Ghost in the Shell Live-Action: A Deep Dive into the Philosophy of Identity and Sentientism

I had been holding off on watching the 2017 Ghost in the Shell live-action film due in part to the controversial whitewashing backlash it faced in casting Scarlett Johansson, and the sinking feeling of dread that the greedy Hollywood machine would undoubtedly tarnish a fond memory of a beloved cyberpunk classic with a vastly inferior product like it had done so many times before.

Thankfully, this was not the case. In fact, I’d go as far to say that this movie did some things even better than the original! Just remember to keep an open mind and understand that this is a separate incarnation, a retelling of a familiar story. If you can find it in yourself to erase all the preconceived notions and biases, you can see that this film did not deserve all the hate it received. Like most things in life you need to experience it firsthand without letting others affect your opinion so you can draw your own conclusions. If you want to know a movie that really does deserve more hate, then I recommend checking out Black Panther.

Was this film a faithful adaptation? No. Was it flawed? Certainly. However, it would be a daunting task for any director who chose to adapt what might be considered one of the finest animated films of our generation and do it complete justice for everyone. That being said, I have to give praise to Rupert Sanders and the actors for delivering a decent entry to the series and perhaps launching a viable cinematic franchise.

This won’t be a review, but rather a look into the brand new metaphysical philosophies and themes present only in this particular, westernized version of Ghost in the Shell, which are: Theseus’s Paradox and Sentientism.

Time to deep dive.

Major Mira Killian/Motoko Kusanagi, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Major Mira Killian/Motoko Kusanagi, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Everyone around me seems to fit. They seem connected to something, I am... not.
— Major
Here we get to see how Batou got his eyes!

Here we get to see how Batou got his eyes!

Theseus’s Paradox

The biggest difference between this film and the original movie is the Major’s desire for an identity and the loneliness that comes with being an android—the first of her kind. In fact, a significant chunk of the 2017 film is dedicated to Major’s quest to find her past and piece together fragmented memories in order to solve the mystery of who she was before she became a mechanically enhanced weapon for Section 9.

This is a large departure from her original anime portrayals, where she’s usually shown to be a confident and self-assured leader with loads of experience. They gloss over her identity crisis completely in favor of telling a tale about transhumanism. Whereas this new version seems to be a different and very American take on an origin story. Here, she comes across as more fragile and naive to the whole secret agent aspect of her life. Because it’s only been one year since she had been rebuilt to become this weapon, it’s only natural for them to take the story down a familiar journey of self-discovery.

...what’s the difference, fantasy, reality, dreams, memories. It’s all the same, just noise.
— Batou

To fully grasp the Major’s plight we have to understand Theseus’s Paradox, which is otherwise known as the Ship of Theseus. This famous metaphysical experiment asks if an object that has all its parts replaced can still fundamentally remain the same. For those uninitiated, it basically boils down to two simple questions.

First of all, suppose that Theseus the Greek hero had his famous ship stored in a harbor as a museum piece. As time goes on some of the wooden parts begin to rot and are replaced by new ones. After several decades or so, all of the parts have been replaced. Is this "restored" ship still the same object as the original?

Secondly, suppose that each of the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and some time in the future technology develops a cure for their rotting which allows them to be assembled back together to recreate the ship. Now is this "reconstructed" ship the same as the original ship? And if it is, then is the “restored” ship in the harbor still the original ship as well?

You are more than just a weapon. You have a soul... a ghost. When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then will we find peace.
— Aramaki

Like the Ship of Theseus, the Major’s flesh and bone body have been replaced entirely with a shell. Everything about her aside from her brain has been altered in order to become the agent she is now, yet for some reason she still retains memories of a past life. This leads her down a rabbit hole in attempts to try and find out what it means to be human and what exactly happened to her original self. Along the way she finds her (Motoko Kusanagi’s) implied mother and they share a brief connection, but both cannot exactly pinpoint how or why except for the way the Major “looks” at her with her eyes. Interestingly, the eyes are the window into the soul, or the ghost in this case. We’ll get to more of that in a second.

We also learn that the true person that Major used to be as Motoko Kusanagi was an anarchist who chided technology and wrote manifestos with ambitions to overthrow big government, a far cry from the lapdog she essentially becomes. This is one of many resolutions to the Theseus Paradox, which states that there is gradual loss of identity over time.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposed that as the parts of the ship are replaced, the identity of the ship gradually changes, as the name "Theseus' Ship" is a truthful description only when the historical memory of Theseus' use of the ship - his physical contact with, and control of, its matter - is accurate. For instance, the museum curator, prior to any restoration, may say with perfect truthfulness that the bed in the captain's cabin is the same bed in which Theseus himself once slept; but once the bed has been replaced, this is no longer true, and the claim would then be an imposture, because a different description would be more accurate, i.e.; "a replica of Theseus' bed." The new bed would be as foreign to Theseus as a completely new ship. This is true of every other piece of the original boat. As the parts are replaced, the new boat becomes exactly that: a new boat. Comparably, if Motoko is rebuilt as the Major, she is no longer Motoko at all.

