The Major's Body
August 24, 2014 5:07 AM   Subscribe

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?
In a still ongoing series, Claire Napier looks at the Major's body throughout the various Ghost in the Shell mangas and anime series. NSFW, some spoilers.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence:
I adore Batou. He does not understand; he tries to be so kind. My first viewing of this film was almost entirely caught up in sympathising with Batou’s sadness — the Major’s status as post-individual disembodied lifeform alarmed me, and her presence as a Bellmer-style physicality registered, lightly, as repellant. I tried to ignore her. Her on-screen presence in the film is brief — she has only come back as a cameo, for Batou.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex:
Biology is not destiny; we’re all free to change our bodies to fit our self-image. A cyborg has almost no biology and is all destiny (how long might they live?). The Major’s ghost, presumably, tells her she’s a woman. What are the bodily choices she’s given? All of the female prostheses, cyborgs, and androids seen in the franchise are similarly babely along a very narrow template: long-limbed, slim, toned. Pert and rounded breasts and buttocks; pretty, low-detail face. Elegant.
the original Ghost in the Shell manga:
Panels focus on crotch-level views. Occasionally these scenes have the feeling of trying to illustrate how female bodes are used by a patriarchy (check out the “made in Japan” stamp on the gynoid’s buttock to the left)… but they do nothing to defuse what they are observing. The Puppetmaster’s appearances are little altered between the manga and Oshii’s film, and so many earlier observations may be repeated here. Think your own thoughts about the difference in nipple-deliniation.
Ghost in the Shell: Arise:
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?
posted by MartinWisse (29 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

These were interesting. I'm lukewarm on GitS except for Stand Alone Complex, which I adore, but there's no denying it's ripe for criticism on this topic. I like the calm, respectful way the author tackles it.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:15 AM on August 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is really great.
posted by dismas at 6:42 AM on August 24, 2014

What does "half cyborg" even mean?
posted by idiopath at 6:45 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shirow has always been very good and very bad on women. He delights in creating competent (often hypercompetent) women who are reasonably rounded and actual characters rather than cardboard cutouts, and then drawing them in overtly sexualized ways.

In Japan it isn't uncommon for a successful mainstream artist to have gotten their start drawing pornography (I can think of two offhand and I know many more exist). Shirow has taken sort of the opposite track. He got his start drawing remarkably successful mainstream manga, most of which has a surreal bent with philosophy that is either deep or pretending to be deep via obtuseness. But after he became famous he started drawing increasingly pornographic things and then went into outright porn.

Moreover his output, never prolific to begin with, has turned increasingly to porn-ish shorts at the expense of more serious work.

The result is the odd juxtaposition that the linked articles do a very good job of detailing. On the one hand Shirow seems to want to be taken as a serious writer exploring serious and deep issues (he covers everything from AI rights to modern slavery to environmental concerns to the definition of humanity). On the other he self evidently really likes drawing near naked women in sexualized poses. And he blends these, producing naked or near naked women contorting into poses to display their sexuality who expound on philosophic matters with other naked or near naked women in poses more suited for pornography than academia. And the general posing of women in almost every situation for maximum sexual display.

The same applies to his efforts at characterization. He expanded greatly on the background and character of his protagonist Deunan Knute in Appleseed. And he did so while she and a friend were naked and crawling around, showering, bathing, and being massaged, at a spa.

He's renowned, and rightly so, for popularizing powered armor (as opposed to giant robots), and moreover trying to make his powered armor realistic rather than Iron Man type fantasy. He practically invented the use of actual military tactics and attention to military detail (trigger discipline especially) in manga.

And he did it all while taking care to let very few pages go by without a breast, butt, or clothed vulva being the center of attention.

The Major's body is just the beginning of the issues with women, sexualized imagery, and gender issues in general that Shirow has. And while Shirow was not in charge of much of the depiction of the Major, as the artistic inspiration behind the whole shebang his issues unavoidably become part of the derivative works.

Of course this can and should be looked at not just as Shirow's personal issues and eccentricities, but rather those of the dominant Japanese male culture, and to a lesser extent the Japanese/American shared culture.

But Shirow provides a unique and fascinating lens through which to view the issue. And the Major's body presents the whole thing in a single package.
posted by sotonohito at 6:51 AM on August 24, 2014 [55 favorites]

I'll be interested to see the future installments where the author of the linked pieces gets into Ghost in the Shell 2: Man Machine Interface. I'm honestly not sure that there is a single page of MMI that doesn't include a panty shot, gratuitous breasts, clothed vulvae, or plain old nudity.

Similarly with the first GitS manga, there's also an omitted sexually explicit scene. The Major needs to dive into the mind of a militant/terrorist woman who is using unorthodox measures to prevent the Major from succeeding. In the first this was an orgy (all participants black, and whoo boy unpacking Shirow and race issues is a chore and a half), in the revision she injected some sort of drug (and gets a panty shot while the militant/terrorist thrashes around under the drug's influence).

The rest of the manga gives volumes to unpack as far as the Major's body/bodies go. Also sexual harassment of the Major by her AI underlings.
posted by sotonohito at 7:38 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thinking about it, Masamune Shirow is like a visual Robert Heinlein.
posted by pan at 8:13 AM on August 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Fantastic article -- I've always sort of wondered what a woman would think about these sorts of characters, (but was too embarrassed to ask.) I was a big fan of the original Ghost in the Shell movie -- nudity aside, that thing was like crack to a teenage geek in 1997 -- and liked the GITS:Stand Alone Complex series even more. But yeah, as time wore and and i became aware of Oshii's other work, the squickiness of his body obsessions began to wear on me. The Major is a great character, but why not just give her a lean, athletic physique covered in a plugsuit, making her look like some sort of futuristic Olympian? It'd make way more sense.

As for her general visual vibe, why not something more like this or even this?
posted by ELF Radio at 8:14 AM on August 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Of course this can and should be looked at not just as Shirow's personal issues and eccentricities, but rather those of the dominant Japanese male culture, and to a lesser extent the Japanese/American shared culture.

I've never quite "got" this aspect of western appreciation for anime/manga. I mean I'm sure many guys quite directly and unintellectually appreciate the constant background of young barely-nubile women/girls being objectified/sexualized. But then there's the more refined consumers, people who seem to treat these stories as real works of art, but then the up-skirt shots that would make Michael Bay blush are treated as this little laugh-under-the-breath, move along sort of thing.

Is it maybe uncomfortable for people to address what the hell is going on with the sexuality in these works, and why they seem to have such appeal to US audiences?
posted by crayz at 8:50 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd argue that part of it is compartmentalization and simple lack of awareness. Part of male privilege is the privilege of having sexualized images of women around to gawk at without really thinking about the meaning and implication of those images. Until I got into feminism I saw the works of Shirow in two ways, first from a story/plot standpoint and separate from that from a gawking at mostly unclothed women standpoint.

For the most part my pre-feminist self paid little to no attention to the way the women in Shirow's work were portrayed sexually, it was simply the background radiation of sexy that I took as a given. Sort of as a nice side thing and bonus to the story more than anything else.

I only became aware of the issues of juxtaposing power with sexual vulnerability and sexual availability after I was introduced to feminism. Today I can't avoid seeing and thinking about that. But the existence of the Major, or Deunan, or whoever as an interesting character doing interesting things, and the existence of the Major or Deunan, or whoever as a sexualized object just didn't overlap in my pre-feminist mind.

That's pure self-anecdote, but I think there's a lot of general applicability in my experience.
posted by sotonohito at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

Masamune Shirow's great! Hopefully the author of this series gets around to covering Ghost in the Shell 2: Man/Machine Interface, because That shit is just a ridonkulous exercise in completely-necessary-to-the-plot cheesecake.

