The Mike Toole Show Shirow's Kids
by Michael Toole, Jul 3rd 2011
In this column, I sometimes like to shine the light on great artists and animators. I think it's a good idea to discuss someone like Masami Hata, an old master whose name is perhaps not as familiar to anime fans as it should be. People might know who Tezuka and Ishinomori were, but their bodies of work are so immense that there's plenty to write about in any case. Or I'll catalog the works of a guy like Osamu Dezaki, who is known to serious fans - but his recent demise has provided the opportunity to educate younger fans about why all of the old cartoon nerds are sad that some anime dude died. There are a lot of anime creators that are pretty famous, though, and I wonder if it's really necessary to cover them. Does the world need another ponderous 2000 words about Hayao Miyazaki's love of the environment and hatred of modern society, or about Mamoru Oshii's fondness for basset hounds? Maybe not, but the fact is, I've been thinking about Masamune Shirow all week. Yeah, he's not really an animator - but he does, after all, work in the anime business.
Shirow's on my mind partly because I just finished watching Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society. It just came out on blu-ray, you see, and the disc is a joy to watch. I hadn't actually seen the movie since 2007, when I helped program the events schedule at Anime Boston and got the film screened there a few months before its home video debut (it was on digi-beta - uggggh!). Now, Shirow did not have a direct hand in the creation of this telefilm, an enjoyably meaty, abstract tale about Section 9 investigating what just might be the ultimate first world problem, but he did create the manga and characters that allowed this movie to get kicked out by Production I.G. Shirow's fertile imagination seems to have been locked 50 years in the future for some time now - his original Ghost in the Shell comics first came out in 1989, and his other famous works like Dominion: Tank Police and Appleseed also take place in futuristic cities. But I don't want to talk about those just yet. More than anything else, I want to talk about Gundress.
Gundress is the name of a 1999 feature film from Nikkatsu. It didn't spring whole from the brain of Masamune Shirow, but he did design its team of comely heroines, make suggestions about their behavior and personalities, and lend the film his distinctive LANDMATE mecha suits, which also populate the world of Appleseed. See, Gundress was supposed to be a big deal, because it had a big name like Shirow involved, it had "real" voiceover artists like Rie Ishizuka, who plies her trade in feature films more than anime, and it was backed by a big company (Nikkatsu) who were spending fairly big bucks (around $5 million USD) to get it produced and released in Toei's chain of theatres. But it didn't quite work out that way.
If I had a time machine, I think one of the first things I would do is go back to March of 1999 so I could experience the full glory of Gundress's premiere. I wasn't there, but an old correspondent of mine, who has declined to be named, was. According to him, when he purchased his ticket, he was also handed a printed flyer which stated the following:
"This movie isn't completed at all. If you enter our theatre to see it, we can't reimburse you for this unfinished movie. However, if you provide us with your address, we'll send you a videotape of the completed version as soon as it's available."
See, Nikkatsu were the money men, but the actual Gundress production committee was headed up by an outfit called ORCA. ORCA obviously didn't do a good job managing the film's production, because it fell behind. Way behind. So far behind, in fact, that it was indeed released unfinished, because Nikkatsu and Toei had committed to the March 1999 release window. Now, in fairness, Gundress wasn't the first anime film to see release before it was strictly done - both Final Yamato and Grave of the Fireflies hit theatres with a few kinks and rough edges. The thing is, though, that both of these movies were more than 90% done when their screening commitments forced a release. Gundress, on the other hand... well, it wasn't as far along as that. There were some special effects missing. Not all of the music was inserted. Also, entire scenes hadn't really exactly been animated yet, if you get my drift. Major scenes. The film's central action scenes, actually. In fact, the only parts that seemed to be complete and whole were either slow, static scenes, or the handful of moments where one of the movie's girl heroes was naked. Test animation and animatics filled out the rest of the movie's 90-minute runtime.
