Animism and Nothingness: Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell”

Animation is fundamentally concerned with the act of animating, of giving life to the inanimate. As an art form it encompasses techniques and technologies so diverse that none can serve as its definition; even its frame-by-frame sequencing of images is augmented by the illusory effects of what comes between each frame. As animation has moved into the digital realm it has impacted live-action film to the extent that drawing the line between the two has become increasingly difficult. However what has remained distinctive about animation is its relationship to realism, which differs from live-action cinema’s supposed indexical fidelity to the pro-filmic; animation is instead committed to a set of “realisms” that are grounded not just in the recognisable physical world, but in wider cultural, artistic, and media ecosystems.

A lot of the enjoyment of animation comes from its gleeful disregard for how reality should be represented in art, and throughout its history animation has mutated, transformed, and reinvented our conception of nature1. Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In the Shell (Kōkaku Kidōtai, 1995) tackles these issues of transformed nature, and the film’s narrative of inanimate technology becoming animate with self-aware consciousness thematically mirrors the functioning of animation as an art form. Through its expression of the Japanese concept of ma, the film demonstrates many of the intangible qualities unique to animation. At the same time, the film’s exploration of technology, and the innovative use of new technologies in its production, draw attention to animation’s place within film history, while the film’s depiction of deceptive reality, and its meta-textual engagement with the wider landscape of anime and popular culture, offer insights into animation’s relationship with different conceptions of realism.

Technology destabilises perceptions of reality in Ghost in the Shell‘s opening sequence.

Ghost in the Shell presents viewers with a world “so rich in detail and chromatic nuances as to frequently appear to have been filmed from life”2. The film’s hazy cityscapes were inspired by art director Hiromasa Ogura’s research expeditions in Hong Kong; leaving a bar one night, his camera lens fogged up and produced photos that would inspire the dreamlike ambience the film is renowned for3. However this “realism” is relative, and despite the gravity of the film’s setting and drama, Ghost in the Shell is still unmistakably animation. Dani Cavallaro notes the impossibility of representing reality and suggests that any attempted representation is so entangled in wider media and cultural ecosystems that objectivity and transparency will always remain beyond reach4. Indeed animation’s connection to realism differs to that of live-action film, and “could be said to shun the restraints of realism as a representational agenda”5. Such duplicitous depictions of what is taken for granted as reality lie at the heart of animation as an art form, and are frequently referred to in Ghost in the Shell, which directly links the illusory nature of reality to technology. The film’s opening ambush sequence features fish tanks that are revealed to be holograms; a seemingly human diplomat who is revealed to be a cyborg when his head explodes in a mass of wires and brain; and a cyborg protagonist who uses “thermoptic” camouflage to disappear6. The film’s central concerns with individuality and selfhood in a digital world are explored through the philosophical conundrum of machines (that appear to be human) possessing self-aware identities, the inanimate becoming animate. As such the film’s themes engage with the central function of animation as a medium, “the inputting of life, or the inputting of the illusion of life, into that which is flat or inert or a model or an image”7.

Whereas live-action film pretends to maintain fidelity to the pro-filmic, animation is free to refer to other realities; where film covers up the artificiality of its construction, animation openly ventures into “that obscured realm in which all unexplained and magical, illogical events occur”8. The verisimilitude to which animated films such as Ghost in the Shell adhere is a ‘hyper-realism’ rooted in the forms, sounds, and physical laws of our own recognisable world9. However, according to subculture theorist Eiji Ōtsuka, this is just one of several realisms to which animation is connected10. Ōtsuka identified what he termed “three realisms” of animation, beginning with “Biological realism”. This could be considered similar to the “hyper-realism” of Disney animation, but derives from Osamu Tezuka’s “semiotic theory of manga”, which separates drawn images from any indexical referent in the real world, while preserving in them the biological realism we would expect from actual living creatures. So while talking deer and sentient robots don’t exist in our reality, in animation where such creatures are possible, they are at least bound to the same laws of physics and biology that we would otherwise expect. Ōtsuka’s “Scientific realism” accounts for anime’s endemic fetishism for mechanics, weapons, and machinery, which Ōtsuka links to a disturbing obsession with Japan’s fascist wartime past11Ghost in the Shell for example had its own weapons designer, and the film’s crew travelled to Guam to practice firing machine guns12. Most interesting of Ōtsuka’s three realisms is the last, which places meta-textual media ecospheres as the referent, and positions animation as a self-referential art form that operates according to the laws of hyper-realism while following the logic, codes, and symbolism previously established by other (animated) media13. Animation thus mediates reality not by recreating the pro-filmic but by observing the codes of its own artistic language; its realism lies not in seeming “real” but in following the “distinctive technical and aesthetic qualities, in both two- and three-dimensional forms” of other media, a pop culture hall of mirrors endlessly referring to itself14.

