'Appleseed' is a sci-fi action manga from the 1980's. The name is derived from the concept that in the distant future genetic modification will be common place in society, that cloning will be intrinsic to human progress, and that even apple seeds will be engineered to be perfectly spherical. Manga comics are today very popular amongst western audiences, and are more available than ever through high street book shops and specialist stores, although the real cultural awakening (in the UK at least) occurred around 15 years ago.
Anyone that was a teenager in the early nineties will probably have a passing awareness of atleast one of the dozens of anime properties which flooded the UK at that time. You couldn't get away from them; 'Akira' was a cult hit on video, and multiple episode series like 'Guyver' and 'Legend of the Dragon Kings' were released on a monthly basis. Channel 4 fully embraced the trend, screening some of the better imports on it's Saturday night graveyard slot; my favourite of which was probably 'Cyber City Oedo'. To be honest, a lot of the stuff seemed to get lost in the crowd on the video store shelf, and I dismissed titles like 'Dominion Tank Police' and 'Appleseed' as generic Cyber-Punk; busty women and hulking cyborgs included as standard.
The anime invasion was accompanied by a manga reprint assault on newsagents nationwide. For 3 or 4 years, titles like 'Manga Mania' and 'Manga Heroes' serialised the hottest Japanese comics, often supporting the most successful video releases like 'Akira' or 'Bubblegum Crisis'. I never really got hooked by these titles, only picking up a couple here or there to sample. One set in particular featured the original 'Appleseed' manga.
When 'Ghost in the Shell' came out in the mid nineties, it was trumpetted as a coming of age for the Cyber-Punk genre. Sci-fi cartoons for adults. When first I saw that movie (and during all my subsequent viewings), I found it spectacular, absorbing, and above all, completely baffling. It's a failing of mine, that I can't quite get my head around the speculative elements of cyber-punk - I don't actually understand what a cyborg is. The western interpretation of the term is a robot in the form of a human (like Bishop in 'Aliens') or a technologically augmented human (like Steve Austin or Robocop). Japanese creators, and particularly Masamune Shirow pushed this concept further, to a human brain planted in a robot body, or even a human consciousness mapped onto an entirely cybernetic being. Add into the mix concepts like artificial intelligence so far advanced that it develops a soul, or human clones showing more humanity than the original species, and you have a very confusing mix. Shirow's 'Ghost in the Shell', and it's more recent sequel played about with several of these premises, and (probably deliberately) did very little to help distinguish between them. As a result, I've always left those stories more confused than when I started, feeling disassociated from the characters and themes, and generally been reluctant to revisit the Cyber-punk genre.
Absolute understanding of the concepts is not a requirement to follow these stories though. It is sufficient to appreciate the sentiment that, as society becomes further and further advanced, it's population will inevitably become separated from their own humanity. Shirow has made a storytelling career out of exploring this theme.
I didn't realise until recently, but before 'Ghost in the Shell', it was Masamune Shirow who was also responsible for creating 'Appleseed', which is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to a blockbuster cgi film adaptation in 2005. In fact, he was only 24 when he produced the first volume in 1985, and sequels followed in 1985, 1987 and 1989. It was in these manga volumes that Shirow first developed the themes of technology vs humanity which would define his later success. Having recently dug out a reprint of the second 'Appleseed' volume (Prometheus Unbound), it seemed to be a good time to revisit the book.
In short, it's still a demanding task to follow the minutae of the plot, as several branches of the army and government make political and military manouvres against each other in a technologically advanced but perilously fragile utopia. It does however create a terrific environment for the story's two heroes, ace swat Deunan Knute and her cyborg mentor Briareos (shown in the covers above) to be dropped into, and the ensuing conspiracy drives the plot along well. Shirow has fully developed the cityscape of Olympus, and he produces some stunning panoramic vistas throughout the length of the story. He even goes so far as to include narrative footnotes where appropriate, to further flesh out life in his future world. The dialogue can be terribly exposition heavy though; I don't know if it's an artefact of the translation, but Shirow struggles to mesh the intellectual themes with intelligible speech. All the same, it's a refreshing change of pace to read a comic where protagonists discuss intellectual topics such as: growing apathy in society, political ignorance, police states and regulations versus free choice and rampant materialism.
Importantly, when the political machinations threaten to bog down the pace, the second half of the story explodes into an extended sequence of action-packed set-pieces, as a platoon of ginormous android gun platforms carry out a full assault on the city. It's here that Shirow's cinematic storytelling, along with his ultra-detailed artwork and dazzling designs come together to knock the reader's socks off.
So, it's true that the confusing storyline is largely carried by diversions into cartoon action and humour, but the overall package is so well produced, that I'd recommend this volume to anyone curious to explore the genre or the earlier works of the creator. I can't really speak for volumes 1, 3 or 4, I gather that the artwork was not as well developed in the earlier work, and that the later volumes lacked the humour of the first two. If that's the case though, I'd reckon the complete set would provide an excellent insight into the evolution of young Shirow's creativity, in the years before he really hit his stride with 'Ghost in the Shell'. In fact all four volumes of 'Appleseed' are being reprinted yet again this year, by Dark Horse comics, in it's original right-to-left format, providing western readers with an excellent insight into the manga reading experience!
As for the most recent film version, it's a fairly spectacular, although pretty forgettable streamlining of the first two volumes of the manga. Much of the characterisation has gone out the window, but the simplified plotline is much easier to follow, and results in a highly enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. I'm personally yet to be completely won over by the Cyber-punk genre, but at least I'm starting to learn that it isn't anything to be afraid of.