Ghost in the Shell is one of the most successful classic anime franchises with two cinematic movies, one movie length OVA, an original two season TV series and, most recently, the new ARISE prequel series. The original ARISE started airing in 2013, one hour per episode, and a six month release interval for a total of four episodes. As of this spring season, the episodes are being aired as alternate TV format cuts with two 20 minute parts per original episode. A new cinematic movie is to be released this summer.
Ghost in the Shell (first manga release 1989) sits firmly among the likes of Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), a film noir science fiction story of the near future. The technological advance of mankind allows for cybernetic replacements of organs, body parts and, to a certain extend, manipulation and replication of human brains – or, rather, the mind or “Ghost” contained within.
All three franchises (Blade Runner, Matrix, GitS) reflect on philosophical questions about what makes for a human being. The Matrix does the classical brain-in-a-jar scenario, Blade Runner is more religious with exploring the border between the Inanimate and the Living.
Ghost in the Shell looks at society and how it might deal with super advanced technology – such as de facto immortality of the sufficiently rich, the human mind no longer being bound to a physical body, manipulation of individuals and the masses (brain hacking, anyone?).
The franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. While the original movie is in my opinion a genre-defining masterpiece, some of the later releases range from decent entertainment to being somewhat ‘meh’. Following the release of Solid State Society in 2006, it seemed to be running out of steam.
Fast forward to 2013 and the reboot of the series with the ambitious prequel ARISE. The story follows Major Motoko Kusanagi’s release from the armed forces and formation of the Public Security Section 9.
There’s a new voice cast, production quality is top notch and each episode is a small masterpiece in pacing and choreography, and the plot ranging from pretty decent to simply amazing. It has all those great what-ifs and little mindgames of the original series. As far as this is a review, I can highly recommend watching it.
But there is something odd about the very first episode of ARISE: Ghost Pain. Watch this promotional trailer to get the idea.
Placement or Penetration?
The ARISE project followed an unusual and ambitious format, with the high production quality, the cinematic length of each episode and a patience straining half-year airing interval. Rumor had it that the financial situation wasn’t promising.
It’s hard to say for sure, but it might have been the reason for why Ghost Pain brought along a grotesque little friend: Product placement for the Microsoft Surface tablet.
Look closely and you’ll find another two Microsoft billboards further away and on the other side of the street.
The product placement itself is already terribly blatant, but there are two factors that put it straight into bizarro land. One is how ham-fisted and clumsy the tablet is shoehorned into the show. Not only is Kusanagi, a full-body prosthetic cyborg, one of the last persons who would have any need for a handheld computer. She also has an entire server core at her disposal that she received from her superior earlier in the episode, which she is in fact using to uplink herself.
Speaking of uplinking – yes, at one point she’s using her neck terminal to directly connect her cyberbrain to the Surface tablet, in order to write a Word document. While being under the full influence of the Firestarter Virus, no less. What were the Microsoft PR people thinking when they okayed this?
The fact that this episode pays so much attention to the little details and everything else is so well layed out in the quarters room scene makes the tablet nonsense stick out like a sore thumb.
And it’s not like there wouldn’t have been enough situations in which product placement of the Surface tablet would have worked quite well. Why not have Togusa, one of the most important side characters, use a tablet to do his police work? Why not have Kurtz, Kusanagi’s superior, use one for her briefing? But I disgress.
Tablets are the future… except for when they are not
One could argue if tablet computers would be an anachronism in the futuristic setting of Ghost in the Shell. Do people, who have their brains directly connected to a global network and their vision directly augmented with graphics overlays, have any need for an additional screen to carry around? Maybe for nostalgic things like reading the newspaper, who knows. I can’t recall any scenes from the top of my head but people are certainly still using desktop computers, so there’s that. Still, the way the Surface tablet is portrayed in Ghost Pain is completely tone deaf.
It is also a wonderful irony that the product placement is not for the Surface Pro (which is still a popular product), but the original Surface (RT). By the time the second episode of ARISE aired, the Surface 1 was already succeeded by the Surface 2, effectively being the last release of the RT series, which was subsequently discontinued. The RT series is also the only part of the Windows 8 family that will not be upgradeable to Windows 10. It’s very much the opposite of anything future or science fiction.
The first episode of ARISE, however, was aired as an alternate TV cut version a few weeks ago. The new version still features all of the scenes containing the product placement – a product that has now been effectively dead for well over a year.
I have rewatched the original ARISE episodes many times by now. I found the Surface scenes very obtrusive at first, but by now I’ve become used to them. They are a bizarre anomaly, they’re part of the ARISE experience, and they tell their very own story of mankind and obsolete technology. While I’d certainly prefer them to have never existed in the first place, I’d mind them being removed from future re-releases. I have to admit that I was relieved when I watched the new version and found the old scenes still in there.
They are so wildly inappropriate as product placement, in a storyline that features a computer virus called “Firestarter” which is supposedly a “Stuxnet-type variant” (oddly anachronistic by now, but top news in 2013). As you might remember, Stuxnet is a virus that was allegedly designed by a western superpower intelligence agency and hand-tailored to infect Windows computer systems, and thus one of the worst possible scenarios for product placement PR.
It perfectly portrays everything that Ghost in the Shell criticizes about a technophile, cyberized future. Which is why I enjoy the Ghost Pain episode for what it is, Surface included.