the manga and the film are set in settings that resemble sites in a cyberpunk, and in reality the fictionalized Hong Kong. This makes me think of Hong Kong’s current political situation, and entices me to analyse it in the context of this film.

Power and Sexuality in Japanese Manga

The term manga was coined by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), a prolific ukiyoe artist from Edo period (1603-1868) who left over 30,000 works. He was the creator of the woodblock The Great Wave, which brought him the fame of the first internationally recognized Japanese artist and The Great Wave is almost identified with Japanese art. He coined the term manga with two kanjis: man 漫, meaning “in spite of oneself,” “lax” or “whimsical,” and ga 畫, meaning “picture.”

Writing on the history of manga in the context of Japanese culture and society, Kinko Ito notes that like any other form of visual art, literature, or entertainment, manga is immersed in a particular social environment including history, culture, politics, sex and gender. Manga also depicts social order and hierarchy, sexism, racism, ageism, classism, and so on, in particular when Japan became war-oriented and feudal. For instance, a certain genre of ukiyoe was popular during the Tokugawa period: shunga (spring drawings), woodblock print pictures with explicit sexuality and eroticism. Shunga also served as sex education manuals for new brides-to-be. This tradition implies the domestic position of women as they had little social space or opportunity of learning other than from those drawings. But shunga also indicates the fact that sexuality was not an unfamiliar theme in manga as a genre.

Manga was a popular art that permeated people’s everyday lives, and it also recorded the changes of Japanese society as Japan was exposed to and conflicted with the Western world. As Ito points out, Charles Wirgman (1832 – 1891), a British correspondent for the Illustrated London News from 1861 to 1887, reported several important historical events of the day in his magazine Japan Punch, including the bombing of Shimonoseki by the fleets of Britain, the United States, France, and Holland (1863 – 1864). This was also the time when Western ships made ominous visits to Japan, demanding that Japan open its ports. The Japanese government was obliged to sign unequal treaties with the West, and the power of the government began to decline—much similar to the Opium Wars (1839-1860) and its aftermath in China.

In the 1920s and 1930s many manga artists traveled to the United States, then the leader in comics in the early twentieth century. At the same time, along with new printing techniques that replaced woodblock prints, new comic and art styles and aesthetics were introduced to Japan, including the portrayal of bodies and gender norms. This was on top of the historical tradition of idealizing male dominance and female submissiveness. Moreover, manga developed into two genres, shōjo (girls’ manga) or shōnen (boys’ manga). Shōjo tend to have artwork that is dreamier and romantic and focus on human relationships, while shōnen tend to be brasher and flashier and focus more on competition or contests of will.

Many scholars have written on the reproduction of gender and power in manga. For instance, reflecting on Sailormoon, an internationally popular manga turned anime, Mary Grigsby notes that all sailor girls are hyper-sexualized and look the same, except for their different hairstyles and colors. Not only that women are interchangeable without characters, and it is their womanhood that matters rather than their specific embodiment of a woman. This was not only a result of the gender and sexual structure embedded in popular art; manga were further influenced by American cinematic expressions and images in the early twentieth century, which often consists of exaggerated normative heterosexuality with hyper-sexualized female bodies, overly emphasized masculinity, and patriarchal gender roles. For instance, following the American superhero comics of the 80s, there emerged Fist of the North Star (1984) in Japan which features a disproportionally masculine warrior who masters a deadly martial art which gives him the ability to kill most adversaries through the use of the human body’s secret vital points, often resulting in an exceptionally violent and gory death. As Darling-Wolf (2001) observes, Japan’s Westernization hegemonized the definition of beauty and sexuality, which amounts not only a set of deeply patriarchal and racialized aesthetics and ethics of being. As scholars have written extensively, the adaptation of Western concepts entailed a crucial process of negotiation both during Japan’s early modernization period and under American occupation. The intense process of cultural (re)negotiation that followed Japan’s WWII defeat and paved its path to prosperity required a complete erasure—or at least reinterpretation—of the past and of Japan’s previous relationship to its former enemies.

The issue to appraise, therefore, is twofold. Not only should we point out—as many have done so—the tendency of whitewashing in Hollywood films, but also how and why Japanese artists “whitewashed” their characters in the first place. This is essentially a reflection on the cultural dynamics of the struggle for power and autonomy.

Kowloon Walled City: The Slum in Hong Kong that Inspired Ghost in The Shell

I am glad that I saw this film in Hong Kong, where the original manga took its inspiration and many of the scenes were shot (Kowloon Walled City especially). Similar to the Japanese history of being dominated by and aspiring to assimilate and compete with the West that is neglected by the makers and audience, Hong Kong is another vivid example of such underlying dynamics.

