Ghost in the Shell – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Koukaku Kidoutai: The Ghost in the Shell

 

Related: Ghost in the Shell 1.5 (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (included in review)

Ghost in the Shell (anime movie)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (anime series)

 

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 71 chapters (across the four series)

 

Positives:

  • Deeply imaginative future world
  • High detail art
  • The crimes take full advantage of the cyberpunk society
  • Packed with lore

Negatives:

  • Stand Alone Complex manga doesn’t have the art or density of the original works
  • Ghost in the Shell 2’s experimental approached hasn’t aged well

Ghost in the Shell is a remarkable franchise in how varied it is. No two versions of it are all that similar, yet one instantly recognises their connection. The popular first movie of the same name isn’t an adaptation of the manga, while the Stand Alone Complex series is a little closer to the source but still so different. The Hollywood film is yet again a wholly original version (and much more accurate than its critics decreed – more on that later). Today’s focus is the original manga and its sequels, with a little on the Stand Alone Complex manga.

Ghost in the Shell, for the uninitiated, takes place in a near future cyberpunk society where the lines between human and machine have blurred almost beyond recognition. Every cyborg connects to the network through a “ghost,” offering incredible conveniences to users. With such advanced technological developments come new crimes. Major Motoko Kusanagi and her unit at Public Security Section 9 specialise in dealing with the most egregious of cybercrimes. When a dead man walks across security cameras like a living person, you call Section 9.

I love this franchise. It’s up there amongst the best and is one of my favourites. The depth and detail of this world is so creative and sparks such imagination. It’s a world that lends itself to myriad adaptations. Anyone can find new story ideas within the world of Ghost in the Shell without needing to expand the world, much like The Lord of the Rings. Author Masamune Shirow created a brilliant foundation.

I should provide a warning for this manga. It is dense. The first series clocks in at a mere 11 chapters, but don’t let that fool you. They have enough text to rival 50 chapters of the average manga, and not just any text – specialist text crammed with technobabble, explanations of how the technology works, and police jargon. Take your time.

Then we have the art. As if trying to outdo the text, details pack the art on every page. Not just detailed, but clear as well. Plenty of manga fall either into the “clear but low detail” camp or on the “detailed but messy” side. Ghost in the Shell has the best both worlds.

As for the story itself, this is a series of crime cases with a light connection between them, akin to the standalone episodes of Stand Alone Complex though they are still complex. The most interesting element of each case is in how it explores the “what if” scenarios of such a future. If one could transplant a brain and spine into another body, what kind of new crimes could arise? Do they even have to have a human body? Why not become a tank? Every case is engaging from start to finish. This is what great cyberpunk is made of.

A peculiar point to note regarding the Hollywood film, as alluded to earlier, is how true to theme and Ghost in the Shell “lore”, for lack of a better word, it is. Regardless of the final quality of the story itself, casting Scarlett Johansson as the Major 100% fits with the world. “But she looks nothing like her!” I hate to break it to you but neither does the Major. The brain and spinal cord are her only human parts. She changes appearance within this manga to someone “fans” would say doesn’t look like her – and she’s a comedic character in the manga. To say Johansson is incorrect is to not understand Ghost in the Shell or cyberpunk.

I should also bring up the Ghost in the Shell 2 manga. In classic Shirow style, it’s a complete departure from his previous work though still equally dense. Released in 2001, six years after the first, this sequel blends a ton of CG into the art to create a cyber-mindscape for the Major to explore and hack into. I like the cyber world. CG characters, water, and vehicles though? They have not aged well at all. Like cyberpunk itself, this experimental manga could have blown your mind at the time. It turns your mind off today. The story also focuses on the singular concept from start to finish and drags its feet by chapter two. An interesting experiment. Not one I recommend.

Lastly, I want to mention the Stand Alone Complex manga. It is apparent from the first page that the manga does not come from Shirow’s pen. Gone is the art detail and depth of writing. A straightforward anime tie-in manga isn’t worth your time, though it isn’t bad by any measure. There is simply no need for it once you see the anime. It doesn’t justify your time, unlike the original.

The Ghost in the Shell movie and Stand Alone Complex are better than any iteration of the manga, as they take more time to build the world and spread out the specialist text, amongst other improvements. However, as the manga is a different set of stories, and great ones at that, it’s still well worth your time.

Art – Very High

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. Ghost in the Shell may be one of the most difficult manga to approach, yet I still recommend it to anyone with a love of speculation.

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

The Return – 30 Reviews in 30 Days!

As many of you may have noticed, I have been on an impromptu hiatus for a while. With many in my industry relying on my work during COVID, I was simply too busy and had to scale back in many areas, including the reviews. However! I’m back and I am returning strong.

