Technology, Psychology, Identity

Ghost in the Shell and .hack//Sign

Natasha Miner, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 3 (Discussion paper 10 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2014.


Through the comparison of Ghost in the Shell and .hack//Sign, this paper examines the role of technology in character’s identity formation. Although technology can greatly problematize how a character interprets or creates their identity, I argue that ultimately identity is formed through individual action, and as such individuals are responsible for constructing their own identity. Furthermore, these anime serve as a larger commentary on the fears surrounding humanity’s relationship with technology.

Keywords: technology, identity formation, personal agency.

Set in highly technologically advanced worlds, both Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995) and .hack//Sign (Mashimo, 2002) present narratives which revolve heavily around various characters’ relationships with technology and explore the psychological affects that these relations can have. Furthermore, as seen in both of these anime, technology can greatly problematise how a character interprets or creates his or her identity. However, although this technology can impose certain challenges, I argue that both of these anime present a view which suggests that individuals are ultimately still responsible for their own identity construction. A main motivation behind choosing these two works is the similar structure and overall argument presented in their narratives. Although technology is initially presented in a somewhat neutral light, the problematic nature of technology juxtaposed with the individual quickly takes centre stage, with both anime offering conclusions which involve characters triumphing over these issues in order to form a meaningful identity. I also argue that both .hack//Sign and Ghost in the Shell can serve as a larger commentary on the fears surrounding our relationship with technology, as both were released during a time which saw the rise of new and innovative technologies, chiefly home computers and the Internet.

Before examining these two anime, it is important to ask: what constitutes identity? As postulated by Gergen, our notions of identity arise from an emphasis on the individual, which therefore stresses personal over collective identity. To have an identity then is “to be capable of laying claim to an interior life: to one’s own reasons and opinions, to existentially defining motives, personal passions, and core traits” (Gergen, 1996, p. 128). Due to the necessity of having an “interior” space in which to exercise our own identity, he believes that technology fundamentally undermines our ability to form individual identity. This, he argues, is due to a process of over-socialisation which results in the dismantling of the self (Gergen, 1996). Although I do not necessarily disagree with his definition of individual identity, I strongly disagree that technology inevitably leads to an erosion of identity. As I will show, the works under discussion argue that despite the challenges posed by technology to identity formation, these challenges do not equate to an obliteration of identity. Rather, they present hurdles that the characters must face in order to build an identity which is truly meaningful to them.

However, it is important to keep in mind that, in relative terms, the concept of an individual identity as it is understood in the West is new to Japan. That is not to say that the concept is not important, but rather that traditionally more focus has been placed on the collective identity. As defined by Sugimura and Mizokami, a collectivist society is “one in which individual and group goals are interdependent with one another” (2012, p. 124). It was not until the post-WW2 period, and the rapid economic growth of the 1960s onwards that an individual identity as it is defined in the West really began to take hold in Japan. Due to this, it is understandable that there would be an increase in works dealing with identity, and particularly issues associated with individual identity formation. Furthermore, Sugimura and Mizokami conclude that, as opposed to Westerners, many Japanese are faced with the task of managing both old and new identity formation issues, and must balance their own desire for individuality in a collectivistic cultural context (2012). I believe that the use of technology in anime, and the problems which it creates, can also be seen as a sort of “balancing act” which is reminiscent of Japan’s struggle to incorporate new concepts while preserving traditions.

In examining both of these anime, I will cite specific scenes which highlight either a character’s problematic relationship with technology or which demonstrate a character’s autonomy in identity formation. Throughout this essay, I intend to utilise a comparative approach, creating a dialogue between Ghost in the Shell and .hack//Sign. Specifically, my subject of comparison will be the role that technology plays, with special attention focused on how characters react to the various challenges that arise out of an individual’s relationship with technology. Both of these anime present protagonists whose identity is threatened, or made more confusing, by their relationship with technology. Furthermore, both works argue that the concept of memory an important determinant of identity; they do this through the problematic aspects of both Kusanagi and Tsukasa’s relationship with memory. For the purpose of this essay, I will define the concept of identity as “The conception, formed in an individual, that she/he exists as an autonomous member of a particular social construction (either willingly or not), in a particular historical, linguistic, religious, and cultural context” (Iles, 2014). Moreover, it must be stated that in the case of Kusanagi, this essay does not argue that Kusanagi’s actions make her any more or less “human.” Similarly, in .hack//Sign, the events’ occurrence in a virtual world does not detract from the importance they have in helping form a meaningful identity.

Ghost in the Shell follows the story of Major Kusanagi, a cyborg working for Section 9 and who is on the hunt for a mysterious hacker known only as the Puppet Master. Although it initially seems as if they are tracking an elusive terrorist, the situation becomes much more complicated when it is discovered that the Puppet Master has the ability to hack into a person’s “ghost”—a person’s consciousness—and download false memories. The story climaxes when it is revealed that the Puppet Master was never in fact human, but a program created by Section 6 which gradually gained awareness and is now defining “himself” as a life-form. As a cyborg whose body, with the exception of her brain, is entirely artificial, Kusanagi struggles with the implications false memories may have on her own identity.

In the beginning, Kusanagi seems, if not necessarily confident about her own identity, to be confident in what factors define an individual. This she demonstrates in a soliloquy on identify she delivers on a boat with Batou after having gone diving. She states,

… there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data-net my cyber brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call me. And simultaneously confining me within set limits. (Oshii, 1995)

Yet various events during the film gradually undermine this initial confidence, eventually causing Kusanagi’s interpretation of an individual to shift.

Throughout Ghost in the Shell, several unsettling events occur which cause Kusanagi to doubt her own individual identity, compounding with her existing worries which stem from being an artificially created cyborg. For example, after arresting a garbageman thought to be involved in a plot with the Puppet Master, it is revealed that he has been “ghost-hacked,” with all of his memories either erased or implanted. This scene is the most unnerving, as it raises the question: if everything is artificially created, can the characters truly have an individual identity? Indeed, in one scene, while Kusanagi is travelling through the city, we catch a glimpse of a woman in a café with the exact same body and face as Kusanagi. This idea of artificiality is pushed even further by the portrayal of cyborg bodies throughout Ghost in the Shell. For example, in one scene we see that an international diplomat’s translator has been hacked. Her “brain” has been disconnected from her body, and we are informed very nonchalantly that if the officials cannot successfully prevent the hacking the translator will be disconnected, as if she were a meaningless object. Similarly, when examining the Puppet Master’s body, the mechanics use the phrase “kill it” to refer to shutting off power to the body, and one states almost gleefully that it’s “time to rip her apart.” While Kusanagi may not say anything directly about this scene, the roughness with which they treat both the translator and the Puppet Master’s bodies, as if they were merely objects, apparently disconcerts her greatly.

This dehumanisation and objectification of the cyborg body is an issue which can be seen in Haraway’s seminal piece The Cyborg Manifesto. Although written to criticise traditional notions of feminism, Haraway addresses the discomfort around the merging of the natural and the artificial, and how this merger can produce negative effects such as dehumanisation and objectification (1991), as seen in the above scenes of Ghost in the Shell. It is this fight to find a balance between the realms of the natural and the artificial that is a central issue to Ghost in the Shell. She further argues that not only is creating a clear division between the natural and artificial impossible, it is also irresponsible. She writes that “The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they” (1991, p. 180). We can extend this argument to the debate within Ghost in the Shell, which raises the question of whether an inorganic subject can truly have an identity. According to Haraway, as there can be no clear separation between the organic and the inorganic, then cyborgs like Kusanagi are indeed still able to have a meaningful identity.

Since the publication of Haraway’s Manifesto, other scholars have written feminist works which address the problems that arise from the merging of the natural and artificial, and explored the implications which arise from the representation of cyborg bodies in anime. While in writing this essay I do not adopt a feminist framework, nor do I seek to explore issues of representation, many of these works present optimism at a cyborg’s ability to have identity. For example, in writing about Ghost in the Shell’s sequel, Innocence, Orbaugh concludes that emotions remain despite the lack of an organic body (2008). In discussing Kusanagi’s identity, Silvio notes that identity in Ghost in the Shell is not defined by the inner/outer dichotomy that Gergen stressed was so instrumental in the creation of an individual identity. Rather, Kusanagi’s identity is derived from a larger system. Ironically, although on the one hand this can act as a form of domination, Silvio acknowledges that it simultaneously enables her to liberate herself and attempt to create an identity which transcends the merely physical (1999).

