Masamune Shirow’s strength as an “idea guy” is conveniently exemplified by the enduring success of worlds he created —notably Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed— while the actual manga that spawned those series languishes, largely forgotten by fans. Shirow’s personal legacy may end up being that of an illustrator content to draw weird, greasy porn in his later years, but the fact that other creators still feel compelled to revisit the cyberpunk settings he created nearly 30 years ago speaks to his more “respectable” talents. Oddly enough, one of his projects was created from the get-go to be a playground for other creators but didn’t end up that way. That project was Neuro Hard.
Intended to act as a setting for video games or manga, Neuro Hard was serialized in the comic spin-off of the anime magazine Dragon, intuitively titled Comic Dragon. First appearing in the inaugural August 1992 issue, Neuro Hard ran semi-regularly in Comic Dragon until concluding in May 1994. Although Shirow expected that the project would span about 80 pages, Neuro Hard fell short, with only 48 pages complete. Since its publication, Neuro Hard has remained out of reach for fans unwilling to track down hard-to-find Comic Dragon back issues. The series was finally collected into a single volume last year by Seishinsha as a small, hardbound book including all of the published Neuro Hard material, plus a few extras and newer illustrations by Shirow.
An opaque mixture of comic, prose and world building, Neuro Hard combined the familiar tentpoles of a Shirow story (sci-fi setting, robots, pretty girls) with a lesser-known obsession: bees. “Bees?” you might be asking incredulously, but believe it: In an interview with Animerica magazine back in 1993, Shirow casually mentioned his extensive collection of anthophila reading material, remarking, “I especially have quite a lot of books on bees.” While the landmates of Appleseed or the fuchikoma of Ghost in the Shell are vaguely insectan, the influence is readily evident in the metal thoraxes of Neuro Hard’s power suits (some of which even have wings) and presence of bees throughout the designs, story and comics, including even a bee character cheekily nicknamed “Rose.” Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, the damned thing is subtitled “Planet of the Wasps.”
蜂 (はち, hachi) can mean bee, wasp or hornet. I’ve chosen to use wasp when describing the insects in Neuro Hard because honestly, they look more like wasps than bees to my (admittedly) untrained eye. That Animerica interview quotes Shirow as saying “bees” but it seems safe to say that they’re interchangeable in this case.
That’s not a metaphor, either, as the story takes place on a planet long ago abandoned by humans, now dominated by a massive colony of wasps. Attacked by marauding space pirates, the crew of a spaceship is forced to land on a planet known as Anthea —the aforementioned planet of the wasps— where the heroine Martina is rescued by a massive wasp she later nicknames Rose. Not exactly typical Shirow material, then.
Stylistically, while extremely detailed, Neuro Hard looks to have more in common with Orion rather than Shirow’s more famous hard sci-fi. But that’s not to say it’s particularly lighthearted or spiritual, as Shirow’s classic obsession with detail and dense writing is in full effect. According to a loose translation published on the internet many years ago, the Spanish anime magazine Neko once declared “Read[ing] Neuro Hard can demand, at least, an entomological manual and many aspirins.” I could have sworn that’s a near direct quote from the late Toren Smith, former boss of Studio Proteus, but I can’t seem to find it in any interviews with the guy. Either way, the point stands.
It’s probably a good time to bring up Smith anyway, because he’s the source of about the only thing western fans know about Neuro Hard, which is that it was concluded prematurely due to the Great Hanshin Earthquake damaging Shirow’s reference library and notes. However, as the author of the Masamune Shirow Hyperpage wrote way back in 2000, that doesn’t quite add up. The Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred in January of 1995, while the last chapter of Neuro Hard appeared in the June 1994 issue of Comic Dragon. Figure in some lead time for printing, and the ink on the last few pages of Neuro Hard was dry over six months before the earthquake. So why did Neuro Hard end early?
