Hugh David on Masamune Shirow’s unstoppable franchise
In the aftermath of global conflict, former police officers and SWAT specialists Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatoncheires are living the survivalist dream. Then, the authorities of Olympus, a new city rebuilding and centralising civilisation, reach out to them, bring them in and offer them the chance to police this “brave new world.”
With a new TV version of Masamune Shirow’s venerable Appleseed manga about to be released – Appleseed XIII
- it seems a fair time to ask why two of his manga have become such long-running franchises. It could be said that, as well as working in the internationally-popular action subgenre of science fiction, he also mastered the art of the Hollywood “high concept”: Ghost in the Shell
boils down to “cyborg cop”, while Appleseed
is easily summarised as “post-apocalyptic SWAT”.
Similarities do not end there – tough, professional female leads, hulking cyborg male partners, urban squad action, fetishised hardware, political conspiracies, and discussions about humanity in a post-human era all feature across both franchises. Yet Appleseed
has nowhere near the brand recognition or fan love that Major Kusanagi and Section 9 command, but is still getting another version. Why is this?
The original 1985 manga was part of that first wave of English-translated titles from Studio Proteus that helped generate early Anglophone interest: 3x3 Eyes
, Black Magic M-66
(Shirow’s anime debut), Dominion
(Shirow’s tank-based action-comedy), Ghost in the Shell
, Gunsmith Cats
, Oh My Goddess!
, and Outlanders
. Kept in print by Dark Horse, the four collected volumes are arguably Shirow’s best work, full of action, intrigue, philosophical debate, and nice touches of comedy; but the larger story itself is unfinished, left by the wayside as the creator found himself more pure design work in other industries. It is still a joy to read, and of all his heroines, Deunan is possibly the most human, the most well-realised as a character. Both she and Briareos make for a far-more appealing partnership than the dour film and TV versions of Kusanagi & Batou, more in the mould of the manga version of those latter characters.
When the first attempt at adapting it was released by Bandai Visual in April 1988, it was state-of-the-art for its time, dramatising a segment of one of the manga arcs, giving a good flavour of the series in a video (released in the UK in cinemas). However, it had the sad misfortune of being released mere months before Akira
changed everything. Thus, it not only looked very old very quickly, but was then licensed in haste by Western companies for release in the post-Akira
wave, and suffered unfairly (but understandably) from the comparison when shown in foreign cinemas. Nevertheless, the video actually holds up well in that it carries no bloat in the script or the visuals, gets right down to business, rockets through the story with plenty of action, and leaves the viewer wanting to know what happens next. For many a Western fan of a certain age, Appleseed
was a gateway title, and warranted a nice DVD reissue from Manga sporting a very informative commentary Larissa Murray and Jonathan Clements.
It is this unfair Akira
comparison that has prompted the Japanese industry to not only have further stabs at adaptation, but to make the property the poster child for state-of-the-art 3D/2D blended CG animation. Initial teases for the 2005 feature reboot gleamed, all post-gaming, post-Matrix
slow-mo, post-Lord of the Rings
motion-capture graphics set to a Boom Boom Satellites and Paul Oakenfold soundtrack. The final product divided audiences, however; while everyone appreciated director Shinji Aramaki’s eye for kinetics and large-scale destruction, the dialogue and plot were somewhat clunky even with the manga there to underpin them, and the 3D/2D mix simply failed to convince many viewers. This prejudice against mixed dimension visuals continues to this day, with some commentators convinced the elements in such series as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
clash rather than harmonise. Others can see what the creatives were aiming for, recognising the sophistication of the geometrical combinations and how they work with the backgrounds and movement to create the illusion of integration. As with all animation, it is a trick of the mind’s eye, and open minds will see.
The 2007 sequel from the same team, Appleseed: Ex Machina
, resolved some of these arguments, but still resorted to over-simplification of characters and plot. Fans of the headstrong, funny Deunan and Michael Clarke Duncan-esque Briareos on the page were disappointed by their pat, clichéd versions meeting the schematic plotting, while others continued to marvel at the visuals and action. While both films were expensive to produce, they have certainly sold in enough territories that it’s no surprise another version is on the way.
That version, a TV series called Appleseed XIII
, was not the first TV version planned. Appleseed: Genesis
was announced at the 2008 Tokyo Animation Fair, but foundered amidst budgetary issues, and led to a lawsuit between the production company (who had produced the two features) and the animation studio. The creative team behind that one were intriguing, to say the least – director Romanov Higa had directed a 2006 CG video based on Shirow’s Dominion
manga and worked on the 2nd episode of Hellsing Ultimate
; character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto was famous for his work on the Macross franchise and the legendary Gunbuster
; and voice actress Romi Park, famous for so many roles including the Fullmetal Alchemist
Edward Elric himself. Sadly that version is on the discarded pile along with GDH’s version of Mardock Scramble
and more besides.
Instead, we have what looks to be visually in the mould of the two CG features, but, if the trailers are any indication, possessed of the depth of plot and characterisation we’ve come to expect from series adaptations. While it is great to see Appleseed
getting some love once more, in the end what none of these versions have done yet is capture the richness of the original manga, or provide fans with the closure Shirow hasn’t. Maybe Appleseed XIII
will be the version to change that.
Appleseed XIII is out soon in the UK from Manga Entertainment