Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Cyberpunk at its finest

I’ve talked about Ghost in the Shell before. Both the first and second films. Now, it’s time to look at the television installments, or at least one of them. Stand Alone Complex ran for a full year, from October 2002 to October 2003. So, it was released after the first film but before the second. Like the films, it was handled by Production I.G. It was written and directed by Kamiyama Kenji, who was not involved with either the first film or Innocence. What’s his take on the material? Let’s take a look and find out.

Story:

Our tale opens with a hostage situation in an android geisha house. The Japanese foreign minister is among the hostages, because of course that’s the most likely place to find a politician. That isn’t even me being facetious. Show me a high class sex work establishment and you can bet that it has several politicians among its clientele. Since the foreign minister is in danger, a covert anti-crime unit made up of cyborgs, Public Security Section 9, is called in to handle the situation. These will be our heroes of the series. Section 9 carries out a smooth operation but they notice something strange when going over the footage, testimonies and other evidence. To make matters worse, there’s something odd about the foreign minister. Now, that is just a basic summary of the first episode. There is an underlying story within the series about a genius hacker called the “laughing man” but most episodes have their own stand alone cases that may or may not be related to the laughing man case.

I really only have one issue with the story. It has events that are set too soon. I’ve talked about this in my review of Blue Gender and on some other occasions but let’s go into it a bit. The problem with setting sci-fi films, TV shows and so on in a future for the real world and giving that future a specific date that isn’t far off, is that it quickly dates that piece of media and jolts the audience out of the story for a moment. According to Stand Alone Complex, 2019 will be the time when cyberbrain implantation becomes common and then there will be a great and deadly disease that affects the cyberbrain. That’s all of five years away and we barely have functional cybernetic limbs and even those are in the very early stages. Sure, it was a bit farther away when the series started airing in 2002, but it still makes no sense to set a major event for your super advanced future in less than two decades from the time it’s written. It would be a lot better to set it at some undetermined future date. Still, it is a pretty minor problem even if it is a head scratching one.

As to the positives, there are a lot of them. The scenarios they bring up for the individual episodes are very compelling. They take real world types of crimes, usually violent but occasionally not, and examine what they would look like in their futuristic setting. Tying into that, the world building is excellent. The society itself is really well thought out with a great attention to detail. The laughing man story line is brilliantly handled, being introduced early and with consistent hints and allusions throughout the series to keep you interested. The series also has some great emotional moments. Some heart-warming, some triumphant, some depressing and some tragic. In the last couple episodes they will make you cry over the fate of AI. Everyone who’s seen the series knows which scene I’m talking about too. The tension is superb and the pacing is flawless. It has a lot of really well done action scenes, but it also has a lot of really good quiet moments, character moments, and investigative scenes. It takes a very nuanced approach.

Characters:

Stand Alone Complex has quite a few characters. There are the eight major members of Section 9, plus the laughing man and various side characters who mostly only show up in one episode. So, that’s a weakness, right? With that many characters there’s no way they can handle all of them really well, right?

Actually, they do. There are certainly characters who get more focus and development, but every single character in this is complex and comes across as an actual person. There’s not a single character you ever encounter who strikes you as unrealistic, one-dimensional or exaggerated. Not even the people who show up for all of five minutes. The antagonists for various cases all have verisimilitude in their methods and motivations. I also appreciate that the conflicts are between competent parties and no one ever has to do something unbelievably stupid for a plot point. It makes the conflicts a lot more interesting. About the worst you can say about any character in the series is that they’re less well developed than other characters and that’s not a fault. It’s a natural consequence of having an ensemble cast where some characters play a more prominent role than others.

Art:

The visuals in this are about what you’d expect based on the film. They’re fantastic. The character designs are varied and interesting. The backgrounds are really well detailed. The futuristic technology is really interesting and looks great. The action sequences are engaging and intense with effects that are used perfectly. The one complaint I have about the art is that Motoko spends a good portion of the series in a ridiculous outfit, a one piece swimsuit with a belt, because you need one of those when you don’t wear pants, high boots and jacket, because as the main female character she has to wear something that shows cleavage and her bum otherwise the horny straight guys might have to resort to browsing the Internet for porn and we all know that the Internet is strictly for educational purposes and reading the anime related rants of a bald Deutsch guy. In all fairness, Stand Alone Complex is better about keeping the fan-service to a minimum than the film since she doesn’t strip to use the optical camouflage. The camera angles also don’t deliberately focus on her T&A, instead being content with the silly outfit, but that could be less about keeping things classy and more about broadcasting standards.

Sound:

The cast is largely reprising their roles from the film. We’ve still got Tanaka Atsuko, Yamadera Kouichi, Otsuka Akio and Nakano Yutaka as Motoko, Togusa, Batou and Ishikawa and they all continue to do excellently in those roles. Yamadera even plays another important character and makes them both sound distinctive. Really, the entire cast is phenomenal. The music is great, being utilised to enhance the atmosphere and it’s just really well composed. Kanno Yoko, the same composer behind the music of Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain and Escaflowne, deserves a lot of praise for her work on this.

Ho-yay:

There is a little les-yay in this series. Motoko has a girlfriend, or possibly a friend with benefits it’s never made entirely clear, who appears in three episodes and is pretty definitively shown to be a sexual partner of hers. She doesn’t play a huge role, but at the same time it’s sometimes nice to have a gay relationship in the background. So, the series is going to get a ho-yay factor of a 3/10 for those few scenes.

Final Thoughts:

Stand Alone Complex is a brilliant anime. Virtually everything about it is done so well that it’s close to perfect. The story is compelling. The characters are really well developed. The art and acting are both fantastic. The few issues with it are very minuscule when compared to everything that it does right. All in all, it is easily among the best in terms of cyberpunk stories. My final rating for it is going to be a 10/10. Next week, something not as good. Did you know that there’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles OVA?

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