The first season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was some of the very best television I had seen, animated or not; the second season is not only an admirable successor to the original but may even be better in some ways. It is certainly every bit as exciting and gorgeous to look at, and it expands on the stories of all the characters we’ve come to know and grow fascinated with: the masterful Major Kusanagi, the rough-and-tumble Bateau, the Everyman-as-black-ops-man Togusa. And of course we still have the comic-relief Tachikomas, who play like a philosophical manzai troupe in robot bodies.The second season of the show picks up immediately where the first one left off, shortly after the death and rebirth of Section 9, a high-tech black-ops / Special Forces team within a future incarnation of the Japanese government. The show is ostensibly set thirty years or so in the future, but it’s identifiably about the here-and-now: the biggest issue of the day is a crisis involving what to do with the millions of refugees displaced in the wake of the last war, a thinly-disguised version of the immigration question. Questions about what to do and where to put them have grown ugly and violent, and with the installation of a new Prime Minister, Kabayuki—a woman who sees Section 9 as something she must use, for good or ill, to ensure that their country has a future.
Aramaki, the white-haired chief of Section 9, is not thrilled about the way his unit is being used for gruntwork. Kusanagi has a harder time believing that, but she works to keep the other team-members in line—especially Bateau, who chomps at the bit often and is disgusted with being used so overtly as a political tool. But a lapdog Section 9 might be better than no Section 9 at all, and so they knuckle under—at least until they discover how their new handlers may be working as much at cross purposes with each other as they are with them. (The show doesn’t see governments as fundamentally corrupt so much as fundamentally inert. They’re like computers in the sense of they only do what they’re told, and if they’re given bad input they go haywire.)
Most of Section 9’s new work involves confronting and stopping a shadowy cadre of terrorists called the “Individual Eleven”, all bent on engineering catastrophe to force public opinion to turn against the refugees. A less-thoughtful show would use a computer disk or some other equally disposable MacGuffin to point the way towards the “Eleven”, but GitS:SAC:2G (yes, it’s even unwieldy when abbreviated) is shot through with smarts and ambition on every level: the key clue is not a virus or a program but a political essay of questionable origin, and even more questionable contents. The whole notion of ideas or information as living things is not new, of course, but the show does the conceit justice in so many different levels; it’s refreshing to see the ideas taken seriously and not simply used as plot gimmicks. They also neatly avoid the trap, as seen in shows like 24 and their ilk, of using ever more absurd and outlandish incidents to artificially ratchet up the tension with each successive episode. You can only threaten to explode a terrorist nuke / dirty bomb / anthrax-laden letter so many times before it finally just gets boring.
The “Eleven” are bad enough, but even worse is the appearance of Gohda, a manipulative government official with his fingers in literally everything. He’s like a grotesque out of a Goya painting, with his hideously-scarred face and frozen half-smile courtesy of a failed assassination attempt. Kusanagi doesn’t trust him for a moment, but he covers his tracks well enough to pose a challenge to her—and by now we know Kusanagi well enough to believe that she is not about to back down when offered a challenge that huge and tempting. Gohda has lines that are reminiscent of the Jack Nicholson character in Scorsese’s The Departed: he’s determined to make his environment (i.e., Japan) a reflection of him, instead of vice versa, and will do just about anything to make that happen. That his ideas happen to make a gruesome kind of sense is also not lost on the audience—or on Kusanagi, who seems torn between admiring his methodology and despising his aims.
Abstruse as the politics are in 2nd GiG, one notion that emerges pretty clearly is how the concept of a democratic society may have been nothing more than a transitional phase from one kind of despotism to another, much as we would like to not believe that. A free and open society may be a luxury that we simply can't afford in a world this borderless and troubled. But the show also offers counter-arguments here and there, thank goodness: Democracy may be inefficient and cumbersome, but at least you can swap out the parts that don’t work. Despots are—to coin a phrase—hard-wired right in, and the only way to get them out is to blow up the whole thing. Kusanagi may solve most of her problems by pointing a gun at them (or hacking into them), but even she knows better than to believe that’s a universal mandate. Most problems are not solved with bullets, just postponed—or redirected.
Of course the show looks terrific. GitS got its lush look courtesy of the talents of Production I.G, the animation studio that seems to be responsible for almost every series I’ve admired lately: Otogi-zoshi, and of course the first GitS season. Their hallmark is fusing high-end digital production techniques with a conventional hand-drawn look in a way that’s complementary and not distracting. The Tachikomas may have all been rendered in LightWave, but they’re seen as characters and not props (or, worse, merely set dressing). One minor quibble is how the character designs aren’t terribly consistent between episodes—there are times when Kusanagi looks a little too baby-faced—but then again, there are days when I get up and barely even recognize my own face in the mirror. I can forgive a lot with a show this smart. And then there is Yoko Kanno’s tremendous musical score and ambient soundtrack, which stands alone—pun intended—even without the show to support it.
I’ve praised the quality of GitS’s writing and directing as much as its visuals, but I’ll give some more detailed examples. 2nd GiG has two episodes, about halfway through, which are emblematic of what the show is all about and why. The first involves Togusa being put on the witness stand, in a trial designed to exonerate a man with an allegedly-malfunctioning prosthetic body; call it the cybernetic version of the Twinkie Defense. What the prosecution does not anticipate, and more importantly what Togusa himself doesn’t anticipate either, is how Section 9 has a way of taking care of its own whether they like it or not. They may be “above the law”, but that doesn’t mean they have no sense of justice—although Togusa reserves the right to be embittered about what happens. His behavior throughout the episode reinforces for me why he’s part of their crew in the first place: he keeps them grounded in the part of the world that is still humane.
The other episode, however, is among the finest things that have ever been created for the Ghost in the Shell mythology as a whole. It involves Motoko’s past, and the long-unspoken story of how she finally ended up with that prosthetic body, how she became its master instead of its prisoner, and also at what great wells of emotion are probably held inside her and out of sight from her comrades (and everyone else). The whole thing is deployed with great beauty and even poetry, and at the end we understand it as part of the process of a person’s life instead of just a long-gone episode. These are not things someone might typically expect from a hard science-fiction show about future super-police—but where movies like Blade Runner first ventured, others are now following more aggressively and confidently, bringing their own unique touch to the material. Under it all, the show knows that all these things are happening to people with personalities, and respects that completely.
The provenance of the GitS mythology has changed hands a few times, but against all expectations it’s grown progressively more interesting with each leap. The original creator, manga-ka Masamune Shirow, seemed more interested in using it as a launching pad for action scenes and stylized art than exploring it as a serious story—and when he did explore it as a serious story, he buried it under a welter of silly techno-babble. Then came filmmaker Mamoru Oshii, who turned the raw ideas in the comic into two dreamy, deeply erudite swan-dives into the waters of the unconscious. Oshii is obsessed with the idea of memory as being possibly even bigger than cognition in terms of what makes us human, and his concerns elevated GitS into a whole new realm. Kenji Kamiyama, a co-collaborator with Oshii on his grim political thriller Jin-roh, applied his sense of gritty realpolitik to the GitS universe for its TV incarnations. It’s fascinating how each successive custodian of GitS has managed to add something new to it without taking anything else away, and how instead of becoming shopworn and stale it has instead grown all the more adventurous and compelling.
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