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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Vol. 03 (2004)

The third DVD installment of the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series includes two of the best episodes yet. Unfortunately, it also includes two of the worst. Granted, it’s difficult to sustain the philosophical and aesthetic heights attained by the original Ghost in the Shell (and its sequel, Innocence) over 26 episodes. This split is repeated in the interviews included for the DVD, with Akio Ôtsuka (who voices Batou) and sound director Kazuhiro Wakabayashi. While Wakabayashi sheds light on the artistry and subtlety of the series’ sound design, Ôtsuka’s comments are a waste of time, consisting mainly of platitudes about how great it is to work on the series and how much he enjoys the company of the other actors.

For the uninitiated, GITS: SAC centers on an elite, futuristic 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 contemplates whether she is in fact a mere mechanical functionary, or if she possesses an emotional and spiritual life independent of her body. She and her partners — the literally steel-eyed Batou (Akio Ôtsuka), who retains some fleshy body parts, and newbie Togusa (Koichi Yamadera), as yet not completely cyborg-ed — constitute a spectrum of possible relationships between bodies and technology. Yet another take on the blurred line between human and machine is provided by the Tachikomas: insectoid robot assistants imbued with child-like personalities.

Vol. 03 opens with what is easily the most soporific episode to date. Continuing the “Laughing Man” storyline established on the previous two discs — a mysterious hacker takes over the brains of government officials to expose corruption — “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place entirely in a chat room. Represented as a high-tech roundtable, this room is a virtual space whose inhabitants speculate ad nauseam about the Laughing Man’s possible motives and identity. This discussion spans the episode, with little of the high-flying action or stunning visuals that make the rest of the series so exciting. By the end of this episode, the “Laughing Man” storyline feels needlessly tangled and complex, proving that intellect alone is not enough to make the series work.

The second episode, “Jungle Cruise,” does little to restore our faith, although it takes an opposite tack. In place of indulgent intellectualism, it errs on the side of gore. A serial killer is working his way through the city, leaving his victims’ skins flayed in a pattern that makes them look like they’re wearing bloody t-shirts. As it turns out, he was once a secret operative for the suggestively named “American Empire” during WWIII, and shares a troubled past with Batou. Although the episode gives us added insight into Batou, it’s a fairly standard storyline: battling his own flashbacks, Batou must overcome wartime trauma to do his job.

“Portraitz,” the third episode, is easily the best yet. Section 9 traces a mysterious hacker attack to an institution for children with “closed cyberbrain syndrome,” a kind of high-tech autism that makes the kids feel more at home in the virtual world than in the physical one. Some are being used to program “barriers,” exceedingly complex firewalls that are then sold to the government. When Togusa infiltrates the school, he learns that a previous staffer jacked in to one of these barriers and encountered a structure so complex that his “ghost” got mixed up in it and never returned. Quotes from Catcher in the Rye — the Laughing Man’s signature — have also appeared throughout the institution. The parallel between cyborgs and autism is a fascinating premise, suggesting that mixing technology and biology can result in “disability” as well as benefits. Combining this concept with the Laughing Man story — suggesting that he may be a ghost who only exists in the net — is the first hint as to his true identity, and a much-needed jolt to keep the story moving forward.

“Escape From” begins on a maudlin note. A Tachikoma robot escapes, hoping to explore the outside world and befriends a little girl who is looking for her lost dog, which turns up dead. Thus, the Tachikoma learns about death, even shedding some oily tears. This sickening cuteness is tempered by some of the loveliest background work in the series to date: busy marketplaces, fall leaves, a twilit cemetery, are all brought to life with beautiful lighting effects and precise details.

Fortunately, this episode’s second half is less schmaltzy, dealing with a contraband cyberbrain the Tachikoma retrieves. It belongs to a movie director, and contains his greatest work, a film so seductive that it has enticed several ghosts to stay and watch it repeatedly rather than returning to the real world. Even the implacable Major is brought to tears when she views the film, reminding us of media’s ability to evoke human emotion. The two halves of the episode create a mirror effect: a machine (the Tachikoma) learns to cry in an encounter with physical loss, and the Major is reminded of her own humanity by a fabricated reality.

With this installment, the series begins to expand, though not without some growing pains. While not every episode needs to be a philosophical treatise, inconsistency may be the price to pay for the rich, multi-faceted world possible in the serial format. GITS: SAC has taken the world of Section 9 out of the rarefied atmosphere of the big screen and shrunk it down to reflect the variation and minutiae of everyday life. And, as our own physical reality becomes more entwined with virtual ones, it couldn’t be more apt.