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So interweaved are elements as science, philosophy, cyberpunk, police procedural narratives, conspiracy, comedy, and action, the work blends conventions to invisibility just like the technological binding holding each characters’ spirits in a bodies. No saying that any of these elements is up to the par set by succeeding entries in the series, but Shirow’s original was the first, and the first to do it right. This in itself is compelling; from what I understand of the man’s earlier works, The Ghost in the Shell came out of nowhere in terms of pure Shirowesque creativity. The first volume of the manga is a stand alone work, where a story arc is uncovered across a series of smaller stories. We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team of elite Japanese police known as Section 9, a cyborg special-ops squad dealing in anti-terrorism. Like 24‘s CTU, but more high-tech and with less betrayals. As they tackle troubles of the day, they explore some pretty lofty ideas that often coincide with the artist’s more cartoonish tendencies in the illustration.

Going into the manga, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Shirow has often attracted criticism (at least, from the three anime-related podcasts I subscribe to) for being the idea-man, and nothing else. He’s given the world Ghost in the Shell, but really he gave Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell, and he made something great with the material. Having finally read the thing for myself, I can say that this is not entirely true, but not unfounded either.

The chief issue one familiar with the anime might find paging through the comic is its tone. Whereas the two movies are deadpan serious, and the series feels very western in its handling of light-heartedness (in moderation), the comic is relentless in its plain goofiness. The humor itself isn’t necessarily terrible, but its presence is felt, and it feels inappropriate. Every issue ends similar to how some of the Stand Alone episodes of Stand Alone Complex do — the Major and Batou solemnly discuss the philosophical or psychological undercurrents of what just happened. Sometimes this will include a panel of the guy who’s been hacked to believe he’s got a wife and kids, and this moment is pretty sombre, but also a satisfying conclusion. Classic Ghost in the Shell. But then we get one more panel at the bottom with superdeformed Aramaki barking some order and the Tachikomas, or Fuchikomas, squawking about a farcical robot rebellion.

It’s not fair to say that this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics, because the last time I reviewed a manga it was Phoenix, and that was consistent in art style and tone throughout. At the very least, it was balanced, confident in its tone. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that indeed this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics. Why else would Shirow include it? He’s got to be playing to a culture, a rich history of titles with these types of jokes and breaking the seriousness every once in a while.

That would be perfectly fine were it not for what the humor sidelines often distract from. The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow to me was like the bible for the rest of the series — from this point stories were drawn for elements in Innocence, episodes in Stand Alone Complex, and the arc for Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society. Because of this, the stories are a delight to behold. It also takes the approach closer to the series than the movies in terms of the characters; Saito and Pazu and Boma aren’t seen a whole lot (I’m pretty sure “Paz,” as he’s called, never makes an appearance), but they’re there, where they never show up in the films (except for Saito for a frame or two in the first movie, without his eyepatch).

The artwork, when it isn’t superdeformed, is in my opinion pretty superb. I qualify with “in my opinion,” because my experience with the medium is limited, so it’s difficult for me to judge what truly great comic art should be like. The cityscapes and robot designs are particularly striking; Shirow undoubtedly has an eye for design, which I suppose is why Shinji Aramaki gets hired to bring his stuff to the silver screen. Guns are another big thing for me, and they get their due, as do the vehicles.

Most impressive would have to be the cyborg stuff. When somebody gets shot up real bad, the metal gets all jagged and wires stick out. Sometimes — as in the making of a cyborg — we see heads split open and mechanical brains inside. The detail in these drawings is inspiring, and we couple that with footnotes provided by the author that discuss the ludicrous science behind it all.

It’s certainly a unique experience, and though it’s been recognized time and again that The Ghost in the Shell exists mostly to create a formula for other things, its own merits should not be undervalued. There is a great deal of entertainment and provoking thought to be had in the volume, and if you’re as big a Major fan as I am, it’s always nice to see her in more adventures. I suppose that if you’re a real Major fan though the series would constitute as the “more adventures,” but whatever. To each his own Ghost in the Shell.

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It will be difficult for me to get across in words just how much I appreciate the Ghost in the Shell series, how much it means to me as a fan of science-fiction and… things that are good. I suppose that’ll make the next post somewhat ironic, but beyond that it’s all uphill, or downhill–good stuff anyhow, all good stuff. Ghost in the Shell appeals to me on almost every level as someone who’s watched a fair to nearly good amount of science-fiction movies and shows and never really ‘fallen in love’ with anything beyond the nostalgia movies of childhood.

