Short Term Memory
by Brian Ruh,
There exists on the fringes of anime fandom - outside of the arguments about moe and fansubs, outside of the simple pleasure of watching anime, outside of the passionate discussions about which mecha is the mightiest or which girl is the most moe - an entire world of people for whom their interest in anime could be described as"academic". These shadowy nerds live in a secret underworld where anime and manga analysis using 5-dollar words like "semiotics" and "intertextuality" are their stock and trade, where actual books about anime get published on paper by real publishers (imagine that in 2010!). This may shock you to know - but I am one of these mysterious eggheads, and I'd like to invite you all onboard for Brain Diving, where each week we wade into this strange and fascinating world, shining a light on just why so many people take anime and manga so seriously as an intellectual pursuit, all the myriad novels (both light and heavy!), and the academic writing on the subject matter that are out there in the great abyss.
Although I've been writing about anime, manga, and film for nearly a decade now, my biggest claim to fame is probably my book Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. For my debut column I wanted to discuss something that relates to Ghost in the Shell, probably one of my favorite series of all time and the source for this column's title. I figured I'd go a little off the beaten path and highlight a work from the Ghost in the Shell universe that may have been overlooked – the novel The Lost Memory by Junichi Fujisaku.
Before all that, though...
Each week I'd like to highlight a different piece of writing online that strikes my fancy for one reason or another. The writing might be a news story, a blog posting, a thoughtful article, or something else. It's not necessarily that I'll always agree with what the author is saying, but the writing will usually (hopefully) provide a good jumping-off point for discussion. I'm certainly interested in any suggestions for the Weekly Reader segment you might have.
I'm shooting high this first time around with an article I recently saw mentioned on an anime / manga studies mailing list I'm on. The article is “Painting Words and Worlds” by Mia Lewis, and it appears in the Spring 2010 issue of the Columbia East Asia Review (it's at http://www.eastasiareview.org/articles/Lewis_Mia.pdf). Lewis is interested in the way that CLAMP use language in three of their manga to play with and create new meanings. This is done by pairing the kanji (the ideograms adapted borrowed from Chinese) that are used with different kana (phonetic Japanese syllabary) that indicate pronunciation. As you can probably tell, getting the most out of this article requires some knowledge of the Japanese language. Lewis goes into some detail, categorizing how manga authors use language in a manner that is informative and straightforward. This is also, of course, a technique that we just don't have in English, and is something to keep in mind when you heard someone (or you are yourself) criticizing how something is translated – sometimes there may not be one single “best” way to translate something. Translation is an art, not a science.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – The Lost Memory
If you're reading this, odds are you've at least heard of Ghost in the Shell from the manga by Masamune Shirow (recently re-released in English by Kodansha), the two feature films directed by Mamoru Oshii, or the Stand Alone Complex television series directed by Kenji Kamiyama. For those who do not know about Ghost in the Shell, the franchise is set in the near future focuses on Section 9, a team of elite special agents in the Japanese government. Their specialty is counterterrorism, and many of Section 9's members, like main characters Kusanagi and Batou, have cybernetic augmentations so that they can use and access the ubiquitous online world that we, in real life, seem to be heading toward.
As with many large Japanese media properties, though, there is much more than just the standard anime / manga combination. In order to capitalize on a good idea, we also get things like also video games, novels, and supplementary materials like the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Official Log series of book / DVD combinations that offer a more in-depth look at the world created in the TV series. (Unfortunately, only the first Official Log was brought out in the US in English; although Japanese fandom might be able to financially support such fan-oriented endeavors, North American fandom obviously cannot.)
The Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex novels were originally published in Japan in 2004, and were published in English by Dark Horse under their DH Press imprint. The author, Junichi Fujisaku, shows the crossovers that can exist in the contemporary anime industry. He began his career as a video game designer at Production I.G, but soon began to branch out into writing for anime as well. He wrote a number of episodes of the Stand Alone Complex series and is credited as “game producer / chief director” and “producer” on the PS2 and PSP Ghost in the Shell video games, respectively. So Fujisaku certainly seems to be a man equipped with the credentials to write a series of Ghost in the Shell novels.
The first of these novels, titled The Lost Memory (which makes its official title the rather unwieldy Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – The Lost Memory), begins with Section 9 confronting a teenage terrorist who has taken hostages at an electronics store. Of course the victory of Section 9 in never really in doubt, but the situation introduces the reader to a new series of terror acts being committed by teenagers for no real apparent reason. (After the incidents, the teens usually have little recollection of what happened, and yet it does not seem like they are being controlled by an outside force.)
I really enjoy the way the books open up the world of Ghost in the Shell in ways that don't get explored very thoroughly in the films or the TV series, such as the day-to-day lives of people in 2030 and how they access and interact with the information around them. In the afterward to the second Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex novel, Revenge of the Cold Machines, Fujisaku writes that as a anime writer, knowing that someone will eventually have to create your work onscreen puts some limitations on the scenes and scenarios you can come up with. A novel places far fewer restrictions on you, and he was consciously trying to take advantage of this. To a certain extent he did succeed, although the books tend to have a clunkiness throughout that can be distracting.
One of the biggest problems with this novel, and indeed many novels like it, is that its writing can be rather uneven. Part of this is because I think in places the translation sticks a bit too closely to the structure of the original Japanese sentences. As I said before, translation is an art, and all good art has to be unafraid to break some rules. Sometimes what is a good sentence in Japanese is not so good when faithfully rendered in English, and vice-versa. Of course, this then brings up the question of if the role of the translator is to try to maintain the original or improve upon it. Regardless of questions of translation though, Fujisaku has a tendency to tell and not show – quite frequently he has his characters speaking in expository dialogue that they would never realistically say to one another solely for the benefit of the reader. At the same time, though, Fujisaku engages in quite a bit of world-building, detailing different aspects of the Ghost in the Shell universe that were left unexplored or glossed over in other media. For example, he delves more deeply into how cyberbrains might work and what this might mean for how people in a future society relate and interact with one another. So, if you can get past the regular periods of awkward phrasing, the books are certainly worth a quick read.
This is to say that while engaging at times, the Stand Alone Complex books certainly fit into the “light novel” category – they're not a particularly difficult read, and although they don't have manga-style illustrations inside, they do have nicely illustrated front and back covers. Particularly noteworthy are the front covers of the first and third novels by Kazuto Nakazawa, and the back cover image by Hiroyuki Okiura, who directed Jin-Roh. I would love to get my hands on larger versions of these images. Of course the cover isn't the main reason to buy any book, but in this case they certainly contribute to the overall feel of the stories.
If you're interested in Ghost in the Shell, there are other novels out there as well. The best one is probably Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: After the Long Goodbye by Masaki Yamada. (What is it with these run-on book names?) Not to disparage Fujisaku's novels, but Yamada is first and foremost an award-winning science fiction author, and it shows in his prose. After the Long Goodbye is certainly more brooding and melancholic than Stand Alone Complex, much like the Innocence film itself, but it is also a much better-written read. And if you can read Japanese there are a couple of novels called Burning City and Star Seed that came out in the 1990s around the time of the first Ghost in the Shell film. I've only managed to pick up Burning City so far, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. However, part of each page contains an image of Kusanagi's famous descent from the top of a building from the film, so that in addition to being a work of fiction, the novel serves as a kind of animation flip book. Certainly an interesting gimmick (although one I've seen a number of times before) but things like that always make me wonder about the quality of the written contents of such a book. I'll get around to reading it one of these days (read: years).
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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