Much like manga classic Akira, Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese comic title that many westerners will recognise, largely due to the phenomenal success of animated the movie it inspired.
Set twenty-five years into the future, Shirow’s vision isn’t desperately different to modern life, but the rapid pace of technology has converged robotics, medicine and networking. Receive a wound that doesn’t affect your brain or spine, and you’re more likely to end up with a new robotic body-part than find the injured organ patched-up or healed. Naturally, this throws up a flood of Blade Runner-type questions about where the line between human and robot can be drawn, especially with regards to Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cybernetic heroine of the piece.
The plot starts off comparatively simply, revolving around her group of Japanese anti-terrorist special agents code-named Section 9, working for the government on a number of covert missions to ensure the safety of its people. However, things start getting complicated as they begin to hunt down a particularly tricksy terrorist known only as the Puppeteer.
Shirow is expert at serial story-telling. Each chapter is a self-contained story, brimming with fast-paced action. But he also finds space for an undertow of political intrigue and plenty of character development, with all the people in his stories working to different agendas. His speculative future is fully populated with coherent technology, complete with scientific annotations should you want them, creating a believable future peopled by credible characters.
Where we feel he falls down is in his depiction of women. Although Kusanagi is a strong and motivated woman, Shirow has a tendency to pander to a drooling male audience and use titillating flashes of female flesh for very little effect. While the men in the series come in all shapes, sizes and levels of attractiveness, his women are all stereotypical fantasy figures. We only mention it to provide fair warning to those who find this sort of thing offensive or embarrassing, but there’s a scene or two in this volume that even broad-minded readers will concede serve little purpose beyond the pornographic.
If you can cope with the sexism though, it’s a blip in an otherwise momentous piece of futurism. Any sci-fi aficionado, even those who haven’t touched manga before, should consider making the leap with this volume, which is a deserved (if self-indulgent) classic. And if you’ve come from the film without having touched the book we urge you to give it a go, if only to add more depth to the story and characters you’re already familiar with.