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New addition to anime franchise brings imagination, concern

Submitted by Liz Fox on August 26, 2013 – 12:35 amOne Comment
Ghost in the Shell: Arise - Border I: Ghost Pain

Characters of the revered "Ghost in the Shell" franchise undergo a makeover in the saga's latest installment, "Arise - Border I: Ghost Pain."

In an age of spin-offs and rehashes, it’s difficult to predict whether you’re in for a thought-provoking tale or something of D-grade, “SyFy” quality. We’ve seen prequels create some phenomenal character portraits while others have nearly destroyed landmarks with bad revisions and tasteless plotlines. Thankfully “Ghost in the Shell: Arise – Border I: Ghost Pain,” an anime film released this summer, delivers an apt beginning to the monolithic franchise.

The “Arise” series consists of four original video animations (OVAs), a term that describes direct-to-video releases. OVAs, which are common practices in international media, are created as one-shot productions that provide insight into characters that wouldn’t otherwise fit into the structure of a series. This addition to the “Ghost in the Shell” saga is aimed at not only re-imagining the plot itself, but also establishing the cyberpunk climate in which Motoko Kusanagi and her division, Section 9, become central components.

Unlike reboots in other media, the basic plot of “Ghost Pain” brings few complaints. Urgent, action-based scenes and emotional zest familiar to fans of the franchise make appearances, with the main role taking center stage in new beginnings. The story flows smoothly, lacking some of the hyper-intensive concepts in its predecessor, “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex,” and inviting a new generation of fans into its futuristic core. But unlike the original “Ghost in the Shell” film, released in 1995, the restructured plot makes its portrayal of manufactured reality less cheesy or “Matrix”-like in nature.

Not yet a Major with Public Security, the young cyborg Kusanagi is painted as an A-class fighter and expert hacker. Her ability to “ghost hack” — to overtake the cybernetic mind of another person — has made her a god-like presence in her niche universe. But “Arise” brings a vulnerable side of the character that’s merely touched upon in previous installments, with the titular “ghost pain” serving as her emotional weakness. Other staple characters, such as the gruff Batou, are similarly depicted, with humanity making itself known among artificial brains and bodies.

In spite of this refreshing re-hash, the significant shift in character design remains one of the film’s biggest concerns. Kusanagi has undergone several changes since the franchise’s 1989 inception, ranging from a buxom toughie to a masculine, soulless figure with plenty of elbow grease to spare. But as the character took on a fan service-oriented approach with the 2002 television series, it’s obvious the creators of “Arise” were searching for a way to combine all three versions without losing any key qualities.

Whether their final product is successful is another matter. Good cop Togusa may have finally lost his mullet, and Batou may not look so much like a “Tekken” alternate. But Kusanagi’s child-like features do little more than hammer home the fact that “Arise” is a prequel. She retains a forced, uncomfortable expression until the 40-minute mark, when she finally begins to assume the identity that’s so thoroughly cultivated in the GITS canon. As someone who has identified with the “strong female” archetype for two decades, it’s agonizing to wait for the real Kusanagi to emerge from the falsified shell.

Another notable change came with the voice cast, commonly known as “seiyuu” among the otaku crowd. In the past the studio has kept several actors on retainer whenever a new installment was created, but Production I.G. assembled an all-new cast — a risk in any reboot venture. Unlike the shift in design this was a quality that proved successful, with much of the seiyuu revealing themselves suitable for their characters. Because of this development it’s likely that Funimation, the American studio that acquired rights to the series, will follow suit in finding a new ensemble cast (even if it means losing the talents of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Melissa Fahn).

A final, personal gripe about “Arise’s” first chapter is the absence of composer Yoko Kanno. Kanno is a well-established figure known for the stellar, sweeping sounds of “Cowboy Bebop,” and with “Stand Alone Complex” she released four soundtrack albums and a handful of singles. In her place is guitarist Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, who fills the film with music that contrasts deeply with Kanno’s endearing eclecticism. Cornelius’ flailing licks aren’t without substance, but the young musician hardly matches his predecessor in terms of diversity, ultimately disappointing audiences given his grand opportunity.

Noting that “Ghost Pain” is only one of four in the new series, it’s impossible to be judged as a standalone. A valid assumption would be the story will continue to bubble with surface changes, but whether it will adhere to what’s been made standard is another story. Production I.G. has gone out of its way to promote “Arise” as a reinvention of the Motoko Kusanagi character study, and because the entire “Ghost in the Shell” franchise centers on her subjective reality, it’s possible the past will be equally affected.

“Ghost in the Shell: Arise – Border I: Ghost Pain” is now available on Blu-ray via Japanese vendors. While Funimation is planning to unveil an English dub by the end of this year, the second installment, known as “Border II: Ghost Whisper,” will be released in Japan Nov. 30.

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