AN INTERVIEW WITH MASAMUNE SHIROW
by Frederik L. Schodt
Iconducted the following interview with Masamune Shirow （士郎正宗）in the city of Kobe, Japan,in the lobby ofthe Orient Hotel, on January 28, 1998. I originally did the interview for Wired magazine,but it took a long time to arrange a meeting with Mr. Shirow, and by the time the article was completed editorial directions as well as personnel at Wired had changed. A shortened version of this same interview appeared under the title of"BEING Digital," in the December, 1998 issue of Manga Max (vol.1, no. 1, pp. 18-23). A tip of the hat to editor Jonathan Clements for running it! In the interview Mr. Shirow and I are represented with our own initials; "SG" represents Shigehiko Ogasawara, Mr. Shirow's long term friend and editor, who was present along with Mr. Aoki, of the publisher Seishinsha.Don't forget to visit the Ambient Masamune Shirow Space.
It's end-of-the-millennium Japan. I'm on the "bullet train," zipping south from Tokyo to the port city of Kobe at 150 miles per hour. I'm going to interview Masamune Shirow, the reclusive creator of Ghost in the Shell and other interesting manga, and while I'm staring out the window at Mt. Fuji on the right I'm thinking about him, and about Japan.
Shirow doesn't give in-person interviews. It's taken me nearly a year to arrange this one, and it's only possible because I'm one of the translators of his notoriously complex work. I've never met the man and have no idea what he looks like, but I feel like I've lived inside his head for a long time. I know it's an interesting place.
Shirow represents something new in today's Japan. He's a valuable commodity, not just in the world of manga or anime. He's smart, he's outside the mainstream, he's got a sense of humor and a vision, and he does things his own way.
There's been a lot of weirdness in Japan recently, a sort of reality- disconnect that brings to mind some of Shirow's dystopian sci-fi themes. First there was the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which killed 6,500 people and destroyed much of Kobe, including Shirow's house. Then there were nerve gas attacks in Tokyo subways by the fanatical AUM cult, run by a guru apparently in a hurry to actualize his apocalyptic visions. Most recently, nearly seven hundred people were hospitalized with symptoms ranging from nausea to grand mal seizures after watching a children's TV anime show with flashing action scenes; this, in the world's capital of animation.
The economy has generated a lot of gloom; it stubbornly refuses to perform the way it used to, and it's made people suspect that the future-- the bright, shiny 21st Century which was supposed to be Japan's-- may be a lot messier than anyone ever anticipated. Still, despite daily headlines of bankruptcies and corruption, people seem extraordinarily well-off. And they are: Japan is awash in multiple trillions of dollars of cash assets, earned mainly from selling Westerners mass-produced cars, electronic gizmos, and other value-added hardware.
Related to the economy is the concern that Japan isn't making a smooth transition from a hardware to a software-based economy. Everyone worries that Japan is terribly behind the West in the network revolution, and in Internet usage. But whereas last year all the high school and college kids had pagers, this year everyone seems to be crossing the street talking on candy-bar sized PHS phones, many of which have text messaging capability, not to mention email, fax, and even anti-bacterial coatings to ward off germs. A magazine claims that the once invincible karaoke industry is now in a slump, partly because young people are spending all their money on communications charges; some of the phones retail for one yen.
There's even a certain discontinuity here in the manga, or comic book business. Japan is the only nation on earth where comic books have become a truly mainstream medium of expression, on par with film or novels. Comics are a six billion dollar industry, everyone reads them, and successful manga artists have the status of intellectual and social celebrities. The manga industry, moreover, has become a meta-industry for Japan's giant video game and anime industries, and is now the engine behind what many consider to be Japan's biggest success in "software" (in the Japanese, generic sense). Increasingly, high corporate and government officials who used to look askance at manga and anime, are beginning to think of them as a potentially viable export industry, a "software" version of the auto and consumer electronics industries which served Japan so well in the past. Yet in the last year or so there's been a tiny slump in the growth rate of manga sales, and industry executives worry terribly about possible erosion of readership, especially with competition among young children from video games and the Internet. One problem mainstream publishers complain about is a dearth of artists capable of creating interesting, original stories; Like the economy in general, the Japanese manga industry is a victim of its own success. It's a victim of an overemphasis on mass production, an over-centralization in Tokyo, and a superb education system and value system that overemphasizes conformity.
