Wookiee Hut Animated Series Reviews presents:
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Animated Series Review by Diana DeRiggs & MaceVindaloo

Author/Creator: Masamune Shirow

Animation: Production I.G.

Director: Kenji Kamiyama

Producer: Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and Shigeru Watanabe

Screenplay: Shotaro Suga, Yoshiki Sakurai, Dai Sato, Jyunichi Fujisaki and Nobuhisa Terada

Music: Yoko Kanno

Distributor: Bandai Entertainment

Rating: Super Star Destroyer

The movie Ghost in the Shell was not your average cartoon animated movie — it was deeply philosophical, delving into ethics, the nature of life, and of existance. Some say it was slow and dull compared to the manga; we say it was thought-provoking and intellectual both in subject and in execution, and one of the best animated movies ever. The animé television series contains elements of the same pathway, but is less about Major Kusanagi's delving into her own issues, more about Section 9 itself, and it's much simpler to understand even though it's still not for shallow swimmers. It's less brooding and mid-life-crisis-y. It's been said that Stand Alone Complex moves along as if the original "Puppetmaster" had never existed, but we think it's because this series chronologically predates the movie, not postdating, as everyone says it does ...

Oops, getting ahead ... anyway, that's not really the point ... this animated series is tightly written, has plenty of action for shoot-'em-up buffs (this is likely why the whiners were complaining about — more of this rough and tumble battle stuff, more Kusanagi the babe-bot doing Jedi-like flips and jumps — she wears less here than in the original movie), lots of gratuitous butt shots, a hot chick, angry buff men with secret pasts, cute and adorable battle tanks. Can't ask for more!

The basics: in the not-too-distant future, the line between machines and humans is blurred, with humans replacing their bodies and brains with cybernetic parts and machines achieving some sort of awareness of the nature of the differences between themselve and humans. There are many ethical, political, financial, and emotional reasons to not get a cybernetic brain, or not to get a complete cyborg body. There are many safety, moral and other reasons to keep robots as robots, and humans as humans. But in the future, people will want to extend their health and their lives and enhance their mental and physical abilities. They will find it irresistable not to create their perfect man or woman. These are themes investigated by many great sci-fi writers and moviemakers, of course ... but mix it with cyberpunk style and an illustrator who draws hentai / erotica, you get a very edgy look-and-feel and some rather "interesting" ethics calls.

The title of the series is a double entendre, not actually a weird "Japglish" translation of something unrelated. The 26 episodes either "stand alone" or are part of a "complex" story centering on "The Laughing Man" — the ultimate hacker. In the world of 2030, the Internet has taken over as the major means of communication and information storage. The 'net is as real as anything in the physical world; chatrooms are depicted literally as round tables with 3-D animated avatars sitting either at the table itself or in the stands "lurking." Pieces of information — like emails — are manifested as discus-like things (like in Tron), and cybercriminals are the new "wild west" type celebrities. The round table chatters argue how cool The Laughing Man is, is there only one, are all the crimes attributed to him really by him? There are copycat criminals, which muddle the original crimes. It's a brave new world.

When brains are cybernetic, they can be hacked, and memories can be erased or implanted at will. Witnesses are no longer reliable when they honestly believe what they'd experienced is the truth. Their testimony can no longer "stand" on its own ...

The other meaning of "stand alone complex" is the desire to be one alone in a sea of many. This theme is investigated in several episodes. In one, a man falls in love with his customizable android, and endeavors to "kill off" all others like her, in order to make her unique ... and thus "real." For isn't part of the essence of being human the ability to claim your own uniqueness? In another, the lauded "Laughing Man" is a super-genius cyber-criminal, elevated to legend by his fans. There are many who want to be this super-hacker, robbing him of his "stand-alone" status.

The cops in this world are cyber-specialists themselves, some only with the minimal implants to be able to communicate wirelessly by thinking toward their colleagues, others at least 50% cyborg. The cyborgs are structurally no different from the androids and robot "dolls" which are basically slaves to the humans; the only difference is the presence of a "ghost" — a soul. Thus "Ghost in the Shell" — the soul in the doll.

Section 9 is the special force which specializes in cybercrimes with its invisible criminals; protection of foreign and important domestic dignitaries; infiltration; political conspiracy and intrigue; and other incidents the police or the military simply cannot handle for lack of expertise or for adverse publicity reasons. At the head is Aramaki, a wizened flesh and blood human who is affectionately called "Daddy" by his field operatives. Major Motoko Kusanagi — the hot babe who can beat the crap out of anyone and hack your brain and see through your eyes — leads the team, followed by Batou, a brawny human with artificial eyes and cybernetic body parts. They provide most of the brain and brawn; others on the team include sniper and artillery specialists, information gatherers, pilots, detectives. There are eight in all and they are a formidable crew.

They have a team of AI (artificial intelligence) technicians available to them, and many, many androids. The most impressive and problematic of the supporters are the tachikoma, the multi-legged, spiderlike mini battle tanks which have AI programs running in their brains, to help them operate independently and unpredictably in the field. They are constantly learning; when they return to base, they plug into one database, enabling the eight tachikoma to benefit from their new data.

Each of the 26 episodes can be standalones, but like life, they are woven into a set of incidents which relate — or not — to one another. Major story lines include the aforementioned "The Laughing Man" story arc — which involved hacking, terrorism, biomedical ethics, political deception, to name a few of its topics — as well as one involving involuntary implants into employees via a camera called the interceptor; ongoing cyber viral attacks; and the very child-like tachikoma battle tanks.

