Ghost in the shell (Masamune Shirow, 1989-1990)

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Ghost in the shell, by Masamune Shirow (1989-1990).

Score: Good cop story, weird cyberpunk story.

Unless you’re very new to the world of manga and/or science-fiction, it’s hard not to pick up this with great hype. This little volume has spanned beloved animated movies, TV shows and lately a controversial, white-washed Hollywood adaptation. You open up its pages and you’re getting your nose into history.

But if you opened this thinking you would find a reflection on life, death and artificial intelligence, you’re in for a big surprise: Ghost in the shell is essentially a collection of short cop stories. It follows the adventures of Major Motoko Kusanagi and her counter-cyberterrorist special task force. The structure of the stories is very classical, with the call to hunt down the bad guys, the car chases, explosions in abandoned warehouses and later discovery that things were not as they looked and the culprit was someone unexpected. There is a conducting thread in the form of the Puppet Master, a hacker who breaks into cyborgs’ minds. The last story revolves around him and is the one that was adapted into the first animated movie.

For an author that writes so many footnotes (he even states at the beginning that he recommends to read the story first and the footnotes later) he doesn’t always do his homework when it comes to research. Nobody said hard science-fiction was better than its soft counterpart, but if you’re going to make hard science-fiction and you don’t get your facts right the effect gets lost. Shirow is clearly a believer, and that’s not a bad thing either. He talks about brain cells, nanobots and spirits as though they were in the same category of objects. You can go with the flow until he says stuff like microorganisms existed before galaxy clusters. The first animated movie focused a lot in what makes something intelligent, and therefore, a bearer of rights. Shirow doesn’t care much about that, instead he approaches the matter of what makes something alive from a spiritual and religious focus. The source material and the adaptations vary wildly in this matter and you can like both, one of them or neither.

The technical quality is fine, at least for the standard set by manga. The proportions are not outrageous but sometimes the lack of detail is felt, along with missing panels Shirow himself admits he was too lazy to draw. I wish manga was all in colour, not just the first few pages of each chapter. If comic book authors of different schools can do it, why not mangakas? I’d like to know. In the other hand, the clothes and technological design are very fresh and original, and clearly influential. Neuromancer had come out five years before and Shirow wanted to ride the wave of cyberpunk in his own way.

Last but not least, I want to speak of the quality of the Spanish edition I read. I’ve owned the Planeta 2002 edition for over a decade and it’s a great edition. The speech bubble text is handwritten! Without being able to read the original Japanese dialogue, I feel the translation is well-achieved and naturally written, one of the things I appreciate the most in a translation. It deals very well with a surprising aspect of this work: its sense of humour. The first movie gives you the impression that the source material must be very grave and solemn, and that’s not the case. From page one the serious scenes are mixed with comical vignettes, and even in action-packed sequences background characters will make humorous remarks, like: “Mom, why are the police so ugly?”.

To wrap it up, the work has its flaws, but its historical significance makes it a must-read.

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