Friday, June 6, 2014

Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex

"Do you believe in the existence of the soul?"
-Android And I, Episode 3, one of the many episodes to discuss the idea of the machine becoming self-aware or acquiring a ghost-

Of all of the fruitful anime franchises that exist, next to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost In The Shell easily ranks among the best and among my personal favorites. As often as I revisit the original Mamoru Oshii film, Ghost In The Shell (1995), inspired by the manga works of Masamune Shirow, and that inspired the likes of directors James Cameron as well as the Wachowski's own The Matrix (1999) trilogy, I am often taken with the rich, thoughtful and beautifully animated universe that was created on film. Each viewing seems to unravel new layers and details offering a new appreciation for different aspects of that mythology as well as the philosophical musings of Oshii that sometimes translate poorly to the moving picture. Oshii is something of an acquired taste and patience is sometimes required.

Ghost In The Shell may be one of Oshii's finest moments where his affection and tendency to talk an audience to death or hang on a given moment for an extended period never seems to languish to the point of boredom, but rather succeeds in conveying his intended desire to muse philosophically on the beauty of what it means to be human or those existential questions of what separates man and machine? These are always the wonderful underpinnings of Ghost In The Shell's thematic and existential subtext that is embraced by fans of that world. Can an android develop its own ghost in the shell or consciousness? If so, what then, free will? Oshii's Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence (2004) further examines these themes with quite possibly some of the most beautiful animation of his career. It may have been his finest moment visually speaking. The man can bring to life worlds and artistically render a basset hound like no other. In fact, it makes sense this 'verse shares some of the same thoughtful ruminations of existence and what it means to live with the classic Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott or even author Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968) Oshii and the Ghost In The Shell themes ponder such weighty and complex questions and concepts equally so. There is indeed a spiritual thematic connection to those predecessors.

For those unencumbered by the often talky, lengthy use of exposition, they could likewise turn to Oshii's equally beautiful films for Patlabor: The Movie (1989) and Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993). These films lend themselves less to the groupthink-styled, Headgear-driven OVA series for Mobile Police Patlabor (1988), of which Oshii was affiliated, and more toward the less comedic as well as Oshii's natural tendency to explore the concepts of man and technology and the balance or imbalance of those worlds.

I had always missed out on a proper exploration of the more, allegedly action-based Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002-2003), a series that offers a natural extension to some of the ideas and concepts first explored in Shirow's manga as well as Oshii's film. Despite the series grounding in a heady and often pensive approach, director/writer Kenji Kamiyama was unafraid to take things to the next level and deliver fans of this universe a little more of the action that tantalized many in the original Oshii film. But Kamiyama is just as unabashed in maintaining an inclination for the cerebral too.

Budgeted at roughly 800 million yen (6.8 million US dollars), the twenty-six episode run of GITS:SAC, the standard number of episodes for a Japan TV series in anime, delivers fourteen Stand Alone entry cases like the excellent Idolator and Testation and twelve Complex stories within a more sophisticated ongoing Laughing Man plot arc. GITS:SAC applies the same formula and approach that was applied to series like The X-Files or Fringe, except here it is identified within the show's very title. Avoiding ambiguity is hardly a trademark of the Japanese when it comes to anime but there it is.

GITS:SAC begins with a fine introduction, Episode 1, Section-9 in order to acquaint fans of this new series to the new stylized approach centered around Public Security Section 9 comprised of human and cyborg (humans complete with prosthetic components) agents. Kamiyama, in effect, places more emphasis on the elite team concept building a kind of super group around lead character and cybernetic human Major Motoko Kusanagi. Though the sexy cyborg lead is very much a part of an ensemble cast complemented by Batou, Togusa, Ishikawa, Saito, Paz, Borma and led by Daisuke Aramaki. Kamiyama also introduces a new concept in the form of the blue, spider-like mech called Tachikomas, artificially intelligent think tanks. The roving think tanks serve to aid the Section 9 armored riot police unit and investigators whilst their own AI systems continue to self-develop.

Episode 2, Testation, a stand alone highlight, is a thrill ride bursting at the seams with wonderful animation and color from Kusanagi's new look to the free-styling blue Tachikoma units with which agents can insert themselves.

In fact, Testation is a nice spin on classic anime concepts. The idea of rogue mechs is certainly not a new one, but the team behind GITS:SAC deliver a gem of fun whilst also infusing the script with a generally sad commentary on humanity through a tragic love story. Though I loved the entry I kept feeling a sense of deja vu on one level as the team pursued a rogue heavy-assault, multi-ped tank. The story borrows inspiration from one of Patlabor: The TV Series finest entries. The early episode was Episode 5, Runaway Labor X-10! (1989), a phenomenally exciting thrill chase between the officers of Mobile Police Patlabor in their respective Ingrams (Alphonse) in pursuit of a devastating military weapon. Testation, in effect, pays homage to Patlabor, but offers an exceptional riff on the idea of an experimental weapon amok by infusing the creation with the mind of its creator and an agenda that is devastating in its emotional pay off.

So the themes of man attempting to find balance and harmony with technology falters somewhere between a proper marriage with the benefits of a harmonic connection and a stumbling towards war between the two. Patlabor, another exceptional anime franchise, and Ghost In The Shell are two of the best at illustrating Japan's struggle with both the benefits and ills of a technological world. Japan, always a nation grounded in the natural world and a respect for its revered past, also embraces the challenges of the modern world, and that dichotomy is often beautifully animated in these two aforementioned series.

