By Andrew Osmond.
Like or hate it, last year’s live-action Ghost in the Shell performed a service in reminding many people of the Japanese original. But many people probably thought of one Ghost only. At least in Britain and America, it does seem that the 1995 cinema anime film, directed by Mamoru Oshii and co-produced by Britain’s Manga Entertainment, overshadows all other Ghosts – a bit like Wizard of Oz being eternally defined by the MGM musical. (Sorry, Wicked fans.)
This did the Hollywood Ghost no favours. On the one hand, the film lifted umpteen images and set-pieces from the Oshii film, highlighted in the trailer (discussed here). But it altered the characters and story so completely that many fans were more offended than gratified. It’s easy to forget how many Ghosts there had already been, taking the characters, world and themes in numerous different ways, reflecting the outlooks of umpteen artists.
The new book Ghost in the Shell ReadMe: 1995-2017, available in English from Kodansha, attempts to redress the balance. It’s a guide to all the anime versions of Ghost, starting with the Oshii film and moving through his Innocence sequel, Stand Alone Complex and Arise, and ending with the misleadingly named Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (which is a cinema continuation of Arise).
The book does not cover the original Ghost manga from 1989 by Masumune Shirow, which is itself very different from all the other Ghosts. Nor does it cover any of the other manga, by Shirow and others, nor the spin-off novels and games. It’s also fair to say that the book’s for readers who are familiar with the Ghost franchise already. That’s not to say you need to have seen or liked all the anime Ghosts – plenty of fans hate Innocence for example, or Arise. However, the book assumes you like a fair amount of it.
The 160-page book has about 30 pages on the Oshii films; about 60 on Stand Alone Complex (including Solid State Society) and about 30 on the Arise version (including The New Movie). Nine pages of staff interviews cut across the franchise (see below) and there are seven fairly perfunctory pages at the front about the live-action film. Amusingly, while most of the book is filled with small – often too small – anime images, one of the first pics is a full-page still of ScarJo in her nude android suit.
Most of the book, though, consists of busy magazine-like layouts crammed with stills, design drawings and patches of text. Much of the print is small, and some is really small. This is not a coffee-table book – it’s A4 sized – nor is it really an art book, as most of the pics are too tiny to enjoy on a leisurely flip-through. It’s more of an illustrated guide, covering the anime in sufficient detail that readers can learn many new things about a franchise they’re presumably invested in already.
Mecha fans will be especially happy, with many layouts on cars, helicopters, guns (an excellent spread on the mostly-real weapons in the 1995 film) and of course the tanks that loom large in Ghost, from the spider-tank that Kusanagi wrestles in Oshii’s original to the adorable Tachikoma of Stand Alone Complex. There are character galleries, with notes on how the main characters change. We learn that the key to designing a younger Kusanagi in Arise was to give her a new hairdo – straight-cut bangs, inspired by a girl that director Kise saw on a train.
There are separate chapters on the 1995 film; Innocence; the first season of Stand Alone Complex with the Laughing Man; the “2nd Gig” season; the Arise TV/video stories; and The New Movie. Each chapter comes with a synopsis, a more detailed breakdown of the ending scenes, and a “Mysteries and Answers” section clarifying the plot.
And Ghost in the Shell often needs clarifying. From the beginning, it’s had dense, sometimes labyrinthine plots that often leave one wondering what happened, why it happened and even who it happened to (this is a franchise where characters can have several bodies, or be possessed by fake identities, like the luckless binman in the ‘95 film). This isn’t a book to answer all questions – the text isn’t nearly in-depth enough – but it is handy for seeing how plot pieces fit.
Among the things I learned from the text that I didn’t know before, the news that Kusanagi’s creation in the original film was inspired by Botticelli’s Renaissance painting, Birth of Venus. For the iconic moment where Kusanagi fights the tank, Oshii and character designer Hiroyuki Okiura referred to photographs of “a well-built foreign model”. Frustratingly, his or her name isn’t revealed.
Other revelations, for me at least, include that the palette of the “2.0” reissue of the original film, involving warmer (but for me, duller) colours was inspired by the computer screens in Avalon, an SF film that Oshii made in Poland in the interim. The spectacular festival in the middle of Innocence is inspired by a Taiwanese celebration which Oshii had seen while filming an earlier live-action film there, Stray Dog (1993).
Other inspirations include the real-world news, such as the “Laughing Man” storyline in SAC, which involves the kidnap of a company president by the enigmatic title character. This was inspired by a real-life extortion case in Japan in the 1980s involving a sweets manufacturer, called the Glico-Morinaga case. The same plot involves medical conspiracies, and the alleged suppression of certain life-saving treatments. This refers to another 1980s controversy regarding the so-called Maruyama vaccine.
As for fictional inspirations, SAC’s 2nd Gig season was originally conceived as using the writings of Yukio Mishima as a central motif, much as the “Laughing Man” season revolved round J.D. Salinger. This idea was mostly dropped, but if you recall a key grisly event that occurs midway through the season, it all makes sense.
