Title: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (season 1; 2002)
Original Language: Japanese (subtitled)
The relationship between man and machine is one often fantasized by artistes in diverse mediums. It’s a subject matter that fully intrigues and it’s not hard to deduce why: it parallels heavily with our own society. The unwavering quench to advance collective technologies and the relative dependency on machines has drastically grown with the ages. Authors, artists, social critics, and scholars from all walks of life have adopted this framework and produced some of the most imaginative works that not only entertain, but step beyond the fictional realm to perhaps foreshadow a similar tomorrow not too far away…
One such examination is the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (GitS) series. Revitalizing the cyberpunk genre and honing in on various veins of society, GitS is a series that revamps the boundaries of typical sci-fi/cyberpunk story-telling.
Set in the future, the first installment of the Stand Alone series trails the respective missions and cases dealt with by an independent, elite unit established by the government titled Section 9. The manner in which the story is structured is peculiarly fascinating: the show is divided up by stand-alone episodes and “dividual”/complex or simply the pivotal episodes that deal with the central case of the laughing man. Therefore, GitS can be considered largely episodic. That by no means indicates a lapse in quality as those stand-alone episodes fulfill many functions; one being, to present an encompassing view of the society depicted and the individuals that compose it, especially the leading cast. It is especially effective because a large part in appreciating this narrative is understanding the intricacies of the world it offers. To put it simply: nothing is done in vain.
With that being said, this is a tale that unfolds slowly. Although, it is a crime-centric series which would imply a certain degree of action, it is smartly and properly utilized. This is a multi-layered show and each layer is carefully peeled and explored. Composed of exceptional writing, intuitive expositions, and an extensive setting, GitS manages to create a consistent flow without relying on an array of shock values or incessant action fillers . Furthermore, the action isn’t used superficially or gratuitously, but as an auxiliary measure to provide a worthwhile experience. This isn’t the series to go to for fast-paced and continual action; it has long tenures of recurring dialogue and expositions, which can be detractingly slow for some. Regardless, the pacing is well-seasoned; allowing for a more effective and comprehensive outlook of its society.
The GitS society is composed of cyborgs, humans, A.I, and other mechanically-altered beings/machines. Consequently, one can imagine that certain inquiries are bound to rise up. From ontological speculation to political turmoil ; from corporate debauchery to ethical breaches; the series inherently sets up a plethora of topics for the audience to ruminate upon. The core of GitS is embedded in its concepts of “ghost” and “shell” which are extrapolated further to craft the philosophy of the series. Created truly in an ineffable manner, it borrows from a handful of philosophical narratives and works of literature to construct a hyper-“cyberized” realm which draws upon the aforesaid concepts and generates the Stand Alone Complex; yet it is also able to simultaneously maintain an air of authenticity.
Even though the dominant focus is on macro/social-constructs, there are some other very interesting nuances. For example, the disillusionment that accompanies “upgrading” one’s body is subtly depicted by various events such as cyborgs not being able to indulge in their favorite foods because their new bodies have no need for savory sustenance. The perpetual paradox of clinging to one’s humanity by physically losing it is wonderfully crafted. One can’t help but ponder upon where the attributes of “human-ness” start and end. Additionally, that paradox is juxtaposed quite ingeniously by the addition of the innocently intuitive Tachikomas (A.I -robots), who throughout the show, question concepts such as individuality, free will, fate, freedom, life, and death which are essentially synonymous with the history of human thought. Where there is humanity lost, elsewhere it is “found”. GitS shows us that it’s precisely where we least expect it, by “our own” design, can it resurface.
What GitS must be endlessly praised for is its uncanny ability to combine various disciplines such as: literature, ethics, philosophy (to name a few), and incorporate them in a relevant and meaningful way. There is both insight and context to almost every concept, reference, and quote that was used in the show. All of this is swiftly integrated and explicitly reflected through the laughing man case. Furthermore, literary devices such as motifs, allusions, and references are implemented elegantly within the narrative, rather than as a detached component. A recurring flaw that occurs in similar works is the constant abuse of irrelevant references, quote dropping, and other superfluous insertions that serve no purpose whatsoever other than to give the false impression of depth or intelligence. This series manages to avoid that and instead, provide perceptive commentary without breaking immersion, while also resonating deeply with the viewer as it frequently serves as a reflecting mirror of the reality in more than one way(s).
In a society where machines are questioning their existence, humans are questioning their humanity, and amidst it all, the marriage between man and machine is eternalized; GitS takes a very neutral stance and just reports, rather than preach. This is a notable technique because it abandons the didactic tone and allows room for personal introspection/interpretation, rather than force-feeding a subscribed ideology. Embracing its thematic heart, GitS offers a level of unmatched profundity.
The characters of GitS are equally fascinating– not as glamorized mouth-pieces– but as integral entities that provided a kaleidoscopic view; one seeped in many colors. “One-woman army” Major Motoko Kusanagi is undoubtedly the driving force of the series. Her attributes aren’t necessarily unique, but convincing given her role. She serves as a concrete pillar for her team and as an intriguing lead for the series. The rest of the characters are also well-maintained and created with care and purpose.
A point of true admiration is how the show expands on the collective struggle of the team in accordance with the prevalent themes and ideological undercurrents. Furthermore, the dynamics between the characters are assiduously constructed and are focal to the characