Sunday, 29 November 2015

Anime REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell: Arise

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

In terms of iconic anime franchises, it’s hard to get much bigger than Ghost in the Shell. Though originally a manga series by Masamune Shirow, the perhaps better-known 1995 anime film adaptation directed by Mamoru Oshii proved heavily influential and is widely recognised as one of animation’s greatest offerings. The film also spawned a sequel, as well as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – a separate continuity television series that ran for seasons and had a few movies of its own. Partly in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the franchise, Production I.G. produced Ghost in the Shell: Arise, a brand new retelling by Tow Ubukata (who created the similarly cyberpunk Mardock Scramble) spanning four OVA films. These films were also re-released as a 12-episode series bearing the name Ghost in the Shell: Arise – Alternative Architecture, featuring two brand new episodes to lead into yet another movie – this time simply bearing the name Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie.

Major Motoko Kusanagi
Major Motoko Kusanagi is back!

This new version of the Ghost in the Shell story takes place in the year 2027, where most people have now become cyborgs with advanced prosthetic bodies. It follows a much younger Motoko Kusanagi, charting her leave from the 501 Organisation and the formation of Public Security Section 9. Across the four stories – Ghost Pain, Ghost Whispers, Ghost Tears and Ghost Stands Alone, Motoko faces off against various forces in her investigation of cybernetic espionage and terrorism – some of whom will eventually come to be her closest allies. Tying these cases together is the elusive Firestarter – a mysterious hacker whose influence continues on into The New Movie set up story Pyrophoric Cult.

Batou
And so is Batou!

There were eight whole years between Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society and the arrival of the first episode of Arise, and in that time the landscape of cyberpunk anime has definitely become a different playing field. In it's absence shows such as Psycho-Pass have come along to try and rule the roost of the genre, while other projects like Mardock Scramble and Darker Than Black have also made a name for themselves. But even though the quality of the competition might have risen, there's still nothing quite like a Ghost in the Shell production. Despite being an all-new continuity Arise feels like the franchise never really went away, retaining all the hallmarks that made Stand Alone Complex such a resounding success. An engaging futuristic landscape with plenty of technological and philosophical implications, peppered with espionage action, cyber warfare and a threat that overarches the entire thing. However while Ubukata certainly showed promise with Mardock Scramble, the world of Ghost in the Shell is a much bigger beast to conquer and so the result feels more like him slowly getting to grips with it as it goes along. As a result, the enigmatic Firestarter is nowhere near as intriguing or memorable as the Puppet Master or the Laughing Man. It doesn't help that the episodes themselves (all four OVAs and the two extra Alternative Architecture parts) don't provide any closure to it - leaving things hanging for the movie even though it's clear of day where things are actually heading. When the movie is readily available for viewers this will be much less of a problem, but at the time of writing it does sour the ongoing element of Arise.

Togusa
And Togusa!

One of Arise's main talking points is its reimagining of Motoko Kusanagi, who in some respects is a rather different character to the versions previously seen in the original movie and Stand Alone Complex. Set at a considerably earlier time than either of those works, this Kusanagi is still yet to become the hardened fighter most will know her to be. Arise plays the Major as more of a wildcard, initially unwilling to be tied down by Section 9. While still highly skilled at both hacking and combat, this Major feels far more prone to mistakes – both her memories and body are manipulated on several occasions. Ghost Tears also shows a side of the character barely scratched onscreen, as she pursues a romantic relationship with a prosthetics manufacturer. While naturally this portrayal lacks the edge of the movie or SAC versions, these ‘flaws’ also help create a perhaps more “human” version of her – something that is particularly fitting as Arise really hammers home her detachment from humanity in the physical sense.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast isn't quite as balanced as the Major is. Watching the Section 9 team get together one by one is an exciting thing to watch in real-time (as opposed to the flashbacks seen in other continuities), but the running time of Arise isn't anywhere near enough to give them all the development they probably deserve. Naturally Batou is the one that comes off the best out of the rest of them, interestingly being introduced as a rival/antagonist twice before finally joining the team at the end of Ghost Whispers. Seeing the Major and Batou's friendship get off to such a rocky start is easily one of Arise's strongest aspects, but the immediate jump from enemy to ally does kind of take the tension away somewhat. The same goes for Saito, whose recruited by the Major only to double-cross her at the drop of a hat - yet she still takes him back instantly with no questions asked. Arise tries to portray the team as a ragtag bunch of specialists that answer to no-one, and while their formation adds credence to this it does sometimes come across as a little difficult to swallow.

Ishikawa, Saito, Paz & Borma
...and the other guys!

With Production I.G. behind the animation of Arise, you can at least be guaranteed a good level of quality. The character redesigns and overall directorial duties on Arise were handled by Kazuchika Kisa, who is something of a Ghost in the Shell veteran having worked on both the movies and Stand Alone Complex. As a result of this, the general aesthetic of Arise is very familiar territory for anyone with previous experience in the franchise even if some of the character redesigns are rather drastic. In a quite fitting move for a series about cybernetics blending into flesh and blood, the CGI fits in considerably well with the 2D animation. Especially the Logikoma - Arise's equivalent of the ever-popular Tachikoma from Stand Alone Complex. It's the same basic idea - a sentient tank with the personality of a curious child, and it's just as adorable as ever. The only complaint worth raising is that sometimes characters' facial expressions (particularly the Major) come across as eerily blank when they're supposed to be emoting. This could quite easily be intentional given the Majors' background, but it doesn't fit very well in episodes like Ghost Tears where her emotions are pretty crucial to the whole thing. Pissed off is one expression she never has trouble with though thankfully.

Logikoma
Sentient spider tanks have never been so cute

While perhaps not quite as sharp as its predecessors, Ghost in the Shell: Arise is a great revitalisation of a franchise that feels like it’s been away far too long. While aesthetically it retains all the hallmarks of a classic Ghost in the Shell instalment, by delving into uncharted territory with new spins on the cast it benefits by feeling like more of a brand new unique experience – even if some of those characters aren’t quite as you remember them. It’s a shame that the episodes themselves offer no resolution to the ongoing Fire Starter subplot, but it seems that’s what The New Movie is for. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie has finished its run in Japanese cinemas and is currently seeing limited release in the West, with the word being that at the very least it offers decent closure on this chapter of Ghost in the Shell. Here’s hoping the future has more in store than just a Hollywood remake.

1 comment:

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