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Ghost In The Shell: A Noob's Guide To The Cyberpunk Anime's World

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is the latest part of a sprawling franchise that spans multiple volumes of manga, four TV series, videos, theatrical movies, VOD experiences and games and now a notorious live-action Hollywood movie, starring Scarlett Johansson and Takeshi Kitano. With so much material out there, it can seem daunting for a newcomer. At least at first…

In actual fact, Ghost in the Shell exists in several different continuities and each… stands alone. While the different incarnations may share many characters and concepts, they also have crucial differences and distinct storylines that set each version of the series apart.

The franchise began with Masamune Shirow’s 1989 manga. The story introduced the world to Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg living in a future where almost everyone is cybernetically enhanced. She was a member of Section 9, a government agency tasked with tracking down cyber-terrorists and other technological threats. It also introduced us to her partner Batou, Chief Aramaki and fellow team member Togusa – the only member without any cybernetic enhancement. The basics of the world of GitS was introduced in the comics, with such crucial concepts as cyberbrains, ‘ghost hacking’ and the first appearance of the Tachikomas – the iconic spider-tanks. The manga only ran until 1997, but its influence would last much much longer.

Ghost in the Shell was first animated in a 1995 theatrical film. Director Mamoru Oshii retained most of the basic settings and characters, but relocated the story to a facsimile of Hong Kong. Adapting the ‘Puppet Master’ storyline from the comics, this theatrical outing remains the highest profile (and most successful) part of the whole franchise world-wide. The movie is, however, considerably different from the source material, with a much more serious art style and more sombre tone. Although philosophising about what it is to be human is present in the original, it’s much more a focus of the film, which is in many ways more of an Oshii film than it is a Ghost in the Shell film. 2004’s belated sequel Ghost in the Shell: Innocence continues this skewed direction, but this time it’s Batou who takes the lead role.

In between the two Oshii movies, Production I.G created the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The 2002 series (and its 2004 sequel Second Gig) provide a more faithful adaptation of the source material in many ways, and retain the original Japanese setting. The two TV seasons see ‘complex’ story-arcs in which Section 9 hunts foes like the Laughing Man and Individual Eleven, mixed in with episodic ‘stand-alone’ stories. The second series was followed by a feature-length sequel, Solid State Society. The show’s compelling stories, kick-ass action and stunning sound-track (courtesy of Cowboy Bebop's Yoko Kanno) make it a fan favourite to this day.

Which brings us to the next incarnation of the franchise, Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Following the movies and the TV series, Arise takes the format of five 50-minute videos. To confuse matters slightly these were screened in cinemas prior to release (so are occasionally referred to as ‘movies’) and were later re-edited into the TV series Alternative Architecture.

 Set in the year 2027, Arise introduces us to a younger version of the Major in her pre-Section-9 days. It’s another alternative version of the story as opposed to a prequel, and works as a kind of origin story. The new-look Major is as tough as ever, this time sporting a natty red leather ensemble and riding a cybernetically-enhanced motorcycle. When we first meet her, she works for a military agency named The 501. She is soon hired by government agent Aramaki as a consultant, tasked with investigating the mysterious death of a highly-decorated solider.

With Production I.G again responsible, beautiful animation is assured. And indeed this is one looker of a show. The characters have been overhauled and redesigned but are still recognisable, and the CG integration has improved a lot since the Standalone Complex days. The script comes from Tow Ubukata, a newcomer to the franchise, whose previous credits include Le Chevalier D’Eon and Psycho-Pass 2. The score comes courtesy of internationally-renowned electronica artist Cornelius and is perfectly suited to the material.

Arise combines elements of the various previous incarnations, feeling at once familiar and somehow fresh. It still has the cybernetic body-horror imagery straight out of Oshii’s films. Yet at the same time, it feels even more like a police procedural than ever before, with mystery and conspiracies at the heart of the plot. The result is a show that should appeal to franchise fans and noobs alike. Arise then spawned a true movie sequel, the confusingly titled Ghost In The Shell: The New Movie. This takes place within the Arise continuity, but feels much more like traditional Ghost In The Shell than the rest of the Arise series ever did.

After years of stalled attempts, Hollywood did finally produce a live-action Ghost In The Shell movie in 2017. It attracted controversy from the off, with the casting of ScarJo leading to accusations of whitewashing, but the film had bigger problems than that. It failed to attract much of an audience and ended up grossing only $40 million in the US.

This brings us to the latest incarnation- Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045. This new TV series immediately got fans grumbling because of the decision to make it in 3D CG animation. Production IG return, but this time co-producing with Sola Digital animation for Netflix. As the SAC part of the title indicates, this series is actually a continuation of the Stand Alone Complex timeline. Despite the change in medium, director Kenji Kamiyama and most of the key creative team from SAC are back (although sadly no Yoko Kanno this time). This is Third Gig in all but name.

The series takes place some 11 years after the events of Solid State Society, when Section 9 has been disbanded and the team have gone their separate ways. However, the appearance of a mysterious being called Post Human gives them reason to get the band back together.

By being released via Netflix, the new series will probably reach a wider audience worldwide than any part of the franchise to date.  As such it is designed to be accessible to newcomers- but franchise veterans will get the most out of it- if they can stomach the new animation style.

You can be sure this isn’t going to be the end of the franchise, either. At least another 12 episodes of SAC_2045 are on the way (technically the second half of season one) and it could run much longer than that.  Between series, we've also had various video games, VR and manga adaptations of the different continuities (drawn by artists other than Shirow).  At this rate they’ll still be pumping out Ghost in the Shell when 2027 rolls around for real.

Ghost In The Shell SAC_2045 is now streaming via Netflix.  Ghost In The Shell (1995) the original movie, Innocence, Stand Alone Complex and Arise are all streaming on Funimation Now (UK).