Shirow Masamune, the intellectual outsider

February 11th, 2014 by

The first artist to feature in our series on great mangaka, Shirow Masamune, is probably most well-known for creating Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed. Shirow Masamune, the pen name of Masanori Ota, born in Kobe, Japan in 1961, can be considered an intellectual outsider, amassing a cult following in the West before he hit it big in Japan.

Shirow Masumune’s work, mostly dystopian/cyberpunk science fiction stories with a female police officer in the lead and robots/mecha’s often playing important roles, touches on technological, philosophical and religious themes, while still maintaining a light-hearted note.

Cover of Ghost in the Shell, one of Masamune Shirow's most well-known works
Cover of Ghost in the Shell, one of Masamune Shirow’s most well-known works

Shirow – not really his last name nor his first name, but we’ll use “Shirow” for sake of brevity – instead of publishing in any major Tokyo manga magazine, the road traveled by many of his peers, self-published his first manga publication as a paperback book: Black Magic M-66. His first professional debut was Appleseed, which won the science-fiction Seiun Award for Best Manga in 1986.

Shirow winning the Seiun Award, peaked the interest of Toren Smith, head of San Fransisco based manga publisher Studio Proteus, which ultimately led to all of Shirow’s paperback publications in North America and the U.K. This is an unicum for any mangaka, to have so much of his work published in English.

As a result of this exposure, Shirow actually gained a widespread cult following in the West long before he became popular in Japan. This came when Ghost in the Shell was adapted into a big budget anime movie, created by renowned anime director Omaru Oshii. Ghost in the Shell became a hit with Western audiences as well, cementing Shirow’s credentials as an admired manga artist, who’s recently been creating new anime series, namely Shinreigari/Ghost Hound and Real Drive, together with one of the biggest and most successful anime studios, Production I.G.

All this fame never went to Shirow’s head, however. He never moved to Tokyo, normally a typical move for any Japanese citizen turned celebrity, but stayed in his home-town, Kobe. He also hardly ever gave in-person interviews. A fantastic in-depth interview with Shirow Masamune, from which I got most of my information for this post, was conducted in 1998 by Frederik L. Schodt, who translated several of Shirow’s works and is now a world-famous scholar specially recognized by the Japanese government. Schodt’s interview sheds valuable insight on Shirow’s vision and motivations. If you want to know more about Shirow, I can highly recommend it.

Shirow’s drawing style is very detailed, with a great emphasis on realism and sci-fi technology. The cityscapes featured comes close to the daunting quality of Otomo Katsuhiro’s work (of Akira fame). It’s the kind of visual style that geeks will love tremendously. His characters are playfully drawn, still pretty detailed but with a comical flavour. In fact, Shirow’s work has great humor and a lightheartedness that seems to be completely absent in some of the anime adaptations based on it. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, this helped create a true blockbuster franchise. But still, I’d love to see a new anime interpretation of Ghost in the Shell, placing a bigger emphasis on the humor of the original.

Ennio Wolsink is a Dutch ICT-entrepreneur, avid manga reader, anime watcher, Karate black belt and Japanese in spirit. He dreams of his own manga/anime productions.

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