It is the 22nd Century, the Third World War (2099-2126) has decimated a large part of Earth even though nuclear weapons have not been employed during the conflict. Old nations such as England, France and China have survived but have difficulty restoring their power. On the other hand, new nations and organizations such as the Sacred Republique of Mumna and the Poseidon Organization have been born on the ashes of the world resulting from the Third World War.
In this bleak future, we are introduced to ex-L.A. SWAT members Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires. Having survived the world conflict and living in a desolated city, they are found by a young woman called Hitomi who proposes them to follow her to the utopian city of Olympus which has become the world's most powerful organization and which registers the new relations in terms of politics, economics and military between new and old nations/organizations. In Olympus, they are integrated in the prestigious ESWAT (Extra Special Weapons And Tactics) organization, whose main mission is to protect Olympus from terrorist attacks and Olympus's interests in the world.
From here on, the two main protagonists encounter a great number of other characters and organizations who will be implicated in international plots that target Olympus.
When the dust and ashes of global war finally settle, a man-made utopia emerges from the shadows and unifies the broken world. It is a grand project over a century in the making, peace its ultimate aim, but it isn’t long before there’s trouble in paradise.
Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires are stuck, wedged in the cracks of the war’s aftermath. They spend their days in a crumbling ghost-town, salvaging supplies, cut off from the rest of the world and unaware of how the conflict has proceeded without them. Once they are rescued from the wasteland, they find that Olympus -- this manufactured utopia -- is
more like a benign-looking powder keg.
We begin with the pair’s acclimation to this topically peaceful setting, their characterization strikingly represented in their inability to relax. After spending so much time out in ‘badside’ (the word inhabitants of Olympus dub the war-torn wastes), they are instinctually suspicious of the clean streets, the beautiful arcologies, and even the promised safety of warm beds.
One strong choice Shirow has made with respect to their relationship is to force them to be apart at times. As lovers and a natural two-man team, this allows them to grow in their new roles as ESWAT members and also to cherish their time together all the more. This is not to say they don’t work alongside each other; their teamwork in ESWAT is easily the most engaging part of Appleseed. Rather, the interchange between the needs of the job with the needs of their romance provides their struggles a more meaningful emotional punch.
Beyond our protagonists -- Deunan’s bratty hot-headedness and Briareos’ cyborg cool-mindedness -- it is very difficult to discuss the other characters. In the first volume, we meet a host of lively people: Hitomi, the girl who tracked the two down in the first place; Yoshi, her mechanic boyfriend; and key players in the government to name just a few. They all have agendas and seeing their machinations is definitely a pleasure. But as we get further into the following volumes, the cast of characters explodes in a bad way.
If you can remember three of their names by the end of the manga: my congratulations. You’ve got a better memory than this poor reviewer.
By the halfway mark, it really becomes impossible to characterize anyone other than the main characters. Everyone talks in the same voice. Rather than fully-realized characters, they are weak functionaries: tech-jargon talkers, plot-exposition advancers, dialogue-bubble fillers. I confess that last one was a little mean… but that’s what it feels like! Having all these unidentifiable people running around definitely instills in you the verisimilitude of Olympus, but only at the dreadful cost of character depth. Perhaps that would be okay if focus was completely on Deunan and Bri. Unfortunately, we get so wrapped up in sociopolitical maneuvering by the end that they disappear from sight for longer stretches of time than they should.
This problem is somewhat reflected in the overall narrative itself. The first volume is dedicated to introducing Olympus in an Olympus-centric world, the next to expounding its systemic problems, the following to international conflict, and the finale to extended sociopolitical intrigue. Our worldview increases to such an extent that the original excitement starts to wane. The truth is that watching the stability of Olympus fought for outside its borders is hellishly boring compared to seeing its struggles within. Suddenly it’s all about covert ops and what the remaining nations of the world are trying to do with Olympus -- and behind its back. This expansion of focus somehow misses the elegant simplicity we see earlier and comes off a little anti-climactic despite its significance.
Technology is where Appleseed shines all the way through. As Deunan sees what is now possible, she notes that science is “the new black magic.” Olympus is self-sufficient, powered by clean energy, and consults with a godlike computer on matters of importance. It is filled with giant mobile gun platforms, hover cars, and landmates. The latter are of particular interest (see also: Rabid Mouth-Frothing Obsession) to Deunan. Landmates are high-performance exoskeletons that allow their wearers to wield powerful weaponry and perform awesome feats of strength. With this equipment coupled with her combat experience, she is quite the ass-kicker.
Speaking of ass-kicking, the extended fights are a double-edged sword here. Some are choreographed impeccably, memorably so, with landmates pounding against each other until the bitter end. One of the great stylistic touches is the cutting away of a landmate’s ‘chest’ to see the expression of the person inside. Conversely, others battles are drawn in such a way that they are muddled and their transitions just downright confusing. This really makes it hard to discern who is beating whom. At those times, it’s best to roll with the punches instead of endlessly scrutinizing each panel.
Stasis and renewal are at the forefront of the thematic duel. Olympus is peaceful. At what cost? The populace is flooded with opportunities for happiness, but their overseers fear a near-future hardening of the arteries. There isn’t enough give in the system and sooner or later the current genetic stock won’t be good enough. Perfection was taken too far and is now dangling on the brink because -- surprise, surprise -- people aren’t perfect. So if a good society can only result from good people, what the heck is a utopian society to do? Were they wrong all along for using technology in the manner in which they do now?
The fact that their computer, Gaia, becomes paralyzed by a similar question seems a punishment analogous to the punishment Prometheus suffered for stealing the fire of the gods.
Despite the rough edges, Appleseed is a fascinating look at mankind’s attempt to create a world without borders, where the nation-state is as old-fashioned a concept as feudalism. Is Olympus a utopia? Or is it just another seat for the gods to sip ambrosia while the world dances into oblivion? Since the leaders are actively trying to sustain the state and everlasting peace, I suspect it’s neither. It’s an ideal bastion: a place everyone would like to help build. But maybe saying that is the real idealism. Instead of modeling themselves on this society, the existent post-war nations are more interested in toppling it so they can reclaim their own lost powers.
Apparently a world without war does not equal a world of peace.
Masamune Shirow's artwork is stunning as always. Meticulously detailed and beautiful. Of all his work, the Appleseed manga is by far my favorite. Although Shirow clearly enjoys drawing cute girls, the integrity of the story is always his highest priority.
The story has depth, breadth, and coherence (also a staple of Shirow's work). Appleseed has suspense, action, drama, romance, etc., all expertly blended into an examination of human nature. If you're looking for the closure of a "good guys always win" story, you will be ultimately disappointed as the transient and personal nature of values is one of the themes Shirow explores. You
might get lost in the highbrow philosophy but inevitably the characters have to take action, for good or ill.
The characters are diverse and engaging and well developed through the stories. You won't find any superfluous swimsuit volumes. Shirow fosters the feeling that there is more going on than what you can see with his characters as well as his storyline.