Which brings us back to Masamune Shirow. Shirow was born in Kobe in 1961, and has always lived there, which right away makes him very unusual. Tokyo is the overwhelming center of today's Japan, and most successful writers, film makers, scientists, and manga artists, even if born elsewhere, soon move there to live and work. As a manga artist, Shirow also works by himself, at his own pace, which is considered very slow in Japan. Most successful artists in Tokyo today employ a mass production system with many assistants, and get on a volume-production treadmill with hungry publishers, a treadmill which is very difficult to get off.
In the early eighties, while still in college, Shirow began creating comics with friends, as part of Japan's vast manga dojinshi or "fanzine" subculture (weekend conventions today attract over a quarter million attendees). In 1983, with some friends he self-published his first paperback book, Black Magic M-66. Then in 1985, he made his professional debut with the epic sci-fi work, Appleseed, which was published by the small Osaka publisher, Seishinsha, again as a paperback book. This, too, was unusual, in that most artists start out by serializing stories in major Tokyo manga magazines. Subsequently Shirow went on to create a series of popular works such as Dominion, Orion, and the now-famous Ghost in the Shell. During much of this time he worked as a high school art teacher.
Shirow's manga are characterized by their high tech themes and pseudo-realistic "mecha"; an information-dense visual and narrative structure; and an entertaining, often tongue-in-cheek approach that never lets anything get too serious. Most of his works are science fiction, with alluring female police officer protagonists. The exception is Orion, a metaphysical spoof on, or romp through, the worlds of Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and quantum physics. From the beginning, Shirow's work has appealed to a special type of manga fan, many of whom are not Japanese.
In 1986, the head of San Francisco-based Studio Proteus, Toren Smith, learned of Shirow's work when Appleseedwon the Seiun sci fi award. He realized that Shirow's otherwise un-Japanese style might appeal to U.S. comic book aficionados, and shortly thereafter he began overseeing the translation and publication of the Shirow's books, first working with the now-defunct Eclipse Comics, then with Dark Horse. As a result, Shirow received wide exposure in North America and the U.K. before he achieved mainstream popularity in Japan. He is perhaps the only major Japanese manga artist who has had all of his paperback compilations published in English.
By the time Shirow's cyber-net-AI-metaphysical adventure, Ghost in the Shell, started appearing in English in 1995, Shirow had an American cult following. As of this writing, nearly 30,000 copies of the $25 dollar, 350+ page English compilation of Ghost in the Shell have reportedly shipped in deluxe paperback form.
Still, Shirow's widest exposure has come not through the Ghost in the Shell manga. In Japan, popular manga works are almost always animated for video, television, or theaters. In 1995 Ghost in the Shell was first turned into a theatrical feature, then released on video. But in what was then unprecedented for the notoriously low-budget anime world, Ghost in the Shellhad a relatively large budget, and it was financed partly with foreign capital provided by the London and Chicago-based company, Manga Entertainment, a subsidiary of the giant Island International. Directed by Mamoru Oshii with a foreign audience in mind, Ghost in the Shell had music provided by U2, computer graphics, and a lyrical moodiness. It was stripped of Shirow's innate playfulness and wacky humor, and in many senses it was a completely different work, more Oshii's than Shirow's. Yet in one week of August, 1995, the video topped Billboard's U.S domestic video sales chart, and as of the end of 1997 it had sold over a quarter of a million copies, an unprecedented feat for Japanese animation.
While still reflecting on all this, I arrive at Kobe station, and am met by Mr. Ogasawara, Shirow's buddy and defacto manager from Seishinsha. Mr. Ogasawara has always been my interface with Shirow, and he loves the Grateful Dead, so we get along great. Since I'm not allowed to photograph Shirow or visit where he works, he's agreed to take me around sites in Kobe that have a connection to Shirow's world, and to prep me for the interview. We visit the famous Kiku Masamune sake brewery, which may or may not be the inspiration for the first half of Shirow's pen name, tour a few of the now-rebuilt earthquake sites, and then meet Shirow at the Oriental Hotel. Shirow's a comfortable but somewhat shy sort of person, who speaks softly with a trace of the region's dialect. As we head toward the hotel's lobby-cafe to conduct the interview, both he and Ogasawara enjoy telling me how a high-ranking Yakuza boss was gunned down in cold blood here only a few months earlier. "It was just something between Yakuza, and no one else was killed, so there's nothing particular for us to worry about," they say, reassuringly.
The interview starts out hesitantly, rambling a little, as we slowly get to know each other. We chat around the usual introductory material, before I get to the questions I've been burning to ask him. To my surprise, I learn that he doesn't use the Internet. But he's heavily into computers, and, of course, he's wearing a tiny portable phone. Ogasawara occasionally chimes in for clarification.
