Appleseed Books 1 & 2
Book One: "The Promethean Challenge"
Book Two: "Prometheus Unbound"
Story and art by Masamune Shirow
Translation by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith
Lettering and retouch by L. Lois Buhalis and John Clark
There was a time when Appleseed was considered Masamune Shirow's magnum opus (these days, he's more closely associated with Ghost in the Shell). As his first professional work, it's not nearly as published as it should be - but the first two volumes, at least, have held up over the years.
Appleseed is set in a future that's been devastated by a protracted world war. When the war ends, the world begins to rebuild under the direction of Olympus, a city which claims to be the last hope of the human race.
Olympus is loosely based on Plato's Republic. The populace enjoys virtually unlimited personal freedoms and material comforts, but has no say in the government. Instead, key decisions are made by a Council of philosophers and enforced by a guardian caste. In Shirow's version, the the philosopher and guardian castes are not drawn from the human population - instead, they're composed of "bioroids," genetically engineered to rule. In theory, the bioroids should be freed from base material desires and capable of operating as a single unit to enforce the will of the state. In practice they seem all too human - driven by conflicting personalities and engaged in bureaucratic turf wars.1
The first two books of Appleseed throw Olympus into a series of crises that call its long-term feasibility into question. In "The Promethean Challenge," the challenge comes from below. A group of human refugees conclude that while the comforts the Olympian system offers are mere distractions - the city has robbed them their ability to set their own destinies. Led by a terrorist named Chiffon, they try to destroy Gaia, the supercomputer they (falsely) believe is running the show. In "Prometheus Unbound," the challenges come from above. Chiffon's revolt forces the council to conclude that human nature is incompatible with the Olympian system. Their proposal to curtail freedom and regulate thought paralyzes the bioroid population - it might be the only hope for the human race, or it might destroy human nature itself. Meanwhile, the Gaia observes the debate and decides that the bioroids have abandoned their mission, and unleashes an army of robot gun platforms to destroy them.
We experience Olympus through the eyes of Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, two special forces soldiers who've been surviving out in "badside." One day they're visited by a young bioroid named Hitomi, who brings them back to Olympus,2 and by chance they wind up embroiled in both of the above conflicts. Deunan and Briareos are incurable skeptics - they don't buy into the Council's lofty ideals, but aren't persauded by Chiffon's revolutionary rhetoric or Gaia's meticulous reasoning, either. When they're placed in a situation where the fate of Olympus rests in their hands, they're finally forced to choose sides. In the end, they prove to be realists. Olympus may ultimately be a dead-end - but half a chance is better than none.
Appleseed is a definite improvement over Black Magic. Shirow's dialogue is still filled with technobabble and philosophical posturing, but the philosophy is integral to the story rather than a meaningless aside. The characters are more sharply defined, with goals and motivations that make sense given what we know of their past. Furthermore, the story successfully functions on two levels - casual reader can ignore all of the Olympian politics and focus on the killer robots, while those interested in a deeper experience are more likely to be entertained by Shirow's philosophical meanderings. That's not to say that Appleseed is without flaws. Shirow can be unfortunately obtuse - even after multiple readings, it's can be hard to figure exactly what's going on. He's also in love with his own technology, and has a tendency to keep dragging it out to the detriment of the story.3 And the plot itself has some strange contrivances that test the limits of believability - in particular the climax, where Deunan must fire an apple seed into a comically oversized circuit breaker to stop Gaia's rampage.4
Artistically, Appleseed is a huge step forward for Shirow. His underlying style hasn't changed much - a side by side comparison of Deunan and Typhon would show little difference - but his compositions are greatly improved. The increase in the amount of detail he provides is amazing - his panels ar efilled with thousands of speed lines and tiny pieces of debris - and yet he picks his details so well that few of them are extraneous. His mechanical designs, which were lackluster in Black Magic, really come to life in the cyborgs and robots of Olympus. And yet...
This sequence from "Prometheus Unbound" illustrates Shirow's virtues and flaws. The individual panels are remarkable images - the image of the gun platform shooting up a city street is a dynamic, exciting composition. The design of the gun platform gives it a lot of personality. The rendering is phenomenal - every piece of shrapnel and debris seems to be rendered in exquisite detail. And yet, the actions don't flow from one panel to the next, and while individual panels have great depth. there's no overall sense of the space these actions are taking place in. The individual character poses seem a bit stiff, which works for Kotus and Briareos but not for the human characters. Everything is inked with the same fine line, which makes it hard to pick out the important elements and dilutes the impact of the compositions.
Overall, Appleseed remains one of Shirow's most enjoyable works - a blend of action and philosophy that's still enjoyable today.
In 1988 Kazuyoshi Katayama directed a straight-to-video adaption of the first two volumes of Appleseed. Katayama manged to cover the key plot points of both volumes, but seems to have missed the point - the politics and philosophy are pushed into the background to give us more shots of Deunan blowing things up and Hitomi in her underwear. The animation is also a bit underwhelming, and the style hasn't aged well. A computer-animated Appleseed film is scheduled for release later this year; hopefully it'll capture a bit more of the series' charm.
- The point, of course, being that there are some desires that social and genetic engineering can't remove. The bioroids might not have any material desires, but they're certainly capable of coveting power and influence. There's also an implication that the bioroids might need these qualities to successfully perform their duties - a dispassionate party is frequently a disinterested party, after all, and conflict prevents stasis.
- There's an ulterior motive to Hitomi's recruitment of Deunan and Briareos. It turns out Deunan's father Carl was one of the donors whose DNA was used to create the first generation of bioroids, and the Council is apparently tracking down the donors and their descendants. This is apparently an important plot point, but there's never any payoff, which is frustrating.
- Specifically, he keeps trying to justify the existence of "landmates" (robot exo-skeletons). Sure, they look cool, they establish that Olympus has a lot of high-tech toys, and they certainly spice up the action sequences, but it's not like they're integral to the story in any way. Why not use some of that space to explain exactly what a "bioroid" is instead?
- And providing a justification for the title, of course. It's such a contrived scene, though, that Shirow would have been better off leaving apple seeds out of it and letting the title stay mysterious.