By Bob Clark
In the West, the thirty-year vet manga artist Masamune Shirow is known mainly for spawning the Ghost in the Shell series, adapted for animation in critically acclaimed films and television shows by Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kamiyama, respectively. Besides that work, he’s gained a solid, if somewhat suspicious reputation as one of the defining and most influential artists in his field over the past several decades, with a breadth of work in comics and illustration that’s hard to match. Granted, much of his most recent work has tended towards the pornographic, and even in his less openly erotic works there’s usually little to inhibit the self-gratification impulse prevalent in his stories and characters– nearly all of his high-concept sci-fi escapades revolve around dishy badass chicks who discharge explosive military weaponry first and disrobe for some kinky R&R later. In his best works, this is paired with a genuinely thoughtful introspection on philosophical and political themes, making fine use of police and military genres as well as high-tech cyberpunk, at times rising to become some of the most visionary and impressive critiques of 1980’s culture from almost every conceivable angle. At his best, Shirow makes sure to cover all the bases (sexual and otherwise), and in its first two books, Appleseed stands as some of his most impressive work, perhaps even more so than his classic Ghost in the Shell. But then, in the case of this manga, it helps that there’s nothing to outshine the original in quite the same way as Oshii and Kamiyama’s animation.
Oh, make no mistakes, there is an Appleseed OVA that takes its cues, broadly, from the first two volumes of Shirow’s manga, published in 1985. And for what by all appearances looks to be something of a budget animated backdoor pilot, an hourlong story with minor resolution and plenty of threads left loose for future productions (which were never made, at least by this team), it’s a relatively impressive affair, and in some ways manages to emphasize some of the themes of the original in a clearer, more concise language. But it takes only a quick glance at Shirow’s pages to see just how much is lost in the translation, even when one accounts for the difference of time and substance– over the course of two relatively slim volumes of about 200 pages each, Shirow manages to weave a complex story of multiple vying factions left in the wake of World War III and moreover develop a deep, rich picture of a utopian civilization and the means taken to protect it in ways that mirror and comment upon the high lifestyle enjoyed in first-world industrialized nations throughout the 80’s.
It’s a tall order for even a feature-length production to fit the sheer volume and density of the themes being played with into its running time, especially while also straining to squeeze a buxom blonde like Deunan Knutes and her cyborg paramour Briareaos Hecatonchires into the picture. In many ways, you can see a lot of the same basic themes and archetypes being played with here that Shirow would later find an ideal blend for in Ghost in the Shell and its animated counterparts– a tough, seasoned SWAT cop vet with a penchant for spending long stretches nude, Deunan at many points feels like an early variation on the same badass-sexpot heroine that would later evolve into Motoko Kusanagi, especially when standing next to the cyborg hulk of Bato. Much of their job descriptions and actions throughout the books remain exactingly similar, as well, with both pairs belonging to a high-tech city’s elite paramilitary police force (“Section 6” in Ghost in the Shell, “ESWAT” here) and operate bulky mech-robot units when engaged in battles with heavily armed terrorist factions. Thankfully, it only takes a slightly closer look to find differences in the two, enough to count the works as more than merely an author recycling the same themes, but rather evolving and growing with them– unlike the fuchikoma and tachikomas that the agents of Section 6 work with, the “landmate” and “guges” robots that ESWAT work and contend with don’t come with childlike personalities, but are merely vehicles in the Patlabor model.
The difference this makes on the overall tenor of the stories is both easily noticeable (no comic relief from the kindergarten robots) and subtle– unlike Ghost in the Shell and its ruminations on the nature of existence and identity as filtered through the cyberpunk themes of artificial-intelligence of every ilk, Appleseed is more concerned with a slightly tinkered variation of more pressing and present range of ideas set to contemporary 80’s concerns. It’s easy to look at Prometheus– a utopian paradise built after the ruins of a non-nuclear flare-up in the Cold War, maintained and largely populated by a genetically engineered race of “Bioroid” artificial humans– and see it as a stand-in for Japan’s place in the world in the wake of WWII, caught literally and figuratively between the influence of the United States and Soviet Union and subject to a strange sense of both relative prosperity and powerlessness on the world stage. Shirow’s Bioroids and the role they play in the ongoing machinations of the first half of Appleseed are among his most impressively understated efforts as a storyteller– created to run the artificial utopia of Olympusfor the benefit of humans, but capable of sustaining and replicating themselves like any other life form, by the time the story opens they amount for at least half the city’s population, blending in and mingling fully with the rest of natural-born humanity, whom they preside over with the efficiency of scientists experimenting with guinea-pigs.
It’s an impressively novel and efficient expression of the common “man against technology” theme that’s been present in robot-fiction since the days of Asimov and was especially popular in 80’s films like James Cameron’s Terminator series or Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner. The Bioroids don’t come to conquer humanity with openly hostile actions, or even any sense of hostility at all– they merely offer a life in a city of seemingly unlimited resources and means to any humans found surviving in the wastelands of war’s aftermath, and then keep a close eye on them once they’re locked in the maze. As far as the usual sci-fi utopia/dystopia ratios go, the quality of life and balance of freedom in Olympus is fairly benign, and that’s precisely where the problem is. Throughout the early portions of the manga, humans continually find themselves uncomfortable in the easy-living paradise that the Biroids have built, and enjoy themselves– lives of sedate, contented jobs, non-stop shopping and sugar-sweet partying, their entire world nothing but an endless shopping mall with nothing but the occasional karaoke bar and condo in between. Shirow’s robots aren’t the lethal menace of Cameron’s films, or even the homicidal but sympathetic ones of Scott’s– the threat they pose is one of vapid unawareness of the world around them. Instead of being programmed to be smarter, stronger and more dangerous than their creators, they’re made to be docile, shallow and happy with the consumerist pleasures. Instead of being “more human than human”, they are merely utterly, even pathetically human.
