Manga Review: The Ghost in the Shell

Watch out, America, there’s a new manga company in town.

Kodansha is the largest publisher in Japan and puts out some of the country’s most popular manga magazines like Morning, Nakayoshi, and Weekly Shonen Magazine.

They shook up the American manga industry five years ago by going into an exclusive partnership with Random House to create Del Rey Manga. Thanks to Kodansha’s amazing catalog of works from artists like CLAMP and Ken Akamatsu, Del Rey entered the market with a bang, and is now considered to be the second largest manga publisher in America.

But over a year ago, rumors began circulating that Kodansha was going to be setting up their own manga division in America that would run separately from Del Rey. Personally, I’m cautious whenever something like this happens. When Toei Animation and Bandai Visual decided to bypass their American partners and enter into the domestic anime market themselves, it was disastrous. So, I was worried that a “Kodansha USA” would meet a similar fate in the manga world.

Well, the rumors turned out to be true, and the new domestic manga publisher, now officially called Kodansha Comics, released their first two manga volumes last month. They were Akira and The Ghost in the Shell, both originally released in America by Dark Horse Comics many years ago.

So considering that I have no idea who is running the new company or if they even had a PR department, you can imagine my surprise to see these two books magically arrive in my mailbox last week for review. And being that I’ve never read either of these series from Dark Horse in the past, I decided to see what this new publisher was all about with their first volume of The Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow.

The Ghost in the Shell centers around the female cyborg Major Mokoto Kusanagi, a member of a Japanese covert operations unit known as “Section 9.” It is set in a world with nano-technology makes it very easy for humans to infuse their bodies with electronics and robotic machinery. Section 9 specializes in terrorist crimes against technology, such as hacking, viruses, and cyber-brainwashing.

While there are several different stories comprising this volume of manga, they all connect with an overarching story of the Puppeteer. The Puppeteer is a “ghost hacker”, a technique that goes beyond normal technology to take control of a person’s mind and implant them with false memories. Face to face with the elusive criminal, can the Major catch up him without getting her own cyber-brain overtaken?

Anime fans are probably all too familiar with the franchise. The 1995 film adaptation directed by Mamoru Oshii has been considered one of the most influential anime here in America, and was cited as an inspiration for the landmark Hollywood action film The Matrix. While a sequel by Oshii didn’t make quite the impact the original did, an anime TV series by Production I.G. entitled “Stand Alone Complex” was done magnificently well with two amazing 26-episode seasons.

So I’m going into this manga after familiarizing myself with what became of it years later in the anime world. And because of this, I regret to say that this outdated manga just does not live up to that level of greatness established in the anime.

The most obvious difference here is that the manga is goofy and comical. I’m not talking about the occasional joke or a comic relief character, the whole tone of the comic is goofy with the occasional action sequences. This affects everything – from the characters to the artwork to the overall plot. While Major Kusanagi is depicted as a tough-as-nails cool babe that would totally kick your ass any second in the anime world, she is a clown in the manga. The artist himself adds little goofy comments in the margins as well to further give off a tone of casualness with this story.

This comedic tone becomes very alienating to the Ghost in the Shell fan from the anime adaptations, but the comic does still contain most of the awesome action and criminal drama that we have come to known and love. However, sometimes the back story and the sci-fi explanations get a little too deep at moments. This translates to huge paragraphs of text with in the story, which screws up the flow of the comic and can often take a while for the reader to decipher and understand.

So how does Kodansha do with the launch of their US manga division?

Well, like I said, I have never read the Dark Horse releases, but according to those who have, Kodansha didn’t change a damn thing from the past versions. Flipped, censored, and edited, they are page-for-page the exact same thing you could have purchased years ago. But it is actually worse than that. Dark Horse later released an unflipped and unedited “2nd edition” version of this comic, but Kodansha still opted not to publish that and stuck with the older version instead.

There’s something very odd with how Kodansha is simply rereleasing all of the work Dark Horse did years ago under their new label. In fact, this volume begins with a letter from Dark Horse president Mike Richardson – dated this year – thanking Kodansha and the artist Masamune for allowing his company to do all the production work for them.

While I can appreciate that this version contains many pages rendered in full color, I can’t help but to think I would have preferred an unflipped, unedited version with a fresh new translation instead.

* * * * *

The Good: Great action sequences and deep criminal drama. Color pages are a nice treat.

The Bad: Artwork and tone significantly more goofy and comical than the anime. Text a little too dense for manga. Kodansha released the “flipped” and edited version originally done by Dark Horse.

Final Verdict: The Ghost in the Shell franchise has grown so much in its anime incarnations that the original manga simply fails in comparison to it. Skip it.

Review copy provided by Kodansha Comics.

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