Where in the world is Shirow Masamune? The famous Japanese manga artist and writer created some of the most iconic works of the early years of global anime fandom in the ’80s and ’90s, fueling the imaginations of Western anime fans in an era where the genre was relegated to niche time slots on The Sci-Fi Channel and VHS tapes in the back of Suncoast Video Stores. However, the works he created would end up becoming some of the biggest, culminating in his magnum opus: Ghost in the Shell.
With Ghost in the Shell getting its most recent re-imagining in the form of Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, releasing this month on Netflix, followers of the man who wrote the manga for not just Ghost in the Shell, but also Appleseed, Dominion and Black Magic might be curious to know why he’s been out of the limelight for so long now.
Before we take a look at Masamune’s present, let’s go over his past. The author’s real name is Masanori Ota; his pen name based on the legendary Japanese swords master, Masamune. Growing up, Shirow Masamune had very little interaction with manga or comics as a medium. Though he had some experience with television and anime like Gundam, he was very detached from the art form. In an interview for Dark Horse, the Western distributor of many of his manga, Masamune explained, “When I was in junior high and high school I didn’t draw much, and I instead devoted myself to sports (judo). Since I was fond of art, though, I later chose to enter the Osaka University of Arts, and I studied oil painting there. In college, I met a friend who was a manga fan and was also doing self-publishing. And that’s how someone like me, who had never even bought a manga magazine before, wound up drawing them. Perhaps because of this, there’s very little of the usual manga ‘know-how’ in my work.”
Two years after getting into manga, he self-published his debut in 1983: Black Magic. It’s here that Masamune established himself as a major figure on the cyberpunk scene — drawing heavily from the science fiction genre of the era. His work had, in particular, a focus on mechanized women, militarized task forces, and cybernetic brains.
Black Magic immediately gained attention from Harumichi Aoki, the then-president of Seishinsha. Aoki encouraged Masamune to create another manga for Seishinsha to distribute. This led to the work Masamune claims to be the most proud of: Appleseed. From there, Masamune created three more cyberpunk manga Dominion, Orion and Ghost in the Shell. Dominion and Ghost in the Shell started as standalone works that would expand throughout the ’90s as Masamune added and contributed new ones (Dominion C1 Conflict, Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface and Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-error Processor).
In the West, Masamune didn’t receive mainstream attention until the adaptations of his work hit video store shelves. Black Magic M-66 was released in 1987, adapting the manga into a 48-minute Original Video Animation, or OVA, with more adaptations in this format to follow. The OVA market, which started a few years before, allowed anime creators to create short-form anime productions without television censorship restrictions. Masamune’s manga flourished as material for these new animators.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Shirow Masamune’s work without eventually discussing Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, which is regarded by many as one of the greatest anime films ever made. In fact, many remember Oshii’s moody, philosophical film more vividly than Masamune’s more light-hearted cyberpunk story. The film retains none of the manga’s sense of humor but instead amps up the cerebral musings of the nature of humanity.
Ghost in the Shell‘s success led to several more spinoffs over the years, most notably the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Though the manga ended in 1997, the franchise has lived on to this day, but Masamune has had little involvement creatively with these various continuations.
It was at this point in 1997 that Masamune seemingly stopped producing mainstream manga and started dropping off of the map. In 1999, he contributed character designs for the anime film Gundress, which started a trend of Masamune choosing to collaborate with other artists instead of working for himself.
When looking at most overviews of his body of work, the next — and to date, last — mainstream work he produced after Ghost in the Shell 2 is the currently-running Pandora in the Crimson Shell: Ghost Urn, which started in 2012. However, to say Masamune created Pandora in the Crimson Shell: Ghost Urn is very misleading. The manga is based on a concept alone by Masamune. The real creative force behind the product is Kōshi Rikudō, famous among manga fans for his iconic comedy manga, Excel Saga.
This began a common pattern across this time period: Masamune is credited for his work on two Production I.G. anime, Ghost Hound and Real Drive. However, he contributed surprisingly little despite his name being all over both projects. Ghost Hound is based on a concept Masamune came up with back in 1987 but was eventually directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura, who previously directed Serial Experiments Lain. By contrast, Real Drive is a cyberpunk slice-of-life series that was “created by” him but again, he was not involved with the direction, writing, story-boarding, or even original character designs of the series (which is obvious when you compare Real Drive‘s realistic character designs to Masamune’s typically hyper-sexual ones).
He did, however, contribute mecha designs in the upcoming anime film Uru in Blue, alongside Evangelion character designer and manga creator, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. So, with supposedly a lot more free time on his hands if that list is anything to go by, what has Masamune been doing with it?
Well, we’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room for long enough now. Starting in 1992, Masamune started to redirect his focus onto art books, the production of which ate into the time he’d spend working on his manga. But he didn’t really kick off producing art books until 1998, which he immediately doubled down on. Between 1998 and now, Masamune has produced 30 different art books, most of which primarily consist of pin-ups and erotic art.
This fact makes it look as though Masamune had moved away from writing and drawing manga, but that’s not actually true. Masamune did stop writing mainstream manga in 1997… because, after 1997, Masamune started drawing hentai instead. Galgrease is a series of short erotic manga. Each one is centered around a particular theme, be it the Wild West, horror or his go-to, cyberpunk. It’s clear that Masamune, after hitting it big with manga, just wanted to produce what he liked for the rest of his life, which, in this case, were sexy women.
While anime fans regard Masamune’s manga as works of art, he always wanted to be purely an artist first. With his legacy in place, Masamune now just gets to follow his own adult passions and get paid for it. Though this news might be disappointing to fans who want to see more of his older creative work, as a working artist, it’s his decision what he spends his time doing.
Shirow Masamune created Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, two of the most important cyberpunk manga ever. But then he disappeared. What happened?