Ah, Masamune Shirow. Remember this guy? A certain confluence of releases made him a hugely important figure to the western scene from the late ‘80s to the mid-’90s. On the manga side, Studio Proteus released, via Eclipse and Dark Horse, Appleseed, Dominion and Ghost in the Shell, while on the VHS side, U.S. Renditions brought over Appleseed and Black Magic M-66, we got Dominion via U.S. Manga Corps, and, cementing Shirow’s standing, the original Ghost in the Shell film was released (theatrically!) via Manga Entertainment. Essentially, if you were a company doing this stuff within about a ten-year window, you had something from Shirow – and if you were wandering convention halls during the time, it was impossible not to run into wall scrolls, artbooks and other miscellany plastered with Shirow’s very distinctive mecha and womenfolk.
The question remains as to whether he really deserved all this attention on the western side. I think even fans of his work would describe him as an artist first and a storyteller second (making obsessive notes on the bottom of every page is impressive worldbuilding, but maybe isn’t the best way to build a compelling narrative, yeah?), and his actual influence on Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell film and its subsequent sequels/sidequels, certainly the best animated works to come from Shirow’s oeuvre, could be probably be described as “minimal at best.” But there wasn’t much choice back then but to take what Toren Smith was pushing, and, anyway, Shirow seemed to satisfy what western fans were looking for: robots, guns and large-breasted women in William Gibson-inspired leather outfits.
Shirow’s standing in the west seems to have faded over the years, perhaps because we have more to choose from and his style has gone out of favor – also probably because, as Kid Fenris noted a few years ago, Shirow has largely abandoned original stories in favor of bizarro pornography. But let’s jump in the wayback machine for a Colony Drop Double Feature and visit a time when Masamune Shirow occupied the local Blockbuster as fervently – but ultimately as temporarily – as OWS occupied Zuccotti Park.
First up is Black Magic M-66, a 45-minute OVA from 1987. This was the first anime based on a Shirow work (Black Magic, the manga, was his first work, originally written as a doujinshi and later released by a major publisher). It was also the first and last time Shirow was directly involved in an adaptation of his manga, serving as screenwriter, storyboardist, and co-director alongside Hiroyuki Kitakubo, a key animator whose previous directoral credit was Pop Chaser, the fourth part of the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be erotic series Cream Lemon.
Black Magic opens with a military helicopter being destroyed and crashing into a forest. The helicopter had been carrying a pair of killer robots, meant to carry out assassinations in a ongoing war with what is only referred to as “the north.” But, due to the crash, the robots are activated prematurely. The military is sent in to stop them, as is the scientist who created them in the first place, who, like many geniuses, proves incredibly stupid in matters of practicality – in the testing phase, he’d programmed the robots to hunt down and assassinate his granddaughter, Ferris That’s who they’re after now, though they aren’t too picky, randomly killing some backpackers and anyone else who gets in the way. Meanwhile, a freelance reporter, Sybil, hears about the crash and rushes to the scene with her camera, eventually, through an odd series of events, tracking down and protecting the scientist’s granddaughter.
As Ben Ettinger wrote in his recent review (which inspired this one, thanks Ben! P.S. How the hell do you know so much?), Shirow had no animation experience, and his storyboard reflects it, for better and worse. There are one or two shots where the camera moves dictate a new background for every frame. Skilled animators do this from time to time on purpose, and in the right hands it can look great, but here, the backgrounds lack detail and look unfinished.
Other shots, though, are wonderful to behold, especially during the first battle with the two robots. The bots, agile and acrobatic, are probably the best representation on film of how Shirow’s man-machines are meant to move. Dealing damage to people and machinery with quick, decisive blows, frequently crawling on all fours, and remaining expressionless throughout, Kitakubo and Shirow manage to make their antagonists pretty creepy and effective without them uttering a word.
Otherwise, it’s mixed bag in regards to characterization. Sybil, the fiery, go-getting freelance reporter, who gets the most screen time, emerges as slightly three-dimensional when she picks saving the granddaughter over getting the scoop. The rest of the characters are big ol’ cliches, including Ferris, whose sole purpose is to be the target of the M-66s and to appear in her underwear (we do learn, actually, that she loves a restaurant called “Rampling’s”). And the military man in charge of the squad attempting to bring down the robots, at one point, says, essentially, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
There are also a few leaps in logic in the narrative. “I’m the only one who knows where Ferris is!” exclaims Sybil after, by chance, hearing a voicemail re: Rampling’s, but the military shows up there at the same time. Huh?
But in an OVA of this length, characterization and narrative aren’t really the point, are they? Black Magic, at the very least, offers some nice animation in a package short and sweet enough to forgive its various shortcomings.
The same cannot be said for Appleseed, the 1988 OVA not to be confused with the more recent CG films or, really, anything of value. Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama (who went on to do much better stuff, like Big O) with a much more hands-off approach by Shirow, credited only for “original manga,” Appleseed is pretty lousy. While Black Magic has an unsatisfying, somewhat disjointed narrative, it boasts, at the least, some impressive animation – Appleseed don’t got neither.
The 70-minute OVA takes place in a so-called utopian city called Olympus (though signs throughout the film refer to it as “Olumpus” and “Olumpos”) populated by bioroids, which were genetically engineered to serve humanity, though, much like Khan Noonien Singh, have eventually become the ones in power. Not everyone’s happy with this utopian setting, and terrorist attacks are, from time to time, perpetrated against the city (really putting a damper on the whole “utopia” thing). The SWAT team members assigned to stop them, Deunan and Briareos, are our heroes.
Even if you’re not familiar with Appleseed, if you make anime fandom your haunt you’ve no doubt seen these characters depicted somewhere: a blonde, normal-looking woman next to a hulking cyborg guy with tall, rabbit ear antennae. And if you’re not familiar with Appleseed, you may have asked yourself, “what’s his deal, man?” Well, you ain’t gonna find out here.
It’s another case of that “aw, they’ve all read the manga” attitude that plagues so many OVAs and gives the screenwriter a lame excuse to completely cop out on characterization and render the damn things, for anyone who hasn’t read the manga, entirely inconsequential – or incomprehensible. Actually, if I had to choose, my vote would be for incomprehensible: at least those force your brain to work to try to fill in the gaps. Appleseed, on the other hand, makes a decent amount of sense – it’s just missing any of what made the original manga compelling.
And for every fluid, exciting shot in Black Magic (courtesy key animation giants like Satoru Utsunomiya and future Jin-roh director Hiroyuki Okiura, Ettinger informs us), Appleseed features some static cel plodding its way across the screen. Animation director Horasawa’s blocky character designs are as far from Shirow’s sexy, intricate work. The one visually interesting feature, the mech design, was supervised by Hideaki Anno – in fact, Gainax has a production credit on Appleseed. It’s unclear to me how much work they actually did on this sucker, but it certainly wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time Gainax got money/got paid without worrying too much about quality.
These, of course, were not the thoughts of anyone who bought either of these tapes from U.S. Renditions in 1989 (for just $34.99), when getting an official, subtitled release of something, anything, was a huge deal. And with the U.S. theatrical release of Ghost in the Shell in 1996 (a film far more compelling than anything the mangaka himself ever put to paper), Shirow’s rep as a Bad Dude was sealed.
But hey, whether he really deserved all the adulation, this stuff is still better than moe, right?