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The last 9 months or so has been an exciting time for fans of Production IG and Masamune Shirow – previous collaborations between the anime powerhouse and the manga legend gave the world the unstoppable, stylish and cerebral Ghost in the Shell franchise, and last year they announced that the two giants would be joining forces for not one but two new TV series, Ghost Hound and Real Drive.

Ghost Hound, a dark, deep supernatural series about school children having out of body experiences, premiered in October 2007 in Japan. I watched the first five or so episodes as they were aired (and fansubbed courtesy of the ever awesome Ureshii), and really enjoyed them. It was mature for a show about teenagers, and had that down tempo kinda vibe that IG do so well. Then a minor disaster with my HTPC wiped a 500gb hard drive (yeah, don’t ask) and I lost all the episodes I’d grabbed to date. Instead of trying to catch up them again, I decided to to wait until the series ended and grab them all at once. Besides, I told myself, it was the futuristic, cyberpunk sounding Real Drive, that didn’t start until April 2008, that I was really looking forward to.

Set in 2061, the show focuses on the ‘Meta Real Network’, or ‘Metal’, a vast shared computer system used for communication, entertainment and storing the uploaded digital recordings of human personalities. More reminiscent of William Gibson’s original cyberspace concept than the Internet you’re plugged into right now, it’s often unclear (to me at least, so far) how much of the Metal is virtual, and how much is actually a physical network, formed by nanomachines that have reproduced throughout the Earth’s oceans. Our main hero-protagonist is 81 year old Masamichi Haru, who has only recently awakened into this new world after a diving accident involving an early version of the Metal technology left him in a coma for 50 years. Although his body is old and frail and he is confined to a wheelchair, he of course finds that he can dive again courtesy of the Metal, and begins a new career as a net-diver, investigating anomalies in this new realm, whilst always searching for the mysterious ‘answer in the sea’.

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So far, so Shirow. It’s his typical near/post singularity stuff, familiar to anyone who’s watched or read GitS or Appleseed. Even if nothing groundbreaking, I thought, at least they’ll be some interesting ideas going on here, and it’ll be worth watching. But then something happened in the first episode, something truly awful and disturbing, that I nearly vowed to never watch another episode again.

That something was Minamo Aoi.

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Aoi is a 15 year old Japanese schoolgirl, inexplicably employed to look after Haru whilst Holon, his android assistant, is undergoing maintenance. Only meant to be working for the diver on a temporary basis, she becomes a permanent member of his staff after he takes a similarly inexplicable shine to her. She’s a horribly stereotypical depiction of the Japanese schoolgirl archetype; clumsy, awkward, shrill, overly-kawaii and sickeningly positive when she’s not blubbing about some minor emotional upset. Yeah yeah, I get how she’s meant to be this narrative device for providing a more innocent perspective on events, and perhaps that would work – perhaps – if it wasn’t for her insanely short skirt flapping up whenever she moved, or the camera taking a little too long to pan across her exposed thighs when she’s talking, or that she didn’t blunder around like she’d been binge drinking rohypnol spiked alcopops all day. Or if she just kept her fucking mouth shut occasionally.

To be a little – and I mean a little – fairer, she does seem to calm down slightly as the episodes roll on (or perhaps I’m getting better at mentally blocking out the scenes shes in), but she does seem to be disturbingly central to most of the storylines so far. My initial knee-jerk reaction of hatred was partly down to the way she was introduced in episode 1; she literally bursts onto the screen, shrieking and smiling, her pudgy little thighs on display…it’s totally jarring with the ostensibly serious science fiction story that is meant to be being told here, and instantly rips the viewer out the quite complex technological world that is being outlined. Like I said, it nearly stopped me from watching anymore.

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There are some of his fans, and I’d include myself amongst them, who have been concerned that Shirow has been losing his touch over the last few years. The last of the GitS comics certainly had a few too-many panty shots for a serious cyberpunk epic, and his recent pre-occupation with seemingly only drawing semi naked, near-hentai images of female warriors wrapped in tentacles while holding massive phallic swords/guns/sword-guns was starting to make it look like the once great sci-fi master was descending into being nothing more than a filthy old pervert. We were hoping that these two new projects with IG would prove us wrong, and that he still had some great concepts and storytelling left in him, but sadly Real Drive, and Aoi in particular, fails to set things straight. And perhaps even more tellingly Ghost Hound, which from what I saw looks far more interestingly, is apparently based on a story and designs he originally came up with back in 1987.

So what else is there to say? The animation is fine – as you’d expect from Production IG – and reminiscent in many ways of a cleaner, less grimy, more utopian version of GitS:SAC. The soundtrack is at times awful, over orchestrated, operatic anime nonsense, thankfully occasionally giving away to minimal breaks and pulsing electronica, which is much more suited to the setting, if a little obvious.

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So…I’m not painting a great picture, am I? The weird thing is I’m still watching. Why? Well, partly out of fanboy loyalty, but mainly because plotwise I’m still not quite sure what is going on. Both the setting and technology hasn’t been fully explained yet, and I’m intrigued enough to sit it out. Shirow’s works have always been famed for not just being sometimes so complex on a conceptual level as to be almost inaccesable, but also for the effort he puts into thinking through his technological ideas. So far Real Drive shows much of the former and little of the latter, but I’m still holding out hope that this will emerge, and save not only the show but also the reputation of it’s creator for whom I’ve always had so much respect.

I’ll be back in a few episodes to let you know how I’m getting on. Hopefully it was just a rough take-off…