The title sequence of the 1995 film “Ghost in the Shell” contains one of anime’s most visually arresting birth scenes. Between shots of green digits floating in black space — a vision of computer code lovingly repurposed four years later in “The Matrix” — a cyborg with female features wakes. The petals of her segmented skull wrap around her brain, like a flower closing at dusk. Her body rises out of a pool of milky goo. You see her synthetic bones, skin, sinew, breasts — everything but the creature’s soul, the so-called ghost in the cyborg’s high-tech shell. But really, how could one animate that?
It’s her soul, however, that’s at the heart of this beloved anime classic. More to the point: Can an artificial human even have one? The question has fascinated science-fiction writers for decades, inspiring characters from the automatons of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” from 1950, to the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” android Data and the “Blade Runner” replicants. But unlike others of her ilk, the protagonist of “Ghost in the Shell,” Major Motoko Kusanagi, doesn’t want to be human or even pass for one. Nor does the film share the fears of a wired world found in other sci-fi movies. Without giving too much away, Kusanagi finds her inner self by embracing her wonderfully synthetic side.
Ghost in the Shell Trailer
Video by Anchor Bay
This combination of metaphysics and machinery has helped make “Ghost” one of the most popular and critically acclaimed anime features to emerge from Japan. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, the film was a hit there and an enormous seller on video in America. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron were early fans. When Lana and Lilly Wachowski were pitching “The Matrix,” they brought along a copy of “Ghost” to show producers. In addition to the manga series that inspired the original movie, the “Ghost” franchise includes TV series, novels, video games and two film sequels.
There’s been a flurry of “Ghost” rereleases, including Blu-ray versions of the film and TV series, in the run-up to the March 31 premiere of Paramount’s live-action feature. The new film, which simply calls Kusanagi the Major, has come under fire for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead rather than an Asian or Asian-American actress. In light of the controversy, it’s worth taking a closer look at the various incarnations of the story, for they offer wildly different pleasures and experiences.
The 1995 film was an adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s manga series Ghost in the Shell, which began its run in Japan in 1989 under the title Koukaku Kidoutai (Mobile Armored Riot Police). The Major helps a special-ops team pursuing the Puppeteer (in the film, the Puppet Master), a mysterious cybercriminal who can hack into the brains of cyborgs and humans alike. (In 2029 Tokyo, there’s plenty of both.)
In Mr. Oshii’s film, the Major is steely-eyed and introspective; in the comics (Kodansha recently published hardcover collections), she’s more of a party girl. “She’s a lot cuter in the manga than she is in the film,” said Brian Ruh, author of “Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii.” “In some versions, she has a virtual sex scene.”
Mr. Shirow’s comics are complex and dense, with digressions into computer security, thermo-optical camouflage, the use of “fiber-optic film to detect pressure and temperature in cyborgs,” and the like. “Even my parents say I wasn’t particularly the kind of kid who liked that sort of thing,” he said in an email interview. “But I do remember watching ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’ on TV.”
Frederik L. Schodt, the author of the pioneering 1983 book “Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics,” translated the “Ghost” series for English-speaking readers. “A lot of the science was way over my head,” he said. “There were some terms I spent hours trying to pin down, only to find that he’d made them up.”
Mr. Oshii ditched the wisecracks and technical esoterica for a lyrical, atmospheric film set in what looks like Hong Kong, its rainy, neon-lit streets teeming with humans and robots and combinations thereof. The Major is great at her job — snapping a guy’s ankle in her bare hands, staying cool when there’s nothing left of her but her head and torso — but wonders what would become of her “ghost” if she ever left her government job and had to give back her augmented brain and cyborg body (if, that is, it was not hers to begin with). “There wouldn’t be much left after that,” she says.
That question has puzzled and intrigued fans since 1995. “They never really explain in the film what the ghost is,” Mr. Ruh said. “You get the idea that it’s a soul, but the director intentionally left it ambiguous.”
Mr. Oshii said by email that “I felt after being interviewed by the international press that the idea of ‘ghost,’ which is easily understood by us Japanese, is still not really understood in the West. This probably has to do with cultural differences.”
The TV series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex,” which began in 2002, exists in an alternate universe and timeline from the movies and manga. In one season, the plot revolved around refugees in Japan after the third and fourth world wars. “The main bad guy is trying to manipulate public opinion to make the refugees out to be a menace in order to push an agenda that would remilitarize Japan,” Mr. Ruh said.
The live-action version draws from the books, films and TV series. Murderous geisha robots in the film hark back to “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” as well as the 2004 sequel to the original movie. The new film’s villain, Kuze, came from the TV series, while the birth sequence hews pretty closely to Mr. Oshii’s 1995 vision. And yes, there are refugees. “We’re not remaking the 1995 original,” the director Rupert Sanders said. “Oshii was very clear with us: ‘Do what you guys feel will be a fitting piece within the legacy of “Ghost in the Shell.”’”
The controversy over Ms. Johansson and accusations of “whitewashing” flared up again this month, when a viral ad campaign from Paramount urged viewers to post pictures of themselves alongside captions that answer the question “Who are you?” Several took the opportunity to create images critical of the studio’s casting choice.
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons a character named Motoko Kusanagi should be played by a Japanese woman (starting with her name). But nearly all of the protests are tied not to Tokyo but to Hollywood: its history of embarrassing yellow-face casting as well as its current dearth of roles for Asian-American actors.
Which might explain why several prominent Asian-American actors have come out against the casting, including Ming-Na Wen and Constance Wu, while many in Japan, including Mr. Oshii and Mr. Shirow, support it. “The Major has a Japanese name, but she’s a cyborg,” he said. “Her age and background are unknown, just as much as her nationality. In Japan, the characters in manga and anime are normally ‘stateless,’ so I have nothing against Scarlett playing the Major. In fact, I personally think she fits the image of the movie, and couldn’t have imagined a better casting.”
With the new rereleases, fans have many ways to check out the franchise before the live-action film. For manga purists, the latest comics in English have panels formatted to read right to left, just as in the originals; the publishers have also retained the original Japanese sound effects. The TV series has Trumpian overtones and “Taxi Driver” references. And then there’s the 1995 original, still as gorgeous and prescient as ever.
The resurgence of interest has surprised even longtime fans. “I never would have imagined that there would be a trailer for a live-action version of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ during the Super Bowl,” Mr. Ruh said. “When I saw that, I was like, what world is this?”