Masamune Shirow aka Masanori Ota
16 Aug 2020
Reading Time: 8 minutes
I was not what you call a classic ‘comic book’ fan as a kid and never got into the whole DC or Marvel super hero thing. I used to read ‘Commando’, those little WWII comics out of the UK, where the Germans pretty much always lost, as well as the harder to get hold of ‘Starblazer’, by the same publisher and in the same format. So it was not until I was introduced to 2000AD that I realised comics could be more than super heroes who inexplicably wore their underwear on the outside, or WWII stories where the ‘bad’ Germans always lost to the good Brits. What’s more, through 2000AD I discovered that comic art could be a lot broader than what either Marvel or DC was serving up until that point.
The first series I ‘followed’ was Alien Legion, produced by Epic Comics, an offshoot of Marvel. This was the early 80’s (83 to be precise), so on the toob we were watching Blake’s 7 on Friday nights, Battlestar Galactica on Saturday nights, Star Trek re-runs Sunday lunchtime’s and occasional re-runs of Space 1999 thrown in for good measure. Pretty sure Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was in the mix too (and I even remember seeing UFO); small screen science fiction was hot and accepted as ‘family entertainment’, after being propelled to the fore by Star Wars and the legion of fairly B grade Science Fiction films that followed it.
Alien Legion tapped into what I was watching. With (in my view) fresh artwork, a non ‘super hero’ based storyline, i.e. no underwear worn on the outside, and like the TV shows we were watching, the characters were not perfect and people got hurt. It appealed to me and hard as it was (due to lack of supply), I tired to grab every new issue I could.
Fast forward to moving to the big smoke and I had several comic stores within walking distance; you know, proper ones where you could set up a monthly pick up of ‘soft’ subscriptions you organised with the owner to make sure you didn’t miss out. I kept collecting Alien Legion until the format changed and the artwork lost me. By this point I was also starting to read Timothy Truman’s Scout series, tales of an American Indian in a post apocalyptic America.
It was grim, graphic in its violence and like Alien Legion before it, offered a more ‘adult’ story line with themes (much) deeper than good vs. bad. This was also about the time I stumbled into Manesune Shirow’s Appleseed (I am pretty sure the shop owner pointed it out to me one day). I was always a fan of Anime (Robotech was still fresh in my memories) so when I happened across Book 1.2 of Appleseed, with it’s amazing artwork and strange mix of future concepts, reality and action, I had to pick it up.
I was hooked instantly – hard not to be, as what it held in its pages was so far beyond what I had seen elsewhere; partly because Manga was a fully matured and accepted form of publishing in Japan (free of the stigma comics had in the West), catering to all age groups but also because of Shirow’s eye for detail and dynamic. So it was through Appleseed that I began a long lasting fascination and love of Manasune Shirow’s manga work.
Recently I picked up the series again for a bit of bed time reading – my original English print by the now defunct Studio Proteus is still amazingly fresh after 27 years. Just how fresh blew me away actually – for books that have been handled and carted around so much, not a page is dog eared and the cover spines have hardly a crease! Whatever, I was curious to see if this almost 30 year old series still had the pull it did when I was in my teens, so I dove right into it.
After that amazing feeling of nostalgia one gets smelling the pages of an old book passed, I was greeted with page after page of hand drawn, ‘zip-a-toned’ artwork, looking every bit as fresh today as the day I first read it. Nothing aged, nothing dated. That in itself is a testament to the skill of Shirow, much like his equally famous (probably more famous actually) counterpart, Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame (I’ve been re-reading Akira as well). This may be manga, ‘comic book’, or more recently ‘graphic novel’ art, but it undoubtably is art coupled with solid story telling.
Aside from the artwork itself though, what makes the Appleseed series so interesting, and even more relevant today, is its storyline. Set in the imaginable future, the planet is emerging from war; one made up by numerous smaller conflicts merging to engulf most of the planet. From the ashes of this conflict a utopian, hi-tech city, ‘Olympus’, mysteriously emerges and assumes the role of global police.
The broad questions and ponderances raised over the course of the Appleseed series are not small – the flaws and strengths of humanity, the role of artificial intelligence and even if mankind can re-engineer itself to be something better, more effective, as is the case of both the bioroids (which are effectively humans V2.0) and cyborgs; questions and ideas Shirow first explored in his debut manga ‘Black Magic‘.
In the later part of the series, the story arc focuses more tightly on police actions revolving around religious based terrorists. One could say that concepts and ideas explored in Appleseed have required almost 30 years to become relevant to contemporary society and the questions Shirow asked in ’86 are ones we are seriously asking ourselves now. Certainly reading it today, many of the topics Shirow touches on are no longer foreign or fantasy, many have become or are becoming reality. The themes Shirow tackled are more than enough for a traditional work of fiction but somehow he managed to adeptly investigate them, albeit lightly, with minimal words and rich images. That he does so in a manner that makes the reader stop and think further is a testament to his skill as a storyteller overall.
The Appleseed series stopped at Book 4, with several small stories tacked on to other supplementary works. While there have always been rumours of a Book 5, to date it has yet to materialise, at least not in English and in may ways, this has been a great shame, as it seems the series was left hanging with more questions than answers.
Appleseed was the first of a journey through Shirow’s work. Shorty after, I went into ‘Dominion’, a light hearted story of, well, Tank Police in a futuristic and rather polluted Tokyo. Unlike Appleseed, Dominion’s first series is at best light, at worst schlocky. The artwork has its moments but unlike Appleseed, where every frame is spot on, it’s hit and miss and at times lazy. Shirow’s second go at Dominion, ‘No more noise’ was far more refined both story and artwork wise; Shirow himself said he’d prefer fans regard Dominion 2 as a whole other entity, a request that seems justified.
Ghost In the Shell became probably the most proclaimed of Shirow’s work. Published after Appleseed, ‘Ghost’shares similarities in terms of themes and concepts – where Appleseed asked questions about humanity, its relationship and interaction with technology, Ghost takes the idea further, asking what it means to be human and more to the point, just what is humanity? Unlike Appleseed though, where these questions were weaved into the storyline, in Ghost they are pivotal, the main character, Major Kusenage, herself is a human brain in a highly sophisticated artificial body.
Ghost is as much an exploration for Shirow into design, technology and philosophy as it is about story telling and the pages are annotated with notes giving further insight and thoughts about what he’s creating. While this footnoting is present in Shirow’s other works, it becomes an important element in Ghost to help explain the complex ideas and thoughts, especially where it’s near impossible to do so in the frames themselves.
Ghost continued through two more ‘book’s, with the second receiving as much criticism, as it did praise. More interestingly, Ghost was made into several feature length Anime films as well as a full Anime series. Hollywood picked up the story in 2017 and turned it into a live action film, albeit one with Scarlet Johnson as a not so Japanese looking Major Kusenage. Appleseed too was made into several full length Anime features and even Dominion was adapted to a 6 part Anime series. In all the adaptations, the storylines and the characters transferred perfectly to the screen, almost acting as a ‘proof of concept’ in terms of what Shirow has created.
Orion, 1991, was the last manga produced by Shirow until 2012, when he started to write ‘Pandora in the Crimson Shell’.
Shirow though moved away from manga in the mid 90’s, going on to what many decry as an almost pornographic fetishism.
This image gives a good indication of where Shirow was heading with his art work, and dare I say train of thought.
While there were always inklings to what one could call Shirow’s dip into raunch, evident in Appleseed, Dominion and Ghost, his later artistic works are challenging at best for many. While I personally in no way find the pieces he’s created offensive, I do see some of them as fetishes at best, diving into perversion for the worst examples. There are many opinion pieces online that decry this move away from his manga work as a waste of talent but if we say he’s an artist (with an ability to tell a good story), then what he does, or how he chooses to express himself, is really just a progression in his artistic thinking; like it or not, there’s nothing wrong with that.
This was the tamest image I could find of Shirow’s more recent work…
Regardless of where Shirow is now, re-visiting his works several decades after he penned them and have them be as vibrant and thought provoking as the first time, is a testament to his ability in the medium. Where many ‘comics’, or ‘graphic novels’, might by now have a certain nostalgic, or ‘of the time’ feel to them, Shirow’s work has amazed me with just how fresh it still all feels. It bodes well for handing these over to the boys (when they are old enough) and knowing that they are not going to think that they have been given some ‘vintage stuff’ (if I do not bother telling them!).
All images: Manasune Shirow
Read a rare interview with Shirow here.
Copyright 2023 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.