By Bob Clark
While reading Masamune Shirow’s work in manga after being exposed to their animated adaptations, it’s easy to take for granted the growth and development of ideas and sensibilities apparent throughout much of his early work in the 8o’s. Throughout Dominion Tank Police and Appleseed it’s perhaps even more enlightening to witness the evolution on a step by step basis, as the mangaka’s concerns mature beyond the mere sci-fi mecha action set-pieces that his characters were written around and into a set of stakes, circumstances and scale that’s far more in touch with the real world, to a point. At the same time, as the more adolescent elements of pimped up robot action and even more pimped up sexuality remains in play, it’s apparent that we’re reaching the point where Shirow begins to truly outgrow one narrative branch, necessitating a move onto the next. By the end of his run on the fourth and final book of the series, Appleseed less and less resembles the high-concept utopian action-adventure manga it began as and feels more and more like Ghost in the Shell, for good and ill, and by the time that Shinji Aramaki made his CGI animated adaptations in the past decade, Appleseed had almost completely transformed into something else entire.
In a sense, both transformations are natural, and perhaps even inevitable. After all, to a large extent he was always working and reworking the same basic genre patterns and situations following a squad of high-tech paramilitary professionals headed by beautiful kick-ass vixens in stories that were half police-procedurals, half political potboilers and one-hundred percent cyberpunk sex-and-violence filled fanservice delivery vehicles. By Ghost in the Shell he’d managed to perfect and mature that basic set of narrative tropes into an almost perfect form (it would take Oshii and Kamiyama’s film and television versions to take the franchise another few steps closer to that ideal), finding just the right mixture of the futuristic and contemporary to allow his sci-fi elements to comment on the accelerated technological pace and resulting cultural consequences in the present without those aspects drowning out any and all sense of the here and now. Appleseed in its first two volumes is a far purer blend of futurism, and though that blend can often be entertaining and enlightening as far as Shirow’s storytelling are concerned, it’s exactly the type of combination that can be a little off-putting as far as any sense of reality, heightened or otherwise, is concerned.
The early exploits of the lovely Deunan Kneutes and her cyborg lover Briareos in the troubled utopia of Olympus may at times be a winning allegory, using various factions like the Bioroids, the Gaia computer and the ESWAT personnel in general as symbolic-stand ins for the divisive forces within human civilization, and at times they even graze the same kind of iconic dystopian quality that Huxley and Orwell achieved in their work, but for the most part everything’s too detached from any connection to the real world for the story to have the same kind of impact. Starting with the third volume, however, Shirow begins to expand the scope of his story to look at the consequences of a global war in the modern age and the frighteningly fast rise of a new superpower throughout the rest of the world, with an eye in particular to the ways in which that superpower exerts its influence over the affairs of other nations. Though high-concept aspects like cyborg soldiers, genetically grown mutant weapons and all manner of mechas are still present throughout, the manga becomes increasingly concerned with the tactical nitty-gritty of special-forces assault teams conducting raids on high-value terrorist and military personnel around the world, with focus on the action-packed missions themselves and the legal ramifications of warrantless espionage alike.
Though it means moving away from the potent setting of Olympus for long stretches, it’s a gambit that almost completely pays off when it comes to pushing Shirow’s storytelling along to more mature concerns, and as far as timeliness goes, you couldn’t ask for a better era to deal with the subject of global imperialism in sci-fi than the 1980’s. With both Reagan and Bush’s presidencies, Thatcher’s residency in Downing Street and the waning days of the Soviet Union revolving in large part around paramilitary actions of questionable legality in third world countries and colonial footholds around the globe, the idea of proxy wars and battles waged by distant professionals and guerillas was ever-present in media, and to varying degrees all of them find themselves targeted for critique by Shirow throughout the course of Appleseed‘s second half. What’s more interesting however is how Shirow conducts his critique, portraying all the old superpowers as criminal, impotent or both in the post-war world, and now subject to the same kind of imperial military gambits they used to maintain by the new stronghold of Olympus. At its best moments, the manga becomes reminiscent of the latter portions of H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, with the post-war world conquered by a seemingly utopian scientific state that thinks nothing of gassing whole populations in the name of global peace. Shirow at least seems self-conscious enough to recognize a level of hypocrisy in his characters’ actions– trying their best to create an empire without imperialism.
Of course, that self-consciousness only goes so far, or at least Shirow recognizes that it can only be pulled in certain directions with the right kind of bait. Most of the action sequences in the second half of Appleseed focus primarily on the ESWAT forces stripped of their Landmate mechas and fighting primarily only in stormtrooper-style body armor or in skin-tight suits for fights based largely on real-world close-quarter combat tactics, the most high-tech equipment on display being automatic rifles and ceramic blades. Just as the fighting takes on a more physical register, with bodies outside of their robot-suits given more and more emphasis as the books go on, so too is there more of an emphasis on the physical dimension in general, the naked body especially as characters like Deunan and her fellow female comrades spending long stretches between military engagements bathing in the nude, usually while delivering long info-dump expository monologues on the socio-political state of the world or their own traumatic backstories. Sometimes it turns out to be both at the same time, such as the segment excerpted above where we learn about Deunan’s sudden, by this point rather improbable multi-racial roots.
