The cyberpunk genre was incredibly vibrant in the late 1980s and 90s, with a plethora of artists, authors and filmmakers imagining a familiar but fascinatingly alien world populated by Orwellian governments, plucky computer hackers, and futuristic technology used to reshape society and even fight wars. Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow's study of Section 9, a a big-city cybercrime agency grappling with a powerful AI that's achieved sentience, was born straight out of that scene. I kinda smile to myself when I contemplate the enduring cyberpunk aesthetic shown in all Ghost in the Shell media, where ace hackers physically jack data drives or sometimes even themselves into the ubiquitous uplink ports on the back of everyone's neck, a sight that seems equal parts William Gibson and David Cronenberg. Once “on the net,” their digital avatars rush through an abstract landscape of rapidly shuffling GUIs and pulsating supercomputers. Now we've got a new Ghost in the Shell, one that dials the story back to the origin of Section 9 itself.
Regardless of the language spoken by the characters onscreen, Ghost in the Shell has developed a kind of lingua franca over the years, a common set of ideas and images. There's always a part where Major Motoko Kusanagi free-falls into a cityscape, a faint, knowing smile on her lips. There's always a part where she leaps onto a tank bristling with weapons and uses her cyborg strength to wrench the hatch off. The cybercrime fighters of Section 9 always have some sort of robot quadruped buddy that is somehow cute as a button (except in Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell movies, where it is silent and enormous). There's always a shot of the bureau's chief, Aramaki, standing in Section 9 HQ, flanked by a set of curiously identical data technicians. When Production I.G announced Ghost in the Shell Arise, you just knew these scenes would crop up again; you could set your watch to it.
In the Ghost in the Shell we all know in love, the viewer quickly takes Motoko Kusanagi and her mixture of military prowess and elite hacking skills for granted; after all, she's the heroine, so of course she's gonna be an exceptional person. ARISE concerns itself, in several ways, with how she came to be so exceptional. Her hacking skills are the product of a catastrophic accident that led to her brain being transferred into a prosthetic body more or less at birth; most people get that procedure done years or decades later, and the hardware abstraction layer between our natural brain and the cyberbrain that links up to the prosthetic body takes time and practice to build. This was never an issue for Kusanagi, but the OVAs open with her beholden to 501 Squad, a public intelligence agency that seems to be made up entirely of freaks and weirdos from the JSDF special forces and/or the fringes of society. A big man named Batou, a soldier with a scary reputation on the battlefield, has heard of her; he knows about her illicit hacking background and dislikes her immediately. Naturally, they'll be working together—but for how long?
Soon enough, a typical Ghost in the Shell yarn starts to unravel—there's a bombing downtown, and the dead perpetrator is a decorated military officer from Kusanagi's past who seems to have fallen into arms smuggling. An investigation of the burial site reveals a corpse switcheroo, and she runs afoul of a severe ex-officer named Aramaki, who's establishing a new intelligence agency of his own. Aramaki immediately tries to recruit Kusanagi, but there's a problem; Kusanagi literally owes 501 Squad her state-of-the-art prosthetic body, and can't muster out until it's paid off.
I speak of “typical” Ghost in the Shell stories, and that's really ARISE's greatest weakness, and its greatest strength. There's a lot about it that's kind of overly familiar, be it Kusanagi's penchant for flashy field uniforms, the constant trickery involving thermoptic camouflage, hacked optics, and other weird digital tricks, and the exquisitely corrupt, uncomfortable relationship between politics, the military, and civilian life. At the same time, the default mode for Ghost in the Shell is quick, clever, and incredibly dense storytelling – Shirow's manga, Oshii's films, and Kamiyama's TV series have all served up compelling tales of suspense, a blend of riotous mecha action, breathless, byzantine intrigue, and a good, hard look at the purely terrifying dystopian future. These new OVAs follow in their footsteps; they fit right in with the rest.
