Double Drop: Black Magic M-66 and Appleseed

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?


  1. Thanks for the update guys!
    I thought Appleseed had like one or two interesting situations presented in a completly uninteresting way. It needed more of Deunan & Briareos banter (“what would we do if we didn’t have criminals shooting at us?” on the helicopter) to even qualify them as having a personality to share between them.
    And, yes it’s better than moe.

  2. I do enjoy Black Magic more than Appleseed, because at least I can remember most of what happened in BM than in Appleseed.

    Ive seen (and own)the US Renditions VHS copy of Appleseed. I have seen that sucker twice in the past 5 years or so, and for the life of me, after about 30 minutes, I forget what happens in it. Its cool to watch and the story is somewhat simple to follow, but its so forgettable for me.

    Yea this beats out moe any days, but that can also be said for Nazo no Kanojo X (I am out for revenge on the people who told me “its not that bad”).

  3. I respectfully disagree. The Ghost in the Shell movies are neither the best way to consume GitS (The TV series actually fixes many of the problems with the manga rather than amplifying them), nor Oshii’s best work (Patlabor 2 is just… so much better).

  4. I think it’s too easy to say that Shirow was simply overrated because we didn’t have anything else, but if anything, his popularity was just indicative of the tastes of the era. Keep in mind that when Appleseed was first released, Viz was pushing series like Grey by having Harlan Ellison do forewards and Eternity/Studio Proteus was playing up Appleseed’s cred in Japan not as a comic, but as legitimate sci-fi. I forget what Japanese award they always mentioned but they consistently compared it to the Japanese version of the Hugo award, insinuating that Appleseed had beaten out legitimate sci-fi novels (in truth, it just won the manga prize, but–). Early releases of Japanese comics were being targeted at hardcore sci-fi fans and existing comic fans rather than anime fans, and I think that “seriousness” was a big draw at the time.

  5. What a great review of two very cool, yet very flawed animes of the era, from a very cool, yet flawed artist of the era- Mr. Shirow. My take on Shirow’s stamp on the ear is that he was marketable, available, and translatable to the kids that grew up on Star Blazers, Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets and Robotech. We wanted “more”- and by “more”- I mean more violence, more sex, more complex and more “Japanese”- his Black Magic, Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell fit the bill to a “T”. I concur that he got lost in a sea of pinups and porno in later years, but he was our next step as fans to more and more things- an evolution if you will. The funny thing is- the Ghost in the Shell SAC series not only took his concepts, but actually made them better, which is a testament to his ability as a concept designer, not so much as a story teller- in a way, he is like George Lucas.

    But as a fan from the era, you do remember the excitement of getting Shirow related items, and to this day, I still love his stuff like I did in 1988!

  6. Shirow’s design work is unparalleled. That makes for good art books but not good stories. I love Hypernotes and the first two Intron Depots. After that, I think you’re right: he’s better as an inspiration than someone actually responsible for the creation.

    In my opinion, his porny side — in addition to his discovery of CGI — has completely blotted out his strengths.

  7. I’m with Joshua- Shirow is similar to Euro Metal artist Derek Riggs, once he “discovered” CGI and left traditional media- his work went really down hill.

  8. I don’t think it’s true that there was no choice in the 90s but to take what Studio Proteus was pushing, or that Shirow succeeded only because he was SF. Studio Proteus was fairly serious about SF manga, but many of the creators they translated–Shuho Itahashi, Kazumasa Takayama, Kenji Tsuruta, Kamui Fujiwara, Yukinobu Hoshino–didn’t take off here the way Shirow did.

    In some ways my favorite Shirow books are Orion and Dominion. Because they’re set up as comedies rather than as serious stories, the fan service and the narrative managed to better co-exist. When you think about it, it was a radical move for Oshii to have Okiura change the Major’s character design the way he did, but it paid off in the international market. I doubt foreign audiences would have been able to take the film as seriously if the Major looked the way she did in the manga (and by the same token, this may have hurt its success in Japan).