It’s admirable for how it shows Shirow constantly striving to remind his readers of the volatile state of world affairs during the creation of his work, and for thinking about his sci-fi world and the characters that fill it as seriously as possible while also attempting to make the information as palatable as can be. But at the same time it’s easy to see pages like these where his buxom beauties are stretched out with every inch of their naked bodies oiled up for the reader as having something of a cheapening effect on all the vital information he seeks to impart. It’s the intellectual opposite of highbrow articles in publications like Playboy offering a seeming justification for any hot-blooded male with a subscription– you can class up porn with serious writing, but does it really work the other way around? As a precursor to the more uninhibited sexual displays in the Ghost in the Shell comics and Shirow’s later poster book hentai work, it’s evidence of the creator’s constant wrestle with a fetishistic attention to detail both within and without the frame for realism in his high-concept depictions of mankind’s future, and his attention to fetishes, period.
The total absence of almost any kind of sexuality is one of the first things readily apparent about Shinji Aramaki’s two feature-length CGI Appleseed films, which do their best to combine elements from both halves of the epic manga for an original set of stories that marry more of the high-concept sci-fi stakes of the first two volumes with the high-impact visceral military action of the third and fourth. Released in 2004 and 2007, Appleseed and Appleseed: Ex Machina represent something of a high point for the niche genre of computer generated anime, and though never quite reaching the same level of comfort or quality with digital filmmaking that American studios like Pixar, DreamWorks or Lucas Animation have with the same tools, they offer something that easily bests other similar efforts like Fumihiko Sori’s Vexille or TO. Sori himself served as a producer on Aramaki’s first Appleseed film, and for the most part these two features straddle the same line that Sori’s films did as far as the divide between uncanny and unnatural digital movement in CG animation, and just as in the case of Sori’s films there’s ample room for some of this element of the unreal in Shirow’s story and world of natural humans seeking to share a world with the artificial Bioroids.
Throughout both films there’s an atmosphere that mixes the physicality of three-dimensional models with a shallow depth of field, contrast level and mechanical motion that’s rather fitting for Olympus, an environment whose very artificiality leads to key characters seeing it as little more than a well-groomed cage in the comics. Just as Katsuhiro Katayama’s traditional OVA effort emphasized the fakeness of Appleseed‘s world with flat pastels that made the whole city into one endless shopping mall, Aramaki’s meticulously crafted but lifeless digital dioramas give his Olympus the appearance of an immense miniature golf course, never more distressingly artificial than when it strains to look real. Yet somehow his human characters largely escape the uncanny effect and wind up appearing more natural, more expressive and empathetic than anything from Sori’s stiffened repertoire. Aramaki appears to have mastered the technical craft of subtle and obvious cel-shading to make his digital actors stand out from their environments, at times producing a pronounced and softened look to their features which makes them easier to identify with. At the same time, that softening effect sometimes feels as though it goes too far, especially where hardened military professional characters like Deunan Knutes are concerned– much of the time, she seems less like the G.I. Jane from Shirow’s pages and more a doe-eyed bishojo with a pixie-cut.
Furthermore, the overall stories and worlds being conceived for these original features at length have increasingly little to do with the manga itself and seemingly more to do with the pop-cultural landscape of the past ten to fifteen years, much of which has been in no small part influenced by Shirow and the various offsprings of his work. While the first film does a decent job of retelling and reconfiguring the basic elements of the first half of the Appleseed manga for the purposes of an action-packed feature (wee handfuls of Deunan’s backstory are altered to better fit a two hour pace or to heighten the stakes), the second fabricates a whole plot of its own that results in little more than a technological zombie movie. Throughout both features Aramaki steers wildly in tone and style, lifting much of the imagery for his landscapes and set-pieces from latter-day Matrix and Star Wars films, as well as cinema-heavy video-game series like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy.
Perhaps the element that the films miss the most from the Shirow mangas is the very thing that was holding his storytelling back at that point, and the very thing that kept the series’ sense of itself in check– its short-sightedness. One of the things that makes Deunan and Briareos so endearing is the way in which their focus always remains on the personal and immediate, no matter how swamped they become by the convoluted conspiracies of enemies both foreign and domestic. Aramaki’s films never miss the heart of their relationship, or the personal dimensions of characters around them– indeed, in the issue of Bioroid emotions and reproduction of the first film and the advent of a near-clone of Briareos in the second, both features find ample ways to incorporate the personal into the high-concept plots of the films, in ways that at times the more practically minded military-espionage gambits of the manga’s second-half sometimes lose sight of. But in marrying the intimate and the epic so closely and turning Deunan into another variation on the typical “chosen one” archetype prevalent in sci-fi and anime, it loses the casual aspect that makes much of Shirow’s earlier mangas so relatable, even at their most visionary moments.
Deunan and Briareos may give a damn about the political ramifications of their conduct on ESWAT, but at the end of the day they care more about keeping up with loan payments, personal histories and most of all each other. That’s what makes Appleseed truly different from later, sometimes better efforts like Ghost in the Shell– in the story simple army-brat girl and her robot boyfriend, Shirow doesn’t just tell us about someone who knows how to fight, but someone who knows what’s worth fighting for in the first place.