By Bob Clark
Masamune Shirow is a curious mangaka to study in terms of the total body of his career. Today, he’s mostly known for the franchises of anime films and television series his comics have sired– even without considering the subject of this article, the likes of Appleseed, DominionTank Police and Ghost Hound would be a tidy, respectable impact on the otaku community, to say the least (at the very least, a reasonably profitable one). Those works mostly lived in much of the same futuristic entertainment/fantasia element that a lot of manga and anime aim at, providing wholly imagined worlds tethered just enough to our present-day circumstances to feel recognizable and contemporary, even while projecting themselves and the scope of their intrigues at a scale that would far exceed even some of the most high-concept of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi spectacles. The first two works also share in common a strict adherence to the police procedural genre, following special tactical cop forces as they seek to maintain order in worlds decimated by some series of far-flung apocalyptic disasters, dictatorial dystopian states or an out-of-control criminal element consisting mainly of twin cat-girl bombshells (or, of course, all of the above). Shirow’s use of the model is something you see a lot in sci-fi, and works in anime and manga especially, where you can detect a faint aura of militarist wish-fulfillment in all of the high-tech weaponry that the various detectives and officers have at their disposal and the ways in which they’re used in cases of high international intrigue throughout their city-wide beats– Japan may not have a standing army that can fight wars overseas anymore, but there’s always ways to bring the war home and fight it with just the same kind of hardware, especially in the information age.
Usually you see this fantasy for re-empowerment rendered with the distancing effect of technology so state-of-the-art it can only exist in science-fiction, most often some variation of robot-cyborg imaginings– a plausible, if far-fetched, destination for human inventiveness in the coming decades that’s still fairly innocuous when compared to contemporary weaponry like tanks or helicopters. At the same time, this militarist dream also often finds itself paired with a self-knowing kind of fear of the consequences of what those kinds of authorities can become when directed against the very people they’re supposed to protect– one need only look at the Japanese Strategic Self-Defense Force’s bloody invasion of NERV during The End of Evangelion to see the threatening reality of all that boyish excitement in army hardware come crashing down upon the heads of children themselves. There’s a bit of it as well in the series of interlocking international crises of the Patlabor films, where the mech-suit robot sentinels watch over the transition from one state of emergency to another less as active participants and more like silent, watchful statues of angels from the perch of a cathedral. In both cases, you can see a series that began with a focus on the larger-than-life robot vehicles dwelling more and more on the human pilots, eventually almost entirely divorcing them from their giant charges in order to invest them in the existential and political action almost entirely on their own, naked in a set of worlds that only make passing attempts to disguise themselves from the utterly real.
Shirow’s early manga works, though inventive and imaginative to no end, are largely pieces of escapist fantasy, in the ways that most manga are. Though Appleseed seeks to conjure an elaborate post-apocalyptic world with its own heavy mythology of themes both gleaned from religion and classical science-fiction of the Asimov variety, it’s mostly seeking to be nothing more than a fun, action-packed romp with a cute chick and a hulking rabbit-eared robot, and on that level it succeeds. Dominion may have eventually aimed to outgrow its simplistic concept of another cute chick and the loving devotion she gives to her even cuter diminutive tank and the rogue’s gallery of fellow cops and criminals they both square off with, but in the end it always remained pretty close to those roots– at least closer to them than the Patlabor series did when they gravitated from OVA and television to feature-films, where Oshii could stretch his musings to a more ponderous pace. On the surface, one could look at the original manga of Ghost in the Shell and not expect it to be offering that much more than its predecessors in terms of overall maturity, unless one were thinking in terms of graphic violence and sexuality on display. Right away, you’ve got all the same hallmark qualities of typical Shirow– frenetic action, though now in a frequently gory and visceral register, and a comely young female protagonist in the person of Major Motoko Kusanagi, whose physical attributes are put to good use in plenty of frantic chases, shoot-outs and sexual set-pieces. Hell, right in the third chapter she’s seen dallying in an explicit, drug-fueled lesbian orgy before going on a mission, in a manner so haphazard you can’t quite tell if Shirow is giving into a moment of gutter fan-service just to get it out of the way, or flex his muscles for things to come (anybody who’s seen his Gal-Grease series– which is exactly what it sounds like, no matter what you might think from the title alone– knows the answer to that question).
It’s moments like those that stand out, when reading the Ghost in the Shell manga again after almost drowning in the variously acclaimed animated adaptations over the past 12 years or so– both Oshii’s features and Kenji Kamiyamas’s stand-out Stand Alone Complex have in many circles managed to outpace the reputation of their original source material, primarily by focusing on the philosophical and political undercurrents throughout Shirow’s high-concept world and mostly ignoring the baser instincts along the way. Oshii’s Kusanagi is a cold individual, almost entirely divorced from any sense of human connection save for a stray spark of camaraderie with the hulking, robot-eyed Batou (who in the books is more of a boorish clown), in short the type of person who in this kind of sci-fi seems predestined to make an existential AI transformation just to alleviate boredom, the same way Sherlock Holmes took cocaine. Kamiyama’s Major, by contrast, is a little warmer with her fellow members of Section-9, and even seems to have some kind of a social/romantic life outside of work with a pair of cute nurses (the lesbian three-ways are still there, implicitly, in a gentlemanly, TV friendly sort of way). Both pale in comparison to the tempest of personality that is Shirow’s original conception of the character, who displays both a tight degree of tactical professionalism when out in the field, but manages to relax a great deal more during off-hours and even briefings, her face contorting into all kinds of typical cartoon emotional expressions one would think physically impossible of the mask-like features of the Oshii and Kamiyama versions.
In many ways, Shirow’s Kusanagi begins in a manner not all that different from any number of other bad-ass bombshells in manga, anime and beyond, acting in ways that would seem frightfully out of character both for herself and at times the larger franchise as a whole– getting drunk on sake (not that she wouldn’t drink, but that her cyborg body would make it impossible for her to be intoxicated) or griping to comrades doing a brain-dive into her mind while she’s on her period (is there even enough of her original body left for her to menstruate at all?). But then what makes Shirow’s take on her so different is that he begins without a set take on the character, as Oshii and Kamiyama did in their efforts. This is natural in one sense, being that Shirow’s is the original, and that he began it as a serialized effort, allowing the character and world to grow as he went along, and it’s that sense of growth that’s missing in both of the animated incarnations of the character, no matter their depth. Shirow’s Kusanagi can be a crass, vulgar figure at times, see-sawing between pin-up and the female equivalent of the kind of soldier who’d put those posters up in the first place between battles, but he takes advantage of those attributes in her character to give her a place to grow from. As time passes from mission to mission in the manga, we see Kusanagi subtly growing more serious and troubled by the implications of her existence both as a cyborg and as the top dog in a military police unit. Eventually, she begins to resemble more the animated Kusanagi, though in the manga that cold, reserved persona is more of a destination for her growth, and not the starting point.
In a sense, you can see the basic differences in the portrayal of Kusanagi boioling down to the narrative streamlining that Kazunori Ito did in his screenplay for the original Oshii film, and the precedents that set for Kamiyama in his series. Unlike the manga, where Kusanagi joins the newly formed Section 9 secret police-force out of nowhere, and is greeted as an unknown element by Chief Aramaki and all involved, Ito’s screenplay depicts her as a longtime veteran of the unit, on terms of professional familiarity with everyone (including Batou– she doesn’t even ghost-hack him into hitting himself once). The baseline of her volatile personality and sex-life lets us chart her growth both as a human being and beyond mere humanity in ways that we never quite can in the features (where she’s little more than a talking head for abstract existential philosophy that occasionally takes off all her clothes and shoots people) or the television series (where she’s much more down to earth, sometimes even sentimentally so, but still always kept at arm’s length from the audience). Though his tactics certainly aren’t subtle, and their motivations probably have more to do with delivering the kind of sexed-up action-driven appeal that comic-book fans of any nationality have an appetite for, Shirow’s rendition of Kusanagi as a vain, boastful and lusty young woman in between her gigs as a career assassin help build her up as something more than just a paranoid android or superheroine ideal. Maybe not much more, but enough to make her stand out as something Oshii’s Kusanagi never was and Kamiyama’s only ever was in passing– a human being.
Of course, in a work where the issue of humanity is constantly faced by the checks and balances of questions raised by the increasing cyberization of the world’s information, putting brains and cyborg components into so many chassies of flesh & blood or metal & silicon, the issue of Kusanagi’s growth as a person takes on a whole set of different meanings, and the weight that these notions are given in the book may represent something of a strength of comics when telling these kinds of high-concept stories, over other mediums. Oshii and Kamiyama often take imagery straight from Shirow’s manga, especially when it comes to representing the whole cyberbrain concept, with human brains being artificially augmented to include cybernetic components in order to directly tap into cyberspace and virtual realities, and even live on in new prosthetic bodies after the old ones fall prey to injury, illness or aging. Despite the action-adventure construct that the book spins its tales in, Shirow is dealing with a lot of heady stuff that futurists around the world see as somewhat within reach for humanity some decades hence (one would like to think that given enough time, he may be seen as visionary as Jules Verne was in imagining trips to the moon and the bottom of the ocean ahead of his time, but for all we know by then the Singularity will have taken over), and as much of his work is dedicated to nothing more than shoot-outs, half-baked spy games and slippery sexual shenanigans, it is also one of the most meticulously researched and scientifically detailed works of sci-fi you’re likely to find in any medium.
