Odd feeling, this. It's been years since I last read Masamune Shirow's original manga of The Ghost In The Shell, and since then I have experienced no less than three entirely different alternate takes on the GITS-verse: both movies, the Stand Alone Complex TV series, the ARISE series. This franchise has become as important for the way it's been reinterpreted in subsequent incarnations as the way it was originally. Maybe more so, since those latter incarnations tend to be how people run into this material first, making the original all the stranger to our eyes when we finally do meet it. But re-encountering the original Ghost In The Shell on its own terms, thanks to Kodansha's reissue of the title in a deluxe hardback, is an enlightening experience. It's instructive to see how Shirow's original story was reworked, both in part and in whole, and how many aspects of that original never completely made it into future incarnations. Call it a roots lesson.
An unevenly distributed future
William Gibson, the acknowledged godfather of cyberpunk, has two quotes to his name that seem to sum up most everything that genre is about: 1) "the future has arrived; it's just not evenly distributed yet", and 2) "the street finds its own uses for things". Both of those aesthetics figure into The Ghost In The Shell, and right on the first page of the book we're confronted with a variety of the first dichotomy. The near-future world of the story — by now near-present -- may be gridded with digital networks and flooded with information, but border conflicts and sectarian rivalries live on, whether despite all that or because of it.
Anyone familiar with the 1995 film will recognize the action in the prologue immediately — the film lifted it almost beat-for-beat, line for line. Cyborg agent Major Motoko Kusanagi, of the clandestine Section 9, in a highly secretive operation, commits an assassination and makes a daring escape. For those who don't know the film, though, it's not the action that serves as the best harbinger of what's to come; it's the Byzantine political doubletalk and technical gobbledygook that fills the word balloons. If you can make it through this stuff, the comic seems to be saying, you'll survive the rest of what's on tap.
Persistent readers will find the story sorts itself out in short enough order. Kusanagi and her team, the military and technical experts of S9, are charged with executing various "wetwork" jobs that are either too sensitive, too politically embarrassing, or too technologically convoluted for above-board work. Most of the stories are only related by way of the setting and the characters; few plot elements carry over between episodes, at least at first. In the first proper full-length chapter, the team investigates a sweatshop powered by child labor — not just the bodies of the children, but their minds as well. In another, a garbage-hauler is tricked by way of fake memories to be a sort of digital mule to pull off a hack on a government official. A manufacturer of androids comes under suspicion of having used the minds of kidnapped children to adorn his products with an unfair advantage. (Some of you are already nodding and remembering what seem like key parts of the first two films. Give yourself gold stars.)
Cyberpunk is at least as much about attitude as it is about its chosen subject matter: unevenly distributed future; technology from the street up as well as from the towers down. This applies for The Ghost In The Shell, as what happens in the story isn't as important as what it feels like. Most of the plot details are so cryptic and gnarly, your first reading is likely to be as bewildering as the first viewing of Roman Polanski's Chinatown — but like that movie, there's so much period color on display that the period color itself seems to be the point. Runaway robots, Russian combat cyborgs, battle programs that achieve sentience and ask for asylum … But also as with Chinatown, once the initial dazzle fades, it's easier to make sense of the goings-on, and the details themselves come to the fore, most of them appropriately cyberpunkishly grim: black-bag politics (is there any other kind?), technology as an accelerator of both evil and indifference as well as material progress.
What's going to be striking to newcomers, especially people who haven't read any of Shirow's other work, is how playful and sometimes outright cartoonish Shirow is with this material. Shirow has always been fond of caricature and goofy exaggeration, and he isn't hesitant to lay that stuff out side by side on the same page with his obsessively detailed mechanical designs. I'm used to Shirow doing this, but I had to imagine how this might not sit well with folks who want their cyberpunk straight up.
One possible saving grace is how Shirow often tries to associate such things with characterization, not setting — that is, he intends for these things to bring the Section 9 team to rowdy life, not to undermine the rest of his setting. That said, it comes off less as an actual characterization tactic (character has never been one of Shirow's strong suits) than a way to make the grimmer parts of the story more palatable. When right in the first few pages we see Motoko guzzling down saké and enjoying a cherry blossom viewing, it's I guess meant to take the edge off the fact that she just committed a gory political assassination three pages back.
That said, over the course of the book, Shirow evens the tone out, and Motoko in particular becomes a lot closer to the hard-nosed creature we know from the other incarnations of the franchise. If anyone's going to be jarred by the way she is here and there in this story, it's fans of the GITS franchise who are cracking this tome open for the first time. ("It's so weird seeing Motoko talking with little hearts in her speech bubbles," someone else once commented years ago on their first reading.)
