Recent sci-fi reviews: 009-1, Xenosaga: The Animation, Kurau: Phantom Memory and Space Pinchy
Manga Spotlight: Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human Error Processor By Shirow Masamune Released by Dark Horse Manga
Though assistants and editors shape the process, the appeal of a work of manga is inseparably tied to its creator. If you like Naruto, it's because you like the way Masashi Kishimoto spun what excited him about Dragon Ball with more identifiable teenage concerns. That relationship is particularly true of Shirow Masamune's works. There's an attitude, an attention to detail, and a style of illustration that is specifically Masamune's. You either love it, or it's hard to even look at. Working backwards from his current claims to fame, Shirow Masamune could be thought of as the creator of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed. For those who only know the anime, and who have missed out on the likes of the Puma Sisters, the contribution of a cyborg woman with guns and a short haired commando woman with guns might suggest that Masamune is not exactly another Go Nagai (credited with the innovations of the piloted giant robot and the transforming magical girl). Yet, to read Shirow Masamune's manga, he seems like a singular creative force. It's almost John Nash, A Beautiful Mind business, where crazy genius springs up out of thin air. Obviously the guy spends a lot of time thinking and researching. He plans matters down to how his characters should manage their seat-belts, and the effort put forth to render the details of every building, room and object makes your joints hurt to consider. Yet, the push forward suggests a mad scrawl. It's easy to imagine Shirow Masamune yelling "robot insects!!!" then rushing to jot down notes on the speed by which the suction pads on the legs of a house cat sized metal fly would re-pressurize. Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human Error Processor consists of short stories written after the original Ghost in the Shell, but not included in Man-Machine Interface. His best known character, the woman cyber-agent extraordinaire "The Major" makes a brief appearance in her post-Puppet Master "Chroma" persona. Watching her command the scene and deploy insectiod robot drones should bring a smile to fans of the original Ghost in the Shell, but the Major/Chroma acts as a supporting player for a set of stories held together by the role of Section 9 in their capacity as bleeding edge trouble shooters. Unlike Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence or Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society, the post Major Section 9 is not exactly reeling in her absence, but then again, the characterization is significantly thinner than much of the anime's. "The Old Man" Aramaki remains in charge. Togusa, receives plenty of face time, and he's still the most human member of the crew as a family man and former police investigator without a cybernetic body. Batau, a former military special ops commando, receives slightly less focus, but he's definitely present. The always shaggy Ishikawa makes a few cameos, and even makes a pachinko parlor appearance. Faces familiar from the Stand Alone Complex anime TV series, including Saito, Borma and even Proto make appearances. Of note to franchise followers, Azuma, an operative who appeared in Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig and Solid State Society receives plenty of attention as Togusa's partner. Though he was a reliable subordinate in Solid State Society, here, he acts as a foil to the serious minded and empathetic Togusa. He's crude. He's blunt. He's generally unpleasant. When it comes time for someone to be shown up, the manga fries his cyborg body or overloads his super sensitive nose. A decade ago, a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell manga, might have been disappointed that the pauses and existential space of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell film did not match the frenetic, pack everything onto the page approach of the original manga. Presumably everyone who felt that way has gotten over it in the intervening years, and Production I.G's Stand Alone Complex TV series did an amazing job of mediating the Shirow Masamune and the Mamoru Oshii approaches to the subject. As the "1.5" moniker suggests, even more than Man-Machine Interface did, Human Error Processor offers more of what was appealing in the original. There might be less continuity and lower stakes, but the dense cyber crime capers and the irreverent humor do make a forceful return. The four stories packaged in the volume include Fat Cat (1991) Drive Slave (1992) Mines of Mind (1995) and Lost Past (1996). Especially in light of the crucially relevant Stand Alone Complex anime, the reminder that Ghost in the Shell originally comes from a time before everyone was online and carrying mobile devices comes asa a bit of a jolt. We weren't using an abacus between 1991 and 1996, but there is a sense that these stories are informed by time when information technology had a different reach. Still, some of it is a bit prescient. His joke on the dangers of online dating is still cute and it is interesting to consider that one of the key situations amounts to a convoluted identity theft scheme. It feels like the short story form is being used to try out a set of ideas. Because the stakes are lower than those of the original Ghost in the Shell, the manga does position itself as a less substantial one-off. Each story has a central premise and host of unique notions that may simply be latched on. The trouble is that the pacing of these concept driven narratives seems artificial. Because Masamune is upfront about laying out the key concept for each story, expressing that central idea does not take much space. Even when he holds out the mystery, there is an impression that the solution could be sprung any at any moment, and that the run length is not tied to how long it takes the idea to be explored. Rather than unfold or escalate, the stories are kept moving along with additional encounters or set pieces. Page 1 of Fat Cat posits that the father of the woman who walked into the investigator's office was dead, and that he was being animated through some variety of advance technology. Seventy pages later, the short story comes to a conclusion because this has been confirmed. In between, Masamune has offered some details on how the scheme works, and what it was used for, but the entire length seems more like a function of a publisher's mandate than the natural course of an investigation. It could have been twice as long, with more intermediaries thrown in, or, it could have been a quick set up and resolution. Part of the appeal is the opportunity to see Masamune's act. As always, the foot notes alone are worth the price of admission. The degree to which he apparently takes every aspect seriously and the amount of information he'd like to convey verges on a disorder. "Masamune Shirow" is a pen name, but after reading some of these comments, you have to wonder whether its also an adopted persona. After Togusa picks up a stack of sandwiches for a stakeout: "Sandwiches: in situations like this, sandwiches are a extremely convenient food, especially because they can be eaten with one hand. The sandwiches Togusa bought are made with whole grain dark bread, but actually, as I understand it, white bread would not degrade his camouflage capabilities as long as he stayed in the shadows (he could just hide the sandwich with one hand of course!). I drew dark bread sandwiches just in case... Of course, the real problem in terms of surveillance work is not so much eating the sandwich, but the noise and smell generated when expelling it... (And in really big houses, it's the scary dogs that you have to worry about...)" Besides accepting the "Shirow Masamune" act, the other requirement for appreciating the work is to be imaginative. Masamune does demonstrate what he's thinking, but you might only get a couple of good scenes with something like a particularly odd android before he discards it. Beyond that, there are many flat characters and flakey scenarios. In order to be a Masamune-head, you need to digest the design and ideas and be ready to project the implications. When he says "you see from the illustration in panel 4 that Azuma's C-27A has a sight mounted on the cartridge carrier. It's one of those ridiculous things where the front sight is sold separately. And Azuma really should be using the cheek rest on the thing...", you need to be ready to be on the same wavelength to figure out what he's saying, then able to imagine why it matters.
