Masamune Shirow: The Master of Cyberpunk, His Rise and Fall

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Well first of all, I’d like to tell you that Masamune Shirow is the pen name of Mr. Masanori Ota, and as some of you might’ve guessed, Masamune is based off the famed sword-smith of Japan. In fact, I’ve seen Japanese games and anime where the more legendary of swords were named Masamune. It’s one of the cool tropes in Japan.

Author’s Life

Kobe is the sixth largest city in Japan. Originally a port city, its heritage is still carried on by her residents. But modern-day Kobe is primarily known for its famous marbled beef and Arima Onsen. Also, the vibrant nightlife of the city is known throughout the world. It is the Japanese center for cosmopolitanism and fashion, the spirit of which is encapsulated by the neo-Japanese phrase: “If you cannot go to Paris, go to Kobe.”

All this is well and good, but what we didn’t know, or some of us knew through Wikipedia was that the city of Kobe, besides being famous for its beef, hot springs and vibrant nightlife, is also responsible for the famous manga like Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell. For it is the birthplace of the esteemed artist Masamune Shirow, the winner of the esteemed Seiun Award for Best Manga in 1986 from the Japanese government for his magnum opus, Appleseed. And perhaps the only mangaka remaining who had all the volumes of all his major works translated into English.

This Masamune Shirow wasn’t always Masamune Shirow. He was born on November 23, 1961 in the city of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture as Masanori Ota. His nome de plume was derived from the legendary swordsmith Masamune and the Japanese character for ‘white.’

masamune shirow

Shirow Masamune


Not much is known about Shirow’s early life because of his reclusive tendencies. But it is known that he studied Oil Painting at the Osaka University of Arts. This institutional knowledge of art, perhaps became, the driving force behind Shirow’s critically acclaimed and mass-approved art style that we generally see in Shirow’s manga.

While in college, Shirow developed an interest in manga and this interest resulted in the publication of Shirow’s first manga, Black Magic (initially known as Black Magic M-66), in a fan-made magazine called ATLAS.

Black Magic, initially a doujinshi, later reprinted in tankobon, came out in 1983 and showed us the planet Venus millions of years in the past when a civilization existed there, far superior than our own. The society was the complete definition of a Utopia and everything was controlled by the supercomputer Nemesis and order was maintained through Nemesis’ Executors. But several of these Executors vied for the control of Nemesis and the control of the civilization as a whole. They raise the super-bioroid Duna Typhoon amongst the human populace and wait patiently, ready to defeat Nemesis whenever it goes out of control.

The Utopian Venus of Black Magic was like a spiritual predecessor to Olympus of Appleseed. And though Black Magic wasn’t that well-received by the audience, it did help Shirow to impress Osaka-based publisher Seishinsha who started publishing his Appleseed in tankobon format, something unheard of in Japan where a mangaka has to prove the popularity of his/her work first by publishing it in a weekly magazine first.

Olympus - Appleseed

Olympus – Appleseed

On Appleseed

The 4-volume Appleseed is still considered one of Shirow’s best works, owing to its stunning illustrations, powerful story, and a tongue-and-cheek dialogue which kept the mood light.

From Wikipedia:

The story set in the 22nd century, shows the world after the non-nuclear Third World War which decimated the Earth. The story set mainly in the backdrop of the Utopian city of Olympus where approximately one-half of the population is bionically augmented and follows the two former SWAT members of LAPD, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, who are found in the desolated city of Los Angeles and are invited to come to Olympus as the members of the. prestigious ESWAT, and protect their new home from threats, foreign and domestic alike.


Appleseed Manga Art

An interesting thing about the manga volumes of Appleseed is that they all have Prometheus (the Greek Titan who rebelled against gods to gift fire to humans) in the title. The manga was adapted to an OVA in 1988, like Black Magic, but the adaptations didn’t stop there.

Appleseed was made into a CGI feature film in 2004 and was directed by Shinji Aramaki, titled simply as Appleseed. The film follows Deunan and her partner, Briaeros, as they try and save Olympus as it is plagued by conflicting factions and also at the same time stop the Council of Elders, one of the three factions ruling over the Utopian city of Olympus, as they try to completely sterilize humans and make bioroids the only ones able to reproduce, the masters of the race. After a heated battle nearing the end of the movie, the threat gets neutralized.

The film got a 7 out of 10 score from who applauded the aesthetics and the music of the film. The film got an overall positive review from critics.

A direct sequel to the 2004 was released in 2007 and was titled Appleseed Ex Machina. This was also directed by Shinji Aramaki. An anime adaptation named Appleseed: Genesis was proposed to be released in 2005 but was cancelled due differences between the studio and production. Finally, a 13-episode ONA called Appleseed XIII was released in 2011.

Video games for this title had been produced for the Super Famicom console and the PlayStation 2. The Super Famicom version was a strategy genre and was called Appleseed: Oracle of Prometheus, and the PS2 version was called Appleseed EX.