As for her general visual vibe, why not something more like this or even this?
Because if you did that, then drawing your action scenes like this would be pretty pointless now, wouldn't it?
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 12:23 PM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, Real Drive was also a Shirow collaboration. It features many of the same concepts, but characters don't typically show up to work in lingere, and the women's body types are far closer to realistic. And instead of random military excursions in mini tanks on Japanese highways, it deals with a number of other themes: environmentalism; the benefits and pitfalls of relying on technology; how the digital divide might perpetuate; death, aging, and grieving; addiction to surreal experiences in virtual reality, and the line between android and lifeform.
posted by pwnguin at 12:39 PM on August 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the heads-up on Real Drive, pwnguin! I'd missed out on that one, and the first episode's looking pretty decent, so far.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 1:17 PM on August 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Trinity-Gehenna, PLEASE don't tell me that's the new Appleseed. I loved Appleseed a decade or so ago, but after the skin crawling badness that was Man/Machine Interface, I just didn't want to see the new Appleseed book. It looks like stopping the series where I did was a good idea.

Words fail me on how bad the manga version of Man Machine Interface was. It wasn't just that he was focused on buts and boobs, it was that they didn't look anything like real boobs and buts. Even Liefeld was probably going "Whoa man! Are those supposed to be women?" I remember staring at a splash page thinking "What the hell ARE those things on her chest? They aren't breasts- pedipalps maybe?"

Shirow could be considered a perfect proof that the Brain Eater does actually affect Japanese artists as well. But then again, given the fragmentary descriptions of Shirow's personal life, I'm not sure he ever new enough about women to portray them well.
posted by happyroach at 2:29 PM on August 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Meanwhile, the funniest Tumblr kerfuffle of the week involves a little NSFW comic done by Kiwi Blitz creator and assistant-to-the-webcomic-stars Mary Cagle that got interpreted by a certain other webcomicker as being 'all about him'. (In retrospect, she should've made the Feminist Guy Cartoonist look more like Scott Kurtz or Jeph Jacques or Brad Guigar or Dan Shive or somebody...)
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:33 PM on August 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

It reminds me, a Mefite wrote a short novella (can't recall the title or who it was) about a post-singularity society. Anyhow, in this society, death games were the main form of entertainment (i.e. design a maze that will kill someone in the most painful, gruesome way possible). People can choose whatever avatar they wish; one of the (female) protagonists' "friends" appeared for a time as a rotting corpse. She, the first to be uploaded, had a kind of disillusionment with the whole singularity thing that's very reminiscent of the Major's attitude in the films. The nudity thing is there too, she doesn't bother with clothes, ever, because - what's the point?

Another way of putting it is the Major is basically a Camus character with bionic parts and kung-fu skills.

Anyhow it is obviously also a bunch of fanservice and problematic for the reasons other people gave, but that's what my 2 cents about it.

are treated as this little laugh-under-the-breath, move along sort of thing.

Some of the fanservice in the SAC is so blatant it really made me laugh out loud. It's really not sexy or even titillating. Shots like this for example. It's so over the top, like bad CGI, it's just ridiculous.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 3:19 PM on August 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's the one. Thanks!!
posted by mrbigmuscles at 3:27 PM on August 24, 2014

happyroach - Pedipalps! That's IT!!
Bad cartoon tits are a commonplace, but you really gotta give Shirow credit for putting a new spin on the motif.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 7:06 PM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read Appleseed a while back. First volume was great - gripping, with an interesting female main character. Then suddenly the second volume started going out of its way to show her naked. I mean beyond gratuitous shower scenes; there was one shot of her on a mission, in heavy combat armor, and the armor is drawn as transparent for one panel solely so Shirow can show us she's nearly naked under the armor. Gratuitous nudity well and above the call of duty.

It really ruined the series for me. I wasn't interested in fap material. I wanted a STORY to read. About a cool kick-ass lady, not a sex object.
posted by egypturnash at 8:29 PM on August 24, 2014

Some of the fanservice in the SAC is so blatant it really made me laugh out loud. It's really not sexy or even titillating. Shots like this for example.

I don't know about you, but for me a shot like that almost stopped the story cold for me, because it was so blatant and out of synch with the rest of the episode.

There are anime series were you know going in there's going to be a lot of questionable t&a stuff happening, but GitS: SAC wasn't one of them.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:07 AM on August 25, 2014

I think it would be the conventional criticism to say that the author of GitS must not be very confident in the strength of his ideas (plot, characterization, etc.) if he needs to include a lot of cheesecake that is clearly unnecessary to the story. Worse, some of the cheesecake here clearly undermines some of the subjective facts and assumptions in the work (that the Major is a cyborg etc.) I don't understand why (what I see as) the most obvious view isn't given more consideration.
posted by newdaddy at 7:03 AM on August 25, 2014

At this time I’m also starting to understand the separation of in-world events from author decisions. Why have the creative powers dressed her this way? Because they want to inspire boners, is my guess then. And it’s my guess now; maybe it’s for other reasons too, but I still fully believe in that first-occuring one.

And the rest is just critical window dressing.

If you assume the audience is mainly young and male, then it's a fair guess that they feel dis-empowered, and are (ever so slightly) socially inept.

So it's just plain business sense to put a female character in front of them who a) isn't quite human (and is thus less intimidating), b) is either passive or "kick ass" (thus, depending on narrative, a straightforward sex object or some kind of dominant educator figure), and c) fulfils their teenage power fantasies by running around blowin shit up (or overthrowin corrupt fascist governments, or whatever..).

Eg.s the Major, Pris, Leeloo, Sil, Neytiri, etc..

Do people still have DVDs? Or is shit just plugged into the back of our necks these days?
posted by Ahab at 7:11 AM on August 25, 2014

oneswellfoop: the funniest Tumblr kerfuffle of the week involves a little NSFW comic done by Kiwi Blitz creator and assistant-to-the-webcomic-stars Mary Cagle that got interpreted by a certain other webcomicker as being 'all about him'.

Well, her response seems to confirm that, yes, it is all about Diaz, which makes his complaint valid, if a bit intemperate.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:28 AM on August 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a great post. I am a fan of GITS and really loved the fact that the main protagonist is a very competent and capable female character. That said, I always found the choice of dressing her in very little clothing odd and quite unnecessary.
posted by RedShrek at 9:21 AM on August 25, 2014

Great stuff!

I seem to have interpreted this differently though:

Why stick with a body despite the opportunities it doesn’t give you? Batou asks her, early in the season, why she sticks with “that female-model body”. Switch to a male chassis, increase your strength and physical power, he says. She ducks out of the question, physically besting him with her hacking skills (under her cyberbrain-hacking instruction, he punches his own face). The Major says that while she can out-think Batou, she doesn’t need to outmatch his bodily strength. I don’t like this exchange; it sounds too much like women are weak but they’re cleverer — which isn’t true enough to serve.

I think upon closer examination, this scene should be interpreted differently. From how I remember it, The Major's demonstration was opened with some coy eyelash batting, and subservience. It was this distraction that I think allowed her to overtake Batou. I read this as Kusanagi chose a female form because strength is irrelevant, but surprise is always of value.

Sexuality as weapon, something Batou's heavier chasis could never leverage.
posted by butterstick at 2:33 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know. I just can't get behind an analyses that doesn't try to contextualize the examples, investigate any thematic element, or even try to source info from much better articles that take seconds to google up.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:14 PM on August 25, 2014

I read this as Kusanagi chose a female form because strength is irrelevant, but surprise is always of value.

I'm sure I read something somewhere, that in the movie at least, while Kusanagi's actual shell is a high-end combat cyborg, it's designed to look like a cheap sex 'borg, specifically to get her opponents to make assumptions about her. Pity that actually doesn't seem to come into play, so it sounds like just a cheap explanation for the eye candy. Just like the "She's not really nude, she's wearing a skintight datafilm" explanation.
posted by happyroach at 8:16 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not a comics/manga fan and hadn't heard of this series before, but those reviews were really interesting and totally captivated me. It made me want to see at least some of the source material and even more to read more criticism like this.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:17 AM on August 26, 2014

Some of the fanservice in the SAC is so blatant it really made me laugh out loud. It's really not sexy or even titillating. Shots like this for example. It's so over the top, like bad CGI, it's just ridiculous.

I really wondered about those shots at the time. Was it intended to be titillating? Or was it more of an over-the-top, messing with the audience kind of thing? It was just so... weird.
posted by heathkit at 12:24 AM on August 27, 2014

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