To say that this was a huge, hilarious scandal would be something of an understatement. The flyer containing the warning became a coveted collector's item. Inside the theatres, fans covertly filmed the unpolished turd onscreen, convinced that the "rough" cut was so embarrassing that it would never see proper release on video. Sanctuary, one of the production companies on the committee, sued Nikkatsu for damages. Nikkatsu and ORCA would limp over the finish line with the movie some four months later, and shamefacedly shipped more than seven thousand VHS copies of the completed work to fans who'd come to see the car wreck in theatres and decided they did, indeed, want the finished version. The eventual DVD release actually included the unfinished version as an alternate-angle feature, which at this point was widely heralded by both fans and pros as one of the anime business's great nightmares. In short, it was awesomely bad.
Despite all of that-- despite all of it!-- Gundress was picked up for US release in short order, because Shirow was involved. Invoking his name on a release like this is kind of like sneakily flogging the variety of lousy movies executive-produced by Stephen Spielberg as SPIELBERG PRODUCTIONS, but hey, at least it's a credible angle. The thing is, ORCA didn't really take their cues from Shirow - his concept art and character designs were built with the idea that the red-suited Sylvia would be the heroine, but the actual film was all about the older, meaner Takako. Media Blasters' release of the DVD doesn't include the rubbish version, but it does include a short documentary that will afford you a glimpse of all of the incompetent people that made the film happen four months too late. Sadly, Media Blasters' promise of a limited theatrical release-- unfinished or otherwise-- did not come to pass.
Amazingly, that wasn't the extent of Shirow's involvement with ORCA. A couple of years prior to Gundress, Shirow's name was all over a 2-part OVA that had been scripted by ORCA, an odd fantasy adventure affair called Landlock. The fact that his name is all over the cover is even sneakier in this case, because he was even less involved in the production process. The credits list him as "original character designer," which is a fancy, dicey way of saying that he drew some concept art and a couple of posters, and someone else (in this case, El Hazard stalwart Kazuto Nakazawa) took his work and did the actual animation designs. The stink of failure was pretty strong in Landlock, as well - it is a limp, by-the-numbers fantasy adventure that was supposed to synergistically involve a video game as the central element, with comic and animation tie-ins to boost the brand's profile. Of course, the video game never happened, but what was the video publisher supposed to do, splash the cover with "BASED ON THE HIT VIDEO GAME THAT NEVER ACTUALLY GOT MADE!" nonsense? No, they had to flog the Shirow connection.
Once you get past these curious little speed bumps, you're in familiar territory, as far as Masamune Shirow's body of work is concerned. Dominion: Tank Police was a huge gateway drug for anime fans in the 90s, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it starred a hot-blooded girl whose biggest love in life was her tank. Secondly, it had a really weird sense of humor - one of the original OVA's signature moments involved the bad guys sealing their escape by littering the road with giant, immobile blow-up dongs. Finally, while the show didn't feature the first anime cat girl, Dominion's Annapuma and Unipuma really sold the idea of "sexy catgirls!" that hasn't ever really gone away - just look at this past year's Cat Planet Cuties. Shirow's got a big reach. Tank Police stuck around courtesy of two OVA series (the second one, New Dominion Tank Police, isn't as good as the first one, but it's not too bad.). A recent Shirow project that seems to sport the same milieu as Dominion, simply entitled Tank SWAT 01, raises the eternal question: who the hell keeps giving money and work to anime director Romanov Higa, and how can this person be stopped? Like most of Higa's work, it's bold, weird, entirely CG, and really hard to watch. Then there's Appleseed. You've probably heard of that one.
I'm fascinated with Appleseed's resilience, because I don't find the original premise, a gritty future war story about a dystopian city and the ESWAT cops who protect it, to be a particularly compelling one. The odd, awkward romance between the human Deunan and the heavily mechanized cyborg Briareos is the most interesting part of the story, but Shirow doesn't dwell on it very often. More than that, the original manga dates back to 1985 and only ran for 25 chapters. The original cel-animated Appleseed OVA was an early fan favorite mainly because it was a neat, accessible, one-and-done affair that could be watched, absorbed, and forgotten about quickly. Curious fans who read the manga would discover that they tried to cram a little too much story into its 70-minute runtime, however. A solid decade after Appleseed's release, the franchise would be reborn courtesy of a new CG-animated film by mecha designer Shinji Aramaki. This new Appleseed wasn't great stuff, but its anime-styled CG was compelling enough to sell something like a hundred thousand copies in North America, and it was successful enough to spawn a sequel bankrolled by John Woo. That sequel wasn't nearly as good or as popular as the first, but the Appleseed brand looks to continue its survival thanks to Appleseed XIII, a brand new TV series based on the original comics.