Yet he also goes to great lengths to imbue them with just as much personality and depth as any of the natural characters throughout the manga, allowing us to invest in them as more than just an existential menace to the conflict and chemistry of human potential. At its best and most understated moments, Appleseed shines as a canny combination of Brave New World and John Carpenter’s They Live, a sly examination and indictment of yuppie lifestyle and the ways in which it robs both those enjoying it and those aspiring to it of their humanity. The dilemma also creates a natural set of circumstances for the ongoing threat of terrorism in the seemingly perfect city, as lone humans waking up to the artificiality and loss of freedom in this new world attempt to strike back against the Bioroids, good and bad alike, and as such leads to some of the most convincingly asked questions about the nature of oppression and liberty in comics this side of the Mutant dilemma from X-Men and other Western examples. By taking great pains to make the causes of both sides equally valid and suspect, Shirow manages what all great sci-fi parables aim for in using both high-concept imaginings of the future and deeply rooted concerns of the present to articulate a set of questions, rather than spout of a series of mere talking points.
It also helps provide a foundation for some of his most impressive feats of visual world-building and storytelling as a sequential artist– though the cyberpunk thrills, action and thought-provocations of Ghost in the Shell may be more impressive on a narrative level and the results of their adaptations in animation may be classic, there’s a flavor of sheer beauty to some of the design work throughout Appleseed that helps make it among Shirow’s most impressive efforts as a mangaka. From the iconic architecture of Olympus’ districts and the feverish detail with which he imagines and renders all of the systems which keep it running (buildings built into the tilting slope of immense slanted beds of solar panels, like cities living inside the wings of Sydney’s Opera House) to the energetic, positively explosive panel design he employs for action-packed set-pieces and simple conversation alike, there’s a visual dynamism both in the world of the manga and the way in which it’s rendered to the reader that matches the subjects at hand of an attractively manufactured, but constricting world. Shirow’s work is always stylish, and often far more substantive than one might expect from this kind of genre fare, but at the best moments of Appleseed there’s a marriage between the two that at times outmatches anything in Ghost in the Shell, there it seemed at times he’d found the proper constraints and focuses for his procedural meditations, but with a slight loss in terms of ambition. Here, he may not achieve greatness all the time, but he does enough for it to be worthwhile, and even when he doesn’t at least his failures are worthwhile as creative experiments.
As far as Appleseed in animation goes, the 1987 OVA makes a good, honest attempt to translate as much of the style and themes of the two 1985 volumes as possible, but with naturally diminishing returns given the shortened length. Here, we get only a handful of incidents that take some of the basic episodes from the manga and put them on screen with an oddly reductive sense of scale– one of the benefits of manga and comics in general, of course, is that in the right hands you can tell an epic story of unlimited scale and scope at an almost non-existent cost, something that isn’t possible in the expensive medium of animation. As such, the narrative abridgements aren’t really as noticeable or bothersome as those that hem in the spectacle prevalent throughout the manga– especially given the open-ended nature of the movie’s conclusion, it’s easy to look at the hour of animation we have here and imagine how its themes might’ve been continued in a series of OVA’s or television-episodes that picked up the story where it was left off here, giving us a primer-taste for the whole of Shirow’s manga, later to be parceled out in more managable doses later on. But without the frenetic, explosive and exacting way that the action is imagined and delivered on the page, the whole story and world suffer somewhat by feeling like a mere collection of themes and types common to anime and sci-fi throughout the 80’s. Aside from the bunny-eared Briareos (whose relationship with Deunan is further developed in the later volumes), there’s little here to distinguish the SWAT-cop-on-mech sequences and tone of this work from better anime like Patlabor, or even lesser (but fun) stuff like Shirow’s own Dominion Tank Police or live-action fare like RoboCop.
If the Appleseed OVA works at all, it’s thanks to the ways in which the crew manages to translate as much of the themes of Shirow’s original into less expensive avenues than the epic world-building and action-spectacle of the manga into little moments and aspects throughout. Director Kazuyoshi Katayama takes the limited animation and delivers a tight, but fluid sense of visual economy throughout, maximizing his resources and coming up with savvy uses of angle, composition and editing (a cut to a guard dropping a can of soda as he’s shot has a nice Frankenheimer feel to it) that would later serve him well throughout the whole of the much more expansively rendered The Big O. Hideaki Anno pops in as a mechanical designer, streamlining much of the designs from Shirow’s manga to better fit the fluid demands of animation. Perhaps most impressive about the OVA is how it at times tones down the beautifully envisioned, but sometimes remote and distant futuristic world of the original and reigns it into something even more reminiscent of the contemporary. Katayama brings the black-and-white of the manga into a florid display of Miami Vice pastel, which along with charmingly outdated tech like electronic typewriters, teletypes and cassette-recorders helps make the anime at times an even more direct commentary on 1980’s society, even if it isn’t as powerful.
In later years we’ve seen Shirow’s manga brought again into animation with couple of CG features from Shinji Aramaki and a newer series from television, both of which take advantage of the fuller scope of the story as told by later volumes, and those remain as different to the work done here as the latter half of Appleseed is to the way in which it began. Though Shirow started the series as something of a closed utopian world, later installments would focus more and more on how Olympus coexists with the powers-that-be in the post-apocalyptic ruins, and at times make for an interesting, if increasingly frustrating look at global imperialism that would eventually segue into the more propulsive and nuanced view of Ghost in the Shell. But for now, let’s leave Appleseed the way that it begins, the way that it ends, and the way that all of Shirow’s manga and the best of comics in general tend to do at the height of their sequential powers– in medeas res.