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The Tragedy of Shirow Masamune – Going Too Far

I talked yesterday in length about how writers should look at trash in order to learn a few things about making our works memorable. If the writing is terrible, why does it leave an impression? To summarize what I said, writers must look at offensive,  degrading works of fiction in order to figure out why they stand out like a sore thumb, and how we can try to implement their secret in a way that doesn’t make our fiction degrading and offensive.

However, while reading up on other examples of exploitative material, I came across two subjects I wanted to touch upon in more detail, but just didn’t have the time at the moment. One is the movie Heavy Metal, which I’ll get to another time. The other thing is the case of Shirow Masamune, a manga writer/artist who really had a huge impact on my development as a writer…and an example of what NOT to do when drawing from trash.

Shirow Masamune is primarily an artist, but his narratives are very profound in many respects. His works are firmly set in the cyberpunk genre, with entries like Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed frequently being totted as among the greatest works in science fiction, let alone anime. In particular, Ghost in the Shell is revered as a modern classic–and for very good reason.

Or at least the anime is.

The anime and the manga differ in terms of tone. The animated film based on the manga is dark, philosophical, slow-paced. The manga is fun, goofy, and, while it does deal with quite a good bit of philosophy, there is also a three-way lesbian sex scene involving the main character. In the film, sexuality is almost irrelevant. Characters strip naked with all the sensual charm of a coat hanger. In the film, a character stripping is supposed to feel uncomfortable, a reminder of how far this world is from our own when the main heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, can strip naked without caring who sees her. This is all part of movie Motoko’s dilemma: finding her humanity in a mechanical world.

In the manga, she strips because Shirow wanted to draw boobies.

Motoko is either bisexual or a lesbian in both the manga and film versions. While Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex–a series based on the movie universe–features Motoko also having sex with other women, rarely is it explicit. It’s usually off-screen, and all characters involved are not objectified.

In the manga, Shirow really liked boobies.

All criticizing Shirow Masamune aside, that’s not to say that he objectified his female characters. He wrote multi-dimensional heroes dealing with tons of issues, both existential and physical, adverse threats from criminals and terrorists. In Appleseed, the main heroine does all sorts of cool things, kicking butt and taking names. The male gaze was present, sure, but the story wasn’t bogged down by the fan service. A little bit of fan-service isn’t terrible, even if it is a stupid addition in an otherwise clever story

What is terrible is that Shirow Masamune would spend the rest of his career riding on his old successes, and just write smut.

Now, this is nothing against people who enjoy writing erotic literature. As writers, we must always strive to create whatever we want. If your passion lies in writing dinosaur pornography, by all means, pursue that dream (so long as I never have to read it).  Indeed, Shirow has wasted no time in pursuing his dream of drawing creepy cyborg sex scenes. He’s absolutely unapologetic about it.

Now, you might respond by telling me that an artist can do whatever they want, and, again, that’s true. However, the PROBLEM isn’t that Shirow Masamune has chosen to draw creepy cyberpunk porn. It’s that he’s stopped writing GOOD stories so he can ruin his reputation.

Fans have lost interest in the has-been manga writer. Ghost in the Shell’s success is now credited to Mamoru Ooshii’s film adaptation, not Masamune’s manga. It’s hard to take a writer seriously when they just decide to ride on their previous successes, and pump out naughty cyborg smut.

That said, Shirow Masamune has had some great story ideas. He’s just had OTHER writers do that for him. Production IG has released a couple anime based on Shirow’s ideas in the last ten years or so. One of them, Real Drive, is a very underrated post-cyberpunk story that takes a fairly optimistic look at the future, not to mention has a very progressive selection of female characters with various body types. I recommend watching it, or at least looking it up, just for the character designs. They’re unlike anything in anime today.

Still, the fact that Shirow couldn’t be bothered to bring this series to life himself is a little insulting.

As writers, we should aim not to do this. Learn from every writing experience you have, but please, don’t lower yourself to doing this.

