I've just completed the Ghost In The Shell: Arise series and am a little conflicted. It is doing a sort of 'reboot' on the entire show, which involves rewriting entire character introductions and motivations from the ground up. Bascially it is trying to do the same thing that the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot did, in telling the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi being headhunted and eventually coming to head Section 9 and of how she chose all of her cabal of colleagues from the various characters she encounters in the first couple of episodes. It works OK, but as someone who loved the original two Ghost In The Shell films (in which backstories were less important than the immediate threat and the uncertain future for the characters) or the mythology built up in the two series of the Stand Alone Complex TV show, it was a little underwhelming to see everything go back to the beginning again, and although I found aspects to like about this retelling and how it played around with familiar elements, I would probably still suggest that the other shows would be better starting places.
Perhaps my mixed attitude towards this Arise series could best be illustrated by my reaction to the content of the third out of the four episodes, which is the episode that I liked the best yet also plays around with the character of Motoko Kusanagi in a kind of initially frustrating way. In the original films the Major's background is rather obscure, with the character's identity being rather veiled in a fascinating gender and sexuality-blurring way (there is an implication that the Major could have been a man but instead of a male 'shell' chose to have a female body instead, but is that really the case or just some teasing of a woman in a position of power by her male colleagues? Or of a colleague being interested in starting a relationship, but a little wary due to that slight question over the Major's 'actual' gender?) which is something that leads extremely well into the main crisis of self that is the main theme of the first film beyond the 'terrorism' thriller antics. When the mind is all that is left of a human being, divorced from any ties to a biological body or even memories of what that original body may have looked like, does that mean the individual will even have
a specific gender to particularly identify with anymore? And what happens once the mind makes the final leap into the internet, as happens at the end of the first Ghost In The Shell, with Motoko's new hybridised mind departing and in some senses bequeathing the shell of her latest body to Batou to guard in case of her return.
The TV series have played with this too, although on a slightly less deep level (they're more action and thriller focused, though still surprisingly philosophical at times). The previous series Stand Alone Complex still kept the idea of fluid sexuality (although Motoko is basically only into women in this series!), but has begun filling in the backstories more, so Motoko was definitively always female and has been a cyborg since a young child, which loses some of the mystery but brings in a whole new set of, for lack of a better term, "body dysmorphia" issues into the mix, of someone who has never experienced a flesh and blood body and has for example been 'transplanted' from shell to shell to recreate the sensation of growing up into an adult artificially (and at great expense, which allows the series to tackle issues of ownership of an individual, with the people funding you - mostly the military - expecting something in return for their investment in your regular tune ups), and the idea of a kind of lack of solidarity with the dwindling number of uncyborg-ed humans left in the world, something which comes up with the character of Togusa who starts off the series fully human and through the various episodes begins to need to get replacement parts fitted by necessity rather than choice!
This reboot series, Arise, keeps the backstory for Motoko but the idea of fluid identity and sexuality is almost completely gone here. The third episode in particular involves a love story betwen Motoko and a male colleague who was also the doctor who had looked after her for a number of years. The focus here is much less on issues of holding onto a previous sense of self in the face of outside upheavals which feel much more clearly defined (nobody is really having internal, existential crises as yet! They are much too self assured for that!), and instead it is more about Motoko being betrayed by her lover and having to deal with the way that his betrayal ties into the wider political-terrorism thing going on. That is a bit less interesting, but I have to admit that I thought this episode dealt with relatively cliched material extremely movingly, with everything leading to the final, tragic confrontation between the couple.
It is difficult then to recommend Arise. It is a reboot that doesn't really erase the memories of the previous works in the series, or become anything surprisingly different enough to particularly justify its existence (though I really did like the third episode for its tragic love story. And the fourth episode is where the actual plot stuff starts happening, as the team is finally brought together in the wake of a major shooting incident). My biggest issue is really that everyone, especially the Major, seems really casual about destroying their cyborg bodies! It happens in every one of each of the four episodes, with arms and legs being ripped apart or blown off, which lends an air of desparation to Arise that wasn't in the previous series (it feels as if the people making Arise feel that every episode needs its equivalent to the final battle of the original film
, with the Major straining her body to breaking point to win. But instead of winning the battle of her life, it is just to catch this week's antagonist) and an unintended note of comedy to the proceedings, as everyone seems so casual about breaking and replacing their bodies, since it happens so often!
Anyway another reason for writing this series up, rather than writing it off, is that there is a beautiful little short in the extra features on the fourth episode's disc. There are a few shorts in what is called the "Border:less Project", so presumably they were little promotional things for the series. They also all feature the music of Cornelius (who score Arise - one of the best aspect of any variation of Ghost In The Shell is the great soundtracks, and Arise features some very catchy and beautifully shot end credits
) in various ways, and the inclusion of that music seems to have been the only real brief for the filmmakers doing these shorts.
The best one is called Foreseeing 2027
(the year Arise is set in) and in just a couple of minutes brought the City of the Future scene from Tarkovsky's Solaris to mind (Is this what people were hoping for from that sequence? Something a little more futuristic-looking? If so, this short provides that sense of movement through a bizarre, reflective, sci-fi city. It does also make me think though that it is also in opposition to Tarkovsky in the sense that we're not 'sculpting in time' any more and building up images and movement through time through real world events but instead are potentially moving beyond that into the William Gibson-esque cyberspace era of an endless moment drawn out and held in perpetuity (or as long as is wanted) by CGI - a musical note, an image, a life), but also made me think that this is the kind of imagery that Wong Kar-Wai was creating for his futuristic scenes in 2046 as well.
Oh, and if Foreseeing 2027 also seems as if it could be like a particularly stylised commercial for perfume or something like that, I was interested to note that the end credits state that it was directed by Yoshihito Sasaguchi
who is apparently well known as a fashion photographer
. No wonder the imagery is so striking!