The unmet page count suggested by Shirow and Smith’s comment (which I’ve struggled to find the original source for, even though it’s been repeated across the Internet for years) don’t quite account for the six month gap between the last appearance in Comic Dragon and the earthquake that damaged Shirow’s office. That same Masamune Shirow Hyperpage article speculates that Comic Dragon’s switch from quarterly to monthly at the end of 1993 may have played a part in prematurely ending the series, as Shirow was notoriously bad at hitting deadlines. Whatever happened, the Neuro Hard collection released last year includes, near as I can tell, additional pages of material. But that’s going off straight page counts rather than knowing explicitly what was originally published in Comic Dragon. Perhaps Shirow had unfinished pages, perhaps other publishing problems got in the way, or perhaps we’ll just never know.
A look at the entirely of Shirow’s work suggests other issues may have existed. By 1995, the bulk of Shirow’s long-form manga work was behind him, while additional chapters trickled out of his studio (like Ghost in the Shell: Manmachine Interface, which wrapped in 1997), the work that would make him famous was behind him and the work that would make him infamous lay ahead.
The mid-to-late ‘90s saw Shirow contributing to projects like the OVA Landlock in 1996, the film Gundress in 1999 (both produced by the production company ORCA and resulting in varying shades of clusterfuck), games for the PC Engine and Playstation, and a plethora of novels for which he contributed illustrations. Landlock and Gundress were both consummate disasters, disappointing fans and (likely) financial backers alike, but these projects and Shirow’s shift away from regular comic work suggest he may have been orienting himself towards easier work without the intense deadlines of manga.
While it’s safe to say that the most successful forays of anime based on Shirow’s work either eschewed his aesthetics entirely (Ghost in the Shell) or directly involved him in the production process (Black Magic M-66), Gundress avoided doing either. Of course, Shirow only contributed character designs and plot suggestions (that were ignored) to a project he otherwise had a minimal role in, but the staggering failure of Gundress is nonetheless so impressive I’d be negligent not to mention it. Devoid of (intentional) entertainment value, Gundress premiered in theaters incomplete, featuring entire scenes consisting of little more than animatics and viewers were given apology letters promising a copy of the film on VHS, once it was complete.
Shirow was hugely popular among English-speaking fans of the 1990s, as his comics combined the girls n’ guns bias of the era with just enough classical references to make you feel like you were reading something that definitely wasn’t kids stuff. While Studio Proteus and Dark Horse Comics released most of his work in the ‘90s, Neuro Hard never turned up in English. Rumors suggested that Shirow himself put a stop to the notion of releasing it in English, but a quick look through Neuro Hard makes it readily apparent while a localization would be unappetizing for publishers. There’s heaps of text to wade through, and if localizing something like Ghost in the Shell was a pain in the ass, localizing Neuro Hard with its reams of classic Shirow world-building text would be crippling. Sure, Dark Horse managed to release the Appleseed Databook and Hypernotes in English, but even with extant Shirow fans, a product as unusual as Neuro Hard might have been a tough sell because it wasn’t based a recognized franchise and wasn’t a proper comic. Plus, even compared to the Databook or Hypernotes, there’s a lot more text in Neuro Hard.
It’s a little ironic that Neuro Hard took over 20 years to be released as a single collection; Shirow’s popularity in Japan and abroad has waned significantly since it first saw print. Seishinsha’s release is a nice little hardcover book with an appropriately low cover price of 1,440 yen. The cheap price means it’s a lot easier to recommend it to lapsed Shirow fans or the extremely curious, but the amount of Japanese text means it’ll be of minimal interest to most readers. On the other hand, it’s also the last vestige of untapped, “classic” Shirow and remains largely unknown among his international fans.
- Masamune Shirow Hyperpages
- Neuro Hard on Masamune Shirow’s Official Website [Japanese]
- Pieces Information on Masamune Shirow’s Official Website [Japanese]
- Pieces 02 Neuro Hard Information [Japanese]