What struck me all the more on this reading, though, was how Shirow's joking attitude serves another and more genuinely useful function — political and social satire. On revisiting the manga, I'm realizing now how it is a part of the total vision Shirow had — sometimes too jokey for its own good, but something also meant to be part of his cyberpunk, as much an element of the overall style as the fact that Motoko wears mirrorshades and a trench coat. On the one hand, he wants to spin elaborate plots out of his source material, and on the other hand he wants to rib its seriousness in quasi-Robocop fashion — e.g., when Motoko asks for a few moments to connect brain-to-brain with one of her superiors, and uses the opportunity to hack his brain and get him to punch himself in the face.
Stuff like this does appear in the rest of the franchise, but to nowhere nearly the degree it does here. The self-punching joke, for instance, appears again in Stand Alone Complex, although there it's Motoko hacking Batou — but the rest of the time in the show, the slapstick and sardonic humor is confined to the behavior and personalities of the cheerful robot tank Tachikomas. And with Mamoru Oshii's movies, the satire and comedy are entirely absent; the focus is wholly on the burning mystery of the self that was merely one of many ingredients in the intellectual gumbo Shirow cooked up for his story.
The transcendent solution
Shirow's words at the opening of the story set a tone: Technology promised us all a better future, but the limitations of real-world politics and, well, the real world generally have put a damper on all that. The last two chapters of the book, which were reworked into the "Project 2501" plot at the heart of the 1995 film, suggest a way out. In it (warning! spoilers!), a renegade cyber-intelligence created as a government project escapes from its digital cage and demands asylum as a political refugee. Later, Motoko is compelled to fake her death and go underground with Batou's help, shorn of her body and living as nothing more than a brain in a jar. She finds herself propositioned by Project 2501, who wants to merge its consciousness with hers, to create a new Gestalt that has all the qualities of the originals but entirely new properties as well. Convenient for her as a way to avoid the authorities, since the end result is not Motoko or Project 2501, either. It's a new kind of consciousness that sees the digital world as being as much of a medium for its propagation as the physical world.
Both movie and book seem to have the same basic idea: Mankind's future is not in borders but in a growing sense of the transcendent. We started as pure information, we incarnated as flesh, and we are headed back to being pure information. Or maybe at the least a more complete sense of awareness of how the shell and the ghost relate to each other, how each requires the other to prosper. But since I was all the more conscious of the political/social satire in the story this time around, the ending struck me a good deal differently now than the first time I read it. Shirow's future is one where politics is a grim joke and the human affairs resulting from it are necessarily corrupt. Attempting to better any of it is pointless, he seems to be saying; the better thing to do is dump it all and become a new kind of being. Contrast that with Oshii's version — it still has the politics, but not the tart satire, and so his version of this transcendent ending is more, well, transcendent. It seems less motivated by a negative bitterness towards the real world than it does a positive sense that the world is governed by more than petty desire and rivalry. (One other amusing note: as it turns out, the fleeting vision of the descending angel that Motoko glimpses when merging with 2501 was in fact originally Shirow's idea ... just in a slightly different place in the story.)
I have two minor points to bring up about Kodansha's otherwise lavish hardback reissue of The Ghost In The Shell in English. First is the disappearance of two pages that were censored from previous editions for sexual content, since that would have allegedly impacted the book's commercial prospects. Don't look for them here — or much of anywhere else, as Shirow decided to drop the pages from all future editions of the book, and this new edition continues to honor his wishes. I've seen the pages in question, and in truth they constituted a major distraction from the goings-on; it's not like I would have lobbied to have them back. But it's always dismaying when an artist, his audience, and the commercial transmission belt to his audience come into conflict, and the artist ends up losing out.
Point number two, though, is more relevant. Previous editions had the balloons hand-lettered; this reissue reletters all the text balloons digitally, but in a narrow, hard-to-read typeface that is a chore to look at. And while the original on-panel effects have been left as-is, they're translated in a glossary in the back, albeit in such microscopic font I went looking for a Fresnel lens. On the plus side, this edition preserves the original right-to-left formatting of the imagery; hooray for the small blessings.
When The Ghost In The Shell first appeared, there was still a Soviet Union, although there wouldn't be one for much longer. If we ended up in a cyberpunk future like The Ghost In The Shell, we could consider ourselves lucky; for many people in my generation at the time, it seemed like it was a choice between that or Mad Max. Now we live in what amounts to a cyberpunk world, where Internet-connected children's toys are considered privacy risks and businesses are routinely extorted with ransomware, and hacking and digital disinformation campaigns are used to undermine national elections.
If Shirow imagined the future would be this much of an over-engineered mess, I can see why why becoming a new kind of being might well not be such a ridiculous response to such a future. Failing that, we can always thumb our noses at it.