Though Major is almost entirely a machine she still retains her ghost, and that is synonymous with having a soul. By the end it appears that the resolution to the Theseus Paradox has been refuted by the character of Chief Daisuke Aramaki, leaving the film with a nice and positive uptick. He reasons that since souls are one-of-a-kind, intangible things attached to a unique individual, it doesn’t really matter if our bodies do change in any shape, form, gender, age, race, etc. because the possession of a soul transcends that and makes them fundamentally the same at their core. For the Major that is enough to for her realize that she doesn’t have to be what she was created to do, and by the conclusion of the movie we see her fight for the right to live—and ultimately defeat Cutter’s Spider-Tank as well as symbolically obliterating Hobbes’s notion.

The Major kicking ass.

The Major kicking ass.

Another question to ask within this universe that depicts people getting their bodies modified for different purposes is: when does transhumanism affect their way of life? When the line between human and machine are blurred, at what point do we consider their rights and liberties?


In all other versions of Ghost in the Shell (i.e. non-American versions), we as the audience aren’t treated with a Major who is as concerned over her own rights as Johansson’s portrayal. However, what really stood out were the various scenes where she either gives or declines consent during invasive plugs or deep dives that come to her body. There’s a clear moral ground that is being laid out for the viewers.

Japan, still a largely collectivist society would have no reason to bring individual rights into the forefront because it doesn’t go with their own cultural value system. However, having freedoms and liberties are a central part to our identity and an intrinsic American right. So, to inject the Sentientism conversation into the Ghost in the Shell 2017 live-action was a very deliberate and topical move on the writer’s part.

My name is Major Mira Killian, and I give my consent.
— Major
Major: I do not consent... I do not consent.
Dr. Ouelet: We never needed your consent.
— A conversation between the experiment and her creator

In 2018, over-communicating intentions, actions, and words cannot be overlooked. Celebrities, politicians, and even average everyday folks are swept up in media circuses because of accidental mishaps and perceived negative actions from their accusers. Most of the time there is no foul play, but in order to ensure everyone feels safe, precautions and proactive steps need to be taken.

This rings true in a particular scene where the main villain, Cutter, captures the Major and drugs her. In this very uncomfortable to watch scene, the Major is strapped to a gurney against her will and she’s been sedated. She fruitlessly tries to fight back and verbally states that she does not give consent for what they are about to do to her, but is reminded by Dr. Ouelet that since she is a product of Hanka Robotics and that she belongs to them and has no say or rights to her physical body.

This would violate basic human rights in the real world as well as Sentientism, an ethical philosophy that grants degrees of moral consideration to all sentient beings. Sentientism extends the concept of humanism by showing compassion for non-human animals as well as artificial and alien intelligences. In line with humanism, sentientism rejects supernatural beliefs in favour of critical, evidence-based thinking.

To put it in perspective, it would be like us fumbling around through Siri or Alexa without any regards to their private space because we know them to be robotic entities designed to serve humans. Though we are still years away from Sentientism affecting our mobile devices and home entertainment systems, it is still especially relevant to the political climate today.

Kuze in this version is an amalgamation of Puppet Master and Kuze from the Stand Alone Complex series.

Kuze in this version is an amalgamation of Puppet Master and Kuze from the Stand Alone Complex series.

Another example can be seen in Kuze, the secondary antagonist who is also a clear callback to the Puppet Master from the 1995 anime movie. His motivation is to seek revenge for how Cutter and Hanka Robotics treated him, turning him into a glitched out cyborg of a failed experiment. He also makes a personal, kindred spirited connection with Major Mira (Motoko) and offers to join with her to become an evolved being. Interestingly, in the original 1995 anime Motoko accepts Puppet Master’s identical proposition to join and form an entirely different entity and the movie ends with this newly fused being facing an unknown world, seemingly reiterating Japan’s collectivist ideology on working to complement each other. However in the 2017 live-action version, Major declines Kuze’s offer to fuse as she opts for a more westernized approach to live a life independently, which is ultimately her choice and right. Like audiences around the world who will either like this film or deride it, we all have a say in the matter.

My mind is human. My body is manufactured. I’m the first of my kind, but... I won’t be the last. We cling to memories as if they define us. But what we do defines us. My ghost survived to remind the next of us... that humanity is our virtue. I know who I am... and what I’m here to do.
— Major

Watch the trailer below! In fact, just watch the movie already!