For many people in North America—well, me, at least—Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed series was one of the first translated manga they ever saw. First published in 1985, it won the 1986 Seiun Award for Best Manga. Between 1988 and 1992, the series was published volume by volume by Eclipse Comics, which is the edition I first read1. It was pretty addictive stuff back in the Reagan Era—no American comics I knew of explored SF themes like Shirow’s or had the same striking art—but how well does it stand up today? Does it still have the same punch in a world where many great manga are no further away than the nearest library?
Well, I just happen to have Appleseed: Volume One: The Promethean Challenge to hand….
No country involved in World War Three resorted to nuclear weapons but there are other weapons of mass destruction. As the prelude puts it, “even without (nuclear weapons), the Earth became a quieter planet.”
Survivors Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires have settled in a very quiet, very peaceful neighbourhood. Before they came to town someone doused the place in sarin. The nerve agent is long gone, and so are the unfortunate inhabitants, leaving their material goods for the two soldiers to loot, and their homes for the woman and her cyborg friend to take for their own.
But someone has noticed the pair.
Deunan and Briareos might have given their unexpected (and heavily armoured) visitor Hitomi a less friendly reception if she hadn’t been immediately targeted by another party of soldiers, who try to kill Deunan and Briareos as well. This encounter works out very badly for the would-be killers, but it provides a handy, if gory, meet-cute for Hitomi, Deunan, and Briareos.
While Deunan and Briareos were hiding from the war out in badside, the world has been rebuilding. At the center of reconstruction is Aegis, the Central Management Bureau, based in the city of Olympus. It is providing the world with the … ahem … guidance that the former superpowers have relinquished.
To hear Hitomi tell it, while parts of the world are still in terrible shape, Olympus itself is almost a utopia. It certainly isn’t any sort of world-spanning dictatorship. Why, aside from enforcing total disarmament and controlling trade, Olympus allows the lesser powers of the world almost complete autonomy. (Yeah, right.)
To Deunan, the city offers a new, secure life, provided she can find someone who needs her very specific set of skills. The almost entirely mechanical Briareos, on the other hand, cannot help but notice disturbing details, like the fact that 80% of the local population is composed of bioroids, genetically tinkered clones. He also wonders why so much of the equipment of this city of peace looks as though it could be repurposed for violence at a moment’s notice.
Olympus may seem unified to outsiders, its ruling cliques assured and confident. In fact, the people running the city are profoundly divided; they disagree on how to master their new technologies, how best to serve the human race, even whether the humans can be saved at all. And while their arguments have been mainly verbal in the past, the conflict is about to turn violent.
Right on our fearless duo’s doorstep.
As I recall, my first exposure to Appleseed and Shirow was Volume Two, not Volume One.
At the risk of damning with faint praise, this manga could have aged so much more badly than it did. At least in this volume, Shirow is extremely vague about the details of the war, because aside from “it was fucking horrible and most of the survivors are desperate to avoid a repeat,” those details do not matter. The reader is free to fill in a back story that seems plausible to them.
(I am pretty sure the USSR shows up in later volumes but not this one.)
In the 1980s, Japanese cartoons often featured giant robots. That trope may have inspired Shirow but—since he wants his world to have at least a patina of plausibility—his humanoid robot analogs are either cyborgs wrapped in seven feet of metal and plastic, or powered and armoured exoskeletons, landmates. Size is not always an asset; people get stuck in narrow alleys and stairs crumple under the weight of the landmates. And of course, there are always the mounting maintenance bills.
Even in the late 1980s, action women were not thick on the ground. Deunan Knute really stood out. In this volume we don’t learn much about her except that she is very good at staying alive and at killing opponents. Mercy does not seem to figure in her vocabulary.
Briareos is even more mysterious; whatever fleshy bits remain are well hidden in a metal body only roughly humanoid. He’s larger, stronger, and (thanks to certain cyborg upgrades) equipped with more sensory apparatus than baseline humans, which makes his instinctive disquiet about the equally engineered bioroids rather interesting. He is also the more introspective one of the pair.
I remember really liking the art back in the day, although there are times when Shirow’s take on anatomy, faces in particular, can be … creative. Creative is a friendly word, right? But his machines are nicely detailed and who doesn’t like a nice tank? And while there is some gratuitous fan service, it’s nowhere near as bad as it had become by the time Shirow got to Ghost in the Shell. That’s on my to read list as well. Expect lots of complaining.
One aspect of the story that hasn’t aged well for me, one that bothers me more these days, is the casual attitude towards violence. Even when the armed forces are ostensibly cops, nobody seems to take prisoners unless they think the prisoners have useful information. People are casually gunned down while begging for mercy. One of the people who offhandedly shoots a potential prisoner is Deunan herself. I would like to say that’s because she was traumatized by her experiences in the war, or because Briareos had been badly injured and she was angry. Actually, it may be because she has also been a cop and in this world, the cops are heavily armed, casually brutal warrior cops. At least, unlike another cop, she doesn’t laugh while pulling the trigger.
Still, I get the sense that Shirow isn’t quite as gleeful about the violence as his characters are. He makes it clear that by killing so many of the apparent terrorists, the cops have lost vital information.
On the whole, this volume works as a nice teaser to draw the reader into the series. It poses many questions and offers few answers. As I remember it, however, it was the second volume that hooked me. That volume will have to wait until a future review.
1: Although the copyright on this volume of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed: The Promethean Challenge is 1995, that must be for the Darkhorse edition.