Below is my final paper in Supernatural in Japanese Fiction for anyone who is interested. I wrote it on “Reflections and Refractions of the Self and Reality in Ghost in the Shell, A Wild Sheep Chase, and ‘Spinning Gears.'” Any comments would be greatly appreciated.
Supernatural in Japanese Fiction
Reflections and Refractions of the Self and Reality in Ghost in the Shell, A Wild Sheep Chase, and “Spinning Gears”
Glass is an entirely peculiar substance. It is produced to exist, and yet appear not to exist. Still, as we peer through it we are almost inevitably aware of its existence as it refracts the light and ever so slightly distorts the picture of the reality beyond. In essence, the world we see beyond the window is not reality, but an image of something like reality. Coat it with a thin layer of silver and it becomes a window not to the outside, but to a reality in which an “I” that is not “me” appears. Mirrors are a reflection of reality, yet are undeniably not reality. There is always some degree of distortion, as the world around us becomes a non-reality within the glass.
This non-reality we view through the glass or reflected on other surfaces is a recurring theme in tales themselves speculating on the nature of reality. Through the acts of reflection and refraction the nature of reality itself is altered, allowing us to view another version of reality that calls into question our own. Within the space between these two realities lies the shadow of the supernatural. In this paper I will examine the nature of these myriad versions of the same “reality” and the gaps between them in order to understand the nature of the rift between the physical and the metaphysical in which the supernatural resides. I will do this through analysis of three works: Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Spinning Gears,” and Mamoru Oshii’s anime Ghost in the Shell.
In all three of the above works the reflections of the protagonists and those around them are major factors in the main characters’ understanding of reality. In each there are key scenes where we are provided with multiple different versions of the same space. Through these different visions of the space we become keenly aware of the complex layers that make it up. The separate layers combine to create an area of incredible depth and vibrancy through which the characters gain a new awareness of themselves and reality. It is only through this new awareness, and through the introduction of the supernatural occupying the gap between the modes of vision, that the plot is able to progress and come to its conclusion.
Ghost in the Shell is set in a futuristic city where the rich and members of elite government task forces have cybernetic bodies. These bodies always have some physical remnant of the person’s original body, primarily the brain, in which the person’s “ghost” is assumed to reside. It is this “ghost,” similar to the concept of a spirit or soul, that is the only dividing line between humans and cyborgs in a society where the body is not necessarily organic. The plot of the story revolves around the attempts of an elite government task foce, Section 9, to apprehend a mysterious figure named “The Puppetmaster.” As the story progresses The Puppetmaster is revealed to be a computer program that has gained self-awareness and a ghost that can be monitored and recognized by technology like that of a human.
The main character, Kusanagi, has a completely cybernetic body, and her only connection to her own humanity is having been told that she has actual brain matter in her metal skull. Her doubts about her own humanity and the nature of humanity as a whole lead her to passionately search out The Puppetmaster, eventually joining with him through a hardwire connection between their brains to create a new life form that is then transfered to a new body. Whether or not any of her actual organic brain mater remains, or whether it actually existed in the first place is never revealed, but that her brain has been integrated with the knowledge and ghost of The Puppetmaster itself makes her brain and ghost at least as much artificial as they are organic.
The first line spoken by The Puppetmaster in Ghost of the Shell is one transmitted directly into the brains of Kusanagi and her co-worker and friend Batou. A disembodied voice recites,”for now we see through a glass, darkly.” This quote from the bible simultaneously indicates both a transparency and a blindness. One believes oneself to be viewing reality, when in fact one is only seeing the vaguest outlines of reality in the darkness. Yet, at the same time that the quote speaks of the blindness of the viewer, we also find in it a promise of a time in the future, when we will be able to see a world in the light without the impediment of the glass. The dark glass is referring to our own eyes, which cannot clearly see reality. The mechanical reflection of the mirror is then needed for us to see the darkness and glass obscuring our vision.