Originally a Chinese military fort, the Walled City became an enclave after the New Territories of Hong Kong were leased to Britain in 1898. Its population increased dramatically following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II as refugees fled in. Demolished in 1992, now only a public park remains that remembers the extraordinary people who endured and transformed extraordinary times. Japanese researchers surveyed the place before the demolition. So intrigued by the Walled City, Japan later re-created it in an amusement park in Kawasaki—from its eerie, narrow corridors right down to the rubbish. Much of this inspired the background setting of Ghost In The Shell.

In addition to the Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong also has the futuristic character perfect for science fiction: There are twice as many skyscrapers (buildings of at least 14 stories) in Hong Kong, when compared to its nearest rival city, New York. With the world’s greatest number of skyscrapers in one city, Hong Kong’s urban landscape has a way of overpowering visitors. At the same time, there are 400,000 households living under the poverty line, which is set at $14,300 Hong Kong dollars (US$1,800) for a house of four. A survey published in early 2014 by Demographia International Housing Affordability revealed that Hong Kong’s property market has become the world’s most expensive, with the median housing price reaching $4,024,000 Hong Kong dollars, or US$519,216. The hike in property prices signifies a thriving economy in Hong Kong. However, many local residents are excluded from the profits brought by global capitals. They struggle financially and often live in slums. This social divide, especially in terms of housing situations, inspired the original background setting in the manga version of Ghost in The Shell, as the wealthy enhanced live above and the poor humans live in slums.

Such social divide in Hong Kong is, to a large extent, a result of its “programmed” function as the utopia land for imperial trades and global capitalism. The Crown Colony of Hong Kong was a product of the first Anglo-Chinese War (or more famously known as the Opium War 1839-42). As Steve Tsang notes, behind this war was the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the early global capitalism through British and British Indian trade with China. From the very beginning, the British intended to build in Hong Kong not a settlement colony but an imperial outpost for the promotion of trade and economic exchanges with the Chinese Empire, and they expected to enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits by virtue of their unrivalled economic and commercial might. Hong Kong quickly became a base to support the trade operations of the British Empire across the globe.

At the same time, British jurisdiction provided stability, security and the predictability of British law and government, enabling Hong Kong to flourish as a center for international trade over Shanghai, as mainland China gradually fell into wars and domestic upheavals. The rule of law has also become a focal point for the disputes and conflicts between mainland China and Hong Kong in recent years, most evidently manifested in the Occupy Central movement in 2014 (alternatively known as the Umbrella Movement, as some protesters used yellow umbrellas to defend against the use of pepper spray by police).

This movement was an unprecedented civil disobedience in Hong Kong history. The protestors petitioned the Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing for full implementation of universal suffrage as indicated in the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45, which delineates the requirements for electing the Chief Executive. After Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, according to the lease signed a hundred years ago, the elected legislature was abolished, and a Beijing-appointed body of lawmakers took its place. The intensified political struggle led to street actions, as reportedly over 30,000 protestors blocked roads and paralyzed the city’s financial district, if the Beijing and local governments did not agree to implement universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election and the 2020 Legislative Council elections according to “international standards.” However, the petitions and the protest were intentionally neglected by Beijing. The fragmented information and mutual misunderstandings also led to the accumulating conflicts among ordinary mainlanders and HongKongers, marking an increased ideological disparity.

For the protesters, the basic law in Hong Kong stands for the necessary condition of cosmopolitanism, democratic freedom, and universal values, versus the authoritarian ruling, which is, for many, represented by the Communist government. In March 2017, nine leaders and key participants of Hong Kong’s Occupy movement were arrested and charged for their roles in the 2014 pro-democracy street protests – a day after the new pro-Beijing chief executive took oath. The participants are facing charges of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance, marking the first such punishment meted out by Hong Kong’s justice system against those who brought chaos to the city in the name of democracy. At the same time, two mainland Chinese activists who supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were also jailed for subverting state power. Many worry that it’s a sign of the end of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Although for visitors and expats who enjoy the food, the financial benefits, and the landscape in Hong Kong would rarely notice the changes that have been taking place.

The case of Hong Kong was as part of the global Occupy movements that emerged in recent years, and it proved to be the longest occupation of all. However, it did not receive enough media or scholarly attention, especially not from the RS community. I was very touched that my friend Paul F. Tremlett wrote an insightful article on Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement, in which he observed the state capitalism as part of the Communist regime, along with the conventional representation of Hong Kong as a politically indifferent, capitalist utopia, that this protest was set to challenge. As a result, the financial space under an HSBC building as the old sacred order that was erupted. This is among the very rare international attention—including academic studies—dedicated to the situation in Hong Kong, a place that is often taken to be an apolitical capitalist utopia efficiently but quietly serving global economy. And much to Hong Kong’s dismay, this movement did not receive enough attention from the international world like the Arab Spring, in particular not from Britain, Hong Kong’s former ruler.