The effects of the previously described events on Kusanagi can most notably be seen when in she continues her earlier discussion with Batou about identity. She states, “perhaps the real me died a long time ago and I’m a replicant made with a cyborg body and computer brain. Or maybe there never was a real ‘me’ to begin with… I believe I exist based only on what my environment tells me… what if a computer brain could generate a ghost and harbour a soul? On what basis then do I believe in myself?” (Oshii, 1995). This scene serves to demonstrate just how much her opinion on identity has shifted. In contrast to the diving scene, here Kusanagi seems very unsure of herself, her earlier confident diminished.

However, throughout the movie Kusanagi makes many little choices which differentiate her from other characters and help affirm her individuality, although many of these things seem to run contrary to what other characters think may be in her best interest. This becomes clear quite early on, when Kusanagi specifically asks to have a non-cyborg assigned to her team, despite the limitations a human would impose on their operations. When asked for her reasons behind this, she states that “a system where all the parts react the same way is a system with a fatal flaw simply” (Oshii, 1995). Although she passes it off as merely wanting to diversify her team so as to avoid failure, it is still a significant event as it shows that Kusanagi herself is in fact already thinking differently than the mainstream way of this so called “system.” Her cyborg body notwithstanding, she makes the conscious decision to go diving—an action looked on by her colleague Batou as incredibly illogical. Furthermore, when presented with the choice she chooses to merge with the Puppet Master in spite of the unknown dangers it poses for her. What these actions serve to demonstrate is that despite sharing the same body and potentially the same brain matter, she is a fundamentally different person from the woman seen in the café. Through these decisions, Kusanagi has confirmed her agency in creating a meaningful identity, and affirmed both her role and responsibility for asserting her own individuality.

Similarly, .hack//Sign (Mashimo, 2002)deals with a highly technologically advanced world. Yet, unlike Ghost, the setting presented in .hack//Sign is entirely virtual, as characters are part of “The World,” an online virtual fantasy game. Due to this, for most who encounter it, “The World” is merely a recreational game which they are able to quit to return to their normal non-virtual lives whenever they please. However, in the case of the character Tsukasa, there is no outside world. Despite this, it is clear that Tsukasa is not merely a “Non-playable Character” (NPC). Throughout .hack//Sign, Tsukasa struggles with his lack of memories of the outside world and questions who or what he really is.  

Throughout .hack//Sign, Tsukasa faces many challenges which negatively affect his sense of self. Two of the biggest hurdles he immediately encounters are his total lack of memory of the outside—even though he is aware that he is not an NPC—and his inability to log out of “The World.” These two particular events cause Tsukasa significant distress, for if he is does not have a body in the “real” world, but neither is he an NPC, just who or what is he? Eventually, Tsukasa begins to regain a sense of who he was in the real world. However, this does little to alleviate the confusion around his identity, as he realises that despite his character being male in “The World,” he is probably a girl in the real world, which he worries will affect his increasingly close relationship with Subaru. In the “real” world, it is discovered that the real Tsukasa is in fact a girl named An Shōji, who has been hospitalised after falling into a coma while still attached to her virtual reality machine. It is hypothesised that she was likely driven into a coma in part due to the abuse faced from her alcoholic father, who may also be responsible for Tsukasa’s gender confusion, as he frequently treated her like a boy and forbid her from expressing her femininity.

Although an incredibly cynical and distant character at the beginning of .hack//Sign, Tsukasa makes a conscious effort throughout the series to overcome the challenges he faces. Most notably, he begins to form relationships in spite of his initial attempts to distance himself from others. His increasingly close relationship with Subaru is instrumental in helping Tsukasa become comfortable in finding his own identity, but he also receives support from other characters such as Mimiru and Bear. Despite beginning to regain a sense of his “real” life, he tries to withstand the temptation to withdraw once again and instead tries to remain hopeful about his situation. I believe that the true breaking point in .hack//Sign is the scene where Tsukasa meets with Morganna—the omnipresent AI responsible for entrapping Tsukasa within “The World”—and declares that he is not afraid of her, and most importantly, that he is not afraid of reality and that he will log out of the game because it is something he wants to do. This moment is the most pivotal in showing Tsukasa taking responsibility for his own identity.