We can see this shift in awareness in Kusanagi herself over the course of the film through her various reflected forms. First, I would like to discuss her invisibility. This invisibility is tied to her cybernetic body, which, when nude, is able to blend into its surroundings. In this case it is only her shadow that is visible. Her body itself, then, appears to the eye to be immaterial. It is also important to note that she only uses this invisibility when attacking. In short, it is when her cybernetic body is being employed merely as a means towards destruction and killing, when it epitomizes that purpose for which it was issued to her, that it looses its individuality and ceases to be identifiable. This invisibility serves to draw the viewer’s attention to two things: the destruction of the body she is attacking, and the shadows and splashes that are the footprints of her presence. In short, the effects her body has on her surroundings are in themselves individual and significant, irreplaceable because of their role in that singular moment in time. It is the appearance of the body that is insignificant.
The human eye is therefore seeing the scene on a metaphysical level, where Kusanagi’s mechanical body is no longer a representation of her as an individual, but rather of her as a mass-produced tool. In a more concrete sense, this scene also epitomizes the flawed vision of the human eye, which is easily deceived. In contrast, Batou’s mechanical eyes can easily see through the invisibility cloaks and mechanisms. In the same way, the water reflects the action above it regardless of any technological trickery occurring around the body or issues of the existence of Kusanagi’s soul.
This leads to the second point, the appearance of those with the same face as Kusanagi. Kusanagi views these figures while she is on a boat, the view shifting between images of the boat and the buildings lining the narrow canal, the reflection of the world above on the dirty canal water below, and the surrounding world as viewed from the deck of the boat. In the scene preceding the appearance of these figures, Kusanagi lists those things that form a person’s identity, after which the Puppet Master’s first line is heard. The list is comprised of childhood memories, hope for the future, the net, a voice, a hand, and “a face to distinguish yourself from others.”1 In the boat scene Kusanagi views those who share her face through the glass that encases them while she journeys past them, herself free. There are three figures, each progressively less human than Kusanagi. The first sits at a table, all but her head frozen in place as she gazes out the window. The second is a store manikin, to all appearances a person, but completely immobile. The third is also a manikin, only it is nude and completely inorganic, its white plastic form without hair or facial details. Yet, the form is undeniably Kusanagi’s, harking back to the title sequence in which we witness the creation of Kusanagi’s cybernetic body, or else one identical to it.
The glass through which she views the three figures reflects the world outside back at the viewer. The figures she sees through the glass are passed over by images of clouds, buildings, and lights. The glass is therefore playing the role of a mirror, and it is possible then that the figures are reflections of Kusanagi. Yet, the images she sees through this mirrored glass are not the person she knows herself to be, rather they are different possibilities of the existence of her cybernetic body. That this is not a dream or a mere illusion caused by the play of the light and her own preoccupation with her identity, and that these figures do indeed have her face and body is not inconceivable. On the contrary, her cybernetic body makes the possibility of others with bodies identical to hers both likely and practical, as such mass production of a single model would be far more economically practical than making each model distinct. Here once again we see the body, that means by which we traditionally identify an individual, as no longer capable of being used for such identification. Kusanagi as we see her is not in fact Kusanagi, rather her form is one of a multitude of identical models produced by a company for use as tools by the government. The soul, the only thing capable of being used to declare Kusanagi as an individual, lies somewhere else, intangible.
Kusanagi possesses a powerful presence in all the scenes she is in, giving orders to those around her regardless of their ranking relative to her own. It is her self discovery around which the plot revolves, and her actions and decision that bring the plot through to its conclusion. Yet, for all this, her body is time and again ignored, destroyed, and belittled. Whether through her invisibility, the presence of others with faces and bodies identical to her own, the physical tearing apart of her body during the end fight scene, or the disposal of her body by the end of the movie, the body for all its strength and mechanical perfection, is not what the audience is left identifying Kusanagi with. Rather, we are left with that which cannot be reflected and distorted in the windows and water, her soul. It is the one part of her that is carried on when she and The Puppetmaster merge to form a new entity.
In Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase we see a similar use of mirrors to reexamine the self. The story revolves around a strange sheep with a black star on its back that seems to have mysterious powers and an agenda for mankind. The main character unwittingly publishes a picture of the sheep he received from his friend, the Rat. He is then forced by a powerful agent working for the man who controls all of Japan behind the scenes to go on a search for this sheep. Bringing along his semi-psychic girlfriend he journeys through Hokkaido searching for it, gradually loosing his grip on reality through increasingly bizarre and unbelievable occurrences. The sheep is simultaneously a physical and a mental force as it works to take over human kind through manipulation of different humans. The Rat manages to trap the sheep inside his head and in an attempt to save his own mental state kills himself with the sheep inside him. The main character discovers at the end that rather than searching for that which could not be found, he was searching for that which the man who sent him already knew. The acts of search and discovery, rather than the actual information discovered, are therefore revealed to be the true purpose of the journey, indicating that the means through which one makes a discovery are as important as the information gained.
In all of the images of mirrors in A Wild Sheep Chase there is a particular emphasis put on distortion. This distortion is such that the figure in the mirror is not even considered to by the character to be himself, but rather to be another person entirely. The mirror therefore serves to provide another version of the self, similar to the other versions of herself Kusanagi saw either through the glass or reflected off of it. In A Wild Sheep Chase we find two literal mirrors. The first seems insignificant until we are introduced to the second, at which point we can see the two alternative to the self they provide to the viewer as creating two versions of reality, the power of the second image amplified by our knowledge that only this mirror functions this way.
The first mirror we see is in the Dolphin Hotel, where the main character finds it beside a grandfather clock. Of the two items Murakami writes, “Both were commemorative presents of some event or another. The clock was seven minutes off; the mirror made my head look crooked.”2 Fast forward to Rat’s home at the end of the novel and we see another mirror and another grandfather clock. Only, this grandfather clock is on time. At first this mirror too is obscured, puzzling to the main character when the rest of the house had been kept in immaculate condition by the Rat. Upon cleaning the mirror the character thinks,
“The mirror reflected my image from head to toe, without warping, almost pristinely. I stood there and looked at myself. Nothing new. I was me, with my usual nothing-special expression. My image was unnecessarily sharp, however. I wasn’t seeing my mirror-flat mirror-image. It wasn’t myself I was seeing; on the contrary, it was as if I were the reflection of the mirror and this flat-me-of-an-image were seeing the real me. I brought my right hand up in front of my face and wiped my mouth. The me through the looking glass went through the same motions. But maybe it was only me copying what the me in the mirror had done. I couldn’t be certain I’d wiped my mouth out of my own free will. …
“I gave up and left the mirror. He also left the mirror.3”
Over the course of this passage the main character muses on the nature of free-will, the self, originality, and individuality. Like the women sharing Kusanagi’s face who are not her, despite their sharing that appearance that Kusanagi had considered so central to her own identity up until that point, we see here a denial of the tie between the face and the soul in this passage. This is not because of a distortion in the reflected image like in the first mirror, but because of something else, a sense of intense clarity, in which the images in the mirror has become more real than the physical world.
It is particularly interesting to note the shift in the above passage in recognition of the figure in the mirror. Here again we can see continuities with the scene with multiple different figures possessing Kusanagi’s face, their forms becoming increasingly abstract with each new figure. Similarly, the main character’s understanding of the figure in the mirror shifts from a reflection of himself, to a figure of which he himself is the reflection, and finally to an entity completely separate from himself, designated by the division of their movements in the description and calling the figure “him.” The individual and the self are both lost in this passage through the use of the mirror. Even as the mirror may not warp the reflection in the way the earlier mirror in the Dolphin Hotel does, through its very clarity this mirror warps the main character’s understanding of himself. He becomes less than real, echoing the shift in the plot away from reality and into the realm of the supernatural. The mirror epitomizes that shift, the unnecessarily sharp nature of the mirror bringing a world that had been fading into a vague unrealism into a sharpness it cannot handle. And so the reflection is broken off from that world, the clarity of the reflected images at once proclaiming the unbiased nature of optics, which are able to present the world as it appears without placing judgement on that image, while at the same time necessarily distorting it, presenting a view of the world that cannot be reality, for it is impossible for a reflection to be identical to reality however clear the image may appear.
