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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.

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Reading Like a Writer – Neuromancer and the Noir Aesthetic

I’m thinking of giving my posts some semblance of structure. Maybe I’ll map out a weekly schedule of what I’ll post or something, delegating certain days certain posts. Maybe. Might be fun.

In any event, after my cyberpunk obsession day, I picked back up Neuromancer by after reading it years ago. Truth be told, I barely remembered reading it in the first place. There was a time when I was young that I inhaled books without giving much thought to their contents. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. Far from it. I understood it, but I didn’t really process all the moving parts.

Truth be told, I have yet to finish my second run-through of Neuromancer, so I’ll probably follow-up this post with another. However, so far, the visual aesthetic just blows me away. It’s clear, reading early on, that William Gibson was coming off of a career of short story writing when he wrote this. The book is such a fast-paced breeze. At time, actually, I wished the book was a little slower, so I could absorb the details of this world, understand what was going on. It felt at times that the book moved WAY too fast, but other times, the speed felt appropriate. It would feel more appropriate, however, in a book limited to about two thousand words, rather than how many words this book is written in.

Still, the minimalist style works here. In parody, often writers describe noir scenes in this sort of over-the-top tone, while, in Neuromancer, the noir elements are pretty straight forward. For a brief contrast (not from the book, but my own creation):

“I found myself on the dark streets that ran with shadows, much like the underside of a bullet casing after unloaded from a .22 magnum death-popper.”

Contrasted to the type of noir you’d see in Neuromancer (and, for that matter, good noir):

“I walked through the dark street.”

While I love deliciously cheesy dark lines, there is a clear line drawn in the sand between these two quotes. One brings the action to a crawl, which kills any chance of exhilaration. While the words are goofy, the similes and metaphors serve little purpose to the greater narrative.

When you cut the crap and get to the point, the darkness of the narrative speaks for itself.

That’s not to say that good noir doesn’t need metaphor. Flavor helps, but done within reason. However, it helps if there’s a personal element to it.

“The streets were dead. The last time this sidewalk was this quiet, some coke-dealer had a bullet lodged in his breast, blood spread over the curb. The gunshot deafened the city, or at least as far as I could tell.”

This figurative street adds a personality to the area without needing to go on and on with useless description. That said, this example is actually longer than the bad example before. The issue isn’t necessarily length, but substance.

Let’s apply this to Neuromancer.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (Gibson).

First line of the book. Very simple. Metaphor that immediately connects the reality to the virtual, in a way that, while dated by today’s standards, is pretty effective. This line could have easily been screwed up by being over-written. For example…

“The heavens above me were a greyish-snowyish hue, like what a television looks like after you keep it on after hours.”

If you enjoyed the above sentence, okay, cool, but it lacks the impact that Gibson’s line has. Not only that, but it goes on for too long. The first sentence of a book NEEDS to get you invested, interested, and fast.

Again, I am still in the middle of Neuromancer, but most of Gibson’s sentences are like this. Quick. Snappy. Effective. Draw an immediate link to cyberpunk. The noir elements in this piece are a lesson worth drawing from, however. We young and aspiring writers need to look on the works of older, established people if we hope to make it. If we don’t learn from those who succeed–well, we’re shit out of luck.

The Two Cyberpunks

My first encounter with the cyberpunk genre was Ghost in the Shell. Or, rather, that’s when I first realized I was watching cyberpunk. I had seen The Matrix, and I had seen some cartoons parody the dark and gritty style. Never before, however, was I aware of cyberpunk as a genre, nor had I heard of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. Nope, it was Ghost in the Shell that first entranced me. I used to watch Ghost in the Shell all the time in middle school. I watched it so often that, in a weird way, I came too close to it to see its depth. I overlooked things that most casual viewers would notice, in favor of the small intricate details that casual viewers overlooked.

Of course, I needed more.

