Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Manga Mania Month overtime: The Ghost in the Shell causes adaptational conundrums

Elsewhere: I reviewed Girl Comics #1 over at Comics Bulletin.

I'm trying to get back in the rhythm of blogging, although this week probably isn't going to be the best for that.  Still have a few manga volumes to catch up on (even though I didn't get as maniacal in February as I had hoped), and then much much more to read.  It never ends!

The Ghost in the Shell
By Masamune Shirow

How often does the adaptation of a work overshadow the original?  It's certainly something that does occur; how many people think of the original novel when they hear the name The Godfather?  And when you get into the anime/manga industry, things can get even more entangled, with multiple adaptations and variations of titles confusing matters and muddying perceptions.  That certainly seems to be the case with Ghost in the Shell (whether the title contains a definite article or not), which has seen two movies, several seasons worth of a TV series, video games, and probably novelizations and who knows what else.  But it all started with Masamune Shirow's late 80s/early 90s manga series, so it's interesting to go back and see how the franchise has changed and what has remained from the original concept.

And while common wisdom usually states that the original version of any property is the superior one, that's not necessarily the case here; the anime adaptations managed to streamline and simplify some of Shirow's ideas, while still presenting them in interesting ways and making use of the medium of animation to bring them to life.  The later versions are probably more satisfying overall, but the original definitely has its charms, being a more wild and wooly accumulation of Shirow's obsessions and mental processes, along with a showcase for his artistic skill.  Also, given the age of the series, it's interesting to see how far ahead of his time Shirow was, breaking ground with the sort of examinations of sci-fi ideas involving humanity and technology that many others would follow.

(A quick summary for those who might not be familiar with the series: taking place in the "near future" of 2029, although one that seems pretty far off given the outlandish technological ideas on display, the story follows the adventures of Section 9, a division of the Japanese Self Defense Forces that tracks cyber-crimes and terrorism.  The main character is the sexy and tempestuous Major Motoko Kusanagi, although other members of the team get plenty of panel-time as well, and while several cases are investigated, they eventually come together in one big showdown involving an escaped artificial intelligence called The Puppeteer, and Kusanagi ends up striking a deal that changes everything for her, and has pretty major ramifications for humanity in general.  That's the story in a nutshell, but the approach was a bit different at the beginning, as we'll see.)

The anime adaptation (that is, the original anime movie, which came out in 1995) followed a similar plot to the one described above, although it condensed several of the cases into one, and made the Puppeteer plot more of a central throughline, while the manga kind of works as a high-tech procedural, eventually derailing into the story of Major Kusanagi's decision and the philosophical discussions that come with it.  In fact, that sort of discursive dwelling on minutiae is one of the things that comes through in the original work; Shirow spends a lot of time examining all sorts of weird ideas that strike his fancy, from the impenetrable inter-departmental politics of Japan's law-enforcement and government, to specifications of weaponry that might or might not exist in real life, to the workings of complex robotics systems, cyborgs, and mental computer networks.  He obviously put a lot of thought into these various subjects, and while his ideas don't always come across perfectly clearly (whether due to a language barrier or otherwise), the passion he has for them does.  The author's notes at the end of the volume are certainly illuminating in this respect, if a bit difficult to parse due to incorrect page numbers.

The other thing that shows up here that didn't make the transition to animation is Shirow's sense of humor.  As  seems to be the habit of many manga artists, he fills the margins of his pages with cartoony little gags, funny faces (which stand out by being simplified abstractions in the midst of all the heavily-detailed artwork), and bits of unique weirdness that brand the project as something personal.  The treatment of the Fuchikoma robots, which in other versions seemed to be futuristic tanks, is especially interesting for how Shirow anthropomorphizes them, adding cartoony mouths, sweat drops, and hilariously Tyrannosaurus-like little forearms:

That sort of thing didn't manage to make the transition to any adaptations, which all seem to take everything very seriously.  A little humor goes a long way.

Shirow certainly makes use of his medium, filling pages with futuristic detail in the heavily-rendered, Katsuhiro Otomo-influenced style that was popular at the time.  It's an impressive bit of world-building, and while the reader may be confused at being plopped down in a complex world of espionage and corporate/governmental intrigue, that certainly works along with the lived-in art to make this feel like a fully-realized world full of people and activity.  The detail can work against him at times though, with action often seeming like a confused jumble of speed lines and difficult-to-parse movement:

Even so, it's fascinating to see what Shirow will come up with next, even if you're familiar with the other versions of the story.  The Puppeteer plot might not be as action-packed here as in the anime, but it's full of page after page of thought-provoking ideas about the sub-molecular nature of reality and the need for AI to combine with human irregularities to survive.  And he's not content to limit things to talking heads debating matters; instead, he comes up with innovative ways of depicting the ideas that are as fascinating visually as cognitively:

So: is reading the original work necessary, or even worthwhile?  What's the better version?  Does it really matter?  The anime might have taken Shirow's work and made it work better as a 90-minute bit of action, philosophizing, and visual pyrotechnics, but the original has its worthy aspects as well, and it bears the mark of a more individualistic, iconoclastic creator.  Overall, it's probably less satisfying than its successors, but it's still pretty fascinating, and it certainly shouldn't be ignored in favor of the newer hotness.


  1. It's kind of weird for me, but after reading your review (it's been years since I read the manga myself), outside of the first movie I think I'd find that manga is more enjoyable than what it's inspired. The super-seriousness that you mention the adaptations having (combined with the visual boringness of voice over static images that the various series use constantly) sucked some of the fun out of the world for me when I watch them.

    And yet, when I first came across all the digressions, and the obvious signs of Shirow's personal obsessions creeping in, I remember not liking it. I sort of naively thought these folks had a deep plan, and their philosophical ideas were well considered and researched, so when I discovered that the world was kinda a stew of whatever the creator thought was interesting, and guns and boobs and things were kinda just in there because they seemed cool, I was kind of scandalized. Ah well.

  2. I love me some GitS. The manga is great, but I do remember the action being hard to figure out at points... and yeah the political and technological discussions were confusing.
    The first movie was great (I watched the second and third ones and wasn't impressed), but I think I like the TV series the best. It took all the action and cool cybertech and philosophy and made it into a comprehensible (usually), fun story. The Anime Major is pretty bland without the sense of humor Masamune gave her in the manga, but the Tachikomas fill the comic relief roll just fine.

  3. That's Tom Orzechowski on letters, isn't it?


  4. impressive.

  5. this is the perfect example of the genius of the Japanese animes, this in particular is one of the best in all anime history, the movies about this are simply awesome, Motoko Kusanagi is one of the best characters in anime and manga world, and she is really sexy.
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