While the back-cover blurb excitably promises “tales of behind-the-scenes triumphs and near-tragedies,” I searched in vain for anything that juicy. Still, the interviews have impressive speakers. One is a conversation between Atsuko Tanaka and Maaya Sakamoto, the actresses who voiced Kusanagi in Japanese. The other interview is an even bigger coup, bringing together Ghost’s three main anime directors: Oshii, Kamiyama and Kise.
However, the interviews, though enjoyable, are nothing revelatory. The actress interview is disappointingly insubstantial, though Tanaka recalls Oshii directing her to “take the emotion” out of her delivery; “You want a dry feeling, like you’re looking at the world objectively.” For me, though, one of the most striking moments of the original film is how vulnerable Tanaka’s Kusanagi sounds in her one-to-one communion with the Puppet Master. By the way, although the book gives the birth date of Sakamoto (1980), it coyly omits Tanaka’s birth year, which Wikipedia claims is 1962 – younger than Luffy actress Mayumi Tanaka or Bart Simpson voice Nancy Cartwright.
The directors roundtable has more meat. I loved Oshii’s comment that each of his “sequel” films – not just Innocence, but also Patlabor 2 and his Urusei Yatsura film Beautiful Dreamer – move away from their source materials into Oshii’s “own field” (i.e. deep metaphysics and politics), which is absolutely true in all three cases. There are observations on Hollywood shooting methods – Oshii witnessed some of the filming of the live-action Ghost. Kamiyama mentions staff doubts over Stand Alone Complex: “Every single person was telling me, it’s going to fail.” Oshii and Kise mull over the implications of making the originally-for-video Arise in 50-minute episodes, typical for live-action but not anime.
Unsurprisingly, the directors refrain from saying anything critical about each others’ work, and that’s generally true of the text. However, the book briefly touches on Kusanagi’s variable personality in the franchise. While many of the objections to the live-action Ghost were variants on “It’s not the real Kusanagi,” the fact is the Major has already been dialled up and down extensively in Japan, from the “expressionless” consummate professional of Oshii’s film, to the fallible, bad-tempered youngster in Arise.
Personally, I’ve always preferred the cool, professional Major – as mentioned above, I don’t find her expressionless even in the 1995 film. But as that film stressed, survival means diversification, reinvention, risk-taking. Following Stand Alone Complex, one can imagine a world where Production I.G rebooted the franchise with the same story ideas as the live-action film, only with more running time to explore them. I think it might have worked, especially minus the “whitewashing” controversy.
ReadMe may be an official book, but I don’t see it as gospel. The text, for example, goes out of its way in the 2nd Gig chapter to say that the identity of a little boy in a flashback episode is not officially confirmed by the end of the series. Perhaps not, but most viewers would still find it blooming obvious! Elsewhere, the book’s explanation of the “Puppeteer” in Solid State Society is disappointingly clear-cut. That film’s own on-screen imagery, as well as the title conceit of a “stand alone complex”, throws up much more far-out answers.
One particular claim seems just wrong, that Shirow’s manga Appleseed is “another work set in the same world as Ghost” (p.61). For the record, it would be more plausible to claim that Eden of the East, an anime comedy-thriller that’s not officially part of the the franchise, is a prequel to the Stand Alone Complex timeline. Not only do they share a director, Kenji Kamiyama, but there seem to be definite story details linking them. However, I was told by one of Production I.G’s staff (not Kamiyama) that these links were just in-jokes… but again, fans don’t have to go along with that line, official or not.
One comment in the book may have fans catching their breath, so perhaps it needs a trigger warning. The book has a spread on the “2.0” reissue of Oshii’s first Ghost, in which the Puppet Master’s “gender” (or at least its voice) is switched from male to female. According to the text, “The change was made with an eye to the triangle between Motoko (Kusanagi), Batou and the Puppet Master, in which Batou can be said to lose Motoko to the Puppet Master. With this interpretation less viable in (the 2.0 version, with the female Puppet Master), it perhaps makes more sense that Motoko would return to Batou in Innocence.” I’ll leave that there and stand well back.
Ghost, of course, spills outside the “official” franchise of that name. I’ve already mentioned Eden of the East, but more obvious removed cousins include PSYCHO-PASS; Oshii’s live-action/CG Garm Wars, with a white actress in the “Kusanagi” role; and Mardock Scramble from a book by Tow Ubukata, who’d later write Arise. There’s also an animation from outside Japan; the 2009 Serbian film Technotise: Edit & I, which comes over both as a cheeky parody and a respectful homage. I wrote it up here.
Last April, Production I.G announced it would make a new Ghost anime, just as the live-action film opened. The co-directors will be Shinji Aramaki – who made two CG films from Shirow’s Appleseed – and Kenji Kamiyama. Kamiyama’s name fuels fan hopes that the new anime may return to Stand Alone Complex, but as of writing, nothing’s been confirmed. Still, the ReadMe book reminds us of what the next Ghost must live up to.
Andrew Osmond is the author of the Arrow film guide to Ghost in the Shell.