FS Ghost in the Shell and other works of yours are filled with technological information, both real and not-real, on quantum physics, AI, robotics and networks. Where do you get this information from, and how do you process it?
士郎I read books and magazines, and I watch television, especially the science programs on NHK, the quasi-public channel here. I sometimes visit the facilities they have at the local universities, but books are the main thing...
FS What sort of books have had the most influence on you?士郎 The ones I find most fascinating recently are about insects. Entomologists apparently don't have many places to publish their work, and as a result, their writing tends to be especially interesting when they do publish.
FS Many Japanese artists seem fascinated by insects, or at least were fascinated by them as children. As a child did you used to run around in the hills of Kobe with a collector's net?
士郎 Sure... Most Japanese boys love bugs, especially the large Atlas or Stag beetles. They stimulate your imagination. They're almost like toys.
FS Much sci-tech information in your manga seems to be delivered as a sort of background, ambient noise, which many readers probably don't understand right away but eventually soak up unconsciously through osmosis. Is this a deliberate strategy?
士郎 No, it's not something I do deliberately. It merely happens because of the way the stories are structured. I don't deliberately have a lot of explanations about the reality in which the characters live. To the characters this information is obvious, and natural; the readers enter the world of the characters, and it should ideally become a "natural" world for them, too.
FS Do you ever get complaints from people who can't understand what's going on in your stories because there's too much complicated information?
士郎 Sometimes readers do complain. I realize my stories should be easy to read, and I try to make them easy to read. It's a tug of war; I don't want to make the stories too simple, nor do I want to make them too complex. I struggle to find a good balance.... I know it's tough for the readers sometimes....
FS I personally like your information-dense approach, but I have to confess that translating the stories can be tough. I once spent days searching for a scientific term in a library, only to learn later that you had made it up...
FS In works such as Orion-- which has elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto-- and to a certain extent in Ghost in the Shell, you seem to be attempting to fuse science and technology with religion and spirituality. Is there a model you're using for this?
士郎 Again, it's not something I'm consciously trying to do, and I don't have a specific model. But I do think that science and technology are becoming more and more like "magic." In other words, the experts know what's going on, but the average person doesn't have a clue. To most people, things are becoming more and more of a "black box"; they just know that if they input something into the box, they'll get a specific result. This is especially true of computers. You have to be an expert to know why certain things happen and to understand the principles involved, but the average person isn't an expert. Most people just use computers because they're convenient; they can't explain the principles involved, so they in effect treat the computers like magic. This doesn't mean computers are actually magic. The worlds of science and magic are obviously separate; but in terms of our consciousness and the way we perceive things, they are converging. That may be why, in my work, it may seem as though I'm trying to integrate sci-tech and religion, because both do seem to be converging.
The religious approach in my work is probably closest to animism. When I say "religion," I don't mean something controlled by some omnipotent "God"; I just mean "gods" in the sense of Nature. It's like having a tsunami caused by an angry woman god, that sort of thing, almost a fable or allegory. If you see a dragon emerging from a pond, rising to heaven and then making rain fall, well, that's like having water evaporate and later falling as rain; it's the same phenomenon described in different ways. It has the same nuance for people observing the same phenomenon; it's just arranged more "scientifically" in one way than in the other. In Orion, I tried to play with this concept.
FS Some years ago I did a great deal of research on the robotics industry in Japan, and I was particularly fascinated by an organized movement to fuse science and technology with religion, specifically with Buddhism. The Mukta Institute, which was led by roboticist Masahiro Mori and other scientists, for example, was trying to use Buddhism as a vehicle to stimulate creativity in research. Dr. Mori himself believes that by developing robots humans could better understand themselves and achieve Buddha-mind. Have you heard of this institute and by any chance are you a member of it?
士郎 No, but it sounds very interesting. Creating humanoid robots involves seeing how much you can replicate human structure, which in turn involves understanding what it means to be human. In that sense, current robots indicate that we understand basic human muscle and bone structure, that's all. Recently, though, some people say that emotions can be explained through chemistry, so then the question becomes, if emotions are chemical, what are we? The fact that we think there must be something more than chemicals at work may indicate that there are other factors. So in that sense there's room for a lot more research. When we add something using chemical reactions-- such as some sort of new bio computer-- to robots, then we'll be getting a lot closer to humans... One problem with the Mukta approach might be that the Buddha nature is something very hard for humans to understand. Even if a robot could be created that recognized and understood Buddha-nature and tried to explain it to lots of humans, the question is, how many humans would be able to comprehend it? [laughs]
FS You have lots of robots-- such as "Landmates" and "Fuchikomas"-- in your manga. Where does your own interest in robots come from, and does your reputed interest in spiders have anything to do with your robot designs?
