This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: Shirow Masamune’s manga and anime franchise Appleseed.
For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.
Number 8 of 10: Appleseed (manga: 1985-89; anime: 1988, 2004, 2007)
If there’s one thing modern CG can render with absolute realism, it’s hardware. From modern consumer automobiles, commercial aircraft and military vehicles to futuristic robots, mecha and spacecraft, VFX artists have mastered the art of heavy gear, from 1984’s The Last Starfighter to last year’s Avatar.
But the military hardware, vehicles and spacecraft in modern VFX movies and television shows and video games do not show as much creative variety as one might expect, given the nearly boundless flexibility of CG. Spacecraft usually look much like the USS Sulaco from 1986’s Aliens, which itself isn’t terribly original. The “APUs” in Avatar are nearly identical to the battlemechs from the BattleTech franchise, themselves inspired by anime mecha. And any time you see a BFG (Big “Effin’” Gun) or any other large military prop in a sci-fi film, TV show or video game, it seems to come from the same prop house or 3D model library as all the others.
This isn’t necessarily because production designers and VFX artists are lazy or unoriginal – there are creative and production concerns. If a giant futuristic space blaster looks exactly like what the audience expects a giant futuristic space blaster to look like, a filmmaker need not waste time explaining what it is. The same goes for spaceships – film-goers unfamiliar with sci-fi (are there any of those left?) might be confused by the giant, spherical spaceship at the end of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (they were already confused by the plot); but will instantly recognize the alien ship in 2009’s District 9, given its resemblance to the bastard love child of the giant saucers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Independence Day (1996).
Furthermore, the use of preexisting assets can save a production a great deal of money; and looking to previous films, shows and games for inspiration can save time and effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists make artistic choices, referencing other artists for storytelling purposes. When director David Twohy introduced the evil Necromonger religious zealots in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, their ships and armor intentionally referenced those of similar sci-fi characters in 1984’s Dune and the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Likewise, the iconic city-destroying giant saucers in Independence Day are so recognizable because they are based on the nearly-identical ships in the 1980s TV miniseries V.
And finally, so many of these hardware designs resemble each other because of common science fiction tropes that artists often are not even aware they are perpetuating. I have already gone into this in detail elsewhere. But a few that apply here include: spacecraft designed according to a nautical paradigm, or to resemble an office building; the idea that while every other technological advance makes devices smaller, military technology will just get bigger and bigger – today’s hardware on steroids; and that human spaceships should be blocky and covered in devices, while alien ships are biologically-inspired and spiky.
So how can VFX artists and production designers break out of the sci-fi hardware design rut? Allow me to make one very specific suggestion. Dig into your manga collection (admit it, you have one), and pull out the collected works of Shirow Masamune.
One of the most popular and talented mangaka to see his work adapted during the anime renaissance of the 1980s, Shirow is known for many things – his trademark character design, bizarre humor, complex cyberpunk storylines, and (especially recently) ribald eroticism (NSFW). But he is best known for his hardware; aircraft, armored vehicles, military and police gear, and mecha; and two concepts he in particular created and popularized, the biological robot “bioroid,” and the child-like intelligent robot tanks, the “Fuchikoma.”
The best thing about Shirow’s hardware design is that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Indeed, Shirow’s designs have not been widely copied in the anime and manga world, precisely because the plagiarism would be so obvious. His vehicles and weapons have a decidedly biological inspiration; but this is tempered with the sensibility of a serious mechanical, industrial and military engineer.
Every detail of a Shirow creation serves a particular purpose. If an object transforms, then each of its pieces would genuinely fit together. If the device is a vehicle, then an operator would actually fit inside. He draws cut-away schematics of many of his creations, to prove they are thought-out and fully realized. Just as a realistic portrayal and a deep backstory make an audience care more for a human character, so the same principle can be applied to production design to make the viewer care about a world. James Cameron accomplished this in Avatar, and Shirow does the same with his futuristic environments.
For the purposes of a live-action CGI film, I propose an adaptation of Shirow’s 1985-89 manga Appleseed. This might surprise most Shirow fans, who would expect me to choose his most popular creation, the dark cyberpunk manga, film, television, toy and game franchise Ghost in the Shell, which stars the sexy cyborg police Major Kusanagi Motoko and the lovable Fuchikoma.
Appleseed, on the other hand, was Shirow’s first major success, a post-apocalyptic love story set in a utopian city-state. Deunan Knute, a sexy ex-LAPD SWAT member and Landmate (military exoskeleton) pilot, is in love with her partner, Briareos Hecatonchires, a faceless cyborg who has lost most of his original body to military replacement parts, but has not given up his soul or his love for Deunan. Together they roam the ruins of Los Angeles until they are recruited to police Olympus, a hyper-advanced city populated by bioroids.
Shirow’s Major Kusanagi is a bioroid, and her story explores the typical cyberpunk themes of human identity and machine consciousness. But for the most part, she looks human – she would be portrayed by an actress (Angelina Jolie, probably) with a bit of occasional digital makeup.
But Appleseed’s Briareos would be a challenge for VFX artists – a fully thinking, feeling, and emotional character without a human face. He’s the ultimate hardware as a character. And his relationship with Deunan (Charlize Theron?), and her acceptance of him in his inhuman form, is key to the story.
It should be noted that much of the preliminary work for a live-action VFX adaptation of Appleseed has already been done, for Aramaki Shinji’s 2004 and 2007 CG animated films Appleseed and Appleseed EX Machina. The Appleseed universe was 3D modeled for these films, although the final animation was cel-shaded. But they serve as a proof-of-concept that Shirow’s unique and compelling take on the world of the future could serve as the foundation for a successful movie experience.
See a set of Appleseed art on Flickr.