Being human, an individual, and staying one in a rapidly changing reality. A reality, where technology stirs and shakes the philosophical constellation of existential truths and concepts, leaving people to fend for themselves. This is an element of a classic cyberpunk landscape, that comes with ever-present rain and a jungle of neons. Solutions to the issue of humanity and individuality are various, but today I’d like to take a closer look at the concept that puts memory at its centre.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
In the Tokyo of the future, Major Kusanagi Motoko fulfils the purpose she was made for, as a member of a special police unit. Motoko is a cyborg, fully aware of being one. She knows she was built with a certain goal in mind, not really free to choose her own destiny. Being an excellent police officer of a special forces unit, she finds a purpose in fulfilling the destiny laid out for her. This might be just a manifestation of traditional Japanese (or Far Eastern in general) values, but might also be more than that. Motoko seems to be quite confident and at peace with her identity:
‘There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.’
In this account of her thoughts, it’s evident that she doesn’t feel like objectified property of Section 9, robbed of identity. Unique memories are part of what creates unique experience, and are essential components of an individual conscience. Program Puppet Master, which becomes dangerous, having grown aware of its own existence, reaches a similar conclusion on the subject of humanity:
‘Man is an individual only because of his intangible memory and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind.’
Interestingly enough, GitS deals also with a sub-plot of people being ‘hacked’ and having their memories altered with the artificial ones to change their awareness and serve the schemes of Puppet Master. This idea brings us to the next film I’d like to talk about.
Ghost in the Shell 2017
The new GitS is a bit different when it comes to the philosophical questions it poses. It is argued that the 2017 version is shallow compared to the original and focused on action. Personally, while I certainly wished more food for thought here, I think the accusation is unfair. Notice that all the existential stuff in the anime GitS comes en masse in blocks of philosophical conversations. These are dense but also quite few. And I really don’t see pulling dense philosophical conversations off in the Western cinema in our sorry times.
In the new version, Major Kusanagi, while doing the same job, is quite a different person with different problems. She is unable to remember almost anything from her past and therefore feels disconnected from herself and in doubt of her identity. She also has a body that was not always hers to go with the brain of her own. Her brain is supposedly the only part of her that was undamaged in a terrorist attack, making her a candidate for the experimental merging of an organic brain with a synthetic body.
There’s one vague memory which doesn’t fit, however: an ‘error in the matrix’ that sets her out on an investigation. As it turns out, those few memories she has are also synthetic, and a medication she was prescribed inhibits the real memories that hold the key to her past and identity. So, in this version of GitS, Major’s memories were taken hostage by Hanka Robotics and that way Major was held hostage herself too, in a way.
This is a story of redemption though, and so Kusanagi Motoko unearths her past and her true self along the way. That in turns helps her to find peace and accept the fact that her real body was stolen from her and she has become a cyborg against her will.
Blade Runner (1982)
Real memories in Blade Runner are precious things and a kind of a luxury for replicants of the Nexus 6 generation. Injected with biographies of other people to create a ‘cushion’ accommodating their increasingly rebellious tendencies, Nexus 6 are inconsolable when they find out the truth. Ex-officer Rick Deckard has to handle two different cases. Four androids who have gone rogue and will stop at nothing to get reprogrammed for longer lives; and Rachael, who didn’t know she’s a replicant until he decided to enlighten her.
In a heartbreaking scene, where Rachael tries to convince Deckard she’s human, she holds out a picture of her as a child with her mother. A photograph is supposed to be evidence that something happened. In Blade Runner it is also a symbol of owning one’s own past, owning a memory. One of the four escapee replicants, Leon, also has pictures, which are very important to him and which fall into the unauthorised hands of Deckard. Roy asks, if Leon managed to get his ‘precious photos’ before Deckard searched his place. Leon’s pictures, unlike Rachael’s, are those of his real friends, taken consciously as an act of creating memories of his own.
In his last moments Roy Batty talks about his own real memories, created by himself:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Here we can see how longer lifespan was meant to be an opportunity for more experiences and memories for replicants and how bitter their irreversible design was for them. Even more bitter, considering what Roy says. That even though he had amazing and unique memories, they’re not as important as humans memories, precisely because he was a replicant; a slave. And however beautiful his memories might be, they will die with him and remain unimportant and forgotten.
Memories rise from consciousness, and therefore the memory is the seat of existential continuity. Memories make us certain of our existence and provide guidance for our future choices. They define our relationship with the outside world, but they also furnish our inner world. In a word, they are a wonderful object of speculation for the cyberpunk genre, which loves so much the combination of philosophy and futuristic ‘what ifs’.
A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer.