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Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002)

In 2030 the world is a very different place. Medical technology has advanced to the point where prosthetic limbs and whole bodies are commonplace. It's actually rare to find someone who has no or very little artificial components. Cyber crime and cyber terrorism is the new norm following World War III and IV. Public Security Section 9 is an elite counter-terrorism unit that specialises in cybercrime. Lead in the field by Major Motoko Kusanagi they are the go-to team for discretion and success in a world where the line between human and robot is very blurred indeed.

Ghost in the Shell started life as a manga by Masamune Shirow in 1991. In 1995 core elements of the story were adapted into an anime that defined a generation of fans, directed by Mamoru Oshii and produced by Production IG. In 2002 Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (GitS: SAC, or SAC) was released. It was written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama (Blood: The Last Vampire, Napping Princess). It's set in a near future world, but a different timeline to the original anime.

Production IG are again the animation studio behind Stand Alone Complex. Their name is synonymous with animation that has both high production values and solid, fluid animation. GitS: SAC lives up to that reputation. That said, when I first watched this on DVD I struggled to get through the first disc and nearly stopped altogether. The humanoid characters like the Major, Batou and Togusa are well animated. The aircraft look great and move with technological effortless. Then we get to the more pedestrian vehicles and it falls over.

The cars and trucks which are the common modes of transport were animated as if they had no weight - everything about how they moved was almost ... super-fluid. (a different frame rate perhaps?) This is often more obvious with CG-vehicles, I have found. Just looking out the window you can see cars moving and the discrepancy between the animation and real life was just too much. It was very disappointing.

Luckily the animation team worked on that aspect of the production and this issue was resolved. Given what it was like on DVD I thought the issue would be exacerbated on the Blu-Ray. Whilst the initial poor quality is jarring it is not as bad as I was expecting. Beyond the vehicles though, everything looks a lot better.

What is great to see with the character animation for the humanoids in the cast is that there is attention to detail as they go about their daily business. A good example is when Saito is acting as a sniper - you see facial ticks and hand or finger movements. When Ishikawa is at work you get a sense of weariness from a long day in how he gets away from his work terminal. The Major gets the most screen time and has an updated look which I'm not overly keen on - it's a bit too fan-service and adds nothing to the story. Being the focus, a lot of time has been spent getting the character animation right. Batou now sports a natty ponytail but is still recognisably the same character (still voiced by Richard Epcar) and is animated with a casual determined air to him.

Perhaps the strongest characters from the story and an animation standpoint are the Tachikomas. The intelligent tanks or light/heavy artillery of Section 9 start the series as if shy, but as their AI grows they become more child-like in every sense. They push boundaries, are constantly inquisitive and seek attention. They have such a freeness in how they are animated and they are rarely ever still on screen. When static, they fidget and they talk as much with their hands and bodies as their voices, perhaps more. In a world where you can't judge someone based on what you see it is difficult to think of the Tachikoma as anything other than alive.

Both seasons of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Story feature a different ongoing story, labelled as "complex" when the episode name is revealed, and a series of "stand alone" stories which explore the world and characters we meet. In season 1 (or the 1st Gig) the "complex" episodes revolve around the Laughing Man, a cyber criminal or hacktivist looking to expose the truth about corrupt politicians and the medical industry. Although the setting is the future it is a story that can be set, and told, in any time and will always be relevant. It is a solid and well executed story that, when interspersed across the series, is superbly paced.

The stand-alone episodes allow for some wonderful stories to be told from relationship dramas to hard-core cyber-punk science fiction. As our lives become more integrated with technology and with current advances in medical technology it is not ridiculous to think that we'll see elements of augmented humans or AI-based prosthetics in our lifetime. SAC explores some of the philosophical arguments around this topic including who has access to control it - leading to hacking of cyber-brains. Also, much like in the original anime (and manga) the stand-aloned explore the ideas of what it means to be human and at what point is an AI alive? Mid-way through 1st Gig is a Tachikoma focused story exploring that very topic which has one of my favourites lines of the series where they describe a box packed with complex algorithms as "a sub-Turing machine". As you would expect is this musing of what humanity is where the stories excel and make this series something special.

You can see from watching Stand Alone Complex where the Ghost in the Shell film released in 2017 took many of its influences including costume design, characters from both seasons and much of what made the world of Niihama Prefecture vibrant. Sadly, it highlights the flaws in the film too, as SAC tells great stories and features well animated action set pieces in bite-size chunks.

FROM Manga Entertainment
15 [UK]
26 Episodes

IN A NUTSHELL: A superb story with great action sequences. Its story is is greatest strength exploring what it means to be human and the possibilities of our continued integration with technology.

Release Information:  Ghost In The Shell Standalone Complex is available in the UK as a Complete Boxset From Manga Entertainment which includes both seasons (with extensive extras), The OAV releases The Laughing Man and Individual Eleven and the Solid State Society sequel movie, and a 140-page book. Available exclusively from Zavvi while stocks last.

Read our Review Of Season 2 here

© 2002-2007 Shirow Masamune-Production I.G/KODANSHA. All rights reserved

*Review Copy provided by Manga Entertainment*