Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell, together with titles such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1982-1990) and Yuzo Takada’s 3×3 Eyes (1987-2002), represent the cultural and critical boom of seinen manga and Weekly Young Magazine in the late ‘80s. Within this setting, Shirow was afforded an opportunity to publicly work through the ideas that were percolating in his previous shōnen (male teen) work.
The Ghost in the Shell prominently features nubile robots, ’80s machismo, and kinetic pulp violence. In many ways, this checklist makes it no different to the genre work of Shirow’s preceding comics. Black Magic (1983), Appleseed (1985), and Dominion (1986) all feature a young, kickass, female figure of authority in a science-fiction cyberpunk setting. The blurb for Dominion (Dark Horse Comics edition) calls it an “ecological-dystopian-police procedural adventure/comedy,” which is a fittingly complex description for all of Shirow’s manga stories.
A good entry point to Shirow is through Oshii’s comments on his adaptation of The Ghost in the Shell: “I had read the manga. There was a lot of difficult stuff in it, though, so I wanted to make something that was easy to understand. People still said it was hard” (see page 155 of Ghost in the Shell, Readme: 1995-2017). Shirow’s manga has always been densely packed with ideas. Below the surfaces, which are themselves meticulously designed and frequently footnoted by the author’s technical research and personal philosophies, shared revolutionary and evolutionary themes begin to emerge.
Governments are in a constant struggle with their citizens to define and enforce the boundaries of autonomy and stability; authorized urban warfare is highly militarized on domestic land while their citizens seem to be perpetually on the verge of uprising. As “eco-parables”, the world is also continuously under threat from mankind, be it by toxic air, World War III, or the overreaching avarice of individuals. Scientific advancements jostle alongside moral imperatives, often leaving the villain of the narrative in danger of appearing entirely rational in the face of an arbitrarily imposed order. For as advanced as these engineered worlds appear to be, they are always on the brink of an imminent implosive collapse.
If we strip away the power-suits and the power-plays, maybe even down to the bare nakedness that frequents his work, Shirow’s concerns can be distilled into one central theme: the anxiety of machines…
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