Do I complain or do I savor? That’s the dilemma I’m faced with after reading this manga adaptation of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, one of the first titles from Kodansha’s domestic manga publishing division (which eclipsed Del Rey’s and more or less continued where they left off). The TV series was easily one of my favorite shows of any variety, live-action or animated, and so I looked forward to seeing a comic re-adaptation of the same material. It would at the very least present the creators with a challenge: how do you create a comic adaptation of a show that was itself adapted from a comic, albeit with a good deal of creative liberty on the part of the adaptors?
I didn’t have an inherent problem with this cycle of reworking. It’s not as if there isn’t a long and venerable tradition of one-for-one adaptations between various forms of media in Japanese popular culture. Manga begat TV series, TV series begat second TV series, series (plural) begat light novels, light novels begat side-story manga spinoff, and so on. It’s not as if precedent for this doesn’t exist with GitS:SAC either, since some very good light-novel spinoffs from the TV series were produced in Japan and released domestically by Dark Horse. I enjoyed those books because they managed to mine the same vein as the TV show, where tough people living in a very complicated world do even tougher jobs and in the process discover they are sometimes all too human. I hoped, perhaps in vain, that the manga would be along the same lines: new stories set in the same universe, redolent of the same flavor as the show.
What we did get, though, is all the wrong kind of same. This first manga volume is nothing more than a drawn version of the entire first episode of the TV show. Line for line, shot for shot. That makes it no more redundant than any number of other things in the same vein — the light novel reworking of Bleach, or the manga iteration of The Endless Iterations of Haruhi Suzumiya, or whatever. But it’s still disappointing, in big part because so much of what has made GitS so special is the way it has been reinvented — sometimes slightly, sometimes completely — each time it’s been re-developed for a new medium. To have something this … well, lockstep is a letdown.
What we do get, though, is — I gotta be honest — not wholly bad on its own terms. For those with no exposure to the show at all, it’s a serviceable introduction to the Shell universe and the characters of the clandestine counter-terrorist / counter-cybercrime unit Section 9 that are the main reasons to enter it. Major Motoko Kusanagi, the lady of war with a cybernetic body; Batou and Togusa, her left- and right-hand men; her wizened boss Aramaki; the cheerfully dippy robot tanks and comic relief, the Tachikoma; and all the rest of the Section’s special operatives and sly dogs. They’re a great cast in a great plot, and even the lockstep approach used here can’t completely spoil that: what a pleasure it is to see them again! The fact that it’s on the pages of a book instead on the TV screen provides enough novelty that you might well forgive the fact that this isn’t a new story.
But it isn’t just that it’s not a new story, or that the adaptation comes uncomfortably close to being a Foto-Novel version of the original. It’s also that the story we do get has been padded out to fill an entire volume with the kind of storytelling pork that most anyone who has read more than ten manga in their lifetime will recognize in seconds. Most every chapter’s last page or two is repeated, with only minimal variation, in the opening of the following chapter — which I’d normally be willing to chalk up to the serialization process, but here it feels way too much like they’re just trying to inflate this thing to 250 pages. That page count includes the goofy bonus section at the end, a manga version of the “Tachikoma Days” blackout skits from the show, which is worth a chuckle at least.
The technical credits are never less than competent, but no more than that either. The adaptor, Yu Kinutani (is this the same artist who gave us Shion: Blade of the Minstrel a ways back?) brings a detailed but friendly look to the art, and uses the occasional bit of cute manga shorthand — the odd sweatdrop or between-the-frames interjection — without letting it get out of hand. It’s nothing like the messy but fascinating art Masamune Shirow himself penned for the original Shell manga — itself as unlike the TV series derived from it as this is a mirror of the show. As much as I found Shirow’s work frustrating, he had enough raw genius to make his untamed conceits workable (c.f., Orion, a horrible wreck of storytelling bolstered by some of the most uninhibitedly funky artwork ever inked). There’s nothing that raw and off-the-leash here, but there’s also nothing that exciting — nothing that delivers the pleasure of a happy accident.
Or, again, is that just me? As annoyed as I was with these obvious artifacts of converting the story to manga, I found myself enjoying the book anyway. There is a part of me that does indeed respond to being given something old and familiar (shilling for shopworn) in a new package. It’s the same part of me that enjoyed James Blish’s Star Trek novelizations when I was a wee one, and which enjoys movie tie-ins now. But I know full well that as much as the fan in me might savor this, the rest of me reserves the right to complain at the same time. Maybe the second volume out later this year will spin things in a different direction but this has given me reason to be wary. There’s no reason I can’t savor and complain at the same time, is there?