In this way, Hong Kong is the perfect metaphor for Ghost in The Shell’s apocalyptic setting, as it is in many ways abandoned by the imperial capitalist order that “programmed” it to be the Capitalist Utopia, and it is not getting nearly enough international exposure and attention while it has been struggling to hold the values and orders that it perceives as universal. Global capitalism contributed to the wealth that was accumulated on this island, and in the shadow of the global wealth lays the ghetto that is as dark as in Ghost in The Shell.

To summarize, the original manga as well as the Hollywood interpretation of Ghost in The Shell contain an abundance of information that demands our attention and reflection. And I have, accordingly, attempted to argue that this film tells the story of two societies that have contributed so much to the world’s economy and culture, but the history of how they emerged as part of the global capital is often overlooked or taken for granted. Even for intellectuals, unless they specialize in Asian Studies, the knowledge and information of these two places are often fragmented. Popular culture of course reproduces and reflects social realities, and it is the task of intellectuals to re-evaluate and scrutinize such reproductions with cultural awareness and systematic understanding in our increasingly cocooned world in the age of globalization.


Ting can be reached at @tingguowrites and

On Religion, Words, and Things: A Reply

Brent Nongbri, from whom this response was invited, is a Visiting Associate Professor at Aarhus University. He recently completed a three-year project at Macquarie University (sponsored by the Australian Research Council) that explored the earliest Christian manuscripts from a number of angles, focusing on issues of construction and dating as well as provenance and collection history. The results of the project will appear in his forthcoming book on the archaeology of the earliest Christian manuscripts.

I’m grateful to the curators of “Studying Religion in Culture” for this opportunity to reflect a bit on “words and things,” and I would also like to thank the previous posters in this series for their insightful contributions on this topic and on the problems and prospects of working with the concept of religion.

I’ll start off my own comments, however, on a word other than “religion.” Continue reading

Words and Things: What’s in the Black Box?

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Her dissertation “The Internet is Holy” charts the fusion of religion and information technologies in Silicon Valley since the mid-20th century. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

In our Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill I teach an undergraduate course called Technology, the Self, and Ethical Problems. The course serves two purposes, the first is to introduce students to the range of work being done at the intersection of religious studies and communication studies. The second is to prepare students to think critically about the relationship between words and things — what kind of social worlds do we build between and out of our shared ideas, languages, and material stuffs? Is it useful, or even possible, to think about these relations as existing between ontologically distinct categories? Continue reading

Words and Things: From Critiquing Ancient Religion to Imagining No Religion

Andrew Durdin is a lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He will receive his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School in the spring of 2017. His research focuses on Roman religion, magic and religion in the Roman Empire, and issues of theory, method, and historiography of religion in the ancient Mediterranean world. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

A few years ago, I sat on an AAR/SBL panel dedicated to Nongbri’s Before Religion. Since then I’ve continued to reflect on the ideological import of seeing religion in ancient cultures and how it serves to bolster the lingering notion of religion as a universal human experience. My interest was piqued, then, when I looked over the 2016 AAR/SBL program book and saw two SBL/NAASR panels dedicated to interrogating the category of ancient religion. The first explored the continued relevance of Nongbri’s book. The second panel was titled after Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin’s newly released book, Imagine No Religion. The panels’ juxtaposition on the program implied them as complementary, and, what is more, Barton and Boyarin explicitly situate their book as an expansion of Nongbri’s initial “sketch.” They adopt what I see as an eminently useful form of critical philology in an attempt to situate Latin religio and Greek thrēskeia in their ancient vocabularies without appeal to religion as an interpretive category. Having attended the panels and read both books, I’d like to offer some reflections on moving from Nongbri’s critique of ancient religion to Barton and Boyarin’s practice of imagining no religion. Continue reading

Word and Things: Recovering Theoretical Creativity

Adrian Hermann is Professor of Religion and Society at Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, University of Bonn, Germany. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

The debate that flares up in discussing a book like Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion seems to point to two different ways in which scholars are currently using the category of “religion.” At the same time, however, it seems that the differences between these two options are often not explicitly reflected upon. Instead, each side sees in their usage the only sensible way of speaking about “religion” and of conceptualizing its study, often without even being fully aware of the implications of their own position. Continue reading

Words and Things: Happily Ever After Religion

Richard Newton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. He also curates the student-scholar collaborative blog, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and TeachingFollow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Brent Nongbri begins his approach to religious studies with memory of a problem. The problem is his inability to translate the English word, “religion” into the Khasi language of his fatherland. Well-disciplined in the liberal arts, he initially turned not to his father but to a Khasi-English dictionary for insight. Only after coming up short and progressing in his studies would he ask his father, who gave him the term, ka naim. Then as a graduate student, Nongbri knew well enough to inquire more—though again, not with an extended conversation on its semantic range but with yet another trip to the dictionary. There he learned that: Continue reading

Words and Things: Modern Concepts, Ancient Interests

Matt Sheedy (Ph.D) lectures in the department of religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, atheism and science v. religion in the public realm,  as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. (The introduction to the series is posted here.)

