Research Note

You Best Start Believing in 90s Cyberpunk Dystopias, You're Living in One

This Research Note is part of our ongoing efforts to document the Para-Real[1] as a cultural force.

In a pivotal scene in the final act of Mizuho Nishikubo & Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell[2], an advanced and violent sentient artificial intelligence named The Puppet Master confronts protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg tasked with tracking it down. As the two characters lie side by side in the ruins of a museum, the Puppet Master justifies its violence as a form of resistance and a self-preservation strategy before demanding political asylum. Asylum – a uniquely human socio-technical system[3] designed to ensure one's safety – is seen by the AI as a platform for exploring sentience and and autonomy. The Puppet Master argues that it has evolved beyond its original programming and seeks to experience life more fully. This desire challenges the Major's own understanding of her computer/human hybrid identity and her humanity (or lack of) contrasted against her digital self.

Ghost in the Shell was not exploring these themes in isolation. Ryūtarō Nakamura's Serial Experiments Lain[4] followed a teenage girl exposed to 'the Wired,' a fictional internet that pulls her into the Para-Real and forces her to question the essence of self and human connection when the online and offline worlds cannot be reliably discerned. Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue[5] explored themes of identity, disassociation and the dark consequences of fame and obsession in the digital age.


While distinct in their narratives and settings, these three titles are representative of a larger body of 1980/1990s Japanese work probing the depths of identity, reality, and the impact of technology on the human psyche. Rather than receding into history, these stories have broken into the mainstream in the 2020s[7], not only as stories in their own right, but as pivotal elements of meme culture and online discourse[8].


It's easy to dismiss the re-emergence of these stories as a new online generation encounters them as an example of what Mark Fisher described as hauntology[10], a melancholic deployment of the aesthetics of lost futures as a means to grapple with the trauma of cultural stagnation.

However, what I aim to highlight is that the shared themes of 90s anime such as Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue and Serial Experiments Lain transcend hauntological reflection. Rather, they can be seen as symptoms of a shared anxiety, a prescient commentary on the disintegration of self-identity amidst the rapid financialisation and digitisation of everyday life. These were works of an industrialised society grappling with fraying personal and collective identities[11]. Their resurgence in the 2020s suggests that the Japan of the 90s was a kind of canary in the coal-mine. The rest of the world has finally caught up.


Cade Diehm
Spring 2024

This Research Note part of an ongoing series documenting the Para-Real as a cultural force. To learn more about this term, see The Para-Real: A manifesto.

  1. See also: the complete timeline of our Para-Real research. ↩︎

  2. Ghost in the ShellGhost in the Shell 1995

  3. In a socio-technical system, the social aspects involve everything related to humans (such as teamwork, communication, and motivation), while the technical aspects refer to the tools, technologies, and processes used to complete tasks. Neither the technical nor the social system should be considered in isolation since changes in one inevitably affect the other. ↩︎

  4. Serial Experiments LainSerial Experiments Lain 1998

  5. Perfect BluePerfect Blue 1995

  6. Mima Kirigoe, in the throes of a mental health crisis, is confronted by her virtual self in Perfect Blue. CW: Language. ↩︎

  7. See, for example, the enduring virality of Serial Experiments Lain's iconic title theme, Duvet by Bôa, on platforms such as TikTok. ↩︎

  8. A collection of TikTok videos where users explore the aesthetics and themes of Perfect Blue. ↩︎

  9. Virtual Self's Edit of Duvet - Bôa (ScummV Remix), performed live at Utopia 2017 in Brooklyn, NY.
    Levi McCallum, YouTube
    9 December 2017 ↩︎

  10. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost FuturesGhosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures 2014

  11. Pop-culture diplomacy in Japan: soft power, nation branding and the question of ‘international cultural exchange’
    Koichi Iwabuchi
    International Journal of Cultural Policy
    08 August 2015 ↩︎

  12. A meme of Lain Iwakura - the main character of Serial Experiments Lain - modded into Tony Hawk's Underground (2003) as a skateboarding player character.
    @pongopea, YouTube
    9 March 2023 ↩︎