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Book Review: Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow

Ghost in Shell

I wrote this review back before the Ghost in the Shell movie released. I am not sure why I did not publish this review back then because I was very involved in the conversations about whitewashing in Hollywood as it pertains to APIDA people in the industry. I want to be clear that this is still going on and we are still seeing White actors being chose over APIDA actors. Years later, I present you with my review / reflection of Ghost in the Shell. I understand that Ghost in the Shell exists in many different mediums – graphic novel, animation, live action – this review is of one volume of the graphic novel. Enjoy!

With all of the casting controversy around the Ghost in the Shell movie and the continuation of whitewashing in Hollywood, I decided I wanted to engage with the original Japanese content. Plus, with the loss of culture myself and my quest to reclaim a little of what I lost, I thought this would be a good exercise. To be honest, I never really engaged with manga when I was growing up (there could be many reasons for this: identifying with Whiteness, trying to assimilate, etc.) and actually some of the first people who introduced manga to me were White. As I reflect, this was a common experience for me… meeting White folks who could ‘educate’ me more on my culture and history than my family or my experience. In my more current experience, I have found I enjoy stories like Death Note and I was looking forward to expanding my horizon. I went to my local library and found a copy of the Ghost in the Shell manga and I requested it through inter-library loan.

I found the experience with Ghost in the Shell to be quite disorienting. Masamune Shirow is such a detailed artist, many of the panels were almost distracting from the dialogue and general story line. As I continued to read, I got into the flow of Shirow’s style of storytelling, but it did take me a while. One thing I do want to note up front about his artwork is Shirow’s choice of how different robots are portrayed. Most of them (medical bots, service bots, etc.) are drawn as scantily clad women. This causes me to ask, who was the manga drawn for? I find this very unfortunate and it seeped into every part of the manga and made my overall experience reading Ghost in the Shell to be disappointing. I would have rated this higher if there was a better portrayal across gender identity.


The manga is organized into different chapters (or issues since this is a collection) and there was some story lines persisting between each chapter. But I found more meaning and enjoyment if I read them as a collection of vignettes with little connection besides the characters. The stories are a variety of “let’s stop the terrorist or robot uprising” trope. These tend to get old for me, but with Ghost in the Shell and the futurism and technology featured in the stories make a lot of the plot lines compelling until the final resolutions.

The manga follows a team comprised of humans and ghosts, including the main character Major Kusanagi and in each chapter/issue they are on a mission to take down criminals in a futuristic vision of Japan and Japanese culture. I see the importance of Ghost in the Shell to Japanese culture at the time that it was written. My favorite story brings up questions about future technology advances, sentient life, creating life, and what actually qualifies as life. Within all of these stories comes the idea of Ghosts which are…spirits, souls, consciousnesses?…  housed in robotic bodies (hence the name Ghost in the Shell). These Ghosts are robots but have a quality of life to them that pushes the question of ‘senientness’ and self-actualization of artificial intelligence. While the plots seem rather basic, the most enjoyment comes with the conversation as Japan is on the edge of a technological revolution. The story is distinctly Japanese and this is why when Scarlett Johansson was cast as  Major Kusanagi there was push back in the APIDA community – how can a distinctly Japanese story be told if the cast is whitewashed?

Ultimately, I do not think I will pursue consuming further media regarding Ghost in the Shell and I definitely will not be seeing the movie. A good experience, but do to some artistic choices, not one I would recommend to everyone. There are many fantastic graphic novels and manga out there -> go find them! If you have been wanting to get into Ghost in the Shell, this is honestly a hard place to start.

Final Rating: 2.7/5



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