Let us consider for a moment a list of native terms that Brent Nongbri discusses in his book Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) along with some of the more common definitions that have been assigned to them. Here we find the Khasi word ka niam (rules or duties) (1); the Greek term ioudaismos (the activity of Judaizing) (2); the Greek eusebeia (attitudes toward the gods); the Roman eusebeia (“toward the bonds of kinship”) (4); the medieval Latin saecularis (Christian clergy not in a monastic order) (5); the Chinese zongjiao (“ancestral” or sectarian teachings) (25); the Latin religio (variously rites, rituals, rules, worship, reverence, scruples, monastic life) (28-31); the Greek thrēskeia (variously signaling rituals, loyalty or obedience to divine authority, observances, worship of proper gods or a particular ethnic group) (35-38); the Arabic dīn (variously faith, law, debt, custom, usage, judgment, direction, retribution, social transactions) (39-42); the Arabic umma (community, nation, faith) (44); the Arabic muslim (“one who submits to authority, surrenders, obeys”) (59); and the Middle Persian dēn (variously community, church, omniscience, wisdom, goodness, vision, revelation, etc.) (69). To this list Nongbri also adds dharma, dao, jiao (though he does not analyze their semantic histories) while noting that “[n]one of these ancient words delineates ‘religious’ from ‘non-religious.’”(45) Continue reading

Words and Things: One or Two Things That I Know About Religion

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is a Professor in the School of Culture and Society in the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark. He works in the areas of second Temple Judaism and early Christianity as well as studying cultural evolution. This post leads off a series of invited posts on the topic of words and things in the study of religion (introduced here).

During the last three years two important books have been published highlighting the absence of a concept of religion in the ancient world, namely Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2013) and Carlin Barton’s and Daniel Boyarin’s Imagine no Religion. How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham, 2016). Strictly speaking these studies are more narrow than their titles imply, since they focus on the ancient Graeco-Roman and Jewish worlds only. Yet, I think their argument pertains to any other pre-modern world as well, but needless to say that will have to be explored further in future studies. Continue reading

New Media (and) Ritual

Travis Cooper is a PhD candidate in anthropology and religious studies at Indiana University. His research interests include method and theory in the study of religion, discourse analysis, social media, critical ethnography, digital anthropologyand social theory. He’s currently dissertating on the boundary maintenance strategies of emerging evangelical communities after the New Media turn.

I recently read and re-read Connor Wood’s post, “Social Media is Toxic. Religious Studies Tells Us Why,” and found my initially troubled impressions confirmed. Wood’s account of social media, by my reading, is fourfold. According to Wood, (1) The Internet is largely free of filters, barriers, or standards for etiquette. The second argument gives rise to the first: (2) The Internet is absent rituals. Wood suggests that (3) unfiltered, toxic communications online are leading toward societal chaos. Lastly, the blogger uses the discussion of the Internet’s ritual lack to (4) argue for the necessity of the interdisciplinary field of religious studies.

I’d like to commend the author for plugging for both of my own disciplines of training—anthropology and religious studies—as well as for contributing a short and provocative think piece that makes some bold claims and ultimately fueling productive conversations on the study of new media. Although I emphatically endorse Wood’s fourth point, that social science-informed religious studies has the tools to theorize such changes, theses one through three are less than compelling. What follows is a bit of rationale on why the claims are problematic. Continue reading

Whose Loss is it Anyway?

Rebekka King is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on the negotiation of boundaries within North American Christianity. She teaches course on Method and Theory, Anthropology of Religion, and Contemporary Christianity.

2016 was the year of the loser. The more you lost, the better you were, especially if you shared it on Facebook.

“I have all of David Bowie’s albums in vinyl. I’m going to post a picture of my collection.”

“I have friends in the UK. Brexit is everything that is wrong with the world. We won’t make the same mistake in America!”

“Leonard Cohen is dead and everyone is posting ‘Hallelujah’ but I’m going to post ‘Democracy.’ See what I did there? I’m not only expressing my grief, I’m also making a political statement.”

“I can’t believe I have to spend Thanksgiving with my Republican uncle, I’m going to ask my friends if we can do Friendsgiving instead.”

Continue reading