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)
Length: 71 chapters (across the four series)
- Deeply imaginative future world
- High detail art
- The crimes take full advantage of the cyberpunk society
- Packed with lore
- 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.