A brief spoiler-free review of the 26-episode fall 2002 anime “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” and its recap 2005 film “The Laughing Man,” produced by Production I.G, directed by Kenji Kamiyama, based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow.
City of Steel, Bodies of Iron
It’s 2032, the cyberization age. Because most brains are now encased in a metal mold, people can access the net just by thinking and slide into mechanical bodies through a connecting cable alone. Walk along the streets and one would find fleshlings, cyborgs, and robots alike coexisting as if it were commonplace. The power of the net has virtually blurred the lines between the physical and the digital, which can breed both terrific convenience and terrifying crime. Completely ineffective in halting cyber crime, as it typically is, the government has hired Security Division Section 9, a group of ruffians specialized in taking down hackers and terrorists alike.
Led by their Chief Daisuke Aramaki and Major Motoko Kusanagi, this small squad rules the shadows and grungy back alleys in an effort to clean up the city. When a great super hacker dubbed the “Laughing Man” rears his head once again after 5 quiet years, however, the Major and her troop face what could be their greatest social threat yet. Unlike their most recent cases, this one proves to be not as simple as SHOOT + LOAD + REPEAT, but rather an intense chasing game of CTRL + ALT + DELETE.
The iconic franchise and its much-loved figurehead return to the streets after a silent 7 years since the groundbreaking film’s worldwide release in 1995. While it’s neat to see the title reinvented into a series, I found all of the GitS films, recap or not, to be far superior to the series. Before I go further into the franchise, let’s evaluate Stand Alone Complex and weigh its own merits.
It’s Not like the Movie, and that’s Perfectly Fine
This pun has already been pitched a million times, but to aptly put things, many of the episodes of Stand Alone Complex are, well, stand-alone. These episodes all tackle the lives of individuals of all all social classes, and how they interact with society and the Section 9 crew. The true underlying story is only tossed here and there as hints before the grand finale. Unlike the 1995 classic, which honed in on the psychological balance between human and cyborg, both of the GitS series challenge society instead, providing much sociological questioning such as “how much can people be “cyberized” before it’s no longer a human society,” or “whether the net truly brings people together or tears us apart.” Because it was less egocentrically based, I found myself less prone to self-discovery, but more open to social understanding. It’s a bit of a letdown at first, especially since the Major’s self-reflection is what sold me to begin with.
Where the plot may stumble and confuse, the characters provide entertaining banter and motivation. Being a more light-hearted approach to the franchise much like the original manga was, it’s appropriate to chuckle here and there at the strong man Batou’s unfortunate misdemeanors around the still-intelligent Major, or admire the human normie Togusa’s total dad bod. The presence of the cute Tachikomas, blue insect-shaped and car-sized robot AI, helped to not only alleviate unnecessary government actions that frustrated me, but also provide that quintessential self-pondering of being a robot vs a lifeform similar to what the Major dealt with in 1995. They’re annoying at times, but they remind us as to the joys of feeling alive.
A Stunning Sci-Fi Story and World
People watch this show for the genuine Section 9 crew and for high-paced, explosive combat layered with a complicated cop show setup. For its 2002 release, SAC has aged remarkably, providing some of the most engaging sci-fi action that rivals today’s anime fights. What ultimately brought it all together was the world itself, though. The towering skyscrapers and low, wrap-around market places give off a bustling effect to Newport City. The occasional gray sky and drizzly weather is almost enough to take one back to 1995, and the traffic—my goodness, all the road traffic! What a headache! Watching the characters drive from location to location allows Production I.G prove that they are the masters of anime architecture. The complex interwoven highways and cars almost act as a mirror of society itself, in that we’re ultimately all just a small part of the great flow.
Story-wise, it’s quite complicated, honestly. I held off on any Ghost in the Shell until I was older simply because I felt I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it fully without encompassing a greater intellect. (I’m still no genius, though.) To assume one has to be smart to enjoy this series isn’t true at all, but when it came to all of the political nonsense between government officials and sketchy deals, it is a lot to consume, I’ll admit.
Much of this can be negated, however, if a person checks out the 3-hour (yikes) recap film that reorganizes the Laughing Man snippets that are littered throughout all 26 episodes and places them into a more logical, sequential order. The [sadly] very few valuable backstory spotlights of Section 9 members are lost, but if one’s just in it for the core story, then this recap film satisfies immensely. The only caution I can give is to those who prefer English dubs; The Laughing Man features an entirely different vocal cast from the series, and while it is utterly DISAPPOINTING to hear brilliant actors Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Crispin Freeman replaced as Motoko and Togusa, this other cast doesn’t do a bad job. Nope, not at all, and these are very large shoes to fill.
While everyone praises Yoko Kanno for her sheer masterpieces of music, Stand Alone Complex is not her most memorable work for me. She keeps with the flow of light dialogue and adrenaline-filled action, balancing the two just fine, but I can’t recall any specific tracks besides the opening, “Inner Universe,” sung by the late Origa, a piece of music that perfectly captures the ENTIRE franchise. Its haunting yet entrancing beginning put me in full-dive mode every time. It’ll live on with the likes of “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” as anime’s bests, and rightfully so.
Let Me Walk Away Laughing
It’s no surprise that SAC is different than 1995: different directors, production date, arcs adapted, character introductions and routes taken, etc. What hasn’t changed is the same powerful studio behind the project and the unwavering calculations of the Major. Ghost in the Shell is a franchise that explores possibility through the unification of humans and technology. It also shows us the worst case scenario—its abuse, and how that turns people off from all things cyber entirely. SAC‘s first season is a little hard to understand thanks to its divided attentions, but so long as you trust in the Major’s new face and follow your ghost, you may walk away having thought of something new, and that’s what sci-fi is all about.
Batou: Nowadays . . . people entrust their memories to external devices because they want to set down solid physical proof that can distinguish them as unique individuals . . .
Motoko: A watch and weight training gear, both of us have clung to useless scraps of memory, haven’t we?
+ This incarnation of the Major can be just as meaningful so long as you have an open mind
+ Emphasizes that Production I.G is king of city architecture and sci-fi worlds
+ Works in sociological approach that defines the franchise today
+ That opening combined with all the fluid combat gets the blood pumping
– Such a lovable cast deserves greater backstories
– Overarching story is hard to follow, but recap movie helps
– Missing out on series dub in recap film
Stand Alone Complex is welcomed at the cafe as a “Cake” title (4/5), one too sweet to miss out on if you have the time! It does require a great amount of focus and minor understanding of corporate politics, though. Sometimes the intermixed action sequences were the only bits that helped me stay awake! SAC has been around for YEARS now, so what do you make of the series? Did you enjoy the Laughing Man story, and did the recap film aid in your understanding as it did mine? Let me know, and until next time, this has been
– Takuto, your host