They take a premise, which is that in the future we’ve blurred the line between metal and flesh, man and machine, such that our brains are computers and can be manipulated. But what of humanity?, and they don’t just make it about a detective or some dude, they make it about a paramilitary organization within the Japanese government–and they run into some crazy stuff. Of course, Ghost in the Shell 2 is more about detectives, but you still get the same dose of robot suits, cyber-terrorists, gadgets, gross bodily harm, artificial intelligence, and existential musings the series is known for.

It’s cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk if you must, with a heavy philosophical bent. An obvious influence on the Deus Ex series in this regard (though it’s probably more successful), and something that took a few notes itself from the likes of Gibson and Blade Runner. The world it creates is much more frightening than 2019 Los Angeles, or the Sprawl, however, as the future tech has become so advanced it’s invisible. You can have a shotgun in your arm and walk around town fully loaded while none would be the wiser. That’s not really the scary part, but it’s kind of a fun idea. What’s scary is the ability to be hacked…

We don’t really feel for computers when they cluck up–we feel for ourselves and our wallets. But what if we could be compromised mentally by the will of some motherfucker with good hacking skills? What if an artificial life form created on the Net wanted no more than to exist, but first needed you to believe you have a family when you don’t? One minute you’re some poor dude and the next you’re a terrorist. Or, one minute you’re a terrorist and the next you’re a meat puppet killing all your friends and waiting for somebody to cap you–depends on who’s team you’re on.

Ghost in the Shell is much more concerned with cyborgs and virtual reality than megacorporations or cyber-drugs or androids; there’s a prevailing preoccupation with the man-machine interface and the loss of humanity. The Major can’t quite be sure of herself, as her body was patched together before our very eyes in a lab, and there exist fake memories, like Blade Runner. Might she just be a collection of false lives inside a robot shell? At least she’s got her personality… but we’ll get into that.

This choice of cyberpunk tropes is what I like most and least about the series, but we’ll get there too…

Before we begin, I suppose I should note something. I’ve never watched a single volume of Ghost in the Shell with the original language track, so… see ya.

If you’ve decided to stick around to see what I have to say–thank you, that’s very courteous. The truth is: the dub is excellent. Which dub? All. With the exception I suppose of the first movie, all the voice talent is consistently good. There are those weird pauses and awkward intonations that you’d expect from any translated work, but these are few and far between, and perhaps appropriate, given the inhuman nature of the cast.

Ghost in the Shell is one of my very favorite things in the realm of science-fiction, so I’ll try to do it justice here. It’s all worth seeing, so if you haven’t yet, I recommend you get your ass to Amazon right quick, and here to help is a Ghost in the Shell Buyer’s Guide, because it can get kind of confusing:

(These are things that I’ve bought–they’re all good. I won’t speculate on anything)

1. Ghost in the Shell DVD, released by Manga Entertainment: $10 on Amazon. Light on special features, from what I recall, but it’s probably the most essential to own for any cinema buff. If you prefer high-def, you’ll have to settle for Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which is nearly the same movie, but with awkward CG rendered scenes in the beginning.

2. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Blu-Ray, released by Bandai Entertainment. There was a big curfuffle surrounding the original US release of Innocence. The DVD by DreamWorks Video has apparently a terrible subtitle job, which is basically just closed-captioned. If you want to know that a helicopter is making noise or that footsteps are happening, check this one out (Netflix ships this one), but if you want a real version or the English dub, look no further than the excellent Blu-Ray disc. Along with the Stand Alone Complex cast dub, it’s also got some Oshii-esque special features: a trip to Cannes and a look at how some scenes were animated. It’s $149.99 New on Amazon, which is shocking because it definitely was not that when I picked it up. Sorry. The DVD version, with its weird naked girl cover is equally absurd, at $49.99. The poop CC version will have to do, it’s a more modest $11. Honestly, the CC isn’t that terrible…

3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – I have yet to buy this one, because I watched it all on Netflix streaming, which it is currently on right as we speak. At the time, 2nd Gig wasn’t, so…

4. Ghost in the Shell: Anime Legends 2nd Gig, released by Bandai Entertainment. If I remember correctly, this is the same deal as the Cowboy Bebop I have–something like a Franchise Collection line, I don’t really know. It’s the cheaper version of the real thing, so you get all the discs but it’s bare bone–no special features. Being the whole second season I suppose $20 on Amazon isn’t bad, especially compared to the current cost of a new ‘real’ version, which may have better cover art, but’ll run you in the ballpark of $299.99. Used is only $24.95 at this moment, so if that doesn’t bother you it’s probably worth it. Like the first Gig, this is on Netflix streaming, so there’s an instant alternative if you have the subscription.

4. Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society Limited Edition Steelbook, released by Manga. Yikes this one is also expensive, running at $37.98 Amazon price. I paid maybe $20 for it so maybe the tides will turn in time. As it stands though it’s not a terrible deal. Three discs, including the soundtrack, which is pretty good–From the Roof Top by Ilaria Graziano is awesome–but not the series’ best. Considering the Blu-Ray is ten dollars cheaper I’d probably go for that one. The Limited Edition Blu-Ray is so expensive that it isn’t even available. (laughs)

5. Ghost in the Shell, PS2 game. Yeah I bought this for some unreasonable amount of money for the PS3, a system that refuses to play it. I think it was like $3, which wouldn’t be so bad but I also bought one of the PS2 classics–Zone of the Enders 2–the same day, and it wouldn’t play either. Thanks, Sony. You’re a pal.

So that’s the list. Pretty expensive. But worth it. I guess there were also two books, but… damn it. I’ll get to those later.

 

This is an exceptional piece of science-fiction. It is at once contained within a broader serialized, narrative structure, and a story that escalates from the personal to the grandiose on a cosmic level in a brisk but dense 260 pages. It mixes humor and tragedy, cartoon buffoonery and provocative SF what-ifs?, all while telling a rich and engaging story. The final half recalled to me one of the most startling moments in science-fiction I’d experienced recently – “The Last Generation” segment of Childhood’s End. Its turbulent story kept getting larger and larger and more exciting, similar to how “The Last Generation” seemed to encapsulate Children of Men and Akira as it discussed the end and transcendence of humankind. Plotwise, Phoenix isn’t too far off, telling a story about the death and rebirth of mankind as its hero Masato is granted immortality, a terrible burden he can’t handle, and illustrates that point by shooting himself in the head – to no avail.

You’re probably wondering why I’m only talking about Volume 2, and the answer is simple and sad: the first volume is hella lot of money, and as much as I’d like to read it, just can’t. I don’t think Volume 3 is even in my price range either, so I’ll have to shoot right on to 4 from here on out. I don’t the answer for this price-kerfuffle, but I assume it’s some company/international/licensing fuckups. One of those words. From what I read of the back cover of this particular volume, each story is self-contained, so I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Indeed, I can’t imagine what a “Phoenix, Vol. 3” would even look like – if I were a writer I would scratch my head bloody on where to go from here.

In the future, people have destroyed the planet. Or perhaps, in the near future, we’ve destroyed the planet, and this has forced our children and grand-children underground in massive subterranean cities. These cities are governed by supercomputers, think HAL 9000 but switch out the ‘homicidal’ for ‘genocidal.’ Eventually the computers, whose orders must be carried out unquestioned, want to wage nuclear war. Meanwhile, our hero Yamanobe Masato escapes the city into the dangerous surface-world where he eventually meets up with old Dr. Saruta and his robot friend Robita. Masato was on the run for harboring an illegal alien creature, and fellow space-patrolman Roc was after him. Masato made the mistake of falling in love with a shape-shifting “moopie,” whose dreams transport people to virtual worlds of wonder and romance. In Dr. Saruta’s terrestrial dome fortress, the moopie Tamami and Masato run into a magical bird of fire that transcends space and time and can speak telepathically…

Despite the comparison to works of Arthur C. Clarke, Phoenix is far from hard science-fiction. In fact, it would have the more conservative SF nerdlets among us pissing their pants in frustration (I don’t suppose people actually do that) for its seemingly freewheeling mixing of genre tropes from both science-fiction and fantasy. Nobody likes the term space-fantasy, or science-fantasy – so let’s just discard subgenres for a moment. Indeed, there are magical birds that can shrink to smaller than an atom co-existing in a future of robots and spaceships, and my jaw dropped with each revelation of something fantastic. We go from futuristic city to shape-shifting aliens to magic birds to God in two-hundred pages, and it sounds clumsy when I say it, but it all gels so well, and you never doubt its confidence, as this is afterall the masterwork of the godfather of the medium.

