The Ghost in the Shell mythology, originally from Masamune Shirow’s manga, has been spun off into two feature-length films, a set of video games, and now a 26-episode TV series that may outshine them all put together. In fact, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (as the series has been titled) ranks among the very best productions for TV I’ve ever seen, animated or live-action. Aside from being technically accomplished in every respect, it’s excellently written and directed, and the implications of everything it touches on stay with you long after the final episodes.
Those not familiar with the GitS mythology don’t need to read the comics or see the films: the show stands alone, pun intended. Set in the year 2029, it deals with a society where cybernetization and the interconnectedness of things has become commonplace. Prosthetic bodies and digital brains are as ubiquitous as artificial knees are today, and the network of information that flows around the world has become a birthplace for whole new ways of life. Yet people still drive cars, eat food, shop at the grocery store, save for their retirements, and commit crimes.
Against this backdrop, the government has formed Section 9, a small off-the-books unit of former mercenaries and conscripted felons. They’ve been re-tooled and re-schooled to deal with the crimes of the future, but old-school brawn and sleuthing skills still come into play and are ultimately what give them their edge. Most of the crime they deal with involves the flow of information in some way, whether it’s mere data theft or something like a man downloading his brain into a military-grade cybertank. This is, incidentally, the plot of the second episode in the series, and what makes it most compelling is not the amazing animation but the elegiac story behind his motives.
Section 9’s commander-in-chief, Motoko Kusanagi, is one of the most immediately recognizable faces (and bodies) in anime: a childhood accident forced her to be put into a cybernetic body early on, and she found it engaging rather than dehumanizing. She thinks of her body as a suit of clothes, but at the same time maintains the sense that there’s always some part of you that never goes away: the “Ghost,” as she calls it (as per ghost in the machine, of course). She’s proud to be a hybrid of man, machine and pure intelligence, and her pride not only fills everything she does but inspires her teammates as well.
Section 9's senior, Aramaki, gets to be more than just the cranky old man in charge,
while their odd-man-out, Togusa, has the outsider's perspective they often need.
Her teammates are equally interesting. Bateau, the chunky ex-merc with the artificial eyes, reports directly to Kusanagi but thinks of her as being an equal at the very least. He has his own pride as well, but he hides its real significance. There is a sad episode where Bateau takes down a man he respects deeply (despite his criminal tendencies), and finds himself enraged and disappointed because the whole thing seemed pathetically easy. Togusa is the only family man of the group, and the least cybernetically enhanced, which puts him on the outside in a number of ways. He’s far more physically and emotionally vulnerable, but that also gives him a perspective about the goings-on that the others may lack.
In many stories of this type the unit’s supervisor is usually a shadowy figure whose personality is limited to offering caution. Aramaki, the former Army officer charged with leading Section 9, is given a great deal of character development. He’s quite proud of the team he’s built, but he is also willing to sacrifice its immediate presence for the principles it stands for, even if it means a great deal of pain. He also has a quietly sentimental side, which comes out best in a side episode where he and Kusanagi are in London and an old flame of Aramaki’s appears without warning.
Section 9's greatest challenge comes in the form of the Laughing Man,
the "culture-jammer" and information thief who may not even really exist.
The title of the show has multiple meanings. For one, the episodes are divided into two categories. The Stand Alone episodes have self-contained plots, but their themes and some of their story elements feed back into the series at large and are often revisited. The Complex episodes are all one bigger story, involving a mysterious information thief dubbed “The Laughing Man,” and the depth and, yes, complexity of this particular part of the series is as good as the best fiction. One of the many, many ideas bandied about by the Laughing Man plot is how ideas can take on a life of their own, and how just the assumed presence of something can cause people to act in ways they never would have before.
Kusanagi and the others determine over time that the Laughing Man — if he even exists at all — was trying to expose one of the many varieties of corporate malfeasance that make headlines daily. What they find as they dig deeper, however, was that the Laughing Man may not have been the aggressor, but the victim, and that he dug deep enough that he found things that even appalled him. The amount of dirt dislodged by Section 9 winds up staining other, even more shadowy branches of the government, and soon the crew has to fight for their very lives when they find themselves disavowed by their own government.
Among Section 9's weapons arsenal: the playful but powerful Tachikoma, who develop
personalities far in excess of what their programming would have originally allowed.
The show looks terrific, of course. GitS:SAC was produced in the animation labs of Production I.G, the same outfit that has contributed to such disparate productions as the Sakura Wars movie, The Animatrix,Mind Game,Dead Leaves, and many others. Many of the episodes are on the level of a well-produced feature film; even the lesser ones still have an attention to detail and a real beauty about them. The show’s designers are of course in love with machinery of all kinds, from the prosthetic bodies of the cast to the Tachikoma, a group of playful, spiderlike robot tanks that have been designed to develop their own A.I.-based personalities (and may have become a little too successful at it).
The other reason for the show’s success is something that seems to be a common element with many things I like — namely, the show assumes its audience is smart, and plays along. The Laughing Man, for instance, uses hackery to obscure his face on video displays, replacing it with an icon surrounded by the text: I figured what I’d do is, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. This is, of course, a quote from The Catcher in the Rye, and the show not only openly acknowledges the connection but pays quiet homage to a number of the book’s tropes, and even makes Salinger’s own muteness as an author into an element. There’s a lot to watch for in the show, not just the first time but on repeat viewings, and they are not simply used as in-jokes but are woven into the very fabric of the story.
Eventually Section 9 is forced to fight for its survival against
the very government that created it, and must die to be reborn anew.
I read the original Ghost in the Shell manga long before I’d seen the movie(s) or the TV series, and it is remarkably unlike either of them in tone. Shirō’s story was originally a lot jokier and goofier, and for that reason disappointed me: I felt like he didn’t take his own ideas very seriously, and for that matter, why should we? The film, written and directed by Mamoru Oshii (Avalon), pared the plot of the comic down to its bare essentials and dealt with it in cool, almost dreamlike terms; the sequel film was no less dreamy, and also paid homage to Shirō’s omnivorous cultural imagination. The TV series is mostly serious in tone, but smartly keeps most of the jokey stuff confined — the Tachikomas are the big comic relief here, and they appear in hilarious little one-minute skit shorts at the end of each episode.
The breadth of themes touched on in the show put many live-action works to shame. Obviously most of the episodes deal in some way with the narrowing relationship between men and machines, but there are other things that are just as compelling: the way the “information society” is turning into an “idea society”; the relevance of clandestine operations to modern-day politics; the question of whether acts of great social responsibility can be used to overcome a sense of personal isolation that persist despite our growing interconnectedness. This last issue is something that Kusanagi mentions in the final episode, and by that time we can imagine that she has felt something very much like it. So much so that she’s coined a name for it: the Stand-Alone Complex.