"Ghost in the Shell" was one of the first anime I ever saw. Years later, in Kansas City, I read the manga and watched the sequel, Innocence. It's a cool series, and I really dig the themes, atmosphere, humor, and action. The overall thrust of the series' premise and moral challenge is embedded within the title. "Ghost" refers to whatever it is that makes us human - our spirit, if you will, the part that gives us autonomy, intuition, desire. "Shell" is our physical representation in the world - out body, but in the future of GitS, the shell is almost always augmented with mechanical devices. And not only that: almost everyone in this world has "cyberized" brains: implants that allow people to see marked-up views of the world, communicate "telepathically" with others, remotely access data, and otherwise act like a giant Internet line into your mind.
Of course, that's one of the really cool things about GitS; the original story was written after the Internet but before the Web, and is really forward-looking. Through its multiple iterations over the years, the stories from the manga have been further updated, keeping that eery sense of "oooh, that could totally happen."
I've been aware of the Stand-Alone Complex for quite a while, but just now started watching it. Somewhere along the line I'd heard that it wasn't very good, and I have a long-standing policy of not wasting time on anime that isn't great. I don't remember where I heard that criticism, though, and more recently have received positive recommendations, so I decided to go for it.
I'm glad that I did! No, this isn't "Death Note," but it is one of the better anime series that I have seen for a while. It maintains the things I liked best about the original movie, while finally reflecting the strengths of the longer-form manga. Much like contemporary American drama shows, it demands a lot from its viewers, and rewards them with a really complex story that builds on itself, establishes long plot arcs, and really fleshes out the characters and their relationships.
The movies focused on Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, and with good reason; they're the two most striking members of Section Nine. However, the entire squad is talented and enjoyable, and I loved seeing them fleshed out more. The best improvements in the series are the Old Man and Ishikawa. Both were in the movies, but stayed mostly in the background. The Old Man gets about as much screen time here as the Major and Batou, and we actually get a chance to dig into his mind a little bit. Ishikawa is still usually background, but a really entertaining and interesting background. He reminds me of someone particular who I worked with: extremely competent, calm, intelligent, with a dry sense of humor and an impressive beard.
The first GitS movie spliced together a couple of stories from the first manga. The second GitS movie was kind of interesting; it took stories from the first manga that had occurred before the original stories, but set them after it chronologically; it worked, but was definitely out of sequence.
Here, I think most of the SAC stories were new. There are still plenty of things taken from the manga. I enjoyed seeing the tachikoma, and especially the short segments at the end of each episode, which perfectly captured the spirit of the tachikoma doodles that used to be included as the very end of manga issues. There are some other artistic things borrowed from the manga, such as the director of a medical equipment company who has put himself into a bizarre-looking small box with legs and wheels. In the manga, that director becomes the major focus of a story; here, he's more of an amusing plot device in connection with another story
Anyways. This is a full series, and has a lot of nifty one-off episodes. The overall arc, though, deals with a cyber-criminal known as The Laughing Man. The thread is introduced a little way into the series, fades away, is hinted at, leads to a major incident at the half-season mark, burns away for a while longer, and then leads to the finale. It's really fascinating to see everyone process through the problem, which is almost fully incomprehensible and yet irresistible.
It also does a good job of getting back to the main point of GitS, which is the tension between man and machine, and, more specifically, trying to identify just what makes us human. If a robot can think and act on its own, does it have a soul? Should it have rights? What if it developed a sense of humor? What if it gained the capacity to disobey its owner? At the opposite extreme, if your brain is moved to another body, do "you" still exist? Are you still the same person? What if someone cloned you? What if they cloned you and copied your memories?
The Laughing Man is the ultimate hacker in a world where computers reach everywhere and everything. The coolest, creepiest moments of the show come when someone encounters The Laughing Man in real life, physically standing next to him, only to have him suddenly vanish, or an icon display over his face. The Laughing Man exploits the connectedness of everyone, rewriting the reality within others' brains. It's chilling, but at the same time, it's the cost people pay for having accepted the benefits of cybrid brain technology.
It isn't all tech, though. You gradually learn that The Laughing Man's crusade is more about the political and economic structures of Japan. He's the ultimate avatar of technology, but he draws his inspiration from J. D. Salinger. Another benefit of the longer form of this anime series is that you really get a feel for the bureaucracy that Section Nine operates within (or, more accurately, outside of) and the politics that drive policy. It's all nicely complex and intriguing, and feels thoroughly realistic. I might even go so far as to say topical - I don't follow Japanese government all that closely, but I do know that collusion between government, civil service, and business is built into the system. Some moments of SAC felt like particularly pointed satire, or the vented frustration of someone fed up with the status quo.
Oh, I almost forgot to write about the art! It's really, really pretty. The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous and lush; I suspect that it's the same studio that made Advent Children, because it has that same level of photorealism, down to amazing hair and lighting. The body of the episode doesn't have that same level of production, but still looks really good. It's all computer-generated, and has a really smooth, clean look throughout. The cars in particular show really well. There's plenty of good movement throughout; I think anime has finally broken out from the meme of "hold a single image in the frame for as long as we can get away with it." The action scenes are extremely well-done, with great kinetic energy that still lets you see everything. And the characters... I suppose we can't give too much credit for character design, since they're faithful to the precedent in the manga, but the execution is excellent.
Stand Alone Complex is a different beast from the earlier movies and manga, but it keeps the coolest aspects of the characters and themes, and provides a really interesting and complex new plot. There's a great blend of thought-provoking speculative fiction with fun action scenes and random bits of silliness. Stand Alone Complex wears its mantle very well.