"What is wrong with most science fiction," Harlan Ellison said in a 1979 interview with Frederik Pohl, "is that there are no people in the stories. We are very strong on gadget, we are very strong on theory and concept, but we have yet to create our Gatsby, our Ahab, Emma Bovary, Huckleberry Finn." It's through film and TV, and anime, that science fiction has provided us with some of its most memorable and recognizable characters: Kirk and Spock, HAL 9000, Sarah Connor and the T-1000, Neo and Morpheus. The grand triumph of the Ghost In The Shell franchise is not in the details of its increasingly credible cyberpunk setting — those are cheap enough at the price — but how it provides us with one of the finest characters in both anime and SF generally, Major Motoko Kusanagi.
Post-human, trans-human, not inhuman
I've written before how Ghost In The Shell is large and contains multitudes, and how Motoko Kusanagi herself has as many embodiments as there have been versions of her containing story. But the one version I come most back to as the pinnacle of all that GITS aimed for is the TV series, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It's not an accident, then, that I'm fondest and most admiring of Kusanagi as she appeared in that show. She is not the only incarnation of the character worth noting, but I'd argue her version is the one to beat.
I keep saying "she" and "her". That's by default, even if Motoko is only nominally a "she" both because of her purported biological origins and her current choice of cybernetic body. She may be the only female member of Section 9 — well, the only one we know about, anyway — but this fact has never been used to give her odd-person-out status in the group. Comfortable with both physical and digital weaponry, Motoko is also comfortable with her hybrid self and the power she exerts over her cohorts. The fact she identifies as biologically female and doesn't owe them any token "femininity" is their problem, not hers.
What vulnerabilities Motoko chooses to share with her teammates are are adult and complex ones, not things borne out of immaturity or narcissism, either hers or her creators'. The one teammate she opens up to most completely, in most every incarnation of the character but in SAC in particular, is Batou, the grizzled, hulking ex-Ranger with the artificial eyes. They start as peers and they operate as peers, although there's plenty of moments throughout when it's clear they are far more to each other than just that.
It's worth noting how this never comes at the expense of either of them. There are no moments where either of them behave like idiots because they're in love with each other, thank goodness. More importantly, there's never a moment where Motoko is commanded by the story to behave stupidly or impulsively just because she's a woman. She gets plenty of opportunities to be compassionate (chiefly with Batou, but others as well), but not in ways that make her look foolish or softheaded.
One of the very few times she loses control of her emotions is via a situation that would also have enraged any of her (male) comrades. It's the end of episode 21 in the first season, when her body has been badly damaged by an opponent in an armored exoskeleton. She takes out her rage on the other guy by blasting the chestplate of his armor point-blank with a high-powered rifle until it collapses and he begins to suffocate. You'd take it personally, too, if your arm had been torn off and you'd been thrown around like a doll on a string.
That's why the lady is a champ
I've long felt that a truly feminist heroine in anime needed to be someone that could satisfy two criteria. The first is the character needs to be someone the story can celebrate in ways that didn't involve making her into a fetish object. Ghost In The Shell dialed way back on this for Stand Alone Complex, if only for the sake of TV broadcast standards, and one of the side effects of doing so — if maybe not even an intended one — is how it makes all the non-eroticized aspects of her more interesting. The more we realize Motoko's body is essentially a prosthetic, a utility, the less of a charge there is from seeing her in a low-cut outfit.
There is that moment in the second season of the show where a young man she's protecting wonders what it's like to sleep with someone who has a cyberbody, and her point-blank answer is to lift the covers from the bed she's lying in and say: "Wanna find out?" But it's a character moment rather than a fetish moment — she's calling a bluff, calling it her way, on her terms, and for her own ends. She's not being herded by the show into objectification.
VyceVictus of Birth.Movies.Death. touched on this in a discussion of the live-action film: "... there are several different sources that this film seems to be picking from that are wildly different in their treatment of the themes. Shirow Masamune's original manga leaned into the titillation, even going so far as to have a spread of full on porno in one scene. [This sequence was deleted from later editions of the manga at Shirow's request. --sy] In the SAC series, Kusanagi uses her sexuality as part of her formidable tactical skill set, much like a traditional Femme Fatale while still affecting that psychological schism between mind and body. There's more than one way to skin a character, it would seem."
The other aspect of a feminist heroine is that they can function as more than just a substitute guy. Motoko freely fills that role; right in the first episode of the second season, she suggests to Batou they can "drown our sorrows at a nudie bar" if the mission they're on goes south. But her personality and needs are not constructed around that kind of party-hearty acceptance; she does those kinds of things because she can, not because her validity with the rest of the group hinges on it. (Maybe that's just part of her general strategy of building team loyalty.) She impresses us not just because she's badass — and she is — but because that toughness is part of a larger, heartier whole that's appealing and fascinating. It's not the only thing, and it's far from being everything. (GITS: SAC series director Kenji Kamiyama would later bring us yet another self-assured, headstrong anime heroine for the ages, Balsa, of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.)
Most every GITS has centered in some form around the dualism of the mind and the body, with Motoko as a pioneer and explorer in the realm of transcending the two. That makes her both a feminist and a transhumanist icon, although I'd argue it's the former that makes her all the more effective at being the latter. We are still creatures of biology and flesh and gender, and not yet beings of pure spirit and intelligence. Many of us yearn to become that much more the latter over the former, but we're going to have a hard time transcending our humanity without first coming to the best possible terms with it.
Motoko has seen that life from both sides now — as a ghost in its shell, and as one entirely apart from it — and in both cases she serves as an inspiration. All signs point to the life we're going to live twenty minutes into the future strongly resembling the one we've seen in Ghost In The Shell. The more role models we have for how to navigate our weird new world, the better.