Why we as Writers MUST Look at Trashy Stories to Learn to Make Art

For one of my final papers as a student, I have to write about an apocalyptic film or movie or–thankfully–anime. Prior in this semester, we wrote essays on Grave of the Firefly and Barefoot Gen, discussing the intellectual merits of anime! For a humble literature student, I was in heaven. Rarely having the option to write academic papers about anime, I seized the chance. At first, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: Neon Genesis Evangelion. One of my all-time favorite anime, if not my all-time favorite.

However, I found I was not the only one who had this idea. Being someone who wanted to avoid looking unoriginal, I searched through the trove of apocalyptic anime that I could write about. There were the obvious choices. Akira and Nausicaa are two of my favorite anime movies, but both were a little too obvious. I caught wind that other students were writing about them, the teacher talked about them–too obvious. I wanted to be original.

So I burrowed deeper and deeper into the library of apocalyptic anime, hoping for a gold mine. I dismissed a lot of mainstream anime. At one point, I was going to write about Berserk, then Fist of the North Star, but a part of me wanted to talk about something that no one else would touch.

I’m going to be writing my paper on Violence Jack and Legend of the Overfiend.

These two are examples of some of anime’s most vile, repugnant nightmare fuel. They aren’t particularly good anime, nor are they fun to watch. I saw both years ago, and, while I have little desire to rewatch either anytime soon, I am not upset at the prospect of revisiting them.

For the longest time, I didn’t know why. There aren’t any particularly great characters I’m excited to revisit. The plot twists aren’t fun. There are only scenes that remain embedded in my brain that will never go away. There are moments that manage to transcend the limitations of the dull plot and characters.

They manage to remain memorable because they are shocking.

Take for example other examples. The Gor series, by all respects, are repulsive novels. They glorify sexual slavery in a way that makes me queasy just thinking about. I am really disturbed that this series has fans, and yet I cannot ignore it. It’s simply too appalling to ignore.

Or take A Serbian Film–

No? Too extreme? Look at Salo. While the director would probably want people to believe that this film was an artistic achievement in dissecting the way the government and corporations exploit their people. The shit-eating sequences? How industry force us to eat garbage and processed foods–the kind of stuff so unhealthy that it might as well be our own shit. I will not argue how good of a metaphor this is, but, as you will soon see, the effectiveness of the metaphor is not why this scene is so memorable.

Most critics dismiss this sort of stuff. It’s schlock. It’s pornography. It’s exploitation. It’s draining. True, that is all true. We are talking about trash here. And yet, at the same time, this trash managed to do what so many labors of love fail to do: remain memorable.

They transcend their limitations. They don’t shy away from their dark subject matter. They exploit all the way. They don’t just half-ass it. They go all out. They unleash whatever grotesque and unsavory images they can muster, and, in doing so, become infamous. In many respects, infamy is far more preferable than obscurity.

As writers, we cannot forget this. Far too often, we restrain ourselves. We fear what others might say. We might be labeled as schlocky, as devious, as repugnant. However, I argue that if you are criticized for leaving an impact, even if it is repulsion, then you are doing your job right.

Too many writers come and go, leaving barely a ripple in their wake. Take Pier Pasolini. Many critics claim his Biblical epic  The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of the most superb Bible films ever to be made. Most modern audiences remember Pasolini thanks to Salo, a movie where people eat shit.

Now, does this mean that we as writers should throw out everything we know about our craft to make trashy stories about ultra-violence? No! By no means, no! But what we should take away from the darker underbelly of cinema, writing, etc, is that, sometimes, we need to be shocking in order to be effective. Good characters and good plot just aren’t enough. One shocking scene is all it might take to make a film stand the test of time.

If you are still skeptical, think about it. Imagine The Godfather without the horse’s head in the sheets. Imagine Fatal Attractions without the boiled bunny. Imagine Akira without that grotesque ending scene at the end. Imagine Oedipus Rex without the revelation that the king has been sleeping with his mother the whole time. Bringing this whole thing back to the beginning, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which despite its reputation among anime fans is sorely under-appreciated by mainstream Western audiences, would not nearly be as memorable or powerful without its intense, mind-screwy ending.

The lesson? Never forget how effective a good brutal scene can be in your story. Or something shocking. Don’t be afraid to go all-out. The worst that can happen is that people will talk about your writing.