Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex / Koukaku Kidoutai: Sutando Aroun Konpurekkusu
The year is 2030, and cybernetics has become a prevailing aspect of human civilization. The widespread usage of cybernetic implants has also created a new atmosphere for crime and punishment. In this post-cybernetic society Major Motoko Kusanagi is the leading officer of Public Security Section 9, an elite anti-terrorism organization located in the fictional Japanese city of Niihama-shi and under supervision by Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Recent high-profile crimes and events lead Section 9 to suspect the reemergence of a mysterious figure who is known to the public only as “The Laughing Man.” In their attempts to discover the identity and purpose of the Laughing Man, they stumble upon a much greater and malicious threat which may forever change the political landscape as well as threaten the existence of Section 9 itself.
Based on the famed Ghost in the Shell manga written by Shirou Masamune, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a breathtaking, compelling, and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller that blends action, intrigue, and post-cybernetic philosophy. This cyberpunk series, however, is more than meets the eye with impressive action sequences, an intelligent and engrossing storyline, intriguing characters, and plenty of cerebral-stimulating dialogue. It’s a hauntingly surrealistic and yet surprisingly poignant portrayal of human civilization in a post-cybernetic world.
Stand Alone Complex is centered on the activities of Public Security Section 9, a small but elite anti-terrorism and anti-crime organization tasked with solving crimes dealing with cybernetics (“cyber crimes”), those in public office, high profile murders, as well as the protection of important VIPs. While the story telling is mainly episodic in nature, a larger and more complex plot line eventually emerges. Most episodes deal with Section 9 investigating and solving various criminal incidents ranging from runaway military hardware to an assassination attempt on the Superintendent of the Police. Eventually Section 9 discovers that some of these recent events have to do with the mysterious public figure the media calls the “Laughing Man.” From there on, while the individual episodes remain relatively episodic in nature, there is clearly a single thread that ties everything together. This means that while many episodes can stand on their own (indeed they are even called “Stand Alone Episodes”), they are also very much related to each other.
The ensemble cast is made up of quite a varied and interesting group of characters. Both Chief Aramaki and Major Kusanagi seem to be no-nonsense professionals, but both are shrewd and clever in different ways. Batou is, on the surface, a macho figure who doesn’t hesitate to “get rough” if needed and yet has a soft side for machines. Then there is Togusa, the only member of Section 9’s tactical team that has no cybernetic implants (other than cyberbrain implants), who’s not only a bright and quick thinker, but a loving father and husband. Finally, there are the Tachikomas. While not human, these robotic AI suits are without a doubt my favorite characters in the whole series. Not only are they funny but their desire to become human and take on human traits despite their lacking of a “ghost” (i.e. a human mind) is both touching and intriguing. And while not all the members of Section 9 are equally well developed, almost every one of them have their own unique skills and abilities as well as personalities that are well established by the time the series nears its ending. In fact, I found myself caring about even the minor characters despite the lack of time we spend with them during the actual series. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the series is well written with smart dialogue and an interesting script.
Stand Alone Complex, like the original Ghost in the Shell movie, has outstanding production values. The animation is top-notch, and is not only detailed and colorful, but includes a convincing mixture of cel animation and CGI. From dazzling futuristic urban landscapes to fast-paced sci-fi action sequences, there is plenty for the discerning viewer to enjoy. The series really shines in the Blu-Ray version and though the transfer isn't the sharpest in terms of Blu-Ray standards (the Blu-Ray is 1080i which means it's probably upscaled from 720p), for a 7 year old mostly cel-animated title, it still looks pretty damn good. The DVD transfer (taken from the original HD masters) is also one of the best I’ve seen with excellent clarity and visual fidelity. And despite the amount of high-speed action sequences present, rarely is there any loss in visual quality. The same goes for the sound, which is presented in a fully surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as in DTS (in the special edition volumes while the Blu-Ray version also includes a 5.1 TrueHD track for the Japanese dialogue) The sound is fantastic from the excellent voice cast to the heart-pounding action sequences, the quality of the audio will definitely not disappoint. And neither will the English voice track, which is one of the best I’ve heard in years with some excellent performances by Crispin Freeman (as Togusa), Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (as Major Kusanagi), and Stephen Jay Blum (as the Laughing Man). In fact, so good is the dubbing that it’s comparable to a de-facto standard like Cowboy Bebop. Truly this is one of the few series in which the choice between the English and original Japanese track is more or less a matter of flipping a coin. Finally, the music is superb: with haunting, vibrant and very pertinent music that fits in very well with the themes and atmosphere of the show. Yoko Kanno has once again done an amazing job with the soundtrack, especially with the opening theme "Inner universe," which is beautifully sung by Russian vocalist Origa.
One of the most interesting aspects of Stand Alone Complex, just like the original Ghost in the Shell, is that it is very philosophical in nature. While the action is exciting, and the political mystery and intrigue engrossing, the series also explores many philosophical concepts such as the nature of humanity and the emergence of new phenomena as the result of merging man with machine. The Tachikomas desire to acquire human traits begs the question of what really defines humanity and whether or not machines can one day take on human traits. Various other issues dealing with the nature of the human consciousness and matters of political and social nature are also explored such as how people can retain their individuality in a cybernetic world and the dark underbelly of the medical industry. All in all, there is plenty to think about in this series, and while cyberpunk series generally have a penchant for the philosophical, this is still one of the more cerebral experiences you’ll find within this genre.
There isn’t really much to complain about in Stand Alone Complex, but there are certainly things that could have been done better. One issue is the pacing, which could certainly have used some more work as certain episodes feel a little longer than they should. And while the series does a good job of developing the major characters, it wouldn’t have hurt to flesh out some of the minor characters a little more. And finally, while there is plenty of explanations given to illuminate the events of the series, the story and some of the plot devices just seems a little too complex at certain points especially nearing the end. For the not-quite-so-discerning viewer, understanding everything that is going on may be difficult, and it took me more than one viewing to fully grasp everything that was happening (in fact I would actually recommend the English track in this case as it makes the story easier to understand). This is definitely a series that demands at least one repeat viewing.
Despite some minor shortcomings, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is truly one of the best sci-fi/mystery/action anime series out there. Not only does it present us with a convincing view of what the near future could look like, it encourages us to think about some important philosophical as well as social and political issues. It is thoroughly enjoyable and highly-recommended for anyone who has even a passing interest in sci-fi, mystery or action-oriented anime.
Note: the Japanese Blu-Ray version includes English subtitles as well as the English Dolby Digital track from the North American DVD releases so it is fairly import friendly if you're willing to spend the money (hint: it's expensive)