    I do respect both Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, and in particular how they are two different kinds of SF stories. Appleseed was sometimes promoted as cyberpunk, but it was really the kind of work that used to be common in the 1930s and 40s but not today–one that grapples with what might be called the utopian problem. In some ways it was more political than Ghost in the Shell.

  9. Hi Carl,
    I admit to being a bit flip when describing the worth of Shirow’s work – aside from “robots, guns and large-breasted women,” etc., it’s hard to deny his attention to detail, both in designs and world building. I think he fed a hunger for dense, hard SF in the States (“hard” in multiple senses of the word, in fact). But I really don’t care too much for the guy, if that wasn’t clear already.

    Studio Proteus wasn’t the only game in town, but Smith was definitely one of the few main gatekeepers to this stuff in a way we don’t really have now. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing! It’s nice to have a curator or two with good taste (looking at Vertical Inc. as a good example today).

  10. Dear Matt,

    That’s OK. I often say this, but there is a excellent SF manga series being published today in English–Hiroki Endo’s EDEN. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have many readers…

  11. Yeah, Carl, I’m pretty sure at least 2 of Eden‘s 6 readers are Colony Drop founders. Hell, I’m pretty sure I asked about the next volume at the Dark Horse panel at AWA last year…

  12. Appleseed was one of the first japanimations (yea I’m calling it that) I ever bought. The other two were M.D. Geist and Riding Bean. While Appleseed has a cleaner look and deeper plot, I think Black Magic M66 is a better film overall. Sure the story is kind of 80’s cheese, but the action and pacing were really good. I wasn’t expecting much from it all. After seeing it, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

    Shirow is a strange bird though. It’s like the better his art and concepts got, the worse his stories got. Just look at the first four volumes of the Appleseed manga. The first series had simplistic art, but a really good story. The second one wasn’t so bad. Then you get to the third and fourth and it’s like “What the fuck is going on?”. He’s like a jack of all trades who decided to get really really good at half of something. Now he draws weird ass porn being done to beautiful women bodies with cartoon faces the same as the ones he drew 20 years ago ;D

  13. I think the Gainax credit on the Appleseed OAV (wasn’t that mainly a Sunrise joint?) was mostly for the live-action promo bit.

    Count me as one of the readers who just shrugs about Shirow now. See, I totally dig his obsessive world-building and how he does little visual shout-outs to various movies. I’m probably the only person here who even KNOWS about the ITC film ‘The Final Option’ let alone who has seen it. Check that. Carl and Helen probably have, at some point.

    Anyway, I want Shirow to stop honking around with the giant dirigible boobs and liquid skin suits and write some more damn Appleseed. That is all.

  14. Sure, I saw it on HBO. “When all else fails…THEY are The Final Option!” I wondered whether Shirow ever weighed in on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru over the winter of 1996-97; it seemed very much like something out of one of his stories.

    On the other hand, the whole idea of terrorists taking hostages and issuing demands seems almost genteel in a suicide bomber era. I feel sorry for the old-fashioned D.B. Cooper-type hijackers who just wanted money. Nowadays no one would believe your intentions were so benign.

  15. Wow, I loved both of these so much back in early 90s as you described, there was nothing else to get. I read the mangas for both and really enjoyed them and they were definitely more indepth. So in depth in fact, that I have no idea what Black Magic was about…how ’bout an article on that. Well, they both have a high nostalgia value for me and BM especially sums up the era for me..artists first getting started, fascination with technology, etc. Great article!

  16. What blew my mind reading the Appleseed manga after having seen the CG films, was the amount of humor in it. Shirow always had something goofy happen on the edge of the panel that was a complete non sequitor to the main action. And this was evident in other works os well (Dominion in particular).

    But when someone else take his universe and does their thing to it, they lose the humor and it becomes something like a side-story with more clout to it. I find myself wanting more, of both the source and the CG films, because it actually appeals to me. Most of what’s hitting the market now is just too much like the homegrown junk that led me to Anime in the first place.

    I have no problem with Shirow wanting to draw boobs and toss off on his down time but if that’s all he’s good for these days it scares me (as a writer) that it’s basically what I have to look forward to.

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