Few series have cemented a legacy as long-lasting or as influential as Ghost in the Shell. Ever since Mamoru Oshii released his 1995 film of the same name with the help of Production I.G., the characters of the Major, Batou, Togusa, Aramaki and the like have scarcely left our screens. The story’s setting, technology, philosophy and aesthetic have also inspired minds the world over: from filmmakers such as James Cameron and the Wachoskis to scientists and engineers such as Dr. Reo Matsumura and Tsubasa Maruyama, who have managed to create a real-life Tachikoma. But did you know that the series is based on a manga?
The original Ghost in the Shell manga was penned by Masamune Shirow and ran in various Kodansha magazines in various forms from 1989 to 1997. Not only did it form the basis of all subsequent adaptations to come, it also functions as a wonderful story in its own right, showing off why so many were, and continue to be, so enraptured with the series in the first place. Some parts of it have also never been transferred to screen, despite the multitude of adaptations, which makes it a must-read for any diehard fan. Let’s dive into it.
The Original Ghost in the Shell Manga
Originally debuting in 1989 in Kodansha’s Young Magazine Zoukan Kaizokuban (which roughly translates to Young Magazine Extra Pirate Edition), Masamune Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell published a new chapter every three months up until 1991. All in all, twelve chapters were produced, which would go on to form the basis for the majority of subsequent adaptations.
Masamune Shirow was already fairly well-known at that point, having seen major success with his previous series Appleseed (also published by Kodansha), but Ghost in the Shell was on a whole other level. 1989 audiences were transfixed by Shirow’s portrayal of a technologically advanced future, complete with full-body hacking, tactical camouflage, and cybernetic enhancements. It spoke to them on another level that other science fiction series had yet to do, particularly in its meditations on the state of human consciousness in the digital age.
As a result, the series was picked up fairly quickly for an anime adaptation. At the helm was Mamoru Oshii, who had already proven his worth with the success of 1991’s Patlabor and 1993’s Patlabor 2 over at Production I.G. Oshii’s approach to the adaptation was relatively straightforward: he took the main through-line of the original Ghost in the Shell manga, that being the Puppeteer storyline, and used that as the basis of his film. Some things were changed, such as the staging of the climax to make it more dramatic, but it is, for all intents and purposes, the same story.
Only a few chapters in the original Ghost in the Shell manga, however, deal with the Puppeteer. Most of them are standalone stories based on the adventures of Section 9, including one where Mokoto gets targeted by a terrorist organization hell-bent on revenge. So what about them? Here is where the interesting stuff starts. Despite taking place after the first film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is actually an adaptation of the chapters Robot Rondo and Phantom Fund, with the fact that Mokoto has left Section 9 inserted in. Junk Jungle also bears a stark resemblance to the first episode of Stand Alone Complex, before it veers off into its own, anime-original territory.
It is strange to think that, despite all of the numerous adaptations that have cropped up over the years, the bulk of the original Ghost in the Shell manga remains largely untouched. But that speaks to the power of Shirow’s source material, which inspires creators to think in new and inventive ways, instead of simply adapting something for adaptation sake. That is what makes the relationship between anime and manga particularly interesting in this time period: instead of the almost automatic process of adaptation that occurs today, it was not long ago that creators would approach source material with the intent of making something unique. This brings to mind the film version of Akira, which dialed up the action to the extreme under the watchful eye of its own creator, Katsuhiro Otome.
In any case, even in the adaptations of the select few portions of the original manga, there are some important changes. By far the biggest one is the issue of the Major’s personality. It may surprise you to hear that Motoko is actually quite flippant in Shirow’s original manga, often joking with the rest of Section 9 and making sexual references. This is quite different to Oshii’s version of the character, which is much more serious and dour. A little bit of the Major’s playfulness did certainly come back in Stand Alone Complex, but not to the same extent.
But it would be unrealistic to expect a direct adaptation, especially when we consider that all of the series’ subsequent adaptations came to the source material with very different aims. When creating his Ghost in the Shell film, Oshii wanted to emphasise the themes of the source material, which perhaps necessitated a more serious approach. Perhaps a more jovial approach was possible in Stand Alone Complex by nature of its TV format, which would allow the viewer to connect more with the different members of Section 9. In other words, the Major’s personality is different in the series’ different forms for a reason.
