Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
8.5 stars out of 10
There’s a large number of American anime fans who readily acknowledge Stand Alone Complex as “that really confusing show that comes on Adult Swim late at night.” There are others who feel as if the deeply philosophical themes present in the 1995 film are all but missing from the anime series. Still, some hail the anime as a post-cyberpunk masterpiece. The most profound fictional works can also have the most polarized critics; Stand Alone Complex is undoubtedly part of this tradition and will surely stand the test of time.
Mystery and intrigue are the driving motivators in classic cyberpunk fiction, with a splash of biotech and some combat thrown in. SAC (Stand Alone Complex) is considerably more action-oriented than its original film predecessor, and expands upon its noir underpinnings while also making its philosophical issues more relevant to contemporary audiences. The show’s plot involves a corporate criminal known as the Laughing Man and his famous kidnapping of a micro-machine developer, who refused to admit his technology was ineffective in treating a fatal cyber-brain illness. According to police, he subsequently went on to commit a series of corporate crimes against other micro-machine developers until mysteriously vanishing and eluding capture. The Laughing Man re-emerges six years later in reaction to an elaborate scandal within the police department. Public Security Section 9, a cyber-terrorism prevention unit, takes it upon themselves to determine who the Laughing Man is. The plot is by far one of the most ambitious and (dare I say it?) complex stories one will ever find in an anime, with more twists than a Namco Tales video game; it’s one of the reasons why SAC is so successful.
The artwork for the show is initially lackluster. It vacillates from being mediocre to well done for at least a quarter of the series, where it finally seems to develop into a slick production. Among the innovations SAC can claim is that it integrates 3D animation into a 2D production rather smoothly; this holds true even after watching it ten years later and comparing it to present-day shows that attempt to do the same. Crowds and vehicles are also rendered in 3D; this has become a convention in animation nowadays thanks to Production I.G.
The sound of SAC is definitely unique. The music was composed by Yoko Kanno, and even back in 2002 she was considered one of the best anime composers of all time. The music is often atmospheric with dark undertones. With the exception of the unforgettable opening theme, “Inner Universe,” there is little hint of techno or dubstep-type music, which keeps the soundtrack from being stereotypically futuristic. In fact, guitars and orchestral instruments are regularly used in tandem, highlighting Kanno’s innate sense for fusing styles together and producing fantastic results. I would strongly recommend buying the original sound tracks to get a feel for the diversity of SAC’s music.
American anime viewers who typically go for subbed shows may want to watch this one in English instead. Richard Epcar voices Batou, the instantly recognizable Section 9 member with bottlecap eyes. Epcar, who can be heard in shows as recent as The Legend of Korra, embodies the “male brute with a heart of gold” like no other. Of course, Mary McGlynn easily steals the show as Major Motoko Kusanagi, the franchise’s protagonist. Her vocal inflections can greatly vary, being strong and authoritative at times while still being gentle, persuasive and even seductive. She was voted Best Actress at the first American Anime Awards in 2007 for her work on Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig. There are no super kawaii, whiny voice actors here.
If SAC has any grave shortcomings, it is that the show tends to forget that not all of its viewers will be familiar with the original Ghost in the Shell manga or even its 1995 film adaptation. The amount of jargon SAC throws around can be dizzying; how am I supposed to know what a “command class virus with an encryption conversion key” or a “modular delay action virus” is? They sound dangerous, and that’s all I can figure out without first obtaining a degree from the University of Cyborg Hacking. One must praise Shirow Masamune, creator of the original Ghost in the Shell manga, for developing such a thorough fictional universe, but there isn’t enough initial exposition in SAC for viewers to appreciate its complexity. After a few episodes, hopefully the average viewer will get a feel for what the many special terms mean.
The premise of the show’s mystery, the infamous “Stand Alone Complex”, is also a bit confusing, if not ill defined within the context of the show. According to an interview on the Production I.G. website, director Kenji Kamiyama believes that today’s communications infrastructure has the potential to breed new types of crime. He demonstrates this by applying a computer science principle, known as “Parallel Computing,” to humans. In layman’s terms (and trust me, I’m no expert), parallel computing dictates that a single command is broken down into separate components and executed by multiple processors in order to optimize overall execution time. The more independent the processors are from each other, the faster their processes tend to be. Replacing the term “processors” with “humans” and comparing it to the Laughing Man case will bring an amazing amount of clarity to the show.
Yes, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is daunting. Yes, this show assumes its audiences are very well-read and highly intelligent. Yes, newcomers will certainly walk away with a few headaches at the end of the season. Re-watching the series over and over may be necessary in order to fully comprehend the insanely complex narrative at work. But SAC stands as a testament to the fact that animation doesn’t have to be watered-down to cater to child audiences; the philosophical questions inherent to any cyborg anime are ever present. For those who have reservations about seeing it, my advice is this: don’t be afraid to step out of your anime comfort zone. You might like what you find.
- To whom would this anime appeal? Heavy cyberpunk fans and robot enthusiasts in general; anyone who’s captivated by cop shows like NCIS and CSI; philosophers and intellectuals who don’t mind asking life’s biggest questions: what does it mean to be human? Am I important?
- Which anime are similar to this one? Those who like SAC will certainly want to check out the rest of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Director Kenji Kamiyama also worked on Eden of the East, a show that makes his ideology a bit more comprehensible to the average fan. For fans of the philosophical underpinnings of robot/human relations, the anime Time of Eve adds a distinctly human touch to the genre. Also of interest might be Ergo Proxy, a heavily philosophical show that mixes horror and sci-fi elements.
- Elijah Lee
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