Alienation mirrored in architecture during a trip through Newport City.

A defining characteristic of animation draws on Peter Mark Roget’s “Persistence of Vision” theory, whereby the human visual system perceives an after-image that lingers following each individual frame of animation; these after-images blend the sequential individual frames, constructing a sense of continuity of movement and action. As a result, the gaps between individual frames are “key to animation’s structure”15, as they allow for the creation of a dynamic continuum of motion and liveliness, ultimately imbuing still images with a sense living vitality. The theory as related to animation was expressed most famously by Norman McLaren:

“Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but rather the art of movements that are drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame; animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices between the frames.”16

Just as the spaces between frames are integral to understanding what animation is, the concept of ma is of central importance to Oshii’s anime17. Referring to a pause or empty space between two planes (such as, for example, screens dividing a traditional Japanese room) or between two moments or actions, ma as a concept can be found in spatial and temporal contexts, in visual art, architecture, film, and in music. It can be understood as the emptiness between two peaks of action or sound, much like the gaps between frames in animation. The concept raises the importance of interstitial space to the same level as primary detail, where the silence between speaking can be as significant as the words spoken. In music this is represented by, for example, the long pauses between beats in the musical accompaniment in Noh theatre, and Kenji Kawai’s score for Ghost in the Shell is itself replete with pregnant pauses and stretches of emptiness, punctuated by bell strikes, wood blocks, and a haunting choral melody that resolves slowly and with multiple gaps in its progression. Similarly, key moments of kinetic drama in the film, such as a chase through a market and a subsequent showdown against a vast city backdrop, are scored with silence, diegetic sound, or minimal effects, rather than propulsive, bombastic music. Such spatial emptiness in the film’s musical score, as well as numerous long moments of seemingly motionless characters, are key to Oshii’s concerns as a director as well as to animation as a medium, where “nothingness in motion (non-movement) [and] nothingness in sound (intervals) signifies something”18.

Ghost in the Shell’s mise-en-scène operates at a languid pace, which can be attributed in part to Oshii’s admiration for Andrei Tarkovsky and European cinema, but the core of the narrative and aesthetic identity of the film lies in Oshii’s extensive use of ma. The film is noticeable for its long takes — unusual not just for animation but also for live-action genre cinema — and for the sudden but brief explosions of violence that puncture an otherwise introspective tone. The concept of ma, and its relevance to animation, is most poetically expressed in a three and a half-minute sequence that arrives near the film’s midpoint. This oneiric trip along the canal ways of Newport City offers no narrative progression but instead serves as a breathing point for both the film and the audience, coming after a tense climax and preceding the film’s final act. The contemplative journey through the city’s landscape draws the audience into the film’s richly detailed world, while foregrounding the artistry of the filmmaking and the craftsmanship of the virtuosic animation. At the same time, the sequence allows the film’s thematic concerns to subtly develop: in the hazy anonymity of the city, protagonist Kusanagi sees multiple replicas of herself, evoking a sense of profound alienation linked to the film’s central conflict between individual selfhood and technology.