The tachikoma get a lot of time in this series in contrast to the movie, where time and budget constraints forced their story line off-screen. They start out obedient and happy, but as the series goes on, they start to wonder about things they shouldn't. Eventually one runs away and has an innocent adventure with a 6-year-old girl and her dog. It learns about death and love, and starts to understand that it is denied the understanding of God because it cannot die. The tachikomas love Batou with an affection that is both charming and sad, in that it's mutual but doomed. What is God? What is love? You can imagine how the apparently cold-hearted, no-nonsense Major Kusanagi reacts to these questions from machines designed to be intelligent battle weapons.

It's not just gunplay and Jedi-like jumps and cyberhacks. The GITS property is known for it's emotional and philosophical appeal. That being said, and almost in response to the criticism at the original movie is very unlike the manga, this series is more like the manga. However, the philosophical threads and the icy-cool personality of Major Kusanagi are still there. The main appeal of this series is more about the philosophical and intellectual debates, rather than the battles. There are plenty of firefights, plenty of blood, and even some episodes that deal with visceral crimes and raw anger and passions. But the series has personality and depth, the "heart" or "ghost" missing from most animé.

The animation is once again a mixture of computer generated action and traditional cells. The movements of machines like cars are allowed to show their computer provenance; the Internet environments with their Tron-like electronic traceries are likewise drawn and generated by computers, which frankly would do a better job of it than humans. As expected with a 26-episode series, the colors are flatter, the drawings are simpler, but there has been no sacrifice in motion or story or detail — you can read what kind of lens are inserted into human eyeballs ... Unless you're some sort of nitpicking jerk, you get absorbed in the story and don't notice the lack of detail or surrealism. It is an animation, after all, and it revels in the freedoms afforded by not being a live-action film, making use of the genre to its fullest.

The colors do pop in the atmospheric depictions. Motions like breezes through hair are drawn beautifully and convincingly. And as of the third episode, the Sony Playstation game graphics are used in the opening titles instead of the drawn animation. It gives the episodes more links to the outside world, and though it's obviously a marketing ploy, it does add an additional other-worldliness to the sequence.

The opening theme music is sung by a Russian-Japanese woman named Origa, and it's beautiful, haunting, and evocative, almost new-age. The music throughout complements the moods, was balanced well with the sound of gunfire and explosions, the weapons, transports and voices. Unlike most animé, this is a case where it might be worth buying the soundtrack. Although music in animé is much better on this level than in the throwaway television shows for kids who might actually be retarded baboons, much of the music created for animé is still low-budget stuff. This was rich and flavorful, and I daresay even filled in when the visuals might have been less rich.

This effort also emphasizes that television is a very different medium from either movies or manga. This series wraps up each episode so that it could stand on its own, but like a beautiful stand-alone bead on a necklace, it is also part of a complex and richer whole. More time is given for character development and delving into the pasts of the members — both human and mechanical — of Section 9 in ways that ongoing episodics do better than movies. For instance, the relatively lower-action, philosophical, though-provoking tachikoma / Batou storyline would not have come out the same way in a movie, where it would have been forced to fit in between a stronger ongoing plotline.

I'm really glad the tachikoma showed up and revealed so much! They are awfully cute, like the bright, precocious 6-year-olds they actually are. Their innocence allows revelations about the nature of love an God to come through in what we might consider to be "natural" in manner. In fact, the subtle way the series goes into the nature of AIs is distinctive of not-a-movie. And I love their moves!

Okay, you can see we were deeply affected by the philosophical aspects of this series, a hallmark of Ghost in the Shell stories. It's a great series!

You're probably wondering, how did we get to see all 26 episodes when only six are available for sale in the US as of now? We got the Chinese version, in Japanese language with Chinese and English subtitles. Unless you understand some Japanese, don't get this version. The subtitle translations were awful — imagine that someone quickly translated from Japanese to Chinese ... then someone Chinese translated the translations into some approximation of English, meaning they don't actually communicate in English that well, and anyway, they are translating a translation ... So the "Major" became "Colonel" about 60% through the series. Names and titles change because they were phonetically Chinese instead of Japanese. In some cases, the translations were worse than just watching the action and making up what was going on by yourself. For instance, in one episode as the tachikoma were sent to the lab, they sang the sad, depressing "Dona Dona" in a cheerful tone. The translators didn't bother with the words for the subtitle, and instead just stated, "Japanese Folk Song." Huh??? The hell it is ... it's Yiddish, it's about calves being lead to slaughter and it was really, really significant to this episode.

But the series is expensive — about $20 to $40 per volume (depending on whether you buy the "standard" or "deluxe" version), and each volume has three episodes. That'll be eight or nine discs for the whole series — $160 to $360! I guess the thing to do might be go after fansub files (online fan sites with fans translating the episodes) or just wait till they're all out and get the usually cheaper boxed sets. That'll be another year or so, though.

But if you get cable and the Cartoon Network, you can watch the series in "real time" on the Adult Swim block. They had previously picked up Trigun a year or so ago. Stand Alone Complex will be broadcast in November there — don't miss it! Or you'll have to wait a year!

The voice acting in Japanese is excellent, with a full range of emotion and coloring one would expect from live action episodes. The cast from the movie has largely been brought back to reprise their roles for the television series. So though Motoko Kusanagi doesn't look the same as she did in the movie (she wears skimpier lingerie, is thinner but softer looking, etc.) she has the same voice and the same cold manner (though is less brooding a character here — different issues than in the movie). It's nice to have the continuity.

The English voice acting, from what I've heard of it, still stinks, as it did in the movie. It sounds like the actors are just tired of doing this job ... if so, get other actors! There must be plenty of voice actors dying for a chance at this type of work! So the conclusion is once again, watch it with Japanese language audio and good subtitles, even if you have to wait for it. Or maybe it's faster to learn Japanese?

Screenshots from www.production-ig.com and www.production-ig.co.jp
Game character graphic from www.playstation.jp

Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. This webpage is presented by Wookieehut.com.