Ghost in the Shell
Something about cyberpunk gives a buzz unlike anything else in science fiction. I’m not sure what it is and the only answer that comes to mind is generational. Cyberpunk really exploded when I was a young adolescent, playing a lot of computer games, dabbling in pre-internet BBS culture, and planning on attending Rice University before getting a job at Origin Systems. (Yes, this is doofy. To make it worse, that dream was updated to “co-own a jazz coffe shop in Seattle” in later years. Now I live in the Northwest and work for a certain IT behemoth, so no telling what any of this says about me.) I’m not sure that a baby boomer felt the same about Neuromancer, or any of the younger crowd would get that “just over the technology horizon” sense of excitement that William Gibson and his crowd could generate. To us though, watching the dawn of the Information Age while we read about hackers, cyberspace, AI was intoxicating. (For a fun counterview, read the second paragraph of this post by Jo Walton. As much as I like her articles, we have very few tastes in common.)
Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell is hardly the first shot fired in the cyberpunk revolution, but the manga was published in 1989, just four years after Neuromancer. The film adaptation in 1995 helped usher in a Second Wave of sorts, characterized by anime, The Matrix, and some other stuff. (I’m not nearly the expert I should be about this, so apologies for being shallow and/or vague. I have, however, read Shockwave Rider, so I’m no poser.) This article will address both the original manga and anime, but not sequels, follow-ups, or hangers-on. Shiro was already in the manga/anime pantheon for Appleseed (unseen, but on my list) when he took a break to create Ghost in the Shell. Oshii Mamoru directed the movie adaptation; he too is no lightweight in the anime world, so there were some heavy hitters lined up for this tale. As a final note, the English title, “Ghost in the Shell,” bears no resenblence to the Japanese title, “攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai,” or roughly “Armored Riot Police Squad.” It is much cooler, which is not something that happens often.
The first question for our busy readers is no doubt, “I just don’t have much time for this anime stuff. Which one is better? I’ve got to consume efficiently here.” For once, this is a difficult question to answer. I will give a couple of suggestions here, then break them down in further detail in the following paragraphs. The short answer is, “I can’t pick just one.” This is not just because I am indecisive and wishy-washy, this is because the two actually have different strengths and weaknesses. In terms of narrative integrity and intensity, the film is a better choice. For a larger look at the world Shiro creates, and for more time to ruminate over the questions of existence that the characters ask among themselves, the manga offers greater reward.
But because it is a manga, it was published weekly over a period of some months and is prone to wandering hither and yon with the plot. This was explained further to me by my wife last week, as she read a gooshy romance series all out of order. “Well, these things that happen are just self-contained episodes, so you can kind of take them however they fall and set everything straight at the end.” Longer manga are much bigger offenders here, but there tends to be a single, mainline plot to a manga that is compartmentalized into weekly or monthly sections. Side stories happen, characters go on vacations, some random person will pop into the story and be important for a bit before disappearing, weeks will pass without any progress on the main story, but things will always gravitate back to it at some point. Mind you, I’m not a manga veteran by any definition, but even in limited reading I’ve noticed this. I suppose it could drive some people batty, but if taken the same way computer RPGs, with their subquests and diversions, or even Victor Hugo books are dealt with, it’s not a deal breaker.
In the case of Ghost in the Shell, this allows Shiro to track the main plot, where Motoko Kusanagi and her special ops police force hunt down a hacker named The Puppet Master, but also gives enough flexibility to send the squad on other missions, demonstrate the larger society at work, and let the squad hash out questions of identity. Kusanagi is a cybernetic hybrid, and spends large portions of the manga trying to come to terms with notions of humanity, how they apply to AI and cybernetics, and how these affect notions of Self. The “Shell” in the title refers to the bodies the characters are given, while the “Ghost” is something like a soul, or consciousness. These questions are a necessary part of the story and are present in the film, but not with the shambling, philosophical bent of the manga. This lack of time constraint also gives Shiro a chance to blow a week on conversations between Fuchikomi (spider-like AI robot henchmen) as they debate overthrowing the human regime. That was my favorite part. I should point out that even within this flexible setup, Shiro apparently didn’t have enough room to get out everything crammed into his head, because there are copious footnotes. These aren’t necessary to the plot, but they shine a light into Shiro’s unquestionably brilliant, but deeply strange mind.
Oshii suffers no such distraction. He gets in and out with maximum efficiency, taking a compact 80 minutes to trace Kusanagi’s hunt for The Puppet Master. The movie basically stays faithful to scenes from the manga, but eliminates all the side stories and navel gazing. What this loses in context, it makes up for with insistent pacing, a flawless arc, and about ten pounds if style in a five pound bag, to borrow a favorite Dave Barry-ism. The manga is also a cyberpunk tour de force, but in color and in motion, the film is the quintessential near-future, urban noir aesthetic. Anything we owe The Matrix in terms of 21st century style, we actually owe Ghost in the Shell.
The real answer to the question posed earlier is, “Get them both.” Ghost in the Shell is influential, engaging, intelligent, and stylish. Nobody can be serious about cyberpunk without, at the very least, watching Oshii’s film. I plan on seeking out the follow-ups and posting reviews in the somewhat near future.
Rating: Nakata Hidetoshi. Japan’s essential footballer as the Samurai Blue went from nothing to global relevance, and Japan’s first major football export. He played the game with an uncharacteristic intelligence and grace, and is also really into fashion.