Over the next 30 days, starting tomorrow, I’ll be doing one review a day across a mix of manga and anime, current and backlist, popular and hidden gems. I’ll knockout a few titles that have been sitting on the “watched/read but not reviewed” list such as Red River, Blame, Billy Bat, and Yuri on Ice, and get to the current crop anime like Dr Stone, Wonder Egg Priority, perhaps Jujutsu Kaisen, and anime of the year, Ex-Arm.

Then we have all of the messages and comments sent by many of you during this time. I will get to what I can during this week.

Hope to see you all throughout the challenge and thanks for waiting!

Super Dimension Fortress Macross – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Macross

 

Related: Macross Zero (prequel)

Macross Plus (sequel)

Macross: Do You Remember Love? (alternate version)

Similar: Mobile Suit Gundam

Martian Successor Nadesico

Terra e…

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Romance Science Fiction

Length: 36 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Weaponised culture
  • A real sense of adventure through space
  • Full of unconventional ideas
  • That kissing demonstration

Negatives:

  • The art and animation has plenty of jank
  • Minmay is too annoying for a love interest

(Request an anime for review here.)

Macross, often known as Robotech in the West (more on that saga later), is a classic of mecha sci-fi anime. A cursory glance at the series paints a picture of a Gundam clone. As a fan of Gundam, I had no problem should that be the case. However, the differences are significant.

They make Macross worthwhile.

Today, we focus specifically on the first entry of this long running franchise, Super Dimension Fortress Macross (like the first Mobile Suit Gundam, they needed to change the name to differentiate from other entries). Shortly before the new millennium, an alien spaceship crash-landed on Earth. A united humanity worked for a decade to reverse-engineer this technology in anticipation of the aliens’ return. They succeed in creating SDF-1 Macross, a city sized spaceship, but its maiden voyage also alerts the Zentradi aliens out in space, bringing them back to Earth. An attempt to escape and draw alien attention goes awry and the Macross teleports deep into space, taking the nearby water and town with it.

A hasty salvage mission brings much of these surroundings – civilians included – on board the gargantuan ship. They must now make their way home while establishing a normal life inside and fighting off threats outside. Amongst the crew is Hikaru, a young pilot, and Lynn Minmay, a flighty singer and the target of his affections.

Macross’s first hook into me is the teleportation of the town alongside the ship. Bringing an entire town aboard a ship is something different indeed and is a clever way of having ordinary civilian life within a grand space journey. In long journey Gundam series – a much more serious and realistic franchise – you can’t get away with this. The most Gundam can sell to the audience is bringing a few civilians aboard the main ship, while cutting away to other characters elsewhere amongst the populace. Macross can go from dogfights in space one episode to a walk in the park next episode for the same characters. This completely changes the tone of the series. I love the cosy feel and balance offered by this dynamic. It’s more fun than Gundam. Not to suggest it lacks dramatic moments, of course.

The alien Zentradi are humanoid giants obsessed with war. Everything in their society revolves around combat. And this is where Macross’s greatest difference and best selling point compared to its peers comes into play. What starts as a war of weapons and bodies soon turns into a war of culture. Culture is humanity’s secret weapon.

One of the first major social events aboard the Macross, in an effort to create a normal life, is the Miss Macross contest. Minmay wins, which launches her off to stardom as the most famous person in Macross “city”, netting music, film, and sponsorship deals. Her music inspires the people. She will even perform live to calm everyone as war rages outside. The Zentradi intercept her broadcast and have no idea what’s going on. They’ve never heard music before. This launches infiltration missions to figure out what’s going on and perhaps capture some of this…whatever this is! The more they encounter human culture, the more bleeds out to the aliens. “I like this ‘music’ thing,” some think to themselves. “Why are we trying to destroy it again…?” A song called Lili Marleen inspired Minmay’s character, as it was popular by both the Allies and Axis during WW2.

This very much mirrors accounts of North Korean defectors. Most North Koreans would swear up and down that their country is great, superior to other countries, but they don’t know any more of the real world than what the government propaganda feeds them. However, there are leaks. South Korean TV dramas are a favourite with North Koreans, surreptitiously watched on smuggled discs with the threat of eternal labour or death hanging over their heads. In these k-dramas, they see a version of life beyond the border and begin to long for it. (I recommend Crash Landing on You on Netflix if you want a great k-drama involving North Korea.)

Needless to say, this aspect of Macross is excellent. It also leads to the most hilarious kissing scene in anime history in the third act. One of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen. Pure gold.

