Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex Vol. 1 review
A Complex Achievement
When the original Ghost in the Shell film hit the screen it left a huge impact. It presented a darker view of the future, where advancements of technology brought equal amounts of joy and despair. A bleak existence where one's mind could be hacked and losing one's sense of self became all too easy in the sea of the net. This film also presented some of the most impressive animated sequences and concepts conceived at the time.
A film can only convey so much in the length of time it has, so it's only natural to consider the potential if such a successful movie was given the chance to spread its wings and provide a compelling story across a broader timeframe. Therefore you may understand the excitement around Stand Alone Complex, a series that does exactly that. Although this is not the original film story it is a story based in the same universe, focusing on the same crack team that took on the Puppet Master.
The general premise of this is still the same. The future is filled with technological advancements that are intended to improve life. One of the most prominent facets of this world is the mixing of the real and the artificial. Cyberisation - the act of human people substituting all or part of their natural bodies with cyborg shells or parts - has become commonplace. The series focuses on Section 9, an elite team under the direction of the Government that tackles the more extreme cases to maintain public security.
While the basic concept hasn't really changed you can't help but notice that the impact this time around just isn't as great. That's not to say the series doesn't present the kind of thoughtful messages most action series would completely miss. Take the third episode, where a virus planted in an android maintenance program ends up leading to a withdrawn youth unable to cope with real people. It's more that the messages presented are more subtle and thus avoid the kind of indepth psychological introspectives the film version delved into. It's a different way of approaching the subject matter, and while part of the impact is lost it does make taking on the concept of the show a lot more manageable.
There is quite a varied cast of characters in the movie, although only a handful get any real decent screentime to demonstrate any level of depth. In terms of Section 9 there are four characters of whom we get to see a lot of across these four episodes.
'Major' Motoko Kusanagi is the main heroine of the series. Her wardrobe tends to consist of 'very little', with her most common outfit being a combination of a leather jacket and something that like more like a swimsuit than anything else, which hardly seems like ideal clothing for a law enforcement officer to be running around in. Bizarre clothing choices aside, Motoko is the field leader of the team. She demonstrates a high level of maturity and is easily one of the most intelligent people around. Through the disc she tends to take charge in the missions and acts as a reliable partner to the rest of the team. Her input is often also vital in discovering the secrets behind the missions the team takes on. While she maintains a sense of command she does also exchange banter with her team mates, preventing her from becoming a flat anti-social outcast. She even makes some wry comments at times, like teasing Batou about engaging a tank head-on.
Batou is a rather healthy mix of serious and laid back. He takes his job seriously and is easily angered when things seem to be going badly, but he often tries to lighten the mood with the odd joke or sarcastic comment. That pretty much serves as his role in the series. He is serious enough to backup the Major but will often add in an element of humour to proceedings. Togusa is essentially the show's human character. Unlike the film he does have some cybernetic implants (his cyberbrain) but that's about it. Although lacking the physical prowess of his colleagues, Togusa is there to show that brute force is not always the winning trait and in this he comes across fairly well.
Aramaki is the chief in command of Section 9, who presents himself as a calm and resourceful man. He is often seen as the key figure that manipulates the political side of things to aid the team, and is soon becomes apparent how difficult things would become without him. He's a grouchy old man, but he's also the brains behind the whole outfit. His role is very pronounced in each episode as he works to remove obstacles in the team's way.
There are a few other human team members, but they really don't get any significant screen time. Ishikawa is probably the most seen of the remaining people, but he seems to spend most of the time stuck at a (very bizarre) computer console. The others are seen sometimes, perhaps chasing down a fugitive or sitting in on briefings, but you can't expect anything of significance to come from that.
However, there is a group within Section 9 that really underlines the shows attempts of mixing in humour with an otherwise darker storyline. The Tachikoma's are think tanks - armed tanks with AI capable of acting by themselves - and they support the team in dangerous missions. They only get notable screentime during the second episode (which almost seems like it's acting as an introduction for the tanks) but they certainly leave an impression. These tanks have the voices and mannerisms of eight year old girls, often talking excitedly or indulging in curiosity that programmed machines normally wouldn't concern themselves with. Right now it isn't overdone either, and works pretty well to demonstrate how even programmed AI can have a sense of immaturity about them.
There are a few worthy action sequences on the disc. In fact, the early part of the first episode has the team storming a Geisha House to rescue guests from renegade robots. The series does manage to ground itself in realism through this. While there are occasions where characters will leap across impossible gaps or survive what would otherwise be substantial injuries that kind of thing is done pretty rarely.