This distancing of the image in the mirror from the reality the character sees around him is necessary for the next scene with the mirror, in which the two visions of the same space and its inhabitants are drawn even farther apart. In this scene the character passes the mirror time and again, referring to his reflection as “the other me,” therefore associating this figure with himself, while simultaneously acknowledging it as an existence independent of his own.4 These encounters with his reflection are written in the same way as the last lines of the above passage. In short, in such a way that it seems the other version of himself possesses free will that just happened to bring him to make the same motions before the mirror as the character himself. As he views the living room in the mirror, he senses that there is something different, even as the living room behind himself and behind the other him in the mirror are the same. Upon passing in front of the mirror again he realizes that “there wasn’t any Sheep Man in the mirror! There was nobody in the living room at all, only an empty sofa. In the mirror world, I was alone. Terror shot through my spine.”5
This stark break between the world of the character and the reflected world in the mirror brings in the supernatural. The Sheep Man, who until now had seemed almost unreal and reminded the main character strangely of the Rat, has suddenly vanished in the world of the mirror. In the reverse of Ghost in the Shell where Kusanagi is invisible to the naked eye, but present in reflections and movements in the mirror-like water, the Sheep Man is present only in the eyes of the main character, and not in that overly accurate picture of reality reflected on the surface of the mirror. The ghost of the Rat that is the Sheep Man on the couch appears only to the character, but as a spirit does not a possess the physical body necessary to create a reflection. This indicates that the supernatural can only appear through the imperfect optics of the human eye, and not through something as inorganic as a mirror.
In this sense perhaps the two scenes, one from Ghost in the Shell and the other from A Wild Sheep Chase, are trying to indicate the same thing. They are both trying to place a contrast between the spiritual world and physical reality. The spiritual world is that which we view through our eyes. In this world Kusanagi’s body fails to represent her when she is acting as a weapon, because that body is a representation not of her soul, but of a mass produced tool that is anything but human. While our eyes recognize this non-presence of metaphysical significance behind the physical form, the mechanical eyes of Batou and the unconscious reflecting surface of the water represent the physical mass of that body as they would any other. Similarly, while the main character in A Wild Sheep Chase is able to see and recognize the presence of the spirit of his friend, the mirror is only capable of reflecting the physical reality of the room. In both cases the gap between the rational world and the supernatural world can only be grasped through the gap between the two visions of reality.
In Akutagawa’s biographic piece “Spinning Gears,” mirrors act to create a new vision of the self and reality. The first encounter Akutagawa has with a mirror in the piece is in the hotel room. He recalls, “Then I went to the mirror and stared at my reflection. My face in the mirror revealed the bones beneath the skin. Into the memory contained in this skull of mine leaped a vivid image of the maggot.”6 His reflection in the mirror places emphasis on the underlying structure of his body, bringing to mind images of the mortality and eventual death and decay of his own body. This same mirror later brings to the forefront the mortality of his friend, where it reveals a medicinal patch hidden behind his ear. The emphasis on the image in the mirror as presenting the physical reality of the character’s existences therefore is a line of continuity between all three works examined here.
We also once again see the figure in the mirror as being another, separate version of the self. Akutagawa writes,
“Death seemed to be bearing down on me just as it had borne down on my sister’s husband. … I went to look in the mirror for the first time in quite a while, and stood face-to-face with my own reflection. It, too, was smiling, of course. As I stared at my image, I thought about my second self. Fortunately, I had never seen my second self–what the Germans call a Doppelgänger. The wife of my friend K, however, had spotted my second self in the lobby of the Imperial Theater … Maybe death was coming for my second self rather than for me.7”
The mirror here brings to mind another version of the self. In this passage Akutagawa recalls stories from his friends of how they had seen someone who looked just like him, his “second self,” in various places. The figure in the mirror is disassociated from Akutagawa in that instant before he recognizes that it is only natural that the figure’s actions would mirror his own. The mirror also functions as a means to consider one’s own mortality and the possibility of the existence of more than one version of the self. Even in a contemporary setting without the possibility of mass production of one’s physical body present in Ghost in the Shell, Akutagawa uses references to German terminology and personal tales to make possible the existence of another soul possessing his same body. The existence of another version of the self is posited in the scene through the emphasis on the physical nature of the body in the mirror, rather than the soul, in tandem with these tales of Doppelgängers. It is only through this division between the reality we live in that includes both the metaphysical and the physical, and the world of the mirror that includes only the physical, that we can posit the existence of our own body without our soul through the medium of the mirror.
