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Ghost In The Shell SAC_2045 [Season 1] (2020)

Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 is the latest Netflix-distributed anime series, and it continues the Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex anime after a 14-year gap. Being animated, the series didn’t need to move Complex’s fictional timeline forward. It might have done a Toy Story 4 or Incredibles 2 and picked up a day, even a minute, after the original. Instead, SAC_2045 takes place a decade after the last Complex story. That was the feature-length Solid State Society in 2006, an aggravating film with too many unclarities and plot hollows. But it was a lovely film stylistically – it was made at the height of the franchise’s “Michael Mann” neon period, drawn from Mann movies like Collateral.

But its successor’s visuals are already contentious with fans. SAC_2045 is the first iteration of Ghost to be made wholly in CG, though the franchise dallied with CG for decades. Some fans have written off the new show for the visuals alone.

More fool them; SAC_2045 is an excellent continuation. Indeed, it’s continued by largely the same people, primarily Kenji Kamiyama, who wrote-directed all the incarnations of Complex before now. Kamiyama has a co-directing credit this time (with Shinji Aramaki), but retains lead writing credit in a series that crucially feels like the Complex of old.

The new story starts after Section 9 has been disbanded, though the show saves time by keeping most of the gang together. For any reader who doesn’t know that gang - Major Kusanagi, Batou, Ishikawa and the rest - it’s probably not worth starting here. This is no reboot, hard or soft. You don’t need to know Complex in detail; if you dropped the 2000s series after a season, or even half a season, that’d be enough to pick this up. But it’s not sufficient to have seen the first Ghost film (directed by Mamoru Oshii and set in a different continuity), let alone the live-action thing with ScarJo. Going from them to this would be like watching Spider-Man: Far From Home if your last Spidey was Maguire or Garfield.

SAC_2045 picks up with Kusanagi, Batou and Ishikawa, plus sniper Saito and the eternally-endearing beetle-bot Tachikomas. All of them are operating for hire in scrublands and broken cities near the Mexican-American border. (There may or may not have been a Trump in this timeline, but there’s certainly a wall.) Meanwhile, their former teammate Togusa – always the least “enhanced” member of Section 9 – is still in Japan, working once more in the civilian police. He’s lost his family through divorce; not the clearing of character baggage it might have been in other shows, but an event with real weight.

Togusa receives a call from Section 9’s former Chief Aramaki, who’s still part of Japan’s governmental machine. The old man starts Togusa on a search to reassemble Section 9, even while Kusanagi and the others are “recruited” by a very different employer. Their paths, inevitably converge – the first few episodes form an action-heavy serial, conducive to Netflix bingeing. Later stories are more episodic, but tied together by a new kind of adversary for Section 9. As usual in Complex, the adversary’s nature involves interlinking mysteries. You may remember the “Laughing Man” in the first Complex season, bound up with the literature of J.D. Salinger. This time, a twentieth-century British author seems to be the lynchpin.

The show starts with two onscreen captions. One, traditional in the Ghost franchise, is an explanation of the world as it stands, and it’s one of the worst missteps in an excellent series. We’re told that the ‘American empire’ now conducts wars as an industry (which millions of left-wingers see as a mothers-milk truism), a state of affairs dubbed ‘sustainable war.’ We’re also told that a year before the story started, there was a ‘Global Simultaneous Default,’ wrecking the world’s economy. ‘Even advanced nations suffered riots, terrorism, separatist movements and civil war.’ Such dystopian solemnity doesn’t wash now, in the age of Deadpool irony and yadda yadda yadda.

But the other onscreen caption is far more effective. It’s not part of the script, but an insertion by Netflix at the beginning of the titles of each episode. “We’re prioritising the safety of our voice actors,” the caption reads, “so some audio language options may be pending.” Assuming you’re reading this around spring 2020, the reason will be obvious. As of writing, the series is only available in Japanese with English subtitles. The lead Japanese actors have been involved with the Ghost franchise since the start, only sitting out the Arise version in the 2010s. Aramaki’s actor, Tamio Oki, is 89. A similarly experienced English-dub cast is listed at the end of each episode, and the actors were presumably all ready to go when COVID-19 stopped the world. Society can change, massively and instantaneously; we know it without captions.

The biggest change to Complex’s world is, of course, the CG animation. Many people reading this article will have seen the trailers already and groaned. Such undetailed models! Such plastic skin! How could Production I.G – which used or hybridised trad animation in all its Ghosts up till now – have presented such a thing in 2020? (Searching on YouTube, I see there’s a fan screed based on the trailers alone – “WTF Kinda Trash Is This?”) You don’t even need to point to mocapped game blockbusters like Final Fantasy VII Remake, but rather to other series anime. The excellent Beastars, which plays like Zootropolis with sexually-terrified high-schoolers, dropped onto Netflix only this March, with artistically far stronger CG than SAC_2045. It was by the Orange studio, which previously made the groundbreaking Land of the Lustrous. How can the new Ghost measure up to that?

Perfectly well, it turns out, if you’re already a fan of Complex. If you do, then you’ll find the visuals of SAC_2045 perfectly serviceable, and capable of delivering startling, poignant, hilarious and horrific scenes. Good enough, it turns out, can enfold very good moments within it. It’s even easier to adapt to the new character designs, by Russian illustrator Ilya Kushinov. The new purple-eyed Kusanagi looks unworldly, even faerie, but this Titania still snaps a neck with a punch or kick. There are individual scenes and episodes, especially later in the run, that are as dramatically powerful as anything I’ve seen in TV anime. The action scenes are not as outstanding, but they read crisply and enjoyably. Stand Alone Complex – the earlier seasons in the 2000s – was one of the best Japanese TV animations; and this new series feels like good Complex.

Partly, of course, it’s the buzz of Star Trek: Picard or the Breaking Bad film El Camino; rejoining characters we’ve already invested in for tens of hours. But SAC-2045 is also nimbly structured, without nearly so many expository dialogue wodges as the old show, but staying true to Ghost’s ethos and worldview. The central paradox of the franchise still remains. This is nominally a show about law enforcers, yet those enforcers share the audience’s sympathy with many of the anti-establishment “criminals.” In the first episode, the new show echoes the start of Miyazaki’s Cagliostro, as Kusanagi enjoys the sun and the silence before a manic road chase. By implication, Section 9’s team aren’t so different from the master thief Lupin and his merry men. The social dissidents presented in the show can be any age, any generation. It’s not surprising that a pubescent boy plays a central role in this story; but it’s far more fun to see geriatric bank robbers in a splendid comedy episode.

The show also has fun with a new-recruit American character nicknamed “Clown,” who’s on his own soil but is treated by Section 9 exactly as the Wakandans treated Martin Freeman in Black Panther. A sinister sunglassed American agent called John Smith nods to Agent Smith in The Matrix, who was based in turn on a bit-character in the 1995 Ghost film. There are other nods through the show, from an episode riffing on the iconic boxing manga Tomorrow’s Joe to imagery lifted from John Milius’s invasion-America opus Red Dawn. Within the show’s own continuity, there are hints of the original notion of “Stand Alone Complex,” a phrase which refers to hordes of people who are ostensibly copycats, but who may have no link to an enigmatic original. In character terms, the strongest relationship involves Togusa and his hopeless feelings for Kusanagi, a commander he can only love, honour and obey.

Even the show’s outrageously sexualised title sequence feels like a smart pastiche, quoting not just previous Ghosts but Chris Cunningham’s famous music video for Bjork’s All is Full of Love. No doubt it’ll be cited by haters as proof that the new series is a decadent self-parody. They can also point to a newly-created character, an assistant to the main team called Purin. She’s characterised overtly as a the girliest of fangirls, with glasses and pink hair. The net will class her as a Mary Sue, but then the robot Tachikomas were effectively Mary Sues back in the earlier Complex series - Purin is grouped together with them to make the point. So far her cyberpunk-Nancy-Drewish investigations have been legitimately funny, and if she ends up with a story-arc half as good as the Tachikomas’, then she’ll do fine.

The Alice-style whimsy of Purin’s adventures in cyberland contrasts well against the show’s readiness to go into normal life, even domesticity. The episode with the elderly bank-robbers works partly because it’s so small-scale, after the carnage of earlier episodes. A later storyline involving schoolkids starts as a Black Mirror satire on the terrors of social media, but later invokes terror in an ordinary Japanese house a la Ringu. The most chilling moment of the entire 12 episodes involves the innocent sound of a doorbell, then a bolt slid back by a family member coming home.

This is very much half of a series; part 12 ends on a slyly mysterious cliffhanger. Some of the nature of Section 9’s adversary is revealed, but far more is teased and unexplained, for the next dozen episodes to reveal. Of course, the payoff is unlikely to be all we’re hoping for; it could be a banal disaster or interestingly divisive. But it definitely leaves us wanting more.


IN A NUTSHELL: It’s been a 14-year wait, and the trailers weren’t promising, but this is a splendid “3rd Gig” for a landmark series – so far, at least. Roll on the second half!

Addendum: The series was made by Production I.G (home to the Ghost franchise since the first film in 1995), in collaboration with the younger Sola Digital Arts studio founded in 2010. An obvious precursor to SAC_2045 was the Netflix-distributed anime version of Ultraman in 2019, which involved not only those same two studios, but also the same directors, Kamiyama and Aramaki. The animation looked substantially clunkier than SAC_2045, but then Ultraman wasn’t part of an acclaimed anime franchise. Rather it was a tribute to a venerable (mostly) live-action franchise, not known for cutting edge effects.

Five years before Ultraman, Sola Digital had made an action film with CG visuals which today’s viewers would find more acceptable than the later Netflix series. That film was 2014’s Appleseed Alpha, inspired by a manga by Masamune Shirow, who also created Ghost in the Shell. Perhaps Sola Digital and Production I.G could have produced a feature-length Ghost film on these lines, but a ten-hour series was probably impossible. (Remember, the SAC_2045 episodes which have dropped on Netfix so far are only the first half of the series.)

More crucially, Production I.G is still demonstrably capable of creating an old-style traditionally animated action series like Complex’s earlier seasons. You only need to look at this scene from the studio’s TV series Psycho-Pass 3, broadcast in 2019. If I.G judges that SAC_2045’s CG visuals hurt its popularity, then it can always go back to the “old way” for a future iteration of the franchise.

Andrew Osmond is the author of the book on the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, published by Arrow Books. He’s also a journalist specialising in animation and has a website at anime-etc.net