This montage also demonstrates anime’s focus on vital, animated environments. Anime’s frequent attention to small details of the natural world, often when the protagonist themself is motionless, can be seen as an expression of the holistic continuum embodied in the Chinese concept of Dao19. At the same time, the belief of Japanese Shinto that almost any object, human or non-human, alive or inert, can possess a spirit is demonstrated repeatedly in anime and animation in general. Such animism is at the root of Oshii’s vision of animation, but it is also central to animation as a medium, from The Skeleton Dance (Walt Disney, 1929) all the way up to Pixar’s multitude of sentient lamps, toys, and cars20. The division between human and non-human worlds is often absent in animated films, and so there is a through-line between the anthropomorphic tradition of Mickey Mouse and Ghost in the Shell’s questioning of the apartness of the human species21.

Ghost in the Shell’s canal journey montage is the best-known example of several such sequences in Oshii’s filmography22; these sequences serve as “pauses which allow the audience moments of reflection instead of rushing them relentlessly from one action sequence to the next”23. The fact that the 34 shots of the canal sequence had to be painstakingly animated both increases their aesthetic impact on the audience and reaffirms the centrality of ma to Oshii’s vision of animation. Identifying anime as “a highly developed application of multi-layered space”, Miho Nakagawa emphasises Oshii’s innovative use of a three-layered animation technique as a key expression of ma, linking this stylistic approach to ukiyo-e24. However this planar layering of space also recalls the multi-plane camera techniques employed by Disney, which along with Fleischer Studios were key stylistic influences on the development of anime25.

An expression of empty space: the canal sequence of Ghost in the Shell.

As such, Oshii’s film is part of the continuum to which animation belongs. While part of this tradition is artistic in nature, industry and technology also factor into defining animation. Japanese anime traces its lineage back through manga to ukiyo-e and the dynamic woodblock prints of Hokusai and Utamaro. While these artists are often revered as singular “painters”, they were in fact part of a collaborative system that included craftsmen who meticulously carved the woodblocks from the artist’s original drawings, and printmakers who produced the final multiple-edition work. The importance of these collaborators is often overlooked but was nonetheless essential, and in a similar way modern animation studio systems are built on clearly defined job roles and departments, each contributing to the realisation of the finished work. Animation thus complicates the celebration of the director as an auteur, which also has implications for the perceived artistic merit of animation as pop culture media26. Nonetheless, Oshii’s film played a pivotal role in “the continual fashioning and refashioning of global popular culture”27, drawing from previous cyberpunk works such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) while inspiring The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) and countless other works, animated or otherwise.

Ghost in the Shell is also significant as an early and innovative example of the move towards CGI both in animation and cinema in general28. Oshii’s film made use of multiple techniques in its production, including traditional cel animation; rotoscoping; Digitally Generated Animation (DGA); and CGI29. The film prefigures a turning point in the relationship between live-action film and animation, with the latter becoming increasingly present in the production processes of former, to the extent that with contemporary blockbusters nowadays it can be impossible to tell what was shot on film and what can be considered “animation”30. This evolution is part of a long arc that has stretched from cinema’s beginnings to its current digital manifestation, one in which animation is a central pillar of cinema as a medium. Just as technology lies at the thematic heart of Ghost in the Shell, new technology was central to its production as an animated work, a confluence that underscores the importance of Oshii’s film to the development of animation as an art form.

With its thematic explorations of technology and identity, Ghost in the Shell offers an analogous exploration of the nature of animation. Oshii imbues the film with instances of ma which prove to be expressions of the vitality of animation as an art form, while the film’s engagement with realism connects it to hyper-realistic traditions in animation as well as to wider artistic and cultural ecospheres. In its precise rendering of intangible states of being, in its intricate ambiguities, Ghost in the Shell offers a pure vision of the possibilities of animated cinema.


For consistency, in this article Japanese names are rendered using the Western format of given name first, family name second, and not according to the standard Japanese mode that places family name first.

