2 out of 5
Nah, fuck this book.
Like many, as part of my movie rites of passage (an event we’ll say starts somewhere in high school and extends through early college years), I watched the big anime hits: Akira, Vampire Hunter D, Ghost in the Shell. That I didn’t continue to pursue the genre beyond that should be suggestive of that it seemed to not grab my interest then.
Years on, with my tastes more fully established, I would revisit some of those flicks, tip-toeing over to other suggestions that had accrued along the way. Still no dice. I had purchased a special edition of Ghost in the Shell on DVD (tastes established, I still wasn’t immune to having greedy eyes and wanting a “cool” collection of movies), and when I finally got around to watching it, I remembered the cool imagery from my first viewing, but I also felt very aware that… the movie was boring.
Some more years on, and I finally found a good entry point into anime with Berserk, which I feel like ‘taught’ me how to watch it. I’ve watched and enjoyed a few series, and have started (unfortunately for my wallet) purchasing manga as well. With the live action GITS movie to come, the anime (film) is getting a brief theatrical rerelease, and it seems like a good opportunity to see if my newly adjusted tasted will appreciate the flick, or if I’ll still be bored by it. …And leading up to that, my comic shop had the trade collection of GITS 1 on sale (the English Kodansha edition), so why not?
Well. I’ll let this review try to tell you why not.
Getting over the huge tone and focus difference between film and book – the latter being rather comical versus the former’s soberness, and the film’s main ‘antagonist’ – the puppet master – only appearing in a small portion of the manga – there are so many story-telling problems that the book became almost infuriating to read.
While there is some character building, it’s scant, rendering all characters as fairly one-note: Major Kusanagi as the at-all-costs leader, Funako as Section 9’s chief and chief manipulator, Batou as the reliable and good natured muscle, and Togusa as the green trigger-ready screw-up. They’re plug-and-play archetypes, spouting made-up lingo were given no grounding for, and functioning without any clearly defined limitations to their abilities, making investment in them beyond “cool” or “funny” non-existent. There is no character arc to follow until the last couple chapters, and by the, I couldn’t be brought to care.
The setting is equally poorly defined (except in Masamune’s head) with something something future being the springboard needed for GITS full-on cyborg enmeshment reality, wherein every bit of everything can and probably does have some AI component. That’s fair enough for a sci-fi book, but the rest of it – the Section 9 police force we follow, tasked with hunting down some type of cyber criminals – fits who-knows-where within the larger scheme of things. With anime / manga I have gotten used to going with the flow for a while until a structure can be intuited from the story, but GITS – Masamune – doesn’t seem to care about that. He has his tech agenda (his ideas for how technology can be applied) and that’s almost always first and foremost. That the book is broken down into episodic cases which don’t seem to impact each other much is a further muddle; an overall theme of the line between machine and man emerges, but again, the pursuance of that theme seems to sacrifice all other sense of plotting or pacing. Episodes percolate into shooting sequences; Kusanagi breaks procedure; Funako reveals he knew how it would all work out. Next chapter: We start over again. No stakes.
Regarding the technology, I’ll grant that Shirow’s extrapolation of real science to his future (especially when this was written, in 1989) is impressive, and the flirtation with the whole What Makes Us Human concept in a world where many are no longer human save their brain and spine is, when it’s addressed, interesting. But: I spent my own time understanding that a ‘ghost’ approximated a human soul, as well as that cyborgs like our Section 9 team could network with their mobile machine units (Futomachis) as well as each other, akin to telephathy. This was the learn as you go method, fine. …And then Shirow info dumps it in later chapters. Not to mention his bullshit footnotes; not sure when those were added but they’re almost occasionally of maddening “by the way here’s the context to male this scene make sense” variety. In both cases its like the author recognized that he’d made a somewhat senseless book (or at least a book with a steep learning curve, with much of what could be learned not available in the real world) and then decided to fix it after the fact. This also excludes the sequences when Masamune decides to deep-dive into wank territory with confusingly dense (i.e. Dry and uninteresting) passages in how the computers do what they do. This should be fascinating, but it reads like someone memorized a textbook, and stuffed it between pages of gunfights.
The art, at least, is pretty phenomenal. While there’s some word bubble confusion with all the telepathy, I dont know if that got mixed in the reorientation from left-to-right for American audiences, so I’ll excuse that. Otherwise, GITS is compelling to look at, with well thought out armor and machine designs and somewhat of a US comic sensibility in the way Masamune directs the eye, breaking panel borders and allowing his action to flow somewhat more whimsically than a lot of the manga I’ve read.
I appreciate that comics are lacking in “hard” sci-fi, and Masamune has some good (and cool looking) ideas in GITS. But the manner in which he constructed his story to frame those ideas is incredibly uninvolving, and at times frustratingly distancing.
The current Kodansha edition (as of 2017) has the footnotes and Masamune’s long-winded but, eh, also not very interesting, annotations, which are funly not matched correctly to the pages due to the censoring removing two pages.