But it's not just mindless fighting. Much of the action in the disc is backed up with a healthy amount of background work. The team may need to ground a flight for a period of time or convince someone to relinquish vital information about the target. It's generally that kind of work that acts as the key factor for resolving the cases and it's interesting to see the people less capable of combat taking on such important roles.
The series episodes are defined as either stand alone or complex depending on their content. Stand alone episodes are self contained stories, where the case the team has to tackle starts and ends within that episode, and generally has no connection to any other part of the series. Complex episodes are somewhat different, as these cover an ongoing story that spans the whole series. This is the story of the Laughing Man,a genius hacker who grabbed the world's attention by kidnapping the CEO of a prominent micromachine corporation and held him at gunpoint on live television. Many years later the Laughing Man resurfaces and issues a death threat to the acting superintendent. The series focuses on the team's efforts to uncover the mysteries behind this criminal and somehow end up digging up secrets some people would rather be kept hidden.
This disc doesn't really get around to the main story until the fourth episode, which is the last one on the disc. However, that's not a death blow for the disc. The three stand alone stories that occur before help to introduce us to the main team members and gives us an insight to the way Section 9 operates, as well as just how deeply integrated political relations are in all of this. When the complex episodes does appear it hits with a bang, blowing apart the cover of conspiracy and mysteries. It's a fantastic start to the saga.
The flow of events in the series is helped in no small part by the wonderful audio that not only sounds nice while the action unfolds but actually helps to enhance the effect of the situations displayed onscreen. As the team assembles and storms a location the music pumps out a tension-raising tune that emphasizes the intense action, but the moment the events become slower the music switches gear and becomes a more gentle tune. It's a fine example of how timing is just as important as the quality itself when it comes to the music accompaniment. The opening song to the series is also easily something that can appeal to the viewer. Inner Universe is a wonderful song that seems to fit the idea of a dark futuristic world extremely well.
The audio track is brilliant as well. Character voices have a lot of emotion in them, so when Batou is angry you can tell immediately simply by the tone of his voice. Some of the minor characters end up a bit flat, like the engineer in the second episode, but this is so rare that it practically doesn't exist. Even better is that this brilliance is shared across both audio tracks, therefore choosing to listen to either the English or Japanese audio is simply going to be a matter of preference. The various effects are all solid and convincing. When a bullet goes into a body or a tank is smashed to pieces you get an appropriate sound to signify it. There are even some more interesting effects, like how voices are distorted when speaking over cybercom.
The visuals of the series is more of a mixed affair. Overall it's a solid presentation but there are some real flaws to it. Characters are well drawn and smoothly animated, with some great expressions to represent their moods and responses. Lip synching is also rather excellent for both audio tracks, although the show does seem to rely on cybercom communication a bit too much, where it doesn't need to lip synch talking. The problems tend to come when characters or moving objects are positioned further away, specifically in the background. Here objects tend to lose notable features to the point of being a concern, and this also affects the quality of the animation as characters can move awkwardly.
Action scenes tend to be quite well done though. You can see the intensity of battles as gunfire rips through the environment or where cars blaze along the roads. The cloaking technology is also here in full force and as effective as ever, where the semi-transparent shapes of the users can just be seen to distort the imagery that lies behind them. We even get a glimpse of how the cyberbrains are receiving information, like how data panels slide about ahead of the person and presents technical information.
The menu isn't quite as impressive. Granted the way the image looks like pieces of circuit boards is nice and the level of animation that occurs here is great. I just don't like the colour choice. The colours used tend to clash with each other, as the solid reds and greys of the circuit boards don't sit well next to the murky green... stuff around them. It's also a little annoying that changing episodes involves actually changing menu pages. I'm more used to episode discs presenting all the episode choices on a single screen, which is simply a lot more convenient that trying to navigate to the page change icons and then skipping back up to the episode title to start it.
When it comes to disc extras there are quite a lot of them on this. There's the usual previews that always gets added to virtually every release. In addition there are a pair of interviews with the director and the Japanese voice actress for Motoko that offers some entertaining insight into the show. There's also episode and character profiles that provide such indepth information that you would miss from the show alone. There is also an image gallery that seems to be stills from the opener, although going through them can be a bit of a hassle.
It's a wonderful start to the series. Ghost in the Shell has such a fantastic setting and Stand Alone Complex may just provide the stage it needs to full demonstrate the potential it has. Definitely well worth looking into.
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