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The most disconcerting thing about the Ghost in the Shell mythology is something that, oddly enough, parallels Star Wars. The further the material has been taken from its creator (manga artist Masamune Shirow), the more interesting it has become—which implies that Shirow was most interested in the things about it that were least interesting to everyone else. That or he simply hadn’t found a way to make those things interesting to us. George Lucas may have been deeply enamored of the relationship between Amidala and Anakin, but we saw no evidence onscreen of what was so interesting to him.
Masamune Shirow is a fantastically creative visual artist, one of the best in the business. He is not, however, a very engaging storyteller, and almost every time he’s sat down to cull together a story out of his torrent of wild images, the results have been disappointing. Orion, for instance, was essentially one giant shaggy-dog joke—a flood of terminology and ideas and metaphors and references used to support a plot that wouldn’t otherwise have deserved a ten-page short. Appleseed was probably his best moment, but it ultimately worked better as an animated feature (two of them, in fact) than it did on paper.
And then there is Ghost in the Shell, the original manga that later spawed a whole galaxy of media on its own, the movies and TV shows and novels that I have liked and loved in different measures. It is actually the least interesting part of the whole GitS mythology, possibly because Shirow is only interested in taking his premises as seriously as he has to for the sake of a glossy-looking panel. The TV series and movies were created by people who took the time and patience to pry his ideas free of their limitations and do them justice.
But this doesn’t always happen, and so time and again I have begged whatever gods may be listening to pair Shirow up with a writer, or failing that an editor, who can give his imagination the discipline and coherence it needs. If he did this, he could be responsible for some of the most outstanding work produced in comics yet, instead of hatching one messy, insular indulgence after another. With GitS2:MMI, it seems my prayers have gone unheard once again.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface is only a sequel to the original comic in the most abstruse way possible. It takes place in, I think, the same universe as GitS (with Shirow, it’s hard to tell if anything he does is deliberate or not), and leaves behind Motoko Kusanagi for a new character: Motoko Aramaki, the chief of security for a massive multinational corporation. Since one of the corollaries of this kind of setting is that corporations have the power of governments, she’s essentially a parallel for Kusanagi in all but name, so she might as well be the same character to begin with.
One of the less incomprehensible snatches of dialogue
throughout the mostly impenetrable Man-Machine Interface.
Aramaki has a whole array of digital and robotic assistants, little virtual avatars that bring to mind the Tachikomas of the earlier GitS incarnations, and can shuttle her consciousness or “ghost” between multiple physical bodies or “shells” (hence, the title) located around the world. It’s like teleportation gone one better: you can not only get from here to there without having to pack your bags, you get a whole new outfit as part of the bargain. The plot involves a series of cryptic attacks against her employers, Poseidon Industrial, and her attempts to unravel who (or what) is behind all this and why, and it all not only leads nowhere but does its utmost to cancel itself out.
The problem is that Shirow’s instincts as a storyteller are all wrong. He gives us great amounts of information about things, but he makes the mistake of assuming we will automatically find them as interesting as he does. Most of his body of work has been a running commentary on the problem of confusing complexity with depth: Just because you make something difficult and tangled and load it down with a great many esoteric references doesn’t mean you have anything interesting to say. The book touches on everything from Buddhist philosophy to Japanese folk religion, computer science, AI, and you-name-it, but these things do not constitute a story. They’re just a bunch of disparate ingredients, and the story they’ve been dropped into doesn’t provide enough temperature for them to melt together.
It’s one thing to surround these ideas with a story that meditates on them in an engaging and human way, and another thing to simply use them as set dressing for a story that has no intrinsic interest to begin with. Because everything is happening on a level so far removed from anything we can bring to the story ourselves—or which Shirow himself can provide for us to connect with—there’s no sense of what’s really at stake, or why we should care. It’s like watching a sporting match where you don’t know the rules, don’t know which team to root for, and don’t even know when the game is over. But enough people are dazzled by the surface of the story to not realize that it is essentially a shell game, one where in the end there isn’t even a pea to be unveiled. The book doesn’t even have a real ending; it simply terminates, as if Shirow had reached the bottom of his itinerary of things to include and couldn’t think of anything else.
One thing I cannot find much fault with is the artwork, which is gorgeous stuff and shows a great deal of digitally-enhanced flair. Shirow spends much of his time doing posters and portfolios instead of manga, and while it’s arguably a better outlet for his creativity he’s also gleaned what he learned there and applied it back to his comic art. Unfortunately, Shirow is also starting to make some of the same mistakes that many Western comics publishers are committing now that they, too, have full-color full-bleed printing at their disposal. More is not the same as better, and one of the side effects of such aggressive use of color is how the very underpinning of the picture in comics art, the lines themselves, become not just obscured but actively ignored.
The saddest thing about GitS2:MMI is how it shows Shirow repeating mistakes that he had already been suffering from chronically a decade earlier. More is not better, ideas are not stories, and visual vigor cannot make up for a general lack of artistic direction. He should really know better by now. And so should we.xcaption=One of the less incomprehensible snatches of dialogue
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New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind