Sunday, March 14, 2010

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 industry, 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 he became one of the most popular manga creators among English-speaking fans.

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 was possessed by 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 102. 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 mediocre 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-Internet 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 much of 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 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.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I reread a bunch of Shirow's older works a few months back, and in 5 minutes this post managed to fill me with the same weary disappointment as that entire process took over the course of a couple of weeks. I wish I could preserve the Shirow who created Dominion Conflict 1 in amber, because he was a pretty great guy! A little contrived, maybe. A little oblique. But capable of creating an interesting world, filling it with great details, and having fun with it.

Mark said...

Careful you don't raise Shirow's ire, lest you too be abducted and sent to a ranch of oil-slobbering horsemen. They're not picky!

John said...

Ah, yes, how the mighty have fallen...

totame_eclipse said...

I read Shirow since the 90s.
Shirow is still great as he was before, only he's clearly more a painter than a mangaka. He also told before that he wanted to produce artwork which can go alone, without being part of a comic.
I agree about the pity of not having any new manga from him, but I like his new artwork so much that i can live with it.
it's provocative to everybody, even to his own fans. But it's beautiful and brave.
Personally I REALLY LOVE his cg backgrounds, and his cg color painting, I wouldn't go back to his old style.
I see it all as an evolution, and of course I'm looking forward to read new comics by him drawed with his new fabolous style ^^
I can't wait to see his new hellhound pieces 4 book on november, wild wet quest had incredible art, check it out!

Smars said...

guh!
i've been reading shirow works since 1991.
the whole reason why i even came across this post is because i just got finished reading the entire appleseed collection for the BAJILLIONTH time, and i was curious about what he may or may not be doing these days.
hoping that maybe he kept an art blog or something.

i saw this change in his focus and jumped ship when the blades artbook came out and i was horrified that he had abandoned water colours for really hideous computer renderings.
i didn't understand any of it... still don't.

it's sad to see someone who i admired so much become such an unappealing version of himself.
i just don't understand why he decided to shift his focus primarily in this direction.
sad.

Anonymous said...

His manga career is rather tragic, but his legacy as a whole is still rather impressive, namely his conceptual relationship with IG. Said relationship has resulted in three of the best long form anime I've seen in years.

GundamZ said...

Thanks kid, I'm disappointed too, but only because Shirow's output has slowed to a small trickle. Lots of mangaka quit after peaking early on in their careers such as Akira Toriyama and even Todd McFarlane to some extent, though he's back with a new title Haunt. I'm just grateful for what I can get.

ghostbeetle said...

Is this blog a troll? (headscratch)
You're really hating on a good-girl artist for producing good-girl art?
And I hate to break it to you, but even in his more focused times Shirow was never what you'd call a great story-teller.
Just let the man draw draw his naked, glistening chicks - at least he's good at that (yes he is, realism in regards to proportions and positions just doesn't figure into this).

die-yng said...

Oh for f...'s sake!
How typical american to call anything involving sexuality "inexplicable" or porn.
FOI, both in Mangas and european comics sexual acts and nudity are portrayed frequently and no one thinks the comics are lessened by it, in fact most would argue, since sexuality is an integral art of everybodies life that such depiction is to be expected and natural (and yes, even for a cyborg).
I'm not really a fan of Shirow's more recent artwork, but just becaus eit is not my cup of tea, not from some (imagined) moral high ground.

And I don't know how many mangas you read or what type of manga you read, but I've come across a lot of stories and concepts, more disconnected than Man-machine interface.

Anonymous said...

"How typical american to call anything involving sexuality "inexplicable" or porn."

Exactly. The author of this blog is either terribly stupid or ignorant. Imbeciles like him shouldn't be allowed to write. But this is the wonder of the internet: Retards have the freedom to insult great geniuses like Shirow. How wonderful.

I wonder if the idiot who wrote this post is just gay or something, so whenever somebody draws a female he writes "how low has he fallen..."

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, I was and am a HUGE fan of Shirow and was totally into Appleseed since 1988 and I cant fathom why he is wasting his talent with this shit..even though I say that I still buy it because..its Shirow..but man I dream about him doing a new Appleseed..prob will never happen though.:(

totame eclipse said...

at least there is still who loves shirow's work... somebody got mad at what it has been told here ^^

Anonymous said...

... just like your blog title says... you know 'mostly about games'.

Staats Fasoldt said...

I think man machine interface is a masterpiece,
and Shirow is a genius
Staats

jomega said...

This is hardly a new phenomenon for artists. I think what it comes down to is: an artist has spent years or decades building a body of respected work. After long toil, enough money has been made off said body of work that the artist is finally able to kick back and return to the artistic challenge that has obsessed men for centuries - drawing naked chicks! I recall Andrew Wyeth did much the same thing at the end of the 1960's (though much less explicitly and without the rapey robots and horny horse dudes) If one of the giants of American painting can make the transition to Illustrator of Titties, we can cut Shirow a little slack.

Nobody said...

"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."

Your problem.
Not Shirow's problem.

Anonymous said...

Like 99.99% of the comments here, I think the blog is wildly pathetic for defacing what Shirow does in his own time, harmlessly, and focuses a large fraction of the argument and it's weight on the sort of bullshit circular reasoning I'd expect out of 4chan. You cannot associate his downfall with pornography. Where is the logic?

Anonymous said...

Started off with doing doujins, wrote some manga, and then went back to doing doujins. Don't see the problem, he did some pretty good work. Although I'm not to fond of his recent use of CGi to draw girls, his hand-drawn girls were better.

Anonymous said...

Where do I start? This poster is so beyond being an idiot that I dont know where to begin.
Criticizing a known pin-up artist with a flair for strange sexuality for creating said art is like going to a zoo and saying you don't like animals lol.
I just found the guy(?)'s work as a reference for use of oil pastels, and after a fair amount of digging I stumble upon this blog. I thought "hmm, just heard about the artist, might as well see why he supposedly had himself a tumble"
... turns out, he didn't. He just has a whiny nuthugger whose tolerance for the female form is apparently quite low.
Seeing as the artist apparently is doing ongoing production deals with major animation companies, I'd think it's safe to say he never had a 'fall'. I'd think it's equally safe to say then that the title of the post was designed to troll and bring attention to a thirsty blogger who writes about crap he doesn't care to research.
It sounds far more feasible to say the author got caught by his mom 'carving the plank' to Shirow's work, and has since taken a psuedo-stand against him in hopes of redemption. I'd place a wager that his mom probably stood over his shoulder watching angrily as he typed out this nonsense.
I mean hell, I'm a 'western comic' fan of art (typically swearing against anime) and even I have to give Shirow a serious round of applause for being one of the greatest artist I've ever seen. Anything contrary to say is just good ol' fashion hating -period.
As Stan the Man says...
Nuff said.

RedZeshinX said...

I agree with the blogger, it's sad to see somebody with such impressive artistic talent, potential, creativity and intellectual prowess narrowly limit himself to disposable fetishist entertainment without sparing any of his considerable talents for the kinds of masterworks he's capable of crafting. I love me smokin' hot babes as much as the next guy (or girl), but that stuffs a dime a dozen. Maybe it suits the obscure fetishes of some, and maybe the more pretentious amongst us like to massage their egos with that "defending the virtues of sexual liberality from the enemy of American prudishness" canard, but I'll lay it straight: Shirow can make grand opus masterpieces most normal folks can't, but instead he's doodling girl's dipped in molasses getting jollies from Mr. Ed. Shirow may find immeasurable pleasure ferreting away the remainder of his lifetime indulging in the "aesthetics" of prurience, but to those of us without the powers and abilities he possesses, and having glimpsed the raw potential for a rare breed of greatness in his older works, it really seems like a waste.

NewYorkRod said...

OK; let me get this straight. You are an artist who does work superior to Shirow, is that what you are implying? Right...I thought so. You guys seem to think you have a right to even suggest what mediums an artist should work in or what the subject matter should be or what form the final product should take. You have a lot of nerve. You have the work of his that you like so just be happy he made enough for you. As far as the kind of intellectual censorship you are engaging in, get real. An artist is only as good as the quality of the execution of his work. His execution is top notch and your blog is a pathetic attempt at regulating art through the use of terms suggesting what is appropriate. You don't tell artists what to do. You can make whatever art you want, but the idea that Shirow has "fallen" is an insult to all artists everywhere.

Jenny Creed said...

How dare a mere mortal critique the sexist, shallow work of an Artist for being sexist and shallow? You should keep quiet and consume, like a good consumer.

Pequeño perdedor said...

To all those who came before me and left comments disparaging the author of this post: fuck you.

You guys are the mindless, acritical consumer base everyone accuses us of being, happily devouring the latest piece of shit from your favorite artist just because it's your favorite artist. You cling to a washed out has-been as if he was the sports team of your town, denying the facts about his decline even as they're presented to you with blinding clarity.

Die in a fire, you morons. You're the lowest common denominator among manga fans, and you will not be missed when you disappear.

Anonymous said...

@Pequeño perdedor: "BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWW STOP SAYING MEAN THINGS ABOUT ME ;_;" That's all I can hear from you; your tears are delicious, "Little loser".

@Jenny Creed: More like make your research before spouting shit, dumbass.

@RedZenshinX: although you sound a little pretentious at times, I do agree with various of your points, but people seem to miss that Shirow was ALWAYS an artist of the lewd. He was never looking for other people's approval regarding his greasy smut. Rather, my personal gripe with some of his new stuff is precisely that it is too fucking shiny for its own good.

Kendo 2 said...

I guess it will be unpopular to say this, but I like the newer Shirow stuff. True, he is not doing manga. True, he has taken up drawing content some people will not like. He's an artist and not on this planet to pander to fans. He has done work I do not like, but I'm not going to slam him for not satisfying me. I think he is talented.

L-Camino said...

It's a shame that he did not continue the appleseed series. That is still my favorite of his works. :(

Anonymous said...

This have to one of the STUPIDEST articles I EVER READ in my life, called "Fall" and trying to make like master Shirow have fallen because he do occasional erotic artworks (NOTHING NEW when even the original GIS comic have this kind of scenes), he still working in great series and collaborate with Production I.G's in new animes and still his work is been adapted to new animations series such as Ghost in the Shell ARISE and now a new CGI film of Appleseed so...please by all means enlightenment with your knowledgeable of how that's translate to a fallen career, just why an always erotic artist do erotic artworks, typical america stupidity only could consider that as bad, in my eyes that make him even more great, and ballsy do something like that and still his work get adapted to animes and he keep his collaboration with Production I.G's....wow whoever ignorant write this article need to be fired of his job.

Jason Mcintosh said...

This guy hit it on the nose.........NewYorkRod said...
OK; let me get this straight. You are an artist who does work superior to Shirow, is that what you are implying? Right...I thought so. You guys seem to think you have a right to even suggest what mediums an artist should work in or what the subject matter should be or what form the final product should take. You have a lot of nerve. You have the work of his that you like so just be happy he made enough for you. As far as the kind of intellectual censorship you are engaging in, get real. An artist is only as good as the quality of the execution of his work. His execution is top notch and your blog is a pathetic attempt at regulating art through the use of terms suggesting what is appropriate. You don't tell artists what to do. You can make whatever art you want, but the idea that Shirow has "fallen" is an insult to all artists everywhere.

Anonymous said...

This entire article is basically just shaming someone for making porn.

If you were just focusing on how you wish they made more of what you want them to make because that is a more stand-out use of their skills, that'd be 100% fine!

Instead, you simply resort to shaming someone's fetishes and deriding someone for making a careeer/creative choice you personally wouldn't. The article ends up being a useless "man how dare he become a porn artist, those are inherently shitty and I am going to shame his specific fetishes!"

It is easy to deride someone when they cant argue back, isnt it?

Kobe Watchtower said...

Soooo...How is it possible you-blogger don't understand anything about Shirow Masamune?
Here, the basic knowledge of his works is totally missing and this "article" is nothing but bullshit.