The four episodes that comprise Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Vol. 02 sustain the series’ exploration of the relationship between humans and machines. More ambitious than the earlier episodes, they do not disappoint. They flesh out the complex, cybernetic world introduced in the first volume, and continue to raise nuanced philosophical questions.
Set in 2029, GITS: SAC centers on an elite police unit, Section 9. Operating in a world where the “net” is a seamless virtual reality and most people are cyborgs, Section 9’s specialty is cyber-crime. The agents can “jack in” to a network that enables them, among other things, to communicate telepathically and instantly access data archives. They are also capable, with their cybernetic bodies, of superhuman feats of strength, speed, and agility.
The team’s leader is comely, hard-as-nails Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), whose “ghost,” or consciousness, inhabits a completely artificial body. Troubled by this in-between status, Kusanagi wonders whether she is a mere mechanical functionary, or has an emotional and spiritual life independent of her body. She and her partners—the literally steel-eyed Bateau (Akio Ôtsuka), who still retains some fleshy body parts, and newbie Togusa (Koichi Yamadera), as yet not cyborg-ed—offer a spectrum of possible relationships between humans and technology.
Like the first volume, the DVD features Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and includes several extras. Volume 2 includes interviews with Osamu Saka, the voice of Aramaki, Section 9’s sage chief, and composer Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame. Additionally, each episode is accompanied by a comic short featuring the Tachikomas—cute, childlike robots who assist Kusanagi and her team. A 3-disc Special Edition (not available for review) contains the same content in both Dolby and DTS Surround Sound, plus a CD soundtrack.
Picking up where Volume 1 leaves off, Volume 2 begins with two episodes devoted to the “Laughing Man,” a mysterious hacker who publicly takes over the minds and speech of government officials to expose hypocrisy and corruption. His greatest strength is that he seems to be everywhere, controlling not only what is said, but what is seen. He can control his targets, as well as the perceptions of their audience. To them, the speaker appears as a two-dimensional icon—a smiling face ringed with a quote from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf mutes.” Invoking Holden Caulfield’s disaffection, the Laughing Man appears to be a counter-culture figure intent on mayhem.
But the story becomes increasingly tangled, an X-Files-style conspiracy full of red herrings and dead ends. After a long, fruitless stakeout, Kusanagi abandons the investigation of their prime suspect to serve protection detail at the speech of a key government minister. Just before the minister is scheduled to speak, the Laughing Man hacks into the brain of one of his bodyguards and attempts to assassinate him. After taking down the affected guard, the rest of the security team attempts to escort the minister out of the building, only to be confronted by a series of civilians and other security people, each claiming to be the Laughing Man and attacking the minister. Like the ubiquitous Agents in the Matrix movies (which were based on the original GITS), the villain appears to be both everyone and no one. By the end of the second episode, the Laughing Man and his agenda are only more mysterious.
This storyline is perhaps overly elaborate for the half hour segments, and it relies heavily on jargon-laced dialogue to communicate intricate plot points. Some of the finer details are probably lost in the translation from Japanese, but the twists and intrigues eventually become so complicated as to be utterly puzzling. But more important than plot are the questions explored—is the Laughing Man a byproduct of media saturation gone awry? Or is he just another cog in a system that controls what we see, hear, and think on a daily basis? The story can be read as an oblique critique of mass media: brain-hacking literalizes the process by which our experiences are constructed by the powers that be.
The remaining two episodes explore altogether different themes. The first involves the pursuit of a South American revolutionary and suspected drug trafficker who has miraculously resurfaced in Japan despite rumors of his assassination. Following a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, the team eventually uncovers the secret technology behind his apparent immortality, a process called “soul-dubbing.” This discovery would have been more revelatory had it not been for the use of the same theme in Mamoru Oshii’s big-screen sequel GITS 2: Innocence, which opened in the U.S. last month. The timing is unfortunate, since the TV series pre-dates the film, but the “soul-dubbing” technology and its philosophical repercussions fare much better in the full-length movie treatment. There simply isn’t enough time to delve into it fully in the TV format.
In the final episode, Kusanagi must confront her own past as a human-turned-cyborg when she and the team expose an illegal organ-smuggling ring. This episode, more than the others, delivers good, old-fashioned, bombastic action—car chases, explosions, flying assaults—including some eye-popping camera angles and striking transitions. It also delves more deeply into the psychological, revealing a darker side of Kusanagi as she verbally abuses the ringleader, exacting a punishment that is more personal vengeance than straightforward law enforcement.
We also get to see more of the “other side” of Kusanagi, quite literally, as this volume contains more of the gratuitous crotch and ass close-ups that sporadically appeared in Volume 1. At least this time out, Kusanagi gets a new wardrobe, trading in her tired lavender bustier and leather jacket in one episode for military khakis, heels, and a pair of thigh-high hose; in another, she dons skin-tight, black body armor. No matter what the look, it’s not surprising that the Major’s outfits are designed as much for titillation as for utility.
What is surprising is that, for the first time, the Major’s femininity becomes an issue, if only as the subject of some light-hearted banter at the end of the fourth episode. Relaxing after a successful investigation, Bateau and Kusanagi trade jibes, quickly escalating things into a battle of the sexes. Kusanagi teases Batou for spending his hard earned money on more weight-training equipment. He in turn asks her why she doesn’t just get a male body, which would be stronger than the female version she has now. She challenges him to a fistfight, but when he puts up his dukes, she uses her superior mental ability (and presumably an ability to hack into Bateau’s augmented cyborg brain) to make him punch his own face. It’s a pseudo-feminist moment, asserting that one needn’t be physically strong (or male) to win. But it also reveals something of the Major’s incontrovertible humanity: in a world where one can appear as anything one wants, she clings to her original identity as a woman.