The Rise and Fall of Masamune Shirow

[Note: this entry charts a manga author's descent into creepy porn, so it contains images that may offend some workplaces.]

Few authors in the manga industry went wrong like Masamune Shirow. True, he remains well-known in the North American anime and manga market, largely because of comics he made nearly twenty years ago. Those comics are kept in print, and his name is invoked and praised whenever a new Appleseed movie or Ghost in the Shell adaptation arrives. Yet his reputation is a lean shadow of what it was during the 1990s, when Shirow seemed unstoppable.

Shirow started off in the 1980s with a generic spaceship manga called Black Magic, but no one was really impressed until he rolled out Appleseed, a dense tale of science and politics gone astray in a 21st-century urban utopia. It set many Shirow standards: pretty and highly lethal heroines, police-procedural stories, rampant philosophical technobabble, and incredibly detailed mechanical designs for everything from firearms to city-crawling robots. It appealed to content-starved American comic readers of the 1990s, and Shirow caught on in a big way.

It wasn’t just Appleseed, either, as Shirow recycled the same approach (Women! Mechanical suits! Violence!) in better form. Ghost in the Shell added more police drama and copious lumps of artificial-intelligence ruminations, while Dominion went the opposite direction and made a silly comic about tank-driving cops in a future of pollution and terrorist robot catgirls. And then there was Orion, a mixture of space opera, Buddhist-Shinto mysticism, and concepts so insane that Shirow admitted he didn't even known what they meant.

Shirow grew even more popular with the mainstream exposure of the first Ghost in the Shell film in 1996, and it wasn’t all just because he could draw anime chicks straddling mechanized police armor. Most of the manga titles foisted on readers in the 1990s were cutesy piffle or dated pulp (completely unlike today’s scene, of course), and they were lightweight even when they were enjoyable. Shirow’s stuff was hardly of great substance, but his stories were usually driven by interesting ideas. His comics unsubtly reminded readers of this by having characters spout off reams of tangential discussion about the Gaia hypothesis, particle physics, or just how human a disembodied brain can be. It bordered on philosophy-student gibberish at times, and yet it was a blessing to any manga reader who wanted something to think about.

Of course, a lot of Shirow’s appeal came from his English translators. Frederik Schodt, Toren Smith, Dana Lewis, and other members of Studio Proteus dressed up Shirow’s stories with dialogue that was memorable, funny, and about as natural as a conversation can be when a bodiless synthetic consciousness is lecturing the vagrant cyber-spirit of a government operative about the benefits and risks of non-corporeal living.

There were, however, signs that Shirow possessed unsavory tendencies, and no one had to hunt for them. He seemed to write at the rate of one bad decision per comic: a gooey, virtual lesbian three-way in Ghost in the Shell (which was cut from the first U.S. version of the comic), a photosynthetic, bug-winged pixie who spent a fourth of Dominion naked, and a scene in Orion where the heroine is rolled up by karma-magic, thrown into the ocean, and dragged down to the lair of octopus creatures who want to eat her excrement. Shirow had himself some issues.

That said, Shirow got better by the middle of the 1990s. Dominion: Conflict 1 rebooted the older comic as a slightly more realistic tale of tank police, and it was both endearing and devoid of off-putting attempts at titillation or Speculative Internet Philosophy about four-corner singularities. Ghost in the Shell 1.5 continued the original’s police-procedural storylines, minus the inexplicable forays into graphic android sex.

Just as he seemed to get over his nasty little proclivities, Shirow started up Ghost in the Shell 2. While the sequel began running in Japan in 1997, it didn’t show up in North America until 2002. In that five-year interim, many occidental fans drifted away from Shirow, seeing his new work only in terrible things like the PlayStation gun game Project: Horned Owl, the box art for the OVA Landlock, and the designs for Gundress, which might be the worst animated film ever shown in theaters.

When the first issues of Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface finally arrived, opinions differed between those who immediately hated it and those who decided it was some industrial prank staged by Shirow and Dark Horse. If the book has an overlying plot, it’s swamped by sputtering incoherence. The first Ghost in the Shell kept up a balancing act with action scenes and technological prattle, yet it all crashes to the floor a few pages into Man-Machine Interface. The grounded police work and approachable cast of Ghost in the Shell 1.5 are seldom seen, and in their place there’s merely a jumble of poorly explained future-computer concepts and barely connected scenes involving a woman who might be a blonde and really boring version of Ghost in the Shell heroine Motoko Kusanagi.

Worse yet, Man-Machine Interface doesn’t even look good. At some point after Dominion: Conflict 1, Shirow apparently decided that computer graphics were the Wave of the Future, and he splattered all sorts of ugly, jarring rendered crap across his Ghost in the Shell follow-up. And then there are boob shots. Lots of them. The old Shirow was no stranger to that sort of thing, but the Shirow whose brain melted around 1996 puts it in nearly every panel of Ghost in the Shell 2, even orchestrating painful new poses just so the heroine can show her tits and ass at the same time. Compared to Shirow’s prior works, Man-Machine Interface is self-parody.

Man-Machine Interface would be the last real comic from Shirow. In the years that followed, he busied himself developing TV series with Production I.G while drawing what a polite chronicler would call “pin-ups.” I’d call it porn.

It must be pointed out that Shirow has always drawn provocative art. His manga hardly shy away from depicting their heroines in revealing attire, and Shirow’s illustrations for peripheral projects were even more risqué. Throughout his more productive years, he churned all sorts of drawings like this.

Such was the nerd-bait art of the old Shirow: perky women wearing skin-tight, high-cut outfits and sliding themselves into robotic suits bristling with miniguns and riot tasers and vented laser barrels. As the 1990s continued, Shirow’s art grew shinier and less generic in its pandering. And then he drew this.

Yes, that’s exactly what it looks like. And while it might be the most hilariously fucked-up of Shirow’s illustrations, his porn work goes well beyond possible Bravestarr tributes. From the late 1990s onward, Shirow has illustrated pornographic novels as well as his own collection of "Galgrease" books. The title alone should be enough of a clue.

Perhaps the problem here isn’t that Shirow’s drawing smut; it’s that he’s drawing hideous, slime-drenched smut and not throwing in any action scenes or half-interesting characters or fascinating techno-cyber-Gibson-hacker gobbledygook to even it out. He hasn’t touched a manga since Man-Machine Interface, and it’s hard to say if anyone really wants him tackling Appleseed or another Dominion book if he’s just going to fill it with glowing CG backgrounds and cyborg cameltoe. All artists change styles over time, but it’s rare for one to go from thoughtful cyberpunk manga to drawing what many a fan disgustedly refers to as “greasy banana boobs.”

Shirow’s name is his to sully however he chooses. He’s evidently realized that he needn't draw comics about his story ideas; he just pitches them to Production I.G, which has so far made two TV series, Ghost Hound and Real Drive, based on Shirow’s proposals. This leaves Shirow much more valuable time for drawing cybernetic mercenary women being violated by anthropomorphic mountain goats.

Shirow’s better creations will survive his downfall. Production I.G keeps turning Ghost in the Shell into decent anime, and most of Shirow’s older manga holds up: the first Ghost in the Shell is still intriguing, Dominion: Conflict 1 is still fun, and Orion is still delightfully bugfuck crazy. Yet it’s hard to read them without thinking of Shirow himself and just how much potential he’s squandered. Is the interesting, manga-making Shirow gone forever? We have no answer, and neither does he.