Ghost in the shell
'Ghost in the Shell' #3.

Masamune Shirow is a Japanese mangaka who is most famous for three comic series: 'Appurushido' ('アップルシード', 'Appleseed', 1985-1989), 'Dominion' ('ドミニオン', 1986) and 'Kōkaku Kidōtai' ('攻殻機動隊', 'Ghost in the Shell', 1989). All inspired a franchise worth of films, TV series and video games, with 'Ghost in the Shell' in particular gaining international fame thanks to a 1995 cult animated feature. Shirow is renowned for his complex, thought-provoking storylines, yet he spends almost as much attention to the technological details of his drawings. Most of his stories fall into the cyberpunk genre. The action is combined with intelligent social commentary, philosophy and untranslatable puns. This makes him stand out amidst more simple-minded manga by fellow artists. Yet Shirow also has an ironic sense of humour and made countless pornographic hentai comics at the same time under the title 'Galgrease'. His enigmatic personality and legendary status is cemented by his reclusive life, away from any media attention.

Early life and career 
Masamune Shirow was born in 1961 as Masanori Ota in Kobe City as the son of a visual artist. His pseudonym "Masamune Shirow" is based on the legendary 13th-14th century Japanese swordsmith Goro Nyudo Masamune. Shirow attended the Osaka University of Arts with oil painting as his major subject. He enjoyed drawing caricatures of his teachers in his school books and made illustrations for the school newspaper. Oddly enough, Shirow didn't read much manga in those days. In a 1993 interview by Trish Ledoux he said few really caught his interest. His list of graphic influences is therefore not very long and mostly comprised of animators: Yoshiyuki Tomino ('Gundam'), Shōji Kawamori ('Macross'), Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and Terry Gilliam. Since he was so unfamiliar with manga Shirow also went a different path than most of his colleagues. Rather than learn the tricks of the trade from a professional manga artist working for a company, he published self-drawn manga directly in fanzines like Atlas, Funya, Kintalion, Dorothy and Young Magazine Kaizokuban.

Black Magic
One of these, published in Atlas, eventually launched his career: 'M-66 Burakku Majikku Mario Shikkusuti Shikkusu' ('ブラックマジック', 'Black Magic', 1983). It tells the tale of a military helicopter carrying two battle androids on board. During a stormy night the plane crashes in a forest. The pilots survive, but the androids begin a violent rampage through the woods. The army and police start a manhunt in order to track them down and stop their killings. Two investigative reporters also get involved with the case... 'Black Magic' was an immediate success. In 1986 it received the Seiun Award for Best Manga. A year later it was adapted into a direct-to-video animated film by Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow was closely involved and while he liked the end result he still felt frustrated not being able to control all aspects of the production.


After graduation, Masamune Shirow became an art teacher at a high school. Yet after five years he became disillusioned with his job. Education apparently meant he just had to transmit information to his pupils. In order to have more direct and deeper dialogue with people manga looked like a more suitable way of expression. His next major project , 'Appurushido' ('アップルシード', 'Appleseed', 1985-1989), is a post-apocalyptic series set after the Third World War. Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires are two police officers who join a special corps trying to maintain law and order in this new society, centered in the city of Olympus. The mangaka already enjoyed such popularity at the time that 'Appleseed' wasn't serialized in a magazine, but directly made available in book form. It won the 1986 Galaxy Award for Best Science Fiction Comic.

Appleseed: media adaptations
In 1988 'Appleseed' was adapted into a straight-to-video animated film and video game. In 2004 the manga also inspired a CGI-animated film, 'Appurushīdo' ('Appleseed', 2004), directed by Shinji Aramaki, which wasn't a faithful adaptation but reinterpreted the main themes. The soundtrack was composed by artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Paul Oakenfold, Boom Boom Satellites, Akufen, Carl Craig, T. Raumschmiere and Basement Jaxx. The picture received a sequel, 'Ekusu Makina' ('エクスマキナ', 'Appleseed Ex Machina', 2007) by the same director and under production of John Woo. Another celebrity who participated to the film was Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada, who made some costumes for the characters. This picture received more favorable reviews and thus another film, the prequel 'Appleseed Alpha' (2014) by Aramaki and Steven Foster, couldn't stay behind. The franchise also inspired a CGI TV anime series 'Appleseed XIII' (2011-2012), which later was re-released as two-feature length films. This particular adaptation also received a manga serialization under the title Appurushīdo Sātīn ('アップルシード・サーティーン', 'Appleseed XIII'), which was drawn by Akira Miyagawa.

Appleseed by Masamune Shirow
'Appleseed' cover.