This is my introduction to Osamu Tezuka, who’s perhaps best known as the creator of Astro Boy. I was attracted more to Phoenix than his iconic boy android for what little I’d hear about on podcasts and blogs; in my head I concluded that this was The Fountain in comic form before we had The Fountain in comic form. Themes of immortality and combating death were things I enjoyed from that particular movie, and wanted to see again. Tezuka does deal with these things, but never hacks at your soul and makes you depressed like Arrenofsky did so skillfully and so underratedly in 2006. He interweaves humorous touches that are sometimes deftly performed and sometimes not so much, but are always in keeping with the tone.

What tone is that? I hardly know, but Phoenix comes off as a pulpy science-fiction story with a tremendous amount of pathos and a heart-breaking, literary story. As much as it blows your mind with moments like Masato lamenting his eternal life span and contemplating how he’ll live the next billion years, it’ll keep things light with its visuals and characters who aren’t always as serious as the situations they occupy. In this way, Phoenix did for me what Rin Taro’s Metropolis from 2001 did for others. Metropolis, and I could see this, juxtaposed rough – albeit PG-13 rated – violence with cute Tezuka designs, in doing so heightening the impact of that robot being shot, probably by Roc. He does that.

Another thing I greatly enjoyed about Phoenix is that every character was at least memorable. At best they were downright compelling in their metaphyical journeys, and at the least they were good for a gag or two. Even the villain in the piece, Roc, isn’t a total bastard, though he does kill Robita, which was uncalled for. I went into this with a bias against Roc from Metropolis, where, if I remember correctly (probably not), he was a plain dick-o. In this story he does terrible things, but there are moments where genuine humanity flashes through those immovable sunglasses. His relationship with Masato is interesting; it’s clear they were once friends, but the job ate Roc up and turned him into a monster. He is humbled by his doom at the hands of radiation, and goes out reflecting and appreciating the environment around him, something he probably never did as a space-patrolman.

Phoenix’s haughtier themes never seem preachy because there is an underlying innocence that should really, in the end, read: earnestness. This is a passionate work of art with a social conscience, and like Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which outlines the evils of drugs by showing what measures we must go to end them, provides a very human story amidst the fantastic, never losing its inspiring sense of wonder and tragedy.

Like Ridley Scott, Mamoru Oshii is an unsung hero of science-fiction in film. He became a name among nerds in America in 1995 with the global release of Ghost in the Shell, a film that touted itself as the next Akira, as I suppose every anime movie does or should. It was based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, but having read quite a bit of the source material myself (ten pages?), I can tell you that the movie is definitively a product of Oshii.

We can also see this as true because another Shirow flick, Appleseed, is child’s fare intellectually compared to Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. The man has a style, he has obnoxious signatures, but above all, he’s willing to use the medium of film to do what so few other science-fiction filmmakers dare to do – explore. Whether it’s ideas of personal or metaphysical philosophy or new and profound imagery, Oshii always has something fascinating to say, and an equally fascinating way to say it.

I think I’ll paraphrase a quote used to compliment The Fountain – something like it’s a film that’s as deeply felt as it is imagined. That’s a beautiful criticism, and for a cerebral, thoughtful science-fiction film, I can think of no higher accolade. Such an accolade can easily be applied to movies like Ghost in the Shell, Innocence, Avalon, Patlabor 2 (though I really didn’t like that one), and even Jin-Roh, though he didn’t direct that one (it’ll still be covered here). Sure, his movies lack the emotional depth of The Fountain, but they make up for it in science-fiction themes generally unique to the director.

His visuals are matched by their ideas, and in this was he’s a director who fills out what I believe to be the height of science-fiction film. If the greatest, most important sci-fi flick is Blade Runner, this is because it makes us think, maybe it scares us into thinking but I like to think it moves us to do it as well, and dazzles us with visuals that spark our imaginations.

That is what I ask of sci-fi filmmakers to do, because I personally find that to be the best, most engaging experience I can have watching a movie. The images and thoughts of Oshii linger in my head long after the Major’s joined the Sea of Information, long after Ash has joined the Sea of Information, long after Batou has… walked off with a dog.

I also got some of his older stuff in the mail, two of which I haven’t even seen. Hopefully they’re good, because that’s what we’re starting with…

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