One cannot discuss the nature of vision and reflection in “Spinning Gears” without reference to the translucent gears that slowly cover up the world in Akutagawa’s right eye time and again in the story. These gears serve to both taint Akutagawa’s vision of the world around him, and as a force moving the various aspects of the plot forward towards an end point. As the story progresses, the association of that end point with death become increasingly clear. The gears are tied to that progress towards death not only by virtue of their base mechanical function in bringing various different means together towards a unified end, but also in the increasing feeling of dread, panic, and a sense of everything being connected that Akutagawa experiences when the gears begin to cover up his vision.
In contrast to the physical reality represented by reflection in these works, the gears across Akutagawa’s vision represent a fully metaphysical reality. This clouding of his human senses with metaphysical visions is similar to the visions of the Rat that the main character in A Wild Sheep Chase experiences, despite the Rat’s death. It is also similar to the disappearance of Kusanagi’s physical body in human eyes despite its physical presence. The human eye is tainted with visions of a false reality in all of these instances, and it only through reflection that the gap between these false visions and physical reality can be established. At this point the metaphysical or the supernatural is trapped in flawed human vision, identifiable only through the gaps in the two versions of reality.
It is important to note the nature of characters’ reactions to the supernatural in these three works. The first primal reaction in all of them is fear, uncertainty and shock. In all works the character is at least somewhat unnerved by the alternate visions of reality provided through the act of reflection. Be that the reflection of a slightly different world back, the reflection of other versions of themselves through the mirror, or the distortion of their vision through changes in their eyes themselves, all of the characters seem thrown off by these gaps between the different visions of the same reality. Even Kusanagi, who seems largely unfazed by the visions she sees and even less so by her own invisibility, demonstrates her distress by her heightened interest in her own ghost, her own identity, and what it is that makes her human.
The act of reflection is central to all of the works examined here. It provides a space for contemplation of the multiple layers that make up what we know as reality through the employment of different optics in viewing a single scene. In particular, reflection allows for the positing of one’s own body as being occupied by the soul of the other, the world in the mirror becoming a new world entirely where there is a completely independent version of the self. This in turn is tied to themes such as identity, existence, free will, and mortality. Intimately tied to all of these themes are the dichotomies of the physical body and the soul, of physical reality and the metaphysical. The distinction between the two provided by reflection versus vision with the human eye, allows for the discussion of the nature of these themes in the works, and for an exploration of the purely physical in contrast to the world we all live in and experience everyday through our imperfect human vision.
There is no clear winner in this clash between these two versions of reality. There is a clarity and power in the reflective properties of the glass in providing a vision of physical reality. Through mirrors the characters are able to identify the physical and separate it from the metaphysical. At the same time, the metaphysical is incredibly important. In fact, it is often all that is left. Kusanagi’s only form of identification lies in her ghost. The main character of A Wild Sheep Chase is only able to solve the puzzle that has been haunting and driving him through communication with the ghost of his friend that appears only in the world of his human vision. What the metaphysical means for Akutagawa is less clear. What is clear, though, is that he views it as a force that is driving his life forward, and that he places incredible significance on the vision of reality tainted with the metaphysical created by his eyes. The final question would seem to be whether it is indeed the reality in the mirror that is refracted and imperfect, or whether it is the vision of reality through our own flawed human vision that is being refracted and distorted through the presence of the supernatural.
Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke. “Spinning Gears.” Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 206-236.
Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Kodansha, 1995.
Haruki, Murakami. A Wild Sheep Chase. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage, 1989.
1Ghost in the Shell, Dir. Mamoru Oshii (Kodansha, 1995) Chapter 7.
2Murakami Haruki, A Wild Sheep Chase, Trans. Alfred Birnbaum (New York: Vintage, 1989) 193.
6Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Spinning Gears,” Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Trans. Jay Rubin (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) 210.