The same goes for the series’ art. Particularly in the realm of character designs, Shirow’s art reeks of the late 1980s: exaggerated proportions, out-there fashion, and cartoonish facial expressions. This is fine for the manga, which only takes itself semi-seriously and makes a unique visual impression as a result, but this naturally came under scrutiny when it came to adaptation. Oshii’s film, in particular, revised the character designs and color palette to be much more realistic, matching the serious tone of the film. Stand Alone Complex brought back a little back of the 80s pizzazz, but not to a complete degree. SAC_2045 then takes a very different approach, leaning even further into realism by account of its 3D animation.
Even so, throughout all of these disparate adaptations, arguably the most important element of the original Ghost in the Shell manga has been preserved: its rich themes and dense worldbuilding. Whether serious or jovial, realistic or cartoonish, the stories of the Major and Section 9 always make us reflect on several important philosophical questions, such as the nature of the soul in the digital age. In fact, the way that such adaptations as Stand Alone Complex, ARISE, and even SAC_2045 iterate on the source material with original stories arguably strengthens the series’ philosophical base, asking new questions and finding new answers. This is ultimately what makes Shirow’s creation endlessly compelling.
Human Error Processor
Yet, The Ghost in the Shell was not the only Ghost in the Shell manga that Masamune Shirow produced. Rather, there are two other series that belong to the universe, neither of which have seen proper adaptation. This is particularly disappointing as these two series are perhaps some of Shirow’s most interesting works, both in terms of artistic presentation and philosophical vigour. But if a sequel to Stand Alone Complex can get produced, then there’s still hope yet.
Don’t let the structure of this article fool you – Human Error Processor is not technically a sequel to the original Ghost in the Shell manga per se. It is actually a collection of chapters that were not featured in the collected volume release of Man-Machine Interface, which should be considered the ‘true’ sequel to The Ghost in the Shell. The recommended read order for the series even goes The Ghost in the Shell, Man-Machine Interface, and then Human Error Processor: so why, may you ask, are we focusing on it here, out of order? The answer is because it represents the next degree in adaptation, occupying a halfway house between having being adapted and not.
Human Error Processor is made up of four chapters that focus on the adventures of Section 9 after the Major’s departure following the events of The Ghost in the Shell, and was serialized first in Kodansha’s Kaizokuban in 1992, a year after the first manga ended, and then Weekly Young Magazine once that publication shut down in 1994. In the initial magazine run, these chapters were published alongside chapters from Man-Machine Interface, but were later taken out of order and compiled into a seperate book as Shirow judged that they didn’t “fit” in with the rest of the stories. This may or may not have been the best idea, but we’ll get onto that later.
The actual stories of Human Error Processor have yet to be adapted into any TV show or anime movie, but the idea for the stories – that is to say, a Section 9 without the Major – has graced the screen multiple times. In fact, you could say that Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence essentially takes the basic idea of Human Error Processor and simply inserts it into content from The Ghost in the Shell, which was a strange choice. Even the latest adaptation SAC_2045 does much the same, instead continuing the story from Stand Alone Complex, which ended some 15 years prior.
It is a shame that the actual stories of Human Error Processor have never seen adaptation, because they are some of Shirow’s most enjoyable works. Avoiding the pitfalls of Man-Machine Interface (which we will discuss posthaste), the author presents four very straightforward stories of police investigation and bureaucratic navigation in the distant future. They are enjoyable precisely because of their simple nature, and would have no doubt been the type of stories we would have seen if Ghost in the Shell had been a more regular serialization, perhaps in a monthly or weekly magazine.
The relatively short length of Human Error Processor does, however, leave only a handful of things to talk about. Luckily, there is plenty to discuss when it comes to Man-Machine Interface, which should be considered the ‘true’ sequel to The Ghost in the Shell and was serialized in Kaizokuban and Young Magazine from 1992 up until 1997 – a print run that beats the original in terms of length and staying power.
Man-Machine Interface takes place a few years after the original Ghost in the Shell manga, with Mokoto having fused with the Puppeteer and potentially given herself up to a higher level of consciousness. Almost immediately, it is clear that things are very different. We open upon a Mokoto who no longer inhabits the real world, but a digital space where she can converse with multiple people and perform multiple operations at once with the help of digital assistants. She has also changed her last name to Aramaki – presumably after the Section 9 director – and changed her appearance, at least in the real world, where she is the tanned, tall chief of a major production company.