On one level, this is where some of the baser instincts present in the book actually take hold and provide a firmer grounding for so much of the increasingly remote way in which humanity can be represented as little more than fleshy pieces of hardware to be adapted with to so many metal-and-wire casings, or how the very soul can be distilled into mere software for our carbon-based or silicon processors. Gaudy as it may be, but seeing Kusanagi give into her primal sexual drives helps give the physical a tangible quality, and provides a sharper context for the social evolutions at play– concepts like the transformation of intelligent life from humanity to cyborg or the strange kinds of immortality those kinds of “upgrades” can produce may be hard to relate to, but as long as we still have the same erotic appetites to satisfy, at least we have a general idea of what ballpark we’re playing in. It helps make the bodies at play throughout the book feel more real, and makes reveals like those of a woman’s cyberbrain removed from her skull much more of a visceral moment than in the film. Part of this is because of the frozen nature of comic-book illustration, naturally, the static image given more weight than the moving one as it rapidly changes from one scene to another. At times, Shirow buries his story within increasingly complex illustrations, quickly moving from on subject to the next, be they action set-pieces, existential quandaries or political intrigues, but makes his panel layout fluid and dynamic enough to carry the general direction as lucidly as possible– though his pages are some of the most dense you’re liable to find even in manga, he makes excellent use of the comics medium throughout.
Case in point are the copious footnotes present throughout the book, breathlessly annotating everything from the mineral compounds of the high-speed microchips that process the cyborg brainpower of the various characters to the political make-up of the future world (he never gets around to justifying how the Soviet Union’s still alive and kicking somewhere in the 21st century, but one can’t help but find those kind of sci-fi anachronisms charming after a while). While at times one can find a fairly self-conscious attitude about these notes, as though Shirow were trying to justify all his imagination with facts and statistics, the mere presence of all this information provides something of an intellectual cushion for all the high-concept fare to take root. This is especially true when faced by the major plotline of both the first manga volume and Oshii’s initial film– the Puppet Master (or Puppeteer, depending on which version you’re reading). As a being of pure artificial-intelligence that is born in the “sea of information” as though it were a lab specimen in a petri-dish, the Puppet Master character represents a component of the Ghost in the Shell experience that shows how differently many of the same exact ideas and even imagery can play with differences in the overall fabric of each telling. Much of the Puppet Master’s role in Shirow’s manga is in relating an increasingly esoteric set of ideas governing the role that genes and memes play in perpetuating life on a biological and cosmic scale, culminating in a set of visually expressed meditations on everything from classic Bhuddist philosophy to the Kabbalah (he saved Gnostic Christian mysteries and Freudian mumbo-jumbo to Anno, apparently), giving concrete form to so many of the same abstract quandaries that are related in the Oshii film.
Though the director borrows much of the same imagery from the comics during these portions, including glimpses of a feather-shedding angel from some seemingly divine corner of cyberspace, they’re tethered less to concrete realities than in the original work, where the mangaka uses the sequential nature of comics to offer step-by-step illustrations of the unusual ideas he’s talking about. And though his subjects often remain just as obscure, one is given at least an emotional sense of being grounded, the safety of being surrounded by professionals who know what they’re doing, especially when you might not. To an extent, one can find a strange philosophical paradox at work with some of these ideas, especially when the book drives itself into more forthright political conflicts– unlike the Oshii or Kamiyama animations, which take an uneasy stance with observing the sometimes dystopian tactics that Section 9 uses to police criminal, corporate and private individuals, Shirow all but embraces their strong-arm tactics, at times endorsing a militarist state that Mishima himself might’ve been proud of. Of course, one can’t quite imagine where someone like Kusanagi would fit into that kind of socially conservative paradigm, but given the occasional clashes she has with protesters throughout the book or the way she’s put on trial for war crimes at the end, it’s hard not to recognize, at the very least, the way in which the question is being raised. Shirow’s work may not be as refined as Oshii’s celebrated take on the story or Kamiyama’s popular vision of it, but it’s easily among the most conceptually and stylistically groundbreaking comics-efforts of the past twenty-five years. It feels alive.