Ghost in the Shell, as an overall franchise, and especially the Stand Alone Complex iteration, follows the adventures of Public Security Section 9, a hybrid investigative organization that combines the approach and the resources of the police and the military, in a futuristic Japan wherein almost the entire population have become cyborgs. They handle a variety of cases, dealing with everything from petty thievery and kidnapping to international terrorism and political corruption at the highest levels of their government. Some investigations are over and done with almost as soon as they begin, and others span far longer, with tremendous ramifications.
Taking the lead, we have Makoto Kusanagi, called the Major, a woman of singular capability. She is Section 9’s team leader in the field, under the bureaucratic auspices of Chief Aramaki. She has very capable help in her elite team: Batou, a former marine and formidable warrior; Togusa, a skilled detective; Ishikawa, on information and cyber-warfare; Saito, an amazing sniper; Pazu and Boma, filling out the ranks and adding their respective skills and perspectives to the mix. These are professionals, highly capable, adaptable, precise, and cunning. There are some additions here and there, but this is the most central cast. Oh, and there are the ever-lovable spider-like tanks called Tachikomas! 🙂
The story is something between episodic and overarching. And there’s a variety to be found among the episodes. Some are packed with action and gunfire, others with intrigue, still others with exposition and info-dumping, and some that just discuss things. There’s one episode that consists entirely of the conversation held within a virtual chat room that the Major just happens to be attending as part of her investigation. The plots to be found within such a range of episodes can range from fairly simple and straightforward to amazingly intricate and complex. It’s obvious that a great deal of time, effort, and intelligence went into this show even when it was in the planning stages.
That last actually makes it a little disappointing, even confusing, when some plot point is left hanging here and there. In the first season finale, for instance, right at the triumphant resolution, they included a scene which has every appearance of a lingering villain successfully assassinating a minor character just before he was to take the witness stand… and that’s the last we hear of it, no explanation or repercussions explored. For something so well-crafted and rich to fumble like that is a bit strange.
Speaking of the crafting, however, that is nothing short of exceptional. The animation is smooth in every instance, no matter what is or isn’t happening. The world feels alive, even if it’s gone all cybernetic and technological. The scenes that take place in cyberspace are distinct from the real world and still feel alive in in their own way. The characters are intelligent and clever without ever seeming inhuman, which, again, is all the more impressive for most of them being cyborgs. The voice acting is all top notch, while the music is staggeringly beautiful and perfect for the show.
The themes this story explores are also fascinating. With the advance of technology come natural questions about humanity, what it means, how that might change, and the ramifications of potentially merging humanity with technology. For one thing, if people become like the computer they use, then they can be manipulated like them. They can be hacked, manipulated like puppets. They can have their lives and identities literally stolen. They could accomplish remarkable things, feats of strength, precision, and intelligence, but they could easily lose what makes them truly human as well. The very title of the franchise speaks to how the spirit, a ghost, is housed within the shell of an artificial body. That sort of idea automatically comes with important questions that do not have easy answers, as something previously fundamental and natural as flesh and blood is replaced.
It makes for quite a bit of discussion fodder. Unfortunately, such discussions can be a little overwhelming, even outright boring, when the people on the screen are having them. It’s not constant, but it’s also not unusual.
The end result of having so much intelligence poured into this show is that it somewhat defies the simplest descriptions, as evidenced with my attempt at such earlier. Intelligence, after all, can take many forms, and it permeates every level of how things actually work. It’s not simply one thing, but many. Cyberpunk, and futuristic, for the cyborgs and advanced technology. Military, for the missions the cast undertakes and the fireworks they bring to the party. Crime drama, for the cases they investigate and the justice they serve. Philosophical, for the discussions on important subject matter. And dystopian, for the harsh realities of this future-world, one where humanity has both risen and fallen as it has become one with computers.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has two seasons and a movie to its credit, and all of it is vastly entertaining and intriguing, in a wide variety of ways. It’s not always exciting, but it is strangely compelling. The characters are admirable, the plot is intricate, the themes are significant, and every technical aspect is exemplary. It portrays a world with little in the way of flesh and blood, yet it delves deeply into the soul with powerful emotions as much as rational reasoning.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.