士郎 I don't know why, but the heroes Japanese children first identify with in manga and animation all seem to be robots. This is true of characters like Doraemon or Arare-chan, and many others. As a result, most people have implanted in their heads the idea that robots are all-powerful friends, or pals. And that's probably reflected in my manga. Also, if you go to factories in Japan today, the workers are almost all robots and this has a big impact on people, too.
If my robots look like spiders, it's probably just because I like spiders. It's also related, though, to the fact that until recently, until Honda developed it's bipedal robot, bipeds were regarded as fundamentally unstable, and it was thought that the more legs, the more stable the structure, so most robots had at least four or six legs.
I used to spend quite a bit of time observing spiders. I was particularly fascinated by what we call "fly-catchers"-- the "jumping spiders." These are prowlers that don't weave webs. They're like robots. They may be thinking, but they're life forms close to being robots with a goal programmed into them. They have a purpose. They carefully observe things, timing their attack. They seem quite intelligent.
FS The explosion in popularity of the Net in the United States is often said to have been a huge shock to Japan. Even today, despite huge efforts to catch up, Japan is said to be quite a ways behind the U.S. Since Ghost in the Shell and other manga of yours feature a highly networked future, do you think this is a reason for their popularity in North America?
士郎 I don't know, but I suspect that my themes of networks and computers and network crimes seem very timely in America. In Japan, these things don't seem so real, but in America, with the diffusion of the Internet, more people are probably interested in them.
It seems that in Japan, when people talk about the Net, it's a still a little different than what people are talking about in the U.S. Perhaps we don't have enough optical fiber laid, or perhaps the communications charges are too high. Whatever it is, the philosophy seems different. We also seem to have deviated some from the main advantage of the Internet, which is the idea that the maximum number of people should derive the maximum benefit from it.
FS In Ghost in the Shell everyone seems to be wired. When I look at people in Japan today, everyone seems to be wiring up, although in a different way than the U.S., mainly through PHS phones. Do you think Japan will evolve in a different direction in terms of the Internet?
士郎 Japan will eventually fall more and more into step with the "West." Still, in Japan people have traditionally not put a lot of emphasis on specific expressions of feeling or declarations of intent. Instead, we tend to look at each other's face and at the nuances of what is being said, and then try to determine if the other party is interested in doing business or whatever. Of course, the worst part of this emphasis on nuances and vagueness manifests itself in corruption among politicians and businessmen. But the traditions of communicating here are nonetheless probably more suited to telephones; telephones are better at transmitting nuances, you can read people's nuances in the subtle intonation of their voice, and even by the time of day that they make their calls. With the Internet, this very Japanese style of interaction and of determining others' intentions gets diminished. For example, when we have more images involved, everyone here will probably try to look really good in front of the camera; they'll start posing. It may even be harder then to differentiate between people's true intentions, or what we call honne, and tatemae, the surface intentions or reality. Ironically, it may be easier to distinguish between these with phone communication.
FS To many foreigners, Japan appears to be a very neat, orderly society, but the future Japan you depict in your manga sometimes seems very messy and complicated and multi racial and confusing. Do you foresee not only a variety of peoples, but also cyborgs and robots coexisting in Japan as fully functioning members of society...?
士郎 Ideally, everyone should be able to live where they want to, and in the multiracial sense Japan will probably become much more similar to the West. In terms of robots being an equal part of the mix, it would be great fun [laughs], but I don't see it happening in my lifetime.
One problem would be, if a robot becomes so advanced that it can coexist on an equal basis with humans, is it really a robot? Perhaps it's just a human made of different materials...[laughs]. Of course, you could argue that the robots that can't think at all, the ones working in our factories today, are already coexisting with humans. When we get to floor cleaning robots, vacuum cleaner robots running around, and so forth, they'll probably seem a lot more human-like. The real problem is when we get to true humanoid robots. What happens when the robot trips and injures the kid? Imagine the lawsuits...
FS One thing striking about Japan is the aggressive, optimistic attitude with which many technologies are pursued. There seems to be little of the deep-seated anti-technology sentiment that exists in the West, sentiment recently exemplified by the very articulate former scientist, Ted Kaczynski. Do you think an anti-technology movement will ever emerge in Japan?
士郎 I think the possibility of that's very low. People here don't seem to feel much stress from science and technology. Other issues-- the education system, a belief that the legal system's inadequate, or that the social welfare system isn't developed enough-- these are things that people worry more about. And of course, technology is ultimately only a problem in the way it's used by people; it's not a problem in and of itself...