Here, it's useful to point at Ghost in the Shell Arise's bona-fides. It's long been a flagship franchise for Production I.G, and it's clear that they've thrown ample talent into the project. The scripts are written by noted SF novelist Tow Ubukata, who's already shown his cyberpunk mettle with Mardock Scramble. He's a good choice—while he hews to formula, he clearly understands the formula well. Mecha designer Takayuki Yanase gives the Logikoma, which sports an alarmingly chirpy Miyuki Sawashiro as its voice and is the obvious heir-apparent to the Fuchikoma and Tachikoma tanks of the older works, the same kind of streamlined-yet-hulking look that he applied to Gundam 00's titular mobile suit. The director is Kazuchika Kise, an accomplished animation director who spent years handling key duties before finally being promoted for ARISE, his first major project as director. He doesn't drop the football here—each episode moves along briskly, anchored by superb action scenes where every single combatant seems to have at least one cyber-limb smashed, spindled, or shot off altogether. At the same time, ARISE is still an OVA rather than a big-budget theatrical film; when it looks good, it looks good, but each episode has a liberal sprinkling of cuts where the visual quality drops precipitously for a few moments.
One of the most surprising aspects of ARISE is that, considering its role as an origin story, it features an entirely new voice cast. For the most part, they do quite well, though I miss Osamu Saka's cranky old man rasp as Aramaki from the Stand-Alone Complex TV series. His successor Ikkyu Juku's performance certainly suggests a younger man, but seems a bit too smooth for the character. Kenichirou Matsuda as Batou, replacing Akio Ohtsuka, seems practically indistinguishable to me. But Maaya Sakamoto, whom many of us have heard grow from her debut performance as Hitomi in Vision of Escaflowne, is a huge surprise as young Kusanagi. It's a really different kind of role for her, and she acquits herself admirably—her entire performance is an octave lower than we're used to hearing her; she's clipped and clinical, but also curious, thoughtful. Another treat is the set of theme songs by noted pop artist Cornelius. They're fantastic, managing to evoke both Kenji Kawai's stately, weird film score and Yoko Kanno's surging Stand-Alone Complex songs.
Ultimately, a lot of your enjoyment of Ghost in the Shell Arise is going to depend on your comfort with the rest of the franchise. These episodes are fairly accessible (my teenaged nephew, who'd only heard about the series before, had little trouble keeping up), but so much of their appeal depends on both understanding the Section 9 of the story's future and being okay with the episodes’ overlapping, somewhat repetitive themes. Each episode concerns an old military officer, disgraced or destroyed under questionable circumstances, and each episode features Major Kusanagi seeking justice, be it at the gates of a cemetery or the benches of a courtroom. (Interestingly, both scenes feature an awful lot of angel iconography.) The freshest element ARISE brings to the table are its unique minor characters; in episode 1, Kusanagi reports to Lt. Colonel Kurtz (“Kurutsu” in the subtitles; but it's Kurtz, isn't it…?), a female officer with similar tastes in flashy dress uniforms. Just like the Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, it's hard to work out which side she's playing. And in episode 2, Kusanagi is forced by circumstances to team up with VV, a brash, blonde American special agent whose motives are also unclear at first—so even with these cool OVA-only characters, ARISE repeats itself a bit.
I'd hesitate to label Ghost in the Shell Arise a rehash, but only a little. It doesn't push the franchise's ambitions (for better or for worse, Innocence remains the most interesting animated fragment of Ghost in the Shell), but it's a solid addition in terms of storytelling entertainment. For me, it was just nice to see what the goons of Section 9 were like before they fell in together—Batou the driven soldier, Saitou the craven opportunist, Paz the weary undercover cop, Ishikawa the unpredictable beard-head, and Borma the fat guy. Some aspects of its cyberpunk pedigree seem at once quaint and weirdly prescient (once people figure out how to hack into each other's Google glasses and wreck the GPS app with incorrect directions, will that count as “hacking optics?”), but as long as Ghost in the Shell presents sharp ideas and challenging stories, it'll always be pleasant to check out the alleys and skyscrapers of Newport City. I wouldn't want to live there, but ARISE still makes it nice to visit again.