  1. Leslie 29-30.
  2. Cavallaro 195.
  3. Riekeles 195.
  4. Cavallaro 38-39.
  5. Cavallaro 38.
  6. Ruh 137.
  7. Leslie 28.
  8. Leslie 27.
  9. Wells 25-26.
  10. Steinberg 2014.
  11. Steinberg 292. Ōtsuka (268) notes for example that in anime characters are typically rendered in a more cartoonish style, whereas weapons and machinery are presented more realistically.
  12. Ruh 133.
  13. Steinberg 292-3.
  14. Wells 14-15.
  15. Leslie 32.
  16. Quoted in Furniss 3; my emphasis added.
  17. Nakagawa 67-67.
  18. Nakagawa 75.
  19. Chow 181- 182.
  20. See also the various animated objects in Betty Boop in Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933) and countless other animated films throughout the medium’s history. Oshii’s sequel to Ghost in the ShellGhost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu, 2004), takes the idea of animating the inanimate even further with the film’s depiction of sex robots, which were inspired by the erotic dolls of Hans Bellmer.
  21. Beckman 11.
  22. Such stillness is a defining attribute of Oshii’s films, and can be found in a sister sequence in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Contemplative moments are of key importance also in Patlabor: The Movie (1989) and the dreamlike Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago, 1985).
  23. Cavallaro 32.
  24. Nakagawa 67.
  25. Ruh 146-147.
  26. Furniss 21.
  27. Ruh 147.
  28. Ruh 127.
  29. Cavallaro 194-195.
  30. Husbands and Ruddell 7-8.


  • Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago). Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Studio Deen, 1985.
  • Betty Boop in Snow-White. Directed by Dave Fleischer, Paramount Pictures, 1933.
  • Ghost In the Shell (Kōkaku Kidōtai). Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Shochiku 1995.
  • Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Inosensu). Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Toho, 2004.
  • Patlabor: The Movie. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Shochiku, 1989.
  • The Skeleton Dance. Directed by Walt Disney, Columbia Pictures, 1929.


  • Beckman, Karen. “Animating Film Theory: An Introduction”, Animating Film Theory, edited by Beckman, Karen, Duke University Press, 2014. pp. 1-22.
  • Cavallaro, Dani. The Cinema of Mamoru Oshii: Fantasy, Technology and Politics, McFarland & Company, 2006.
  • Chow, Kenny KN. “Toward Holistic Animacy: Digital Animated Phenomena echoing East Asian Thoughts”, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 7 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 175–187.
  • Furniss, Maureen. “Introduction to animation studies”, Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, Indiana University Press, John Libbey Publishing, 2008. pp. 3-12.
  • Furniss, Maureen. “Foundations of studio practices”, Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, Indiana University Press, John Libbey Publishing, 2008. pp. 13-28.
  • Husbands, Lilly and Caroline Ruddell. “Approaching Animation and Animation Studies”, The Animation Studies Reader, edited by Nichola Dobson et al, Bloomsbury Academic, 2009. pp. 5-15.
  • Leslie, Esther. “Animation and History”, Animating Film Theory, edited by Karen Beckman, Duke University Press, 2014. pp. 25-36.
  • Nakagawa, Miho. “Mamoru Oshii’s Production of Multi-layered Space in 2D Anime”, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 8 Issue 1, 2013. pp. 65–83.
  • Ōtsuka, Eiji. “An Unholy Alliance of Eisenstein and Disney: The Fascist Origins of Otaku Culture”, Mechademia, Vol. 8, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. pp. 251-277.
  • Riekeles, Stefan. Proto Anime Cut Archive, Kehrer, 2011.
  • Ruh, Brian. Stray Dog of Anime The Films of Mamoru Oshii (2nd edition). Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Marc. “Realism in the Animation Media Environment: Animation Theory from Japan”, Animating Film Theory, edited by Beckman, Karen, Duke University Press, 2014. pp 287-300.
  • Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation, Routledge, 1998.