FS Do you foresee a smooth integration of the technologies you depict in your manga-- the nanotechnology, micro machines, advanced networking, and genetic engineering-- in the Japan of the future?
士郎 I think they'll be accepted without problem by the average person. The real problem will be the legal system. Japan's ridiculously slow in this area, an example being organ transplants, which were argued about for ever and ever and just started to become possible recently. Whether it's organ transplants or micro machines or cloning, it will take ages to cover these things in the legal system. But the average person will probably accept them very quickly.
People tend to want to think in the same terms here; Japan still doesn't have much emphasis on what you might call "individualism" in West, so this means that if everyone has some neat high tech product you'll want one, too... People want to be the same, which is a reason that the technologies can diffuse so fast and be so accepted. And it's also a reason Japan may be one of the most lucrative markets in the world for new technologies. But on the other hand if there are any problems in the introduction of the technology, it means that everything stops. If everything goes okay, no problem.
FS I guess that relates to the heart transplant issue, doesn't it? My understanding is that such operations came to a halt years ago in Japan because of an early failure...
SG: It all depends how things are positioned. They only become a problem when people's lives are affected. Portable phones or computers, for example, haven't been a problem, because they haven't really hurt anyone. If your eyeballs started to melt from looking at a monitor, the result would be clear, but anything that extreme wouldn't really require an individual decision. Japanese people still really aren't very good at making value judgments that require a personal decision....
Also, the products we've been given by our electronics manufacturers have generally benefited us, or had no effect on us at all; either way they haven't harmed us and they're only been seen in a positive light...
士郎 Right. Good sound, better pictures, that sort of thing. The issue becomes a lot more complicated when the technology directly affects our bodies. An example would be when people start talking about directly injecting micro machines. It all depends on how the technologies are positioned and legitimized...
FS Do you think mankind will be able to cope with all the new technologies in the future?
士郎 I hope so. We all need to try to make sure that happens. If we do want technology to be useful for all mankind in the future, though, we'll need to do something about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. We'll probably need to create some sort of compassionate capitalism that has more social guarantees built into it, or else the worst part of capitalism-- where the strong always triumph over the weak and the income gap widens-- will just get worse. I'm not saying we should go back to socialism, just that we probably will need something in between, something with more balance. It's something I'd like to see the experts get to work on, and of course [ironic laugh] it's something we as individuals should all be thinking about seriously, too...
FS In Japan today, manga comprise nearly 40% of all published books and magazines, and manga artists have become media celebrities, sought for their opinions on everything from art to politics. Do you think this is a good thing?
士郎 Being able to express your opinion is great. But audiences have a responsibility to make sure that the opinions being expressed are expert opinions, based on solid data. Cartoonists are ultimately just cartoonists, so I have a few doubts right now about myself pontificating on the state of the world [laughs]. But as long as it's clearly my own, individual opinion, I guessit's okay...
FS Have you ever been overseas, and in this age-- the virtual age-- do you think it's necessary anymore?
士郎 No, I've never been overseas, but I do think it's necessary... There's still a difference between reality and the virtual world. The virtual version has to be programmed or input by someone, so nothing in it's totally unpredictable. In the real world, all sorts of unexpected things happen, and all sorts of unexpected discoveries can be made... A totally perfect virtual reality is still a long ways off; to be able to totally replicate the natural world means we'd have to totally understand it. As long as we're still burning off the forests, we have a long ways to go...
FS You have lots of fans in America and Europe. Do you think you might ever travel there to visit them?
士郎 I might, but I'm afraid of airplanes, and it's hard to find the time...
Later that night, on the way back to Tokyo on the Bullet train, I listen to the tape recording of our conversation; to my relief it has picked up Shirow's voice in the noisy hotel lobby, but to my surprise it had also picked up and amplified something I hadn't even been aware of during our conversation-- the almost incessant ringing of portable phones being used by people around us...
In the United States, Masamune Shirow's published works can be found in better comics stores or bookstores in English in paperback format, from Studio Proteus/ Dark Horse Comics. Many of Shirow's stories, such as Ghost in the Shell have also been animated for video, and are available in either dubbed or subtitled format. An earlier 1994 interview of Mr. Shirow by Toren Smith, as well as other information on Shirow comics, originally appeared on the Studio Proteus website.
Frederik L. Schodt is a writer, translator and interpreter based in San Francisco. He has written several books on Japan, robotics, and manga, and has also translated many manga. He wishes to thank Mr. Ogasawara, of Seishinsha,for arranging this interview.