Anime Spotlight: Freedom Volume 1 Released by Bandai Visual
Freedom is an opportunity for the North American anime fan to experience an Original Video Animation or (OVA) release. As such, it is new, experimental and also, short and expensive. The first impression is "wow, those racing bikes and European comic style faces look a lot like Akira's," and in fact Katsuhiro Otomo is responsible for Freedom's character and mechanical design. Then, there's the distinctive looking 3D cell shaded animation, and in that case, it is interesting in that the anime is directed by relative newcomer Shuhei Morita (Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek). And beyond that, there is the noteworthy significance that Freedom tied into a promotion for Nissin Cup Noodles' 35th anniversary. Unlike Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Solid State Society's Ifiniti tie-in that you have to watch for, celebrating with Cup Noodles makes Freedom's product placement unmissable. Those interested in obtaining what is an noteworthy curiosity can pick up the 25 minute first of six episodes on a DVD/HVD DVD hybrid disc for $39.99. Freedom is set on a lunar colony, about 300 years into a future where Earth has become uninhabitable. Society is run on a tight shift, but except for required tracking bracelets, the anime's 15 year old heros are enjoying a brief bit of freedom between their scholastic and professional lives. Takeru, along with his buddies Kazuma and Biz, are using this time to tinker with their Lunar Terrain Vehicles, and generally get shown up in tube races by the more successful Taira and his "Moonshine Crew." Though the rebellious underdog story has been conventional and thin, it is set on the kind of well constructed premise that would interest hard sci-fi fans. Unfortunately, the episode is mostly Takeru bucking up against restrictions and trying to best his rival. With Otomo attached, the character registers as a tamer Kaneda. He looks like Otomo's best known creation with an Apollo mission jacket rather than a red, pill emblazoned one. As a kid with a lot of energy who has been living under a lot of constraints and not an abuse hardened punk, he seems dialed down. Though the character is still less bland than many heros of racing/sports anime, with only 25 minutes to watch him and without any more colorful personalities in the supporting cast, events just seem to be tracing a familiar route. The final moments of the episode hint at another angle for the anime. Though what exactly this indicates for the direction is vague, the moment swells to enough of a crescendo that it serves as a hook for what's to come. With all the open ends, it appears that the series will not completely depart from the pod racing er.... tube racing content, but there may also be more going on. The criticism of depicting humans in 3D animation has often been that they look soulless. Freedom's cell shaded approach is sufficiently abstracted that the soullessness does not become a problem. However, it is distractingly captivating. There's the connotation of a demonstration by a computer model in the look, and in the direction, there's a strong sense of mechanism. While the anime never falls through, it is so active that it encourages constant evaluation. A host of details are apparent as the Lunar Terrain Vehicles glide by with their twin-ball steering, racing up walls and occasionally colliding. The impulse is to note how that's all being depicted. And the same thing happens with the characters. Takeru is working under a vehicle, when the cute love interest walks in, wearing a skirt. Rather than invest in the emotions of the moment, attention is drawn to the characteristics of how his shifting expression is captured and the physics of how he inches towards the girl. The effort, creativity and technique that went into animating Freedom are apparent. The trouble is that they are too apparent. Rather than a graceful, unified impression, the animation calls out to be dissected and interpreted. In the entertainment market place, there are plenty of other forms of media competing with anime. A consumer might be weighing an anime purchase against a game. This is a problem for Freedom. The anime does not answer the question as to why a viewer should watch these characters race rather than race against their friends in an online game. Especially with next generation games featuring HD content and considerable art design budgets, Freedom needs to offer more than the SF geek workings of a lunar constructed society. Traditionally, the usefulness of anime as a medium has been questioned when dealing with mundane subjects, from Rumiko Takahashi's soap opera Maison Ikkoku to the works of Satoshi Kon. Given the deep and intricate design being poured into games, and the creative staff brought into that medium, an anime like Freedom has to ensure that it's offering more than velocity and a scenario. What is being banked on for Freedom is the fact that there is not entirely an overlap between gamers and anime fans. In theory, the consumer of Freedom would select this anime over any game. And that is why a 25 minute disc is retailing for a price that would be considered eyebrow raising in the dark days of VHS, when there was a $10 price hike for Japanese audio. For the anime fan wanting to sample HD, you are paying a real premium to be on the cutting edge. Bandai Visual has repeatedly expressed that they have priced their product for the hard core anime buyer who will build a budget around their anime purchases. Casual fans who might pick up something affordable are not part of the business model. The justification is that this is how the product is delivered in Japan. If that's the case, maybe North American fans have been spoiled for the last decade, but that does not change the fact that even a dedicated North American anime consumer is going have a real problem paying 39.99 for a 25 minute DVD/HD DVD disc. With no extras on the disc, no English audio track and a chinsey card board case that's neither appealing on a aesthetic or tactile level, it does not seem like a collectors item. Yes, the anime is testing the waters of the medium in a compelling way. Yet, it's a safe presumable to assume that the niche of anime's niche market that is hardcore enough for find this proposition $40 compelling is slim.