The Ghost in the Shell name is best known for the animated movie released in Japan and the United States in the mid 1990s, based on the popular manga by Masamune Shirow. In 2002 Production I.G. started ambitious work on an evolutionary animated series heavily based on the manga, with more input from Shirow. In June 2004, the series will make its American debut on the Cartoon Network, followed by this DVD release in July.
Stand Alone Complex then is the title for the TV series, which takes place independently from the manga and theatrical movies. Crafted wonderfully, the series features a balance of intelligence, technology, rebellious counter-culture, sadness, action, and cerebral plots that, while typical of Japanese manga, go far and above what American viewers typically receive. Movie watchers will see some familiar characters and settings - the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is the tactical commander of Public Peace Section 9, a described governmental "offensive force against crime" led by the older Daisuke Aramaki.
Section 9's members are nearly all cyborgs - military-grade constructed bodies and cyberbrains that host the human brain imprint (essentially the soul or "ghost" of a person, the "shell" being the body). Batou, the muscular gung-ho cyborg, and Togusa, the semi-normal relative newcomer (he's essentially a human with some cybernetic implants) should also be familiar to movie viewers, as is Ishikawa. Other more one-dimensional team members, like Saito, Pazu, and Boma, will probably be more familiar for manga readers. The Tachikomas (Fuchikomas in the manga) round out the active Section 9 staff, sentient AI tanks that provide a bit of humor with their child-like, yet compelling, mannerisms, personalities and voices.
The overall series plot and title stem from the Laughing Man case, though there are plenty of individual one-episode stories. The episodes are frequently introspective, while highlighting and sometimes amplifying various human flaws through technology. Another theme involves a kind of revolutionary counter-culture fixating around the cult figure of "The Laughing Man," a seemingly ingenious hacker whose apparent crimes in the past may or may not have spawned independent imitators for common causes - the "Stand Alone Complex." The show's writers seem to be well versed in alternative or counter-cultural ideas - the Laughing Man frequently appears in the guise of a rotating smiley-face icon quoting from J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," while the name "The Laughing Man" itself is from one of Salinger's short stories.
The quality of the artwork varies by the episode - there isn't one unifying art style as in other anime series. That said, the animation is generally quite good, with a generous mix of 3D graphics blended with the 2D characters. Likewise the music direction and composition is amply offered in the varied and frequently eclectic style of Yoko Kanno, and resembles her mix in Macross Plus and Cowboy Bebop. Frequently the combination of art, music, and plot mesh quite well. Viewers may question Kusanagi's dress code, the quick bouts of graphical violence, or the complete lack of action - this show is definitely not for children.
The Special Edition DVD set features 3 DVDs: the first features the first four episodes with extras, the second features the first four episodes with DTS sound (and extras), and the third features the original soundtrack for the first season. Only the first disc is featured with the regular set.
Here is an episode summary:
SECTION 9: The series is introduced after a short encounter with a rooftop criminal as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and party is suddenly held hostage in a robot geisha house. Aramaki quickly takes control with Section 9, but nothing about the hostage situation, the aftermath, or the army's involvement is as it seems. The entire team is introduced, some albeit briefly, as is Aramaki's long-time friend Kubota. The plot generally isn't too complex and is easy to figure, but it's a good start.
TESTATION: At the Kenbishi Heavy Industry's Maneuvers Dome the company's new heavy multi-legged sentient AI tank seemingly goes berserk, blasts itself out of the Dome, and gets on the highway - but where is it going? And why? It's Section 9's job to follow and if possible stop the tank, while discovering why it went berserk. This episode really introduces the Tachikomas and involves one of the most sentimental and nearly tearful stories in the entire season. It's interesting how the direction focuses on the cyborgs of Section 9 as Togusa details how Kago wanted something similar for himself and could never get in life.
ANDROID AND I: Old-style "Jerry"-type androids begin self-destructing in spectacular ways en masse, bringing Section 9 into the case, fearing a connection to an earlier case in the capital. While the case doesn't seem as vicious, the investigation quickly brings Batou and Togusa to the apartment of the perpetrator - a film-buff apparently in love with his android. Reportedly one of the show creator's favorite episodes.
INTERCEPTOR: The fourth episode begins the main story arc with the Laughing Man case as a police investigator on the case and acquaintance of Togusa is killed before he can tell Togusa something about the investigation - not with the case itself but something going on at higher levels of the investigation and the special investigation branch formed to solve the case. Before long Togusa discovers the illegal use of interceptors - microscopic cameras implanted on the surface of the eye - on the team itself. A scandal unfolds, and before long the Laughing Man himself makes an "appearance."
Honestly the first set should have the next two episodes as well as they are all linked but nevertheless these four show a fairly impressive range of what Stand Alone Complex is all about. Highly recommended.