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I’m not ecactly a manga connoiseur, in fact this is the only one I own although it’s an area I’d like to get into. I am however a confirmed Ghost in the Shell enthusiast –  I can’t get enough of the animation. This, the manga, published in 1989 inspired first a highly succesful and very influential theatrical film of the same name in 1995, a film which has recently received an upgrade called Ghost in the Shell 2.0 featuring CG visuals in some scenes. Further to that an anime series called Ghost in the Shell – Stand Alone Complex was made in the 2000s of which there were two seasons. Show for show it was the most expensive animated television show ever made. The original film received a sequel in 2004, Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence which sported incredible visuals. Stand Alone Complex also gained a non-theatrical feature length film, Solid State Society. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve read the manga I did so completely aware of how much of a fan of the animation I am so I’m in the strange position of judging the original text against the standard of its tie-in material.

Ghost in the Shell fits into the cyberpunk sub-genre of sci-fi and is set in Japan in the near future, around 2030 by which time there have been a further two world wars, one of which was nuclear. Technology has advanced to such a degree that the cybernetic enhancement of human bodies has become commonplace with some cyborgs being 97% prosthetic. Brain augmentations allow people to act like computers and connect to the net and it’s even possible to hack people’s brains. I could go into a lot more detail than this, in fact detail is the word. It’s an incredibly complex world Masamune has created exploring themes of psychology, philosophy, politics and technology along the way. The story concerns a secret government organisation called Public Security Section 9, a small, tactical unit specialising in cases of cyber-terrorism and the manga is seperated into several stories outlining their cases.

The heroine is Motoko Kusanag, known as the Major and probably my favourite ever anime character, a sexy cyborg who is as prosthetic as it is possible to be and extremely talented in areas of combat and ‘diving’ the net. There’s plenty of action of course but the stories and the philosophical musings of the characters are what stand out just as it is in the anime. The episodes take in the uncovering of a government facility that enslaves children, a hapless garbage collector being used to hack into an important political figure’s interpreter as part of an assassination attmept and the mysterious case of the puppet master, a sentient computer programme intent on fusing with Motoko.

It’s impossible for me to write about this without mentioning some of the differences from the animation. Most of the characters aren’t the same, Motoko varies from hyper-talented cyberbabe to goofy, Aramaki the section chief looks like an ape, but the most noticeable difference is the focus on comedy. It’s actually very funny, sometimes featuring very cartoonish panels. The exact quality of the drawings is not consistent but this is a good thing, Masamune breaks up the ponderous wordiness with some welcome irreverence.

Ghost in the Shell, whether the manga or the animation is not the sort of thing that I can automatically recommend as it’s inevitably quite devisive. There’s no arguing with the depth and visionary quality of it as a work of fiction but it’s not easy to follow. The storytelling is often confusing, Masamune is not shy about plastering the dialogue with in-universe jargon and even if you do get it it’s not necessarily going to be to everyone’s taste. Boys will like it a lot more than girls for obvious reasons (explicit action, lesbian threesome) and it really helps if you’re into Japanese culture. I realise I’m not the best judge of manga but if your personality type fits all of these prerequisites you’ll definitely enjoy Ghost in the Shell the manga but I can’t honestly say I like it as much as the films and Stand Alone Complex.

Verdict

A remarkably deeply thought-out and entertaining manga that combines action and complex storytelling with interesting debates about humainty. Approach with caution though, I can’t promise it will be for you.

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