Shirow’s further achievements

Right around the time when Shirow published Appleseed, he published another manga called Dominion. This manga, too, carried on Shirow’s legacy of striking visuals, solid storyline, and an abundance of humor.

Set in the fictional city of Newport, Japan, Dominion shows a future where air pollution is so severe that people have to wear gas masks to go outside. And under these difficult conditions, the series follows the police squadron that uses military style tanks. The manga was adapted into an OVA and an RPG published by Guardians of Order and uses the Tri-Stat system. Reviewers had found this anime to contain some serious themes but they didn’t like the way it was delivered in a slapstick humorous way.

Dominion Tank Police

Dominion Tank Police

Shirow also created another manga called Orion, which incorporated his trademark sci-fi, cyberpunk genre with ancient Japanese myths, Buddhist and Taoist religious elements, along with some aspects of metaphysics. Orion is still perceived as a series to be a tad too complex and is not at all recommended for beginners.

Ghost in the Shell

The publication of Appleseed raised expectations within fans regarding Shirow. And Shirow, too, wanted to create something that would surpass Appleseed. And the result was the 1991 series Ghost in the Shell. It was something that would remain to be Shirow’s best work till date and something that received cult-following the moment it was released. Ghost in the Shell became almost eponymous with Masamune Shirow and surpassed Shirow’s award-winning series Appleseed.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Cell

Ghost in the Shell follows the adventures of Major Kusanagi Makoto, who implemented full-body prosthesis due to an accident in her childhood, as she fights various cyber criminals, corrupt politicians, and various other adversaries as part of the counter-terrorist organization called Public Security Section 9. Two more manga sequels called Ghost in The Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface and Ghost in The Shell 1.5: Human Error Processor were also released at the same time as the first volume. This series, like Appleseed, was also adapted into an OVA and a third-person shooter video game for the PS2.

An anime adaptation titled Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was produced by Production I.G and was released in October, 2002 and continued up to October, 2003. The anime series featured the Public Security Section 9 as its members pursue the Super Class A hacker called The Laughing Man. A second season was also produced and was titled as Ghost in The Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG.

Apart from this, a made-for-television anime film called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society was also released in September, 2006. The film covers events two years after 2nd GIG, where Public Security Sector 9, which has grown considerably in size, deals with a set of complicated events including the assassination of Ka Rum, a former dictator of the Siak Republic and a terrorist attack using children as vectors of a cybernetic virus.

Shirow’s credibility as a mangaka rose dramatically with his two most successful projects backing him. Both Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell have cult-like following and are considered as classics as far as manga are concerned. People who weren’t big fans of his stories didn’t have any other choice but to commend his striking illustrations in these two manga.

The movie received generally positive reviews from critics who praised it as “a worthwhile watch” (Carl Kimlinger, Anime News Network). The popularity of the series as a whole can be vouched for by the fact that a live-action Hollywood movie is scheduled to be released in the US on March 31st, 2017 with Scarlett Johansson as Makoto Kusanagi.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – First Assault Online is an upcoming worldwide launch of a free to play online multiplayer. It has had mostly positive reviews from users until now. However, Andy Kelly from PC Gamer described an early version of the game as “a fairly basic FPS” and criticized the interface elements and also the decision to make a squad-based shooter instead of a role-playing game, though he has good things to say about its fidelity towards the anime.

Ghost In The Shell Online

Ghost in the Shell Online

And the legend falls …

And after the publication of Orion and a continuation of Dominion, it began, what some consider to be the downfall of Shirow. He drove away his more conservative audience due to his rather explicit portrayal of sexuality in his works. Others lamented his giving up water colors in favor of CGI. One way or the other Shirow kept losing fans. His drawings kept showing more and more of sexuality. The two original anime created with Production I.G called Ghost Hound and Real Drive weren’t exactly successful and received mixed reviews.

The latest of Shirow’s releases include a compilation of his assorted erotic drawings called GALGREASE (so named because the illustrated women look like they have been greased) that incorporates the most explicit of Shirow’s fetishes which he had included in various of his picture books and posters over the years. This has saddened many of his followers who think that Shirow is wasting his talents on this weird fetishistic art.

Wrapping up

In an interview with Fredeick L. Schodt, the translator of Ghost in the Shell, in 1998, he said about his interests that he is fascinated by the form of spider, which accounts for many of his robots in his manga shaped like spiders. Also about incorporation of robots in mainstream human society, he frankly said that it was something he wouldn’t see in his lifetime.

This concludes this article on Masamune Shirow, the genius behind two of the greatest manga of our time and hopefully for all times too. What he created will always be remembered for all time to come. He shaped Japanese popular culture and had tremendous influence on Hollywood and Western culture, in general, with his cyberpunk plotlines.

Van Wider

Van Wider is our light novels expert who covers other genres as well. His level of skill in leafing through manga and light novels is probably unsurpassed by the lot of us at Nihonden. He writes in quick summaries that are always easy to gulp down.