The sea change in content from the original Ghost in the Shell manga is by far the most interesting thing about this sequel manga. There are almost no sequences in this manga that take place entirely in the real world, instead placing Mokoto in a digital space where she can bark orders at her digital minions to perform complex hacking maneuvers and switch between mechanical bodies with reckless abandon.
Sometimes, this can be exhilarating: the sequence where Mokoto attempts to infiltrate an underwater submarine while also infiltrating a secret lab with two different bodies at the same time feels like the natural evolution of the high-tech action of the original series. But it is far from perfect. Sometimes, the removal of any semblance of reality means that entire pages are dedicated to Mokoto shouting techno-babble at her digital assistants, which can prove difficult to engage with.
Here, the problem of removing the stories of Human Error Processor comes into play. In the original magazine print run, the stories of Batou and the Mokoto-less Section 9 were published alongside the stories of Man-Machine Interface, which may have provided a welcome change of pace for the sequel series. Indeed, it could be argued that the original Ghost in the Shell manga succeeds precisely because of its combination of real-life action and infiltration alongside high-tech hacking and other digital maneuvers.
Nevertheless, you have to admire Shirow’s ambition. Clearly, the creator was not content to rest on his laurels after the success of the original Ghost in the Shell manga: not only did he attempt to innovate with a new type of action, but he also used new, novel methods of digital art production to do so. Many of the backgrounds and even some of the characters are rendered in 3D, which is an incredible feat given the relatively infancy of home computers at the time. Such techniques are now considered as par for the course in manga production, which shows off yet again just how ahead of its time Ghost in the Shell truly was.
Man-Machine Interface also elaborates on the many questions and dilemmas posed by the original Ghost in the Shell manga, most especially with regard to the nature of consciousness. The fact that the Major appears to be an entirely different person some years after fusing with the Puppeteer seems to confirm her suspicions that she might lose her personality in the process, but this also opens up to her countless possibilities with regard to swapping bodies, performing hacking maneuvers, and so on.
The end of Man-Machine Interface then provides some final ‘answer’ to the core question posed by the original Ghost in the Shell manga – that of the nature of human consciousness – but it is not a firm one, nor is it entirely easy to parse. To use the words of Masamune Shirow, “There is no moving, climactic final scene.” Ghost in the Shell will continue to inspire for as long as it is relevant – irrespective of where the source material ends and begins.
Speaking of inspiration, it is perhaps no surprise that Man-Machine Interface has never been approached for adaptation. Not only is the content quite complex and very experimental, its flawed nature would require a careful approach on the part of whichever studio attempted to tackle it. Plus, fans seem perfectly fine with watching the continuing adventures of Mokoto and Section 9 in the first place, as evidenced by the recent Stand Alone Complex continuation SAC_2045, so what’s the point? It does act, however, as a powerful reason to check out the original Ghost in the Shell manga for yourself.
Ghost in the Shell Manga: Finding the Source
By exploring these three separate portions of the Ghost in the Shell manga, I hope that I am not giving the impression that I think that the adaptations are somehow inferior versions. They are not. Much like many others, I was first introduced to Masamune Shirow’s series through Oshii’s 1995 film, which blew my mind at the tender age of 13. This then put me on to the second film, and then Stand Alone Complex, etc. etc. In fact, it is only now, some ten years or so later, that the thought ever crossed my mind to check out the original manga.
Nevertheless, reading the Ghost in the Shell manga for this piece has affirmed in my mind one thing and one thing only: that this series deserves all of the iterations that it has spawned over the years and more. No matter the format or medium, the stylistic, philosophical, and creative trappings of Shirow’s story will never go away; they will never stop inspiring creators up until the moment that they feel antiquated – which doesn’t feel like any time soon.
For those who are curious, you can read the Ghost in the Shell manga (all 1.5 parts of it) via Kodansha, who have released the manga in English. The publication history of Ghost in the Shell in the West is actually quite an interesting story that I unfortunately don’t have the time to go into, but you can pick up this gorgeous box set, which contains all three parts in hardcover form and presented in the original Japanese format (sans flopping and censorship), for a very reasonable price.
You can also check out the rest of our Ghost in the Shell coverage for this month, including an exclusive interview with SAC_2045 directors Kenji Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki, here.