So I began to digest cyberpunk into high school, and, naturally, to this very day. I love the genre, but, after inhaling enough of it, I notice a key difference, one that kind of intrigues me.

There are two genres of cyberpunk.

I do not mean this in that there is cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk, as TVTropes details. No, I mean within cyberpunk itself, there is a distinct difference between two disciplines of cyberpunk that I need to talk about, or else I might explode from the confusion.

Cyberpunk typically either focuses on defining humanity or defiling humanity.

There are cyberpunk stories like Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix. Each film discusses what it means to be human, the definitions of reality, etc. Underneath the steel exterior, there is soul and spirituality. By the end of each story, there is a sense of catharsis that, despite how close we come to a technological singularity, we are, in the end, important.

Then there’s cyberpunk like Genocyber. Genocyber has been fascinating me lately, as have other anime like it, the kind where people are just seconds away from being reduced to cancerous piles of soulless flesh, where life means nothing. The stories where people are as useful as data drives, and dismissed just as quickly as an obsolete iPhone. The world that Johnny Mnemonic occupies, the world of Blade Runner, the world of–

See where I’m going with this?

The cyberpunk that first made me a fan, this world of philosophy and discussion–it’s all just one variety. On one hand, you have your Ghost in the Shells. The other? Tetsuo the Iron Man. Life means nothing. Schlock and horror with our fears of advancing tech put to good use. Low budget films and pulpy novels.

And I fucking love it.

No, really, I love stories where people are twisted into disgusting wrecks, where nightmarish dissections take place, with tubes and gears shoved under the skin to improve a person’s potential. I love it, not because it’s how I envision the future, but rather because I see things I would never see anywhere else.

So my surprise is understandable when I realized that people hate cyberpunk. For some, cyberpunk goes too deep. Not to say that the philosophies are too deep, no. It just tries too hard to be deep. The original Ghost in the Shell achieves depth with a silent montage of almost random, yet not particularly unusual, images. It achieves deep with ease. Its sequel, Innocence, is not so lucky. Truth be told, it disappointed me. It left me wanting something more substantial, not that cotton candy brand of depth that is so commonly confused for the real thing. Same thing with Ergo Proxy. Same thing with countless nameless cyberpunk novels that try to cash in on existential and Buddhist philosophies that lend themselves so well to cyberpunk.

On the other hand, others loathe terrifying cyberpunk. They hate feeling as though their life lacks meaning. They don’t want to feel powerless. Genocyber–keeps coming back to that anime, doesn’t it?–seems to receive tons of hate, despite the fact that it isn’t really all that bad. It’s by no means good, certainly, but bad? Not really. At least, not the first story. I am not a huge fan of the subsequent entries in the story, but the first? It’s pretty solid.

Say nothing of people who don’t like Blade Runner! Blade Runner isn’t necessarily a holy grail in science fiction. It can be criticized. I understand if you have genuine things against it, sure. But still–it’s such a marvelous story, based on an equally powerful short story. It’s not that some people don’t like it. I understand if people who aren’t fond of cyberpunk dismiss it. Still–whatever. Those who can appreciate Blade Runner are inspired by it in the same way I am. Same with Philip K. Dick’s original short story–though since I was introduced to the film first, it holds a slightly larger place in my heart.

I think I can conclude that there is something about cyberpunk that speaks to certain people, but not to others. Some can adore it, while others–not so much. I don’t know what that something may be, but it must be pretty big. I am simply too narrow minded to see it, I fear.

Diving into cyberpunk, I am reminded of the xenobites of Hellraiser. The scene in particular that comes to mind is the part where Pinhead says he and his partners are “Demons to some. Angels to others.” The things one encounters in cyberpunk will either be too disturbing to experience, or a unique sort of pleasure that defies true explanation. It’s almost spiritual, and you really don’t know which one you’ll get until you finish it.

I will talk more about this in detail as I contemplate this thought further. However, for now, I am going to delve into this rusty hellhole, and see what I can mine from it.