In the Ghost in the Shell graphic novel published in 1991, the heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, fused with a self-described "intelligent life-form" and left Section 9 of the Public Security Bureau. This story takes place approximately four years and five months later. As a result, this story is quite different from what was originally called Ghost in the Shell and featured Public Security's Section 9 (the Special Assault Force). I thought of visually differentiating the new Japanese title from the old one by merely changing the last kanji character, from one that means "military unit" to the homophonic kanji for "body" or "form" (which would shift the meaning of "mobile force" or "riot squad" to something like "mobile-unit-body-entity"), but for a variety of reasons I decided not to do so. To those readers expecting a direct continuation of the prior storyline, I apologize and beg for your understanding. I'm sorry, folks!
- Masamune Shirow, in a note included in the US edition of Man-Machine Interface
The follow-on to Shirow's immensely popular Ghost in the Shell has been anticipated by US fans for many years now. Originally serialized nearly a decade ago in Kodansha's Young Magazine, Man-Machine interface has gone through a number of incarnations, as Shirow first added nearly 150 pages of new material for the Japanese collection, and then did an extensive amount of reworking for the US version. This included, unfortunately, several pages being removed from the US version for 'decency' reasons. When it was first announced that Dark Horse was going to be bringing Man-Machine Interface to the US, the plan was that there be two release, one toned down with most of the sex and nudity removed, and another "adults only" release which would contain most of the existing artwork, as well as new scenes by Shirow, making it more or less cyberpunk erotica. This does not seem to have come to fruition; the current release is marked as being for those over 18 years of age in stores, and Dark Horse has not made any announcements about a new release containing the deleted pages.
That said, Shirow really went all out on showing off some skin. It seems like roughly a third of the pages have at least one shot of an attractive female either completely or partially nude, and most of the rest have Motoko dressed in something quite revealing. Readers of his earlier work are no doubt familiar with his tendency to place long notes directly in the text, usually snuck in on the side or at the bottom. The topic ranges from adding a comment that wouldn't make sense within the dialog to explaining some aspect of the artwork that he feels is interesting. At one point towards the end, he actually notes being "worried that maybe I was drawing just a little too much exposed flesh" (emphasis in original).
Much of the new art that was added for the collection is done in CG, which Shirow has had an interest in for some time (this is particularly noticeable in the later Intron Depot books). Personally, I found it quite grating, and was happy to see a return to the chaotic black and white style that is a signature of Shirow's work. Considering that both were done by the same artist, the stylistic difference couldn't be more striking. The CG pieces are very clean, everything in the scene looks like something that was specifically supposed to be there. In contrast, the portions done in ink have strange pieces of 'noise' unrelated to the main subjects. For example, in one scene Motoko is controlling the cybernetic body of a police officer; in the background, half a dozen people fight over a can of something. Most of these background scenes have nothing to do with the story, they just provide bits of humor to the overall work, without interrupting the narrative flow.
The story takes place over the course of a single day (in fact, only a few hours), and focuses almost entirely on Motoko Kusanagi, who, after escaping from Section 9, has renamed herself Motoko Aramaki and become a security officer† for Poseidon Industrial, a zaibatsu that runs everything from cloning plants to the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Her past is hidden from all but the most highly placed corporate executives; when the head of internal security attempts to access her record, he finds that she is 18 years old (a tipoff to anyone reading the file that everything contained there is a lie) and has absolutely no police or military experience; this for a woman who only 5 years before was considered one of the top counter-terrorist agents in Japan. Motoko has developed some new skills since we last saw her, presumably thanks to her merger with The Puppetmaster, though there is mention that she has joined up with other super-powerful beings since; "she has already fused with four key spirits, the most recent being eighteen months ago", states Tamaki Tamai, a psychic investigator from the Channeling Agency. The Channeling Agency first made an appearance in the original manga; it's core focus is to help stop, or limit the scope of, natural and man-made disasters which threaten Japan. Presumably one of these "key spirits" was the Puppetmaster, but the identities of the other three spirits remains unknown. Early on, we see Aramaki, the chief of Section 9 and source of Motoko's new name, and Batou, her old comrade, meeting with members of the Channeling Agency, including Tamaki Tamai. They have detected a upcoming event which may well change the course of human history, and because it is closely tied to a former member of Section 9, they have been invited as a courtesy.
Motoko's ghost hacking abilities are substantially stronger in Man-Machine Interface than in the original manga or in Stand Alone Complex. In fact, a substantial portion of the manga is spent with Motoko battling various crackers attempting to attack her corporations network, who are called by the unfortunate term "e-thug" in the English translation. She is assisted by simplistic AIs (which are probably not sentient, though it's hard to be sure), who help her with handling offensive and defensive movements in network warfare, as well as running her personal submarine, preparing reports for her, and so forth. The visual representation of these AIs is particularly ridiculous; they appear as tiny, bulbous little creatures, each wearing an equally tiny fez with an electric cord coming out of it. Motoko doesn't go in for physical assaults much anymore; though she does have occasion to fight from time to time, it's usually in self-defense or to further a strategic move. Fans of thermoptic camouflage and the Tachikoma will be feeling a little left out; Motoko has, to a large extent, left behind the fancy toys in favor more cerebral methods of getting what she wants. She doesn't seem to have the personality for it anymore, either. Five years previous to Man-Machine Interface, back in Public Safety, Motoko was impulsive and had a major temper. But now she seems extremely focused and calm, which is probably a result of her mergers; in fact, she really isn't the same person anymore.
In the past, Motoko has fairly regularly shown up in the form of a 'doll'; an android who may or may not look like her who acts in her place. This way, she can remain at a safe distance from the action while carrying out her mission. She does this occasionally in Stand Alone Complex (though SAC and Man-Machine Interface take place in what are effectively parallel universes), and makes very heavy use of it in MMI. In fact, she has gone so far as to place androids at strategic locations around the world; at a moments notice, she can pop her consciousness into one of these androids and control it as if she was actually there. This is made easier because, sometime between leaving Section 9 and the events of MMI, her ghost has been transferred entirely into silicon. This revelation is tossed off quite casually at one point in a conversation, but is a pretty big step. What made her decide to abandon her brain? For that matter, what happened to her old brain? While from time to time she does have the physical appearance she had in Section 9, during working hours she is usually a tall redhead. It seems probable that she is still attached to her old appearance, and by keeping it hidden from her employers, she can continue to be able to use it in case she leaves without worrying about being tracked down.
The plot of Man-Machine Interface is much more abstract than it's predecessor. While the original was certainly confusing at times, it was usually related to some subtle political move, some perhaps related to (then-)current political events in Japan. In comparison, MMI feels incomplete, as if pages were missing; which they might well be, for all I know, thanks to the editing that took place between the Japanese and English editions. Characters appear out of nowhere, do something that is apparently really important, and then vanish again, only to reappear a hundred pages later at another major point. This was, to put it in the best possible way, intensely frustrating, and at this point I suspect multiple readings are required to really "get it". That said, the art is amazing and the plot, for those who are fans of the original Ghost in the Shell, is well worth picking up.
†: Her exact title is never made clear, but she handles a variety of high-level external security matters, and reports to people very high up in the corporate ladder, which given the obviously huge size of Poseidon is a major clue as to her status.