Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Vol. 01 (2004)

Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film version of Shirow Masamune’s manga Ghost in the Shell is an anime classic. The first anime to mix computer and hand-drawn techniques also redefined the genre. Combining audacious action, sexy, futuristic style, and heady musings on human consciousness, GITS made us think twice about what it means to be human in a world increasingly crowded with machines.

Set in 2029, GITS 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 Otsuka), who still retains some fleshy body parts, and newbie Togusa (Koichi Yamadera), whose body is fully human — offer a spectrum of possible relationships between human consciousness and technology.

If it once seemed prescient, the film is ever more relevant (and influential: the Wachowski brothers borrowed heavily from its concept and look for The Matrix [1999], so heavily that Oshii still refuses to meet with them). Oshii’s much-anticipated sequel, Innocence, finally debuted this year at Cannes. In the meantime, a different director, Kenji Kamiyama, adapted the story for television. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex debuted in Japan in 2002. The first four of 26 episodes are now available on DVD in the U.S., giving American fans a chance to see whether the strengths of Oshii’s original — sleek styling and philosophical depth — survived the translation to TV. (The uninitiated will get their first taste later this year when the series airs as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.)

At first glance, disparities between the movie and the TV series seem minor. Kamiyama’s writing team worked with original author Masamune to develop themes and storylines, and the series preserves the character designs established by Oshii. The first episode in particular quotes liberally from the original film. Opening with a bang, it encapsulates the breathtaking thrills and ethereal beauty of GITS. In pursuit of a criminal, the scantily clad Kusanagi dives vertiginously through the neon-lit sky from one rooftop to another. When she catches up with her prey, she severs his foot with a single shot, pins him to the rooftop, and threatens to execute him on the spot.

Still, the texts are different. GITS: SAC does not pick up where Oshii’s film left off — with the destruction of Kusanagi’s body and passage of her “ghost” to a new form. Instead, it takes place in a parallel universe in which that traumatic transition never occurred. This gives the series more flexibility. Like the recent hit anime series Cowboy Bebop, GITS: SAC is not a single story broken into half-hour segments. Rather, some stories are wrapped up neatly in a single episode while others unfold over several episodes. Three of the episodes in this first volume are “stand alone.” The fourth remains unresolved, setting up a more involved storyline. It focuses on a figure known only as “The Laughing Man,” a hacker who can momentarily manipulate the minds of government officials to expose the hypocrisy and self-serving lies they spew. (If only it were possible in our world.)

What is consistent from episode to episode (besides the characters) is a multi-faceted investigation of the relationship between humans and machines. In the first episode, the brain of a top government official is hijacked by a robot geisha. The story underlines one of the basic premises of the GITS: SAC universe: people are not necessarily who or what they seem.

In the same vein, episode two finds Kusanagi and team on the trail of a runaway warrior robot, whose deceased inventor has ported his ghost into the robot’s metal body. (It also introduces us to the Tachikomas, small, child-like robots who work for Section 9 and serve as cutesy comic relief.) In the third episode, an anti-social young man falls in love with his female android and tries to turn her into a unique “real girl” by infecting all other androids of her make and model with a mysterious virus. This episode muses on the nature of romance, attachment, and love between humans and machines. And, in a self-referential twist, it draws insightful parallels between man-android intimacy and our own relationship to mass media.

While such storylines are satisfying and detailed, the series has yet to break new philosophical ground. The first four episodes expand on ideas in the original film: the line between human and machine, the nature of consciousness, the consequences for bodies increasingly free of physical limitations. When the film version was released, these issues were novel and provocative. Now, they seem a bit obvious. Director Kamiyama comments on this change in an interview included in the disc’s extras (the disc also includes an interview with Atsuko Tanaka). According to him, with the ubiquity of cell phones and the Internet, our reality is quickly approaching total interconnectedness. Everything, even the contents of our brains, becomes so much data in the matrix.

As these issues have become more mainstream, it makes sense that the tenor of GITS: SAC is noticeably sunnier than the Oshii film. Many scenes take place in the full light of day, in contrast to the almost perpetual night of the original. The Tachikomas add a cartoonish air to the series and the other characters are less driven than in the film. Now they have time to relax on couches and engage in friendly banter. For those looking for more complex existential musings, it’s probably best to wait for the U.S. release of Innocence, although the Laughing Man storyline, with its political bent, looks promising.

One aspect of the series that could use some updating is the character styling. Kusanagi’s angular, purple bob, and strapless lavender leotard look hopelessly dated, as do Bateau’s ponytail and leather jacket. Although the retro feel strengthens ties to the 1995 film, a simple clothing update would have helped the series appear more contemporary. For die-hard collectors, a limited edition DVD (not available for review) includes 2 additional discs, special packaging, and a booklet. The second disc includes the same 4 episodes in English and Japanese DTS (the standard version is Dolby Digital) 5.1 Surround Sound and Stereo; the third disc is a soundtrack CD.

GITS: SAC‘s shift in tone is underscored by the short Tachikoma-only vignette at the end of each episode. Unrelated to the main storylines, these shorts showcase the cute little robots as playful, inquisitive “pets,” learning to talk and navigate the human world. They give us a machine’s eye view of human culture that is unthreatening. These sequences serve as a palliative to the show’s potentially disturbing revelations about the increasingly porous line dividing human life from that of machines. They function in much the same way as Section 9 itself: despite their total absorption in the “net,” they keep the ghosts and the machines in their rightful places.