Ghost in the Shell doesn't enjoy runaway popularity in its homeland-- Major Kusanagi just doesn't have the instant recognition mojo of a character like Lupin the 3rd or Monkey D. Luffy-- but it's undoubtedly one of the most popular global anime brands. The original 1995 feature film, supported by a million-dollar cash infusion from Manga Entertainment's Andy Frain, turned anime from an arthouse curiosity into a force to be reckoned with, garnering weeks-long theatrical bookings and the #1 spot on Billboard's weekly home video charts. Dreamworks quickly optioned a sequel, and gave director Mamoru Oshii $20 million to present Innocence, his vision of a future awash in vintage cars, basset hounds, and Bartlett's book of quotations. Fans, particularly Japanese fans, weren't big on these films, because director Oshii had a free hand with tweaking the characters and settings for the big screen, and his version is very distinct from Shirow's manga. Fortunately, just a few years later we'd get the Ghost in the Shell TV series, Stand-Alone Complex, which seems to embrace both the manga's blazing action and colorful characters and the films' restless, seething intellect. I enjoy every angle of Ghost in the Shell, if nothing else than simply for the fact that it's very hard to think of a female anime character who exudes as much confidence, control, and intelligence as Maj. Kusanagi. She's a keeper.
So what's left? Two things: First, there's the wholly regrettable Bounty Dog. Shirow did some character and mecha design work for this OVA, an unpleasantly odd science fiction tale filmed in jaundice-o-vision. Seriously, watching this will make you wonder exactly when the animation studio realized they had a huge surplus of yellow paint and figured they could just use it all in Bounty Dog. Of everything I've discussed here, Bounty Dog is the least Shirow-esque - while his name is in the credits, his design work has been run through the filter of animation director Hirotoshi Sano so much that it's just about impossible to figure out what exactly his contributions are. Have I made it clear that you can skip this one? You can skip this one.
Rounding off the list is 1987's Black Magic M-66. I'm really fond of this little OVA - it's got a plucky heroine, a weirdly creepy killer robot, and some great animation and character design. You can expect the character design work to be good, because it's by Masamune Shirow. The storyboards and script are also by Masamune Shirow. In fact, Black Magic M-66 is directed by Masamune Shirow. This is interesting, because while anime and manga creators cross their disciplines, only a few masters like Go Nagai and Osamu Tezuka have ever been able to do it consistently and repeatedly. M-66, about a female investigative reporter who decides to track a rogue military robot on her own as it hunts down its defenseless target, is graceful, colorful, and quick, a testament to Shirow's talent as a storyteller. I'd also attribute part of the show's appeal to co-director Hiroyuki Kitakubo - he's just one of those great directors whom the anime industry has rewarded by providing almost no work. Nearly everything the man has directed - M-66, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Golden Boy, Roujin-Z, and Blood: The Last Vampire - has achieved significant commercial and/or critical success, but he hasn't helmed an animated film or TV series in a decade. But I digress.
There are a couple of more projects that anime and manga nuts might mention. The fairly recent Ghost Hound, an enjoyably creepy little suspense tale, was actually brought out of an original concept by Shirow. It is, however, tough to see the Shirow in Ghost Hound, because he didn't get involved in the artwork. Manga fans can point to the enjoyably weird and barely coherent Orion, which nevertheless got a translated release courtesy of Dark Horse. Actually, I think it's a shame that Shirow no longer produces manga - while Kodansha has kept Ghost in the Shell in print and on hand, much of his older work has dropped off the radar entirely. Nowadays, he passes the time signing off on Ghost in the Shell projects, occasionally coming up with ideas like Ghost Hound and Real Drive, and drawing lavishly colored, detailed, and occasionally alarmingly pornographic illustrations for books, magazines, and calendars. Personally, I'd like this master to try his hand at animation again.
Got a favorite Shirow project? Have I forgotten some anime he's worked on? Actually, I'd be surprised if I have, I'm pretty sure I touched on all of 'em. Sound off in the comments!
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