Unlike Ghost in the Shell, .hack//Sign presents a much more complimentary view of community. In fact, many of the characters seek to help Tsukasa by searching for the Key of the Twilight, a legendary item which is said to bypass “The World’s” System and which may enable Tsukasa to finally log out. Despite the existence of this community, Tsukasa’s identity is not given by the community, but rather has been formed through active interaction with various characters. With the exception of Tsukasa’s father in the real world, most of the characters Tsukasa meets do not attempt to force their interpretations of identity on to him, but rather allow him the space to create his own identity. This can be seen throughout his interactions with Subaru, who even when faced with the fact that Tsukasa may actually be a girl, still accepts him for the identity which he has come to create through “The World.”

As touched on briefly earlier, I argue that both of these anime seem to address the fears surrounding our relationship with technology. In the case of .hack//Sign, technology is presented as a double edged sword. On the one hand, it enables us to create an identity which may be more true to ourselves than the identity we are forced to embody in the physical world. It also allows for the broadening of our knowledge and facilitates our contact with a much larger range of people than we would be able to communicate with otherwise. On the other, it also highlights how isolating it can be, by creating means of communication which reduce our actual contact with human beings. Furthermore, it shows how the ability to create a new identity on the Internet also enables one to forego certain social responsibilities—as is seen in the devil-may-care attitude of Sora, a player who does not hesitate to kill others in “The World”—which are crucial to physical relationships. Unfortunately, these are negative aspects of technology are still seen in contemporary society in and outside of Japan, especially now as a result of the rise of social media. .hack//Sign serves as a warning of the potential risks of technology can hold for society, but which ultimately ends on a positive note, as if in an attempt to alleviate some of the fears which are ever present when dealing with technology.

Although Ghost in the Shell’s conclusion does little to attempt to decrease our sense of unease with technology, I argue that the overall message it presents is related to Sugimura and Mizokami’s discussion of identity formation in post-WW2 Japanese society. The clearest example of this is in the merging of Kusanagi’s personality with that of the Pupper Master’s. In this case, Kusanagi can be seen as the personification of Japan’s old or traditional values, whereas the Puppet Master can be viewed as the influx of new concepts which were introduced into Japan following WW2. However, the result of their merging was neither one nor the other, but rather a new hybrid entity which incorporated the essence of both parts. Perhaps Ghost in the Shell can then serve as a positive example and advocate for the blending of sometimes contradictory values in Japanese society.    

In conclusion, both Ghost in the Shell and .hack//Sign present the view that an individual has considerable agency over his or her own identity formation. Although technology can greatly influence or problematise identity construction, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to create a meaningful identity. Despite being unsure of their memories, both Kusanagi and Tsukasa are able to respond to the challenges this questionability imposes and still form meaningful identities. In the face of the various hurdles both Tsukasa and Kusanagi are able to react in ways which demonstrate their own personal agency through various key scenes. As we see in Ghost in the Shell, Kusanagi’s final act in asserting her own identity is her choice to merge with the Puppet Master. For Tsukasa, he is able fully to “own” his identity when confronting Morganna. These varying instances illustrate both protagonists consciously engaging in and responding to their surroundings in order to form an identity which is meaningful to them. In addition, these anime propose positive messages which can perhaps serve as examples if extended to Japanese or other contemporary societies.


Iles, Timothy. “Introduction to Japanese Animated Cinema.” PAAS 484 Lecture, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC. 6 February 2014.

Gergen, K. (1996). Technology and the Self: From the Essential to the Sublime. In Grodin, D. & Lindlof, T. (Eds.), Constructing the Self in a Mediated World (pp. 127-142). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Hathaway, D. (1991). The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149-81). New York, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from

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Silvio, C. (1999). Refiguring the Radical Cyborg in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Science Fiction Studies, 26(1), 54-72 Retrieved from

Sugimura, K. & Mizokami, S. (2012). Personal Identity in Japan. Identity Around the World. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 138, 123-143. doi:10.1002/cad.20025

About the Author

Natasha Miner is a student at the University of Victoria, who is working towards completing her double major in Political Science and Pacific and Asian Studies in Spring 2015. Her interests range from the United Nations to Japanese literature, however her main focus throughout her degree has been on issues of migration in Asia – particularly internal migration in China, and Japan’s immigration system. In the future, she would like to continue to conduct further research on Japan’s immigration system or be involved in work which fosters cultural exchanges between Japan and Canada.

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