As a TV series, Ghost in the Shell was top-of-the-line. As a movie, it was an ethereal, free-floating meditation on the ideas introduced in the story. Then you go back to the original manga and it’s like being devoured alive by the incestuous offspring of an R-rated cartoon pinup and an Aibo field-service repair manual.
Thing is, I’m not sure I’d be compelled to make such a florid comparison for the sake of a book I didn’t like. After almost two decades, Shell not only holds up but inspires all the more to follow in its path — if only because at every page you’ll have another example of Masamune Shirow going that much further through the ceiling to cement his status as Overlord of the Otaku. His books have great girls, great guns, great gadgets, and more incomprehensible technological jabberjaw per square inch than the last issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE. Shell has story and characterization to balance out those things — more so of both than there was in the dizzying slap to the head that was Orion, for instance. I read Orion and felt cheated, like the victim of a shaggy-dog story. Then I read Shell, and while its plot is also a bit of a rambling free-for-all, it’s rooted that much more in characters we come to be curious about and follow all the more eagerly for what they’ll choose to do on their own.
The story: Not too many years from now, the computer networks that span the world have bound it all together in new and unheralded ways. But national borders and political intrigues flourish all the more furiously, and so countries like Japan have taken to creating agencies like Public Security Section 9 to handle the resulting dirty work. Assassination, digital espionage, apprehension of criminals who fly above and below the law; it’s all in a day’s work for Major Motoko Kusanagi, she of the machine body and hybrid organic-cybernetic brain.
A growing crime in this future world is the “ghosthack” — having one’s net-connected brain broken into from the outside. After Kusanagi and her cohorts are transferred to a newly-created division (the plot politics, internecine and otherwise, are just as impenetrable as the techno-gibberish), they set to work tracking down a legendary super-hacker nicknamed “the Puppeteer”, whose m.o. is the ghosthack. Again, you’ll quickly recognize bits and pieces of the story as they were recycled into the theatrical film, like a cat-and-mouse game involving a garbage hauler who at first appears to be a criminal. He’s a victim himself, duped into committing the Puppeteer’s crimes for him in much the same way a compromised PC spews out spam and viruses for its hacker masters. Most of the other plotlines in the story only intersect peripherally with this one, however; they’re the “stand-alone” episodes to this plot’s “complex”, which eventually hooks back into the political intrigues already exposed in previous parts of the story.
The biggest way the comic and movie stand apart isn’t in any one plot element, but the characterizations. When we see Kusanagi, Batou, Togusa, Aramaki and all the rest on the page, they’re … well, goofier. Pop-eyed double-takes and chibi-fied distortions abound. It’s startling, to say the least, to see Motoko get sloppy-drunk right on the page, or to see Batou look so henpecked whenever the Major singles him out. The physical humor’s similarly broad. It’s not just enough to have Kusanagi hack into a government official’s cyberbrain and make him punch himself in the face; Shirow makes the poor guy’s head look like a collapsed volleyball — both before, during and after the punch. The cyber-gibberish that passes for dialogue half the time doesn’t help, either: “Replicate his ghost infiltrator key and send it back at him! Once you crack his ice, throw a delta-level attack barrier at him!” (And on a wholly different note, it’s downright weird to see the Major in any kind of steady relationship — something spelled out pretty plainly in chapter eight. Even if she and her steady did report each other to their respective agencies…and there’s more, but I won’t ruin it here.)
I am now going to stop muttering about what the book is not, how it deviates from its adaptations, and everything else in that vein. It is immensely entertaining for reasons entirely apart from what it’s been turned into; in fact, people not at all familiar with the Ghost mythology might have a far easier time getting into it for exactly that reason. It also improves that much more on subsequent readings; when you’re not stopping to parse individual lines of gobbledygook, the whole thing moves that much faster and invites that many more re-readings. There are whole comics out there that don’t have the same level of detail that Ghost has to burn on any random page — not just in the artwork, but the backstory, the plotting, the environmental details that Shirow throws over his shoulder like he’s tossing away chicken bones from a picnic lunch. Or the ferocious and creatively-staged action scenes, such as when the Major has to contend with a heavily armored robot attack tank while wielding nothing but a small knife and missing most of one arm. Or the elegant conclusion, where the Major and the Puppeteer evade their respective pursuers through what amounts to a spiritual shotgun wedding.
It’s been 20 years since this book came out, and barely anything about it has dated at all. Not the politics, which seem all the more relevant in a world where a sneeze in Shanghai registers as a tremor in Seattle. Not the technology, either, especially as man-machine interfaces inch their way towards feasibility. There’s just enough within the story that seems familiar — Togusa’s family life, or the fact that the Major has a beau on the side, or Batou’s party-hearty mindset — to carry us over into the story’s murkier realms, whether political or technological. Those things aren’t likely to change in another twenty years, either, even if we get to a point where we can look at the Major brain-diving into an alien AI and snicker at how crude the whole thing looks.
Those of you familiar with Shirow through his more recent design work — his calendars, his pinup/centerfold work, his CGI-enhanced comics — might experience a bit of a shock on opening Shell. It’s got the same slightly raggedy (if also enormously detailed) art as works like Orion and Dominion Tank Police; he wouldn’t start jazzing up his work with digital enhancements for some time to come. He does add color, though; most of the chapters begin (or end) with a couple of pages in the same splashy watercolor style as the cover art, although the black-and-white stuff more than holds its own. Shirow also provides us with tons of verbose footnotes — he loves to talk about his work as much as he likes to create the work itself — and a thoughtful afterword penned in 2009. There, he echoes something I myself have talked about right here: how the limitations of the work as originally created meant that a truly definitive version of the story might never emerge, but that makes the spinoffs and derivate products all the more interesting on their own merits.
When people call something a “classic”, there seems to be this unspoken rule that the work in question has to be perfect. Horsefeathers. It just has to stand on its own as an original, both then and now. So much of what I find maddening or problematic about Ghost in the Shell is also, somehow, so much of what keeps me coming back to it. And now here it is, twenty years after it first appeared, ready to sweep along a generation of fans for whom this might well be their first Shirow production. You might as well start at the top.
[Note: This edition is identical to previous Dark Horse versions in that a couple of pages of graphic sex not directly relevant to the plot have been excised. Shirow himself approved the deletion, for what it’s worth, but manga fans are completists and to have this remain missing — whether for the sake of Comstockery or simple cost-trimming — is galling.]