To talk of the characters, there isn’t too much to say. Most are solid, decent characters for their roles. If you are familiar with the casts of old Gundam series, you will see similarities, which is fine. An all-round decent cast. The only one to stand out is Minmay and I wouldn’t say for good reasons. The kinda romance between her and Hikaru isn’t engaging. First, she’s far too flaky and meek for someone like him. Young guy sees pretty girl, his brain shuts off, he “falls in love”, yes, but I don’t buy that he would keep chasing after another more mature woman shows interest. Minmay is the sort of woman that would have men leaving her every few months as her fans cry, “Are they crazy? How could they leave someone as kind, attractive, and famous as her!?”

Yet others would say, “No matter how hot she is, someone out there is sick of dealing with her shit.” Discussing the series with friends after finishing it revealed that I am not alone in my sentiments towards her. She is a divisive one. Her role in the story is great, don’t misunderstand me, but her character is irritating.

Before I leave you with my recommendation for Macross, I must talk of its release in the West and why you may have never heard of it before, despite a new release every few years. Macross first came out in English as Robotech in 1985, combing three different series and not even from the same franchise – Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. The explanation was that one series alone was too short for American TV at the time (required 65+ episodes), so they decided to combine three and make a new story. It doesn’t end there!

 

Macross wouldn’t receive an unedited, clean release with a dub until 2006, almost 24 years after creation. Interestingly, Minmay has the same voice actress and singer in both Japanese and English. Her voice stands out amongst the Americans, though it is authentic. The distribution rights are still a nightmare. The US distributor only has rights to SDF Macross as a legal battle over the Japanese rights has circled back to throw the English rights into question. The other series, as far as I’m aware, have never had foreign release. Absolute mess!

This dub comes with the advantage of remastered audio, should Macross’s age be a turn off, and it is a good dub. The animation is a bit jank, a far cry from what the likes of Gundam was putting out at the time, though it has charm.

I thoroughly enjoyed Super Dimension Fortress Macross and I will be going onto the next series.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: For classic anime fans. It may be a little rough around the edges, yet Macross still holds up as a worthwhile anime today.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Bokurano – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Bokura no

 

Similar: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Fafner of the Blue Sky

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Drama Science Fiction

Length: 24 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Great opening song
  • Easy premise

Negatives:

  • Every male is evil
  • Every female is meek
  • The structure preceding each death lowers drama and mystery

(Request an anime for review here.)

Bokurano is an easy anime to sell with a premise such as this. A giant machine is the only thing that stands between the monsters and Earth. However, each use of the weapon requires a blood sacrifice. The life of a child. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Alas, here we have a perfect example in the importance of character over premise.

These 15 children don’t have the qualities to make an audience care for their fates and ultimate demises. The boys – bar one – are evil, one of them even forcing himself on a girl. The first episode has one guy slap the life out of the smallest girl and no one does anything about it. “Stop it,” they say with as much energy as a sloth. He will do this again in future, many times. Are we to feel sorry that these kids will die? The girls are all meek, spineless. It takes attempted rape for one to fight back. These kids don’t make sense as friends. I don’t see the point of having 15 kids, other than to give more sacrifices for more episodes, when they are all so similar. For such a group, the logical direction would be to have a variety of personalities. Go for the sentai archetypes. That might come across as generic, but killing them off one at a time is different.

Fewer characters would also help, as it gives more time for development. The structure of Bokurano is to dedicate a couple of episodes leading up to someone’s sacrifice. We see their entire sob story in this time to make us care for the death. This structure has three problems. This first issue is that it lowers the drama and mystery when you already know who will die. The second is that two episodes isn’t enough to kill off what essentially becomes the protagonist for that short time. Two episodes is what you dedicate to the old lady in the village that helped our adventuring party before the villain kills her for information on their whereabouts. The writing also needs a more subtle hand at characterisation. And lastly, most kids disappear from the story until it nears their time to die.

I have the impression that the author had the wrong approach in thinking about this story. Instead of planning for, “Alright, I need to kill someone every second episode or so, because that’s the premise,” one should think of it free from the premise for a second (and cut down the character count). Let’s say you had a party of seven friends and your story idea was to see what it would be like to kill each off one at a time (no special mechanic to kill them), rather than the usual story of everyone surviving to the end with the power of BFF friendship. How would you plot that? Would you kill them off at equal intervals or keep the audience on their toes about who will die and when? Bokurano uses the former method.

It’s hard to describe the boredom in the face of imminent death when a story tells you everything that is yet to pass. Add in the not-so-subtle yet flat characters and I am on cruise control from start to finish. And what’s with all the rapists?