Testation is indeed a hallmark of the GITS:SAC series packed with dynamic, gorgeously animated action sequences and bold designs. This is the high watermark of the Stand Alone entries and sets the bar for eye-popping visual entertainment coupled with a story filled with real heart.

Episode 3, Android And I, explores the concept of the ghost further and leaves viewers pondering the idea of self-awareness and the kinds of themes that were popularized in Blade Runner.

Episode 4, Interceptor, takes us into the world of The Laughing Man, similar in concept to the hacker Puppet Master in the original Oshii film, and the arc that not only pays homage to the work of Oshii, but sets up the longstanding Complex story arc of the series. It's also an arc that does its fair share of talking too. It's not recommended viewing when sleep is edging its way into your eyes in the late hours of a day.  These computer hacker stories can get long-winded, but there is certainly enough intrigue to break up the political diatribes. The arc centers on cyber brain (artificially augmented brains) infection or ghost-hacking and individual cyber-hacking. In essence, to put it simply, GITS:SAC takes zombie infection into the virtual world.

The series is filled to the rim with positively glorious mech design from the chatty spider-like Tachikomas to the scorpion-inspired Kenbishi Heavy Industries HAW206 Prototype to the Jigabachi flight craft and much more. The series is just brimming with equal amounts eye candy and mental provocation for the more mature, discerning anime geek. Though, and with no intention to denigrate the production, GITS:SAC is a bit more accessible and mainstream than the films, but truthfully it is really no less ambitious and often times dense in terms of mythology. Understanding the high tech concepts of modernity within its universe, particularly with its unique Japanese foundation and aesthetic, offers its challenges. From the cutesy accessibility of those Tachikoma voices to the snug-fitting sex appeal and allure of the now beautiful and less androgynous Kusanagi demonstrated a boldness by creators to take the series and shoot for a much larger audience. But apart from those touches, there is also indeed a pacing to this sexy, stylish series that can be appreciated by audiences with a shorter attention span whilst still retaining the more cerebral elements the franchise had on offer to reward its more patient ad demanding fans.

Hottie agent Kusanagi is a bit like UFO's Gabrielle Drake with an ability to kick ass. But seriously how exactly is that form-fitting uniform bureau-approved? How do those men actually concentrate? At least, the human Togusa. I mean she may not be human but she's spectacular. And how the heck did the Tachikoma's receive approval for those child-like audio sound systems? Yet somehow it all kind of works actually. All of it contributes beautifully to Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex making it a unique, clever, meticulously produced and original anime series that remains one of the finest on the market despite the sometimes weak scripting coupled with smart ambitious ideas.

Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex: B+.
Writer: Kenji Kamiyama.
Director: Kenji Kamiyama.
Studio: Production I.G. (1987-present) (Evangelion, Patlabor, FLCL, Ghost In The Shell).

1. Section-9.
2. Testation.
3. Android And I.
4. Interceptor.
5. Decoy.
6. Meme.
7. Idolater.
8. Missing Hearts.
9. Chat! Chat! Chat!.
10. Jungle Cruise.
11. Portraitz.
12. Escape From.
13. Not Equal.
14. YE$.
15. Machines Desirantes.
16. Ag20.
17. Angel's Share.
18. Lost Heritage.
19. Captivated.
20. Re-View.
21. Eraser.
22. Scandal.
23. Equinox.
24. Annihilation.
25. Barrage.
26. Stand Alone Complex.

Images taken from Episode 2, Testation.

Oh and fan(ny) service. There is so that.


Roman J. Martel said...

Great to have you back! And with a review of SAC no less!

You are right on the money with this series. It was a blast to watch when I gave it a spin last year. A perfect balance of Oshii's visualization but injected with more action and tighter pacing.

Not sure if you ever read Shirow's manga, but SAC is actually a lot closer to that. Shirow has a lot of humor and action in his manga. He also had the Tachikoma but called them Fuchikoma. Same child like attitudes, and they would often get into discussions with each other in little interludes in the manga.

Still the Major is one of my favorite anime gals. She's tough, resourceful, and looks great in her body armor. ;) Your last image had me chuckling and drooling all at once. Messy. ;)

SFF said...

Well, you inspired me to get cracking and it happened to be on something I enjoyed.

I have not read Shirow's manga in full disclosure. I've certainly seen images and bits but never sat and read one.

I knew they wanted the Fuchikomas but there was some kind of a licensing issue and thus alas the Tachikomas were born. I love them by the way.

And yes, Kusanagi is one of those amazingly complex (pun actually not intended) female heroines. She is sexy, smart, cool and tough but really thoughtfully designed in personality in general. She is hot!

Cheers Roman.

El Vox said...

I've seen the Ghost in the Shell movie & own a copy, but have yet to watch the other spin offs or read the manga. Cool art though, so I may have put a disc or two on my NF list and see what I think about them.

SFF said...

I've enjoyed the series for the most part. Still have about twelve to go as of this writing.

I would have enjoyed more installments along the lines of Testation as pictured in this post.

Art is sharp particularly in this episode.

All the best.