What is the link between Ghost in the Shell, spiders, and modern robots? Biomimicry, i.e., technological design inspired by nature. Here’s how a manga creator got ahead of robot production companies.
Most western science fiction series are lazy as they opt for photo-realism. For the mechanic’s design, most SF series only adds a slight modification to existing objects.
Speed and firepower seem to be the only difference between the Second World War tanks and future versions. But the design remains mostly unchanged.
In contrast, Ghost in the Shell’s world is full of graphic invention and ingenious design for the future’s weapons and vehicles.
The most striking example is the Tachikoma, an intelligent tank with the shape of a spider.
In a sense, Masamune Shirow used biomimicry before it was fashionable.
Biomimicry and reproduction of living things
What is biomimicry? Biomimicry is the imitation of animals and plants’ shape to resolve a defined challenge. In other words, it is the transposition of living beings’ skills into the field of technology.
The Shinkansen (Bullet train) is thus inspired by the kingfisher’s beak to limit friction, increase speed, and reduce noise.
The bird is very effective at diving with minimum friction.
Engineer Eiji Nakatsu also took inspiration in the owl to minimize the sound of the Shinkansen 500 Series. The feathers of this silent night hunter reduce noise.
But what does this have to do with Ghost in the Shell? Well, animals and insects inspired the manga creator for the design of all the gears and mechanic assets shown in this science fiction series.
Tachikoma: the intelligent spider tanks
The shape of jumping spiders inspires the intelligent tanks in Ghost in the Shell.
Instead of being a mini truck on mechanical tracks, these individual tanks are the perfect combination of an exoskeleton and an armored shell.
In the manga, they are called Fuchikoma. They serve as both a combat vehicle and a robotic bodyguard serving as logistical support for humans and cyborgs.
Their thermoptic camouflage is similar to the heroine’s one, Major Kusanagi.
Like spiders, Tachikoma’s body has two sections. The front part has eight legs, two of which are smaller and serve as the equivalent of human hands.
The legs feature retractable wheels and three rhinoceros-like toes/nails.
The hind part is the receptacle where the human/cyborg pilot manages the vehicle. The human/cyborg pilot is half crouched or lying down depending on the type of tank.
In spiders, this rear part provides silk. Some species use it to weave webs, but others use it as a lasso to catch prey from a distance or as a parachute to travel further.
In the manga, cable replaces silk to move upwards.
Several episodes of Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig highlight the Tachikoma’s features.
The heroine’s tank holds a helicopter with its “silk thread” for the time it takes for a sniper to get rid of the human agent flying it.
The idea of a spider armor was already there in Appleseed, but the design seemed very massive.
It is slightly reminiscent of the giant spider tank that appears at the end of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.
Tachikoma and “esprit de corps”
In the Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex (GITS SAC), arthropod tanks are named Tachikoma (due to a rights issue).
They have an AI and a juvenile personality that permeates through the childlike way they express themselves.
In the manga and its adaptations, there are comical allusions to Isaac Asimov and robots’ revolt.
At the end of each GITS SAC episode, mini humorous sequences feature the Tachikomas — some parody animal documentaries.
More than a mass destruction weapon, the Tachikomas are learning creatures.
They regularly synchronize and share their “memories” to enhance their machine learning.
These characters are incredibly endearing. Their candid personalities serve as a counterpoint to the somewhat tangled plot.
Throughout the episodes, the Tachikomas develop a personality and come to become autonomous and “conscious”.
At the end GITS SAC first season, they sacrifice themselves to save Major Kusanagi and Batō.
In the second season, they save Japan from a nuclear attack by renouncing their consciousness.
Thus these Spider Tank shows “esprit de corps”, incredible loyalty to their pilot.
In the other Ghost in the Shell series, the arthropod tanks have other assets and different names:
- Fuchikoma in themanga
- Logikoma in GITS Arise
- Tachikoma in GITS SAC
- Uchikoma in GITS SAC 2nd GIG
But in all cases, the spider design is kept to make them fast, maneuverable, and resistant even in urban combat.
For the moment, no army seems ready to invest in single-passenger spider armored vehicles.
But some companies are selling quadruped robots to serve as logistical support as the Logikoma (but they are not as cheerful).
Other companies as Festo present models of spider robots that can roll on themselves instead of moving around with a silk thread.
Miniature and giant wasps
In addition to spiders, Masamune Shirow has a passion for Hymenoptera: bees, wasps, and other flying insects.
In the Appleseed series’ design notes, he produced many winged exoskeletons. These appear in the Appleseed Data Book and Appleseed Hypernotes.
Readers can see Masamune Shirow’s obsession with wasps in a chapter of Ghost in the Shell 1.5, which deals with miniature robots that serve as support and access to restricted spaces.
The idea may have seemed far-fetched in the 1990s, but today some companies are building bees robots to pollinate plants.
In contrast, others offer butterfly robots as a technical demo. Bees robots also appear in a Black Mirror episode.
After Ghost in the Shell’s end, Masamune Shirow imagined a universe where these insects become the dominant species: Neuro Hard.
Here again, many sketches and long explanations show that the author is passionate about the insects’ world.
Unfortunately, insects don’t fascinate his readers even though he adds pretty women in the pictures.
In GITS SAC, wasps appear in the form of a helicopter in the second episode.
Episode 4 of GITS SAC 2nd GIG features a fight between Tachikoma spider tanks and anti-tank helicopters called Jigabachi.
Their name is a reference to a type of wasp that has spiders as prey. It is why the title of the episode is “natural enemy”.
The Jigabachi helicopter has a movable hind part that can fold up as when the insect is about to bite its enemy.
An anti-tank machine gun replaces the venomous sting.
Other insects and animal forms
In addition to spiders and Hymenoptera, other insects make their appearance in Ghost in the Shell.
GITS SAC episode 2 features a scorpio-shaped tank that turns against the army.
Is it a terrorist hacking or something else?
I won’t tell you anything about it, but the mecha is very impressive, according to the Tachikoma escorting him.
In Masamune Shirow’s manga, watercraft take on the forms of marine mammals. Whales and dolphins inspire submarines and other propulsion devices.
In the animated adaptations, these devices are rarely seen. In the film GITS Innocence, there are various ships with “fins” and a fast underwater vehicle.
In the real world, marine animals’ biomimicry is much more common than insect shapes for military vehicles. In addition to swimming and diving suits that limit friction like shark skin, dolphin-shaped robots are produced.
The military has long attempted to train marine mammals to detect or install underwater mines. Several armies are currently developing dolphin-like robots for this type of task.
At the end of the 1980s, the Ghost in the Shell series provided innovative design ideas. They are now being put into practice by robotics companies.
Apart from these numerous biomimetic designs, Masamune Shirow is nevertheless keen to pay tribute to science fiction masters.
He makes a nod to Professor Jameson and his minimalist box-on-legs design.
He is the hero of a series of science fiction novels created by Neil Ronald Jones (1909 – 1988). The first story published in 1931 tells the adventures of a human whose brain is transferred to a machine by aliens.
Translated into Japanese, the novel featured illustrations that impressed Masamune Shirow enough to use it for the design of one character: the CEO of a company specialized in the production of organs for transplantation.
The humorous contrast between the boxed brain and his business involving growing compatible human organs in pigs is striking.
As a result, the innovative design is not always useful to make an interesting character. But it is an incredible way to help us innovatively fantasy the future.