Is there a ghost in this shell?
Arguably one of the largest manga-based franchises on the planet, Masumune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell continues to thrive, in one form or another.We’ve had one groundbreaking, genre-defining debut manga film adaptation, a further mind-blowing sequel, two elusive, labyrinthine but quintessentially Shirow TV series, a film spin-off from them, and now a prequel reboot mini-series of sorts. With Spielberg having long optioned the rights to a live-action film adaptation – which looks like it will finally see the light of the day in 2016 courtesy of director Rupert Flanders and starring none other than Scarlett Johansson – it seems like this property is only going to get even hotter. But, in the meantime, we get to return to the roots and explore the origins of the characters that first appeared in Shirow’s original book.Ghost in the Shell: Arise is a 4-part series which looks at the early formation of what would later be known to fans as Public Security Section 9. Set over a decade into the future, the world has been shaken up by a cyber-based non-nuclear fourth World War, which has left cyber security a priority, with terrorists wreaking habit by being able to hack into the machine-dominated world. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a full-body cyborg who works for the Army’s 501 Organisation and is involved in an investigation into the corruption of one of their own; an investigation which makes her question her loyalty and even her identity. After all, if your mind can be downloaded, then what’s to stop somebody uploading a completely new reality without your even knowing?
Split into four hour-long parts – called ‘Borders’ for no apparent reason whatsoever – the series has been further split down the middle and released in 2-part segments. Episode 1 (Border 1) is called Ghost Pain, and focuses on the Major’s last military investigation, and her early meetings with the Public Security individuals who would later become integral parts of Section 9. Episode 2 (Border 2) is called Ghost Whispers and has the newly-independent Kusanagi tasked by Public Security Official Aramaki to investigate a supposed war criminal whose memories have somehow been altered.
It’s certainly good to have Ghost in the Shell back on the small screen, in whatever shape or form. Whilst the new character design – the Major has been given a strange, ultra-anorexic look and an odd haircut – jars a bit, everything else slips smoothly into place, and it’s certainly interesting having a little more background into these characters and where they came from. Unfortunately – and, admittedly it is difficult to tell without having seen the complete series – it feels like a 4-part mini-series will never be able to fully do these prequel ideas justice. Indeed the bits that hold your interest are generally more to do with the new stories, rather than the old origins, which merely flavour the background, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could have been better served by a fully-fledged series in the same vein as the last two Stand Alone Complex runs.
Whilst interesting to see where the Major came from, it's be even more interesting to know what she was made of.
There’s no question that all of Shirow’s key ingredients are here – plot, characters, themes, visuals and action. The story is dominated by a complex and frequently contrived blending of multiple layers and themes. To call it densely plotted would be a massive understatement and you’ll be warmly satisfied to make it through the first hour with your mind intact. And with no time to spare, there’s more action than we’ve perhaps become accustomed to in the last couple of series’. Yet there still feels like something slightly missing from the character development; in a prequel/reboot so intent on establishing the backgrounds to the characters that we know and love they’ve forgotten to focus on the heart and soul that were already instilled in them in prior incarnations. Even the Major herself appears more detached than usual, despite the forced emotion derived from her last military investigation – which turns into a very personal affair. What’s more intriguing is the notion that reality can be so violently distorted – even for the Major herself – and it’s these notions of identity, so very intrinsic in Shirow’s original work, that are not explored as fully within these episodes as fans might have hoped for.
Still, it’s a strong start, and I am certainly interested in seeing how they round things off, and whether there will be further seasons in the Arise series. Fans of the franchise should be all over this. Newcomers could do worse than starting here, purportedly where it all began.
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