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Ghost in the Shell, over two decades old, remains our most challenging film about technology

The first questions about the loss of human identity in a tech-filled world were raised in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 hit film.

Japanese animated films and anime series are weird. But the release of the classic Ghost in the Shell over 20 years ago drove the genre both upwards by reaching adults, and outwards, reaching the West’s mainstream unlike other previous efforts. It did this while blending sci-fi elements, cyberpunk visuals and deals explicitly with mature themes and ideas.

The film starts with a mysterious woman removing wires from the back of her head as she observes buildings and traffic from dizzying heights. She soon descends into a building by crashing through the window, killing a high-level diplomat and escaping right in front of everyone else using some nifty high-tech camouflage.

The story follows Section 9, a public security agency headed by Motoko Kusanagi, tasked with finding an elusive uber-hacker known only as the Puppet Master. This mysterious criminal is able to hack into the bodies of others, effectively rendering them simply as shells (hence the title) in order to alter the memories and conscious state of their minds.

This high-concept plot results in a journey untangling a web of political corruption and cover-ups, finding out what's behind the Puppet Master's actions and its ultimate motivations.

Given the major current interest in the science of ageing and "internet of things", this film couldn't be more relevant. In fact, Kusanagi has an interesting monologue early in the film, where she discusses how her world was only dreamt of as science fiction not so long ago, where a body's metabolism and biological processes still matter, but they can be separated from someone's thoughts and memories. We should remember that the film takes place in 2029.

Kusanagi also questions what her existence means or even is, and whether she is just a synthetic being created by scientists, with neurological implants aimed at making her more productive. She asks her colleague Batou, "I mean who knows what's inside our heads. Have you ever seen your own brain?" and examines whether a hyper-connected cyborg could create its own soul all by itself? This scene ultimately poses the final scary question: what is the purpose of being human?

As you've probably gathered by now, the story deals with concepts of identity, the ubiquity of technology and its uses, and the political and societal implications of a technologically advanced society.

The presence of naked female shells is fascinating. Yes, the female body and female characters are already disrespected in films, games and you know, life in general. But don't mistake why such visuals are used in the early scenes in this film: after asking whether you think they're a necessary element, you're left asking by the end of the film what exactly are the uses of a human body which has no unique identity of its own.

For many, many years, philosophers and super-smart thinkers have asked the question what it actually means to be human, both literally and figuratively. Philosophers have been thinking about the “zombie” scenario: there could theoretically be two identical versions of a person, able to carry out actions in exactly the same way, but one might not show any signs of consciousness. The doppelgangers are just replicas. This film asks what it means to be conscious and whether an identity of ours exists outside the immediate physical realm.

Although there are frantic technological advances in many frames throughout the film, some things remain the same, such as scheduled household waste collection and people shopping in stores (sorry, Amazon). Nonetheless, the visuals are quite simply vivid and memorable, especially when no other film, animated or otherwise, comes close to making humans feel so small, questioning our role in a world filled with technology, and a lack of an accompanying “moral compass 2.0”.

Ghost in the Shell was originally told through serialised Japanese manga in 1989, by the visionary Masamune Shirow. Numerous films, anime series and computer game adaptations have followed ever since. Hollywood will attempt a live-action adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson, scheduled for release next year. The production has been heavily criticised for whitewashing all of the main characters when the film industry is under fire for failing to allow black and minority ethnic talent to break through.

It makes the original film even more urgent viewing, especially with the rise of today’s artificial intelligence and what role humans will play in a future world where more tasks will be sufficiently carried out by robots.

This topic is mentioned in the film, as the Puppet Master quips bluntly about the dangers of depending on technology too much, and the threat of a virus being able to corrupt a whole set of interconnected systems. They go on to say copies aren't much use either, as they "do not give rise to variety and originality. Life perpetuates itself through diversity".

Perhaps Ghost is hiding a simple morality tale, warning us of the need to be more original. But we can only do that if we know what our unique identities are and the purpose of our existence. We'd better hurry up though. As the Puppet Master says, “the net is vast and infinite”, and we can’t lose ourselves inside a meaningless abyss.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.