Ghost in the Shell (GitS) is a 1995 Japanese cyberpunk anime film, centring the main character Major Motoko Kusanagi, a strong-willed, physically powerful, and highly experienced special agent who possesses a synthetic cybernetic body. Near the end of the film, Major confronts a spider-like, multi-legged tank in a museum of natural history; a scene that contains arguably the film’s most visually impactful moment, as the audience watch how Major’s seemingly unbreakable body contorts, swells, and bloodily explodes into pieces. In stark contrast to this appalling moment, the music video Heavy Rotation, presented by the Japanese idol group AKB48, indulges the audience with a visual feast of harmless and beautiful bodies. The video portrays members of the idol group dressed in lingerie outfits, surrounded by cute toys, as they are frolicking with each other in an overwhelmingly pink background. Although both pieces star youthful and healthy female bodies, the museum scene in GitS and Heavy Rotation adopt opposite aesthetic approaches and leave contrastive emotional impacts on the viewers. Michel Foucault, French philosopher and social theorist, in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish discusses the issue of the body under social and political power:
“power relations have an immediate hold upon it [the body]; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”
A Foucauldian reading of the GitS scene and AKB48 music video shows how power and discipline shape the presentation of the female body in Japanese popular cultures: the body can be a channel for discipline or a symbol of liberation.
The relationship between the museum scene and Heavy Rotation symbolises a shift from torture to prison, which characterises the development of Western modern penal systems as Foucault summarises. According to Foucault, the history of discipline develops from a “brutal” time where people inflict corporal punishment and bloody torture on the bodies of convicts, to a more “civilised” time where tools – such as the prison and the school – regulate and discipline the people. It is rhetorically aimed at the correction and education of the soul but is nevertheless a structured regulation of the body that creates docility. The school uniform, for example, is a corporal manifestation of disciplinary control, whereas the mass of student bodies is a subject under strict regulation. Physical combat in GitS echo the brutal stage of development in Foucault’s timeline. When confronting the tank, Major’s body is tortured – her elegant body shattered into a mess of blood, muscles, skins, and cybernetic materials, and flops to the ground with an incomplete arm – which is, in a sense, the corporal punishment for her “transgression.” Major also loses her mobility – another part of the torture – that demonstrates the disciplining approach aimed at controlling (or ultimately destroying) the convicts’ bodies.
Heavy Rotation, on the other hand, exemplifies the civilised, harmless disciplining approach that produces “docile bodies.” Assigned with certain positions and instructed to perform specific acts, the idols follow disciplinary guidance that brings “happiness and order.” The large size of the forty-eight-member group – reminiscent of the size of a prison sector or a class at school – helps to establish a normative system which easily transcends the abnormal. The homogeneity leads to an elimination of individuality: although there are leading idols that receive more attention than others, they are nevertheless absorbed by the underlying atmosphere of pink and sweet. Foucault introduces the idea of “docile body”: bodies of prisoners, soldiers, workers, and students, subjected to disciplinary power and rendered easy to control. The docile body, contrary to the tortured ones, is not broken nor brutalised (as Major’s body); it is precisely its intact and healthy appearance that demonstrates the power of discipline – resembled by the clean, beautiful, and almost perfect bodies in AKB48’s video. The elements of cuteness – teddy bears, bunnies, lacy cushions, heart-shaped pillows, cat-like customs, and cupcakes – are various symbols of docility. Even the moments suggestive of homosexual love – no matter how transgressive as it first sounds – also fit into the narrative of docility. Girls are displayed as frolicking with each other and sharing desserts (with sexual innuendo, of course), which generate an overwhelming sense of cuteness and innocence. The video presents a version of ideal femininity, in which docility and harmlessness are crucial features.
Major’s body is the antithesis of the “docile body,” as it embodies in full measure the ideas of dissonance, tension, and confrontation. Major’s body is always a paradoxical existence with inherent tension: a cybernetic construction covered by a human form; a super-masculine power masked by an ultra-feminine façade. The tension reaches its peak when Major attempts to disassemble the tank in the museum scene. A close shot shows her two exaggerated breasts – the ultimate symbol of femininity – juxtaposed with monstrous muscles and tendons. As she strains with the tank, her body contorts into a gigantic, monstrous form that defies human identification. The muscles on her back swell and vibrate tremendously, as if a pair of wings will suddenly break through her back skin. Major’s body is symbolic of confrontation and contradiction. The message, consistent with Major’s characterisation throughout the film, is to confront established norms and question one’s identity – expressions of individuality and disobedience. Therefore, Major appears as an opposite to the “docile body.” Her monstrous form, confrontational spirit, as well as the repudiating scene itself, deny any Foucauldian attempts to discipline or educate. GitS’s museum scene and Heavy Rotation interact with the idea of panopticon, a central theme in Foucault’s discussion. Panopticon’s prototype is a cylinder-shape building designed for monitoring and controlling, which allows all prisoners to be observed by a single security guard; in Foucault’s context, it is a power mechanism, in which the consciousness of permanent visibility compels the inmates to discipline themselves. The idol culture, represented by AKB48, is arguably a contemporary form of panopticon. The idols are constantly watched and observed by fan audiences, on whose support they rely. In this panopticon, the consciousness of this “hierarchical observation” compels the idols in the video to follow the aesthetics of sweet docility. In the opening scene of Heavy Rotation, a girl is taking off her clothes and is surprised (with a look of unsettlement) when she sees the camera – the audience’s perspective – spying on her through a keyhole, a symbol of monitor and control. In the ending scene, the camera spies again from the keyhole position, but this time the girl playfully interacts with the spying gaze and asks it to keep a secret. The message is that the idols are fully aware of the panopticon they are in and willingly follow the expectations set by it.
The destruction of Major’s body can be seen as a sign of liberation. The audience of Ghost in the Shell, who have long enjoyed their prying gaze in previous scenes where Major appears naked, is bewildered, and alienated when seeing the appalling presentation of Major’s body in the museum scene. Seeing Major’s once beautiful body first becoming abnormal then falling apart, we in the audience, are stunned and terrified. Major’s voice (and her ghost), however, remains completely intact. When the tank breaks Major’s head protection, the audience sees her widely-open eyes – tranquil, indifferent, even with an otherworldly curiosity, a moment that triggers a feeling of emancipation. The torture on her body has no power over her; Major’s cybernetic-human dual-identity gives her the power to transcend the Foucauldian punishment, which echoes Haraway’s idea in “Cyborg Manifesto” that the cyborg is a liberating force for women. Moreover, by completing this act of self-destruction, Major defies the audience’s spying gaze, as she, the observed, clearly does not care about the surveillance, and it is the observer who becomes passive and affected in this power relationship. The audience is fooled into sympathy with her; seeing the drops of blood and muscles shattered to the ground, the audience projects their own feeling of pain onto Major, a moment that ultimately reveals that we, instead of Major, are human beings bound by corporal forms. The destruction of Major’s body denies sexualisation and objectification, a meta-textual message of freedom that nullifies the spying gaze. As her body is eventually blown to unrecognisable pieces, Major escapes from the Panopticon.
Written by Lingxiao “Linda” Gao
Lingxiao “Linda” Gao is a History Major at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.
AKB48. Heavy Rotation. 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkHlnWFnA0c.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Haraway, Donna. “A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century.” In The International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, edited by Joel Weiss, Jason Nolan, Jeremy Hunsinger, and Peter Trifonas, 117-158. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006.
Shirow, Masamune. Ghost in the Shell. 1995.