In 1986 Masamune Shirow drew another science fiction-themed series named 'Dominion' ('ドミニオン', 1986), serialized in Yangu Animatur Arashi. The manga is set in a future where pollution has become so severe that people are forced to wear gasmasks. Crime has become so rampant that the police uses tanks. Leona Ozaki is a young policewoman and member of The Tank Police force. She works along her shy colleague Al Cu Ad Solte. Both are under command of their macho and trigger happy squad leader, Charles Brenten. Other colleagues are tank commander and science expert Jim E. Lovelock, tank pilot Chaplain and their stressed-out police chief, who frequently hyperventilates whenever his subordinates demolish yet another building that wasn't supposed to be destroyed. The Tank Squad uses excessive force, but this is somewhat necessary to combat the notorious crime boss Buaku and his size-changing android catgirls AnnaPuma and UniPuma.

Dominion: anime adaptations
The manga was adapted into a straight-to-video animated film. In 1994 Shirow drew an one-shot short story, 'Dominion: Phantom of the Audience', followed by a new reboot 'Dominion C1 Konfurikuto' ('ドミニオンC1コンフリクト', 'Dominion Conflict One: No More Noise', 1995-1997), which added notable changes to the overall storyline. For instance, the protagonists' hometown is no longer polluted. From the original cast, only Leona Ozaki, Charles Brenten, Jim E. Lovelock and the police chief remained. AnnaPuma, a villain in the original series, has now redeemed herself and became Leona's assistant.

Dominion by Masamune Shirow

Ghost in the Shell
In 1989 Shirow created his most world famous work 'Kōkaku Kidōtai' ('攻殻機動隊', 'Ghost in the Shell', 1989-1990), published in Shūkan Yangu Magajin (週刊ヤングマガジ, Weekly Young Magazine). The overall concept was inspired by Arthur Koestler's novel 'The Ghost in the Machine', down to the title. Set in the 21st century, the comic explores the adventures of a military police force who fight cyber crime. They are mostly preoccupied with cyborgs and computer hackers who are able to manipulate other people's brains. Luckily the team can count on a cyborg of their own. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a young woman who was made into a cyborg after suffering a childhood accident. Her various digital skills work to the force's advantage. Yet, at the same time there is the question how much humanity is still left in her? Her robotic body may look feminine, but can't simulate menstruation and her mind still ages, which makes her wonder whether she isn't just a "ghost in a shell"? Thought provoking issues like these elevate 'Ghost in the Shell' beyond being a mere action-packed tale. It raises questions about the status of humans in an overly technological world. Like many mature manga the story also features unshameful erotic fan service. One lesbian orgy scene was even removed from the first English translations for being "too explicit".

'Ghost in the Shell' #1.

Ghost in the Shell: anime adaptations
'Ghost in the Shell' became Shirow's signature series and inspired a huge media franchise. In 1995 Mamoru Oshii directed an animated feature film adaptation, 'Ghost in the Shell' (1995), which was a box office hit in Japan and has become a cult classic in the West. Unusual for most anime at the time it had a huge budget , co-financed by the London-Chicago company Manga Entertainment, a subsidiary of Island International. It was made with digitally generated animation, combining traditional hand-drawn cel animation with computer graphics. Kenji Kawai wrote a memorable soundtrack. The English dub also added a pop song by U2 and Brian Eno's musical project Passengers to the end credits, named 'One Minute Warning'. While true to Shirow's original work in spirit, it did make some notable changes, particularly the more serious tone. The anime was a box office hit in Japan and also managed to become a cult classic in the West. In terms of global sales it even surpassed Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Akira' (1988), the first anime that broke through in the West. Images from 'Ghost in the Shell' were also used in the music video of 'King of my Castle' (1999) by Wamdue Project, remixed by Roy Malone. The anime (and original manga) therefore intrigued an even wider young audience all across the globe. 

'Ghost in the Shell' #7.

The anime received a follow-up in 2004, 'Kōkaku Kidōtai Inosensu' ('攻殻機動隊 イノセンス', 'Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence', 2004). While only loosely based on the original manga and anime, it still received good reviews. By that time 'Ghost in the Shell' had already received such acclaim that the 2004 film became one of the few animated films to be allowed entry at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. In 2008 an updated version of the original 1995 film was released, with more modernized computer animation and a re-recorded soundtrack. In 2015 a new animated feature came out directed by Kazuchika Kise and Kazuya Nomura, fittingly titled 'Kōkaku Kidōtai: Shin Gekijōban' ('攻殻機動隊 新劇場版', 'Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie', 2015).

Ghost in the Shell: live-action film adaptation
Two years later Hollywood director Rupert Sanders made a live-action version of the original manga, 'Ghost in the Shell' (2017), produced by Paramount, Dreamworks, Reliance Entertainment, Arad and Amblin. It starred famous stars such as Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche and - in a small role - triphop musician Tricky. Even before the picture came out it already generated criticism for casting white actress Scarlett Johansson in the title role, apart from overall controversy about "Americanizing" a very Japanese story. The picture was a box office flop, partially as a result of this criticism.

Ghost in the Shell: video game & tv adaptations
The popularity of the 'Ghost in the Shell' films spawned a host of video games and two anime TV series, 'Kōkaku Kidōtai STAND ALONE COMPLEX' ('攻殻機動隊 STAND ALONE COMPLEX', 'Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex', 2002-2003) and 'Kōkaku Kidōtai Araizu' ('攻殻機動隊', 'Ghost in the Shell: Arise', 2013-2016). 

Orion by Masamune Shirow

In 1991 Shirow drew 'Senjutsu Chōkōkaku Orion'('仙術超攻殻オリオン', 'Orion'), serialized in Comic Gaia. The manga stood out in his oeuvre by not being a cyberpunk story. The plot takes place in another galaxy, where 25 empires are part of The Galaxy Empire. One of these empires, the Great Yamato, wants to destroy all the negative karma through the use of a reactor. In order to stop him the Fuze Clan calls in help from Susano, the warrior god of Destruction. What follows is an epic battle between the different galaxies, yet underlined with spiritual discussions, inspired by Buddhism and Taoism.

Perfectionist style
Masamune Shirow is notorious for drawing every little technical detail of machines, vehicles, guns and buildings in his comics. Apart from the obsessive attention he spends to his illustrations he also multi-layers his plot lines with philosophical questions and untranslatable puns. In his early years he sometimes threw out entire panels and pages - inked and all - if he wasn't satisfied with them. This approach naturally slows down his overall productivity. At the same time it also allows him to maintain creative as well as quality control. A quiet and humble man, he enjoys painting, making pen shafts and grip handles and reading books about robots and insects. 

Despite his success, Shirow has remained a reclusive outsider. While Tokyo is the epicentre of the manga industry he prefers living and working outside the capital. Until the 1995 earthquake he never even left his birth town Kyoto. When his house was destroyed he simply moved to another town, Hyogo. The man also prefers to work alone, without assistants. For years fans had the impression he had a co-worker, since he signed some of his work with the name "Koketsu Hagane" but this was actually just himself under a pseudonym. Shirow rarely gives interviews and never allowed himself to be photographed.

Since the 1990s Shirow has occasionally drawn new volumes to his succesful franchises of the past. However, most of his time is nowadays spent on drawing erotic comics (hentai). Each book follows a general theme, ranging from science fiction, horror, western or pirate stories, and have been made available under the collective name 'Galgrease', inspired by his obversation that sweating people often look as if they are covered with grease. These pornographic stories have been his only genuinly new comics releases since 'Orion' (1991). While they sell well, some fans have complained that a man of Shirow's talent shouldn't waste all his efforts on drawing pornography and ought to return to the kind of intelligent work that established his reputation.

Erotic comic by Shirow
Erotic art by Masamune Shirow.

TV work
Shirow was also a scriptwriter and designer for the anime TV series 'Shinreigari/Gōsuto Haundo' ('神霊狩/Ghost Hound', 2007-2008). The show takes place on a remote Japanese island, where ghosts and paranormal phenomena are a real thing. Three teenage boys who all suffer from childhood traumas want to investigate the ghost world to cure their traumas. They call in help from a local Shinto priest and his daughter. Shirow was also involved in the manga adaptation of the story, but only as a writer. The artwork was left to Kanata Asahi. The comic series was prepublished in Gekkan Komikku Bureido (月刊コミックブレイド, Monthly Comic Blade). Another anime series he wrote the original concept for is 'Āru Dī Sennō Chōsashitsu' ('潜脳調査室', 'Real Drive', 2008). The TV show is set in the mid 21st century, when society has been remodelled through a new infrastructure named the "Network", which connects people's consciousness with one another. The series explorers the problems and contrasts between people's inner thoughts and the "real" lives, along with questions about the boundaries of people's privacy. The anime was also adapted into a manga series, illustrated by Momotarou Miyano and prepublished in Magazine Z.

Video game designs
Shirow is also involved in video games. He created character designs for Sampaguita, the third game of the interactive visual novel series Yarudora, as well as the games 'Project: Horned Owl' and 'Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon' (2008). The artist also designed the cover art for 'Lords of Thunder' (1993).

'Black Magic' won the 1986 Seiun Award for Best Manga, while 'Appleseed' received the Galaxy Award for Best Science Fiction Comic the same year. 

Legacy and influence
The overall influence of 'Ghost in the Shell' has been such that many similar science fiction/cyberpunk manga and anime have been inspired by it. It even influenced the live-action film franchise 'The Matrix' (1999) by the Wachowski siblings. Masamune Shirow was also a strong influence on Kim Jung-Gi.

Books about Masamune Shirow
Since 'Intron Depot 1' ('イントロンデポ', 1992) Shirow made his illustration work available in a series of books. The compiled drawings, paintings and comics are accompanied by Shirow's own critical reflections. The work is a must-read for any fan of his work.

'Intron Depot', rejected cover.

Series and books by Masamune Shirow you can order today:


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