Bokurano isn’t a bad anime. This is a case where every element except for the music (love the OP song) has an obvious flaw weighing it down. Confining everything within this predictable structure just to fit the initial idea of the premise means Bokurano can never be more than average.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of Evangelion-like anime. You have to be in it for the premise, as the execution isn’t up to scratch.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Kasane – Manga Review

Japanese Title: Kasane

 

Genre: Psychological Drama

Length: 126 chapters (14 volumes)

 

Positives:

  • An actually ugly protagonist
  • Compelling page-turner
  • Makes good use of the art of acting
  • Psychologically harrowing

Negatives:

  • Scarce with the subplots

This is why I like to browse manga by random. Sure, I read a lot of crap, but it’s worth it for when I discover a gem that I’ve never heard of before. I love receiving great recommendations. However, there is a different sort of excitement when you realise an art piece is great as you are consuming it. With Kasane by Daruma Matsuura, the cover of the first volume caught my eye for how weird one of the women looked. I considered it was bad art, yet the other woman looked normal. Then I read the blurb and added it to the list.

Kasane is about an ugly girl who loves to act in theatre. When I say ugly, I don’t mean ugly in the film world sense, where a shower, a comb of the hair, and a little make up could turn a girl into a knockout. Kasane is the sort of ugly that no makeover can fix. Her skull misshapen, her mouth too broad and uneven, and her eyes oversized and in the wrong place, Kasane scares people with her appearance. This ugliness is at the heart of what shapes her character and if she could simply powder it away, this story wouldn’t work (more on that later). The first hint that I was in for a great manga was seeing the author’s commitment to the ugliness. How condescending is it when Hollywood tries to pass a gorgeous actress as “the ugly one”?

Kasane is the daughter of a celebrated late actress for both her acting talent and beauty. Her mother left behind a tube of lipstick with instructions that she should apply it and kiss that which she desires. Should Kasane wear the lipstick and kiss another person, they will swap faces and voices for some hours. After a few tastes of what it is to be beautiful, Kasane meets stage actress Nina, a woman with little talent, a lot of pressure to succeed, and stunning beauty (no one gave her the part because she could act). She also suffers from Sleeping Beauty syndrome (can randomly sleep for months on end). So, she makes a deal with Kasane.

“Swap with me when I need to perform and you will live out your dream of a being beautiful actress. In exchange, I get the credit.”

This seems a match made in heaven. However, pretence can never match the real thing, and both women simmer with dark thoughts about the other, especially where it concerns a man they love. The face swap doesn’t require both people to be awake either.

The destructive dependence between these two makes for gripping drama.

The story spirals and the drama rises. I couldn’t stop turning the pages well into the AMs. Kasane starts strong with a brilliant premise that I thought could last a few volumes, so I grew concerned when I saw that it was in fact 14 volumes. You know me, I hate padding and stories that drag. Just when Kasane seems to have run its course, the author adds another layer, and then another. Her mother’s past comes to the fore. Twisted actions perpetuate more twisted behaviour, continuing the cycle of pain, desperation, and loneliness. Other characters become embroiled in this twisted secret and I had to force myself to stop each night.

The best writing has to be Kasane herself. She is both villain and tragic heroine of this tale. I feel both sorry for her and disgusted by her actions. Matsuura presents this deep character with a complex psychology and leaves it to us to agree or disagree with her.

The one area for improvement is in subplots. Kasane’s subplots bar one are quite bare. More subplots wouldn’t have gone amiss either, such as involving law enforcement and the wider world of acting. The story is a little too insular. That said, the main thread is excellent.

One other positive I want to touch on is the use of acting to reinforce the theme of one’s outward appearance contrasted with the inner self. The story wouldn’t have worked near as well to the theme if this centred on something other than acting. They could have had much the same story with an office job, but then you weaken the theme. Matsuura certainly knows a thing a two about acting, incorporating it neatly into Kasane’s plight (whenever an anime/manga involves acting, I fear another Glass Mask).

In the afterword of later volumes, there is mention of a Japanese film adaptation, so once done reading the series, I gave it a gander with one question in mind, “How will they pull off Kasane herself?” The film builds up to the face reveal (Kasane has lank black hair over her face all the time like in the manga) and I nearly died of disappointment. They went full “movie ugly”. The actress has pretty eyes, a perfect jawline, delicate cheekbones, and sculpted lips. A Joker-like scar from the corner of her mouth and up her cheek is all the ugliness she possesses. How are we to believe that Kasane could have such mental damage over her appearance (remember, she repulses everyone) when a bit of theatre makeup could cover a single scar? It undermines the essence that makes this a story. They should have hired the makeup artist from The Elephant Man. An anime adaptation with exaggerated art – preferably directed by Masaaki Yuasa – could do Kasane justice.

Art – High

Story – High

Recommendation: Read it. This tragic page-turner of a psychological drama is a hidden gem I recommend to all (except children).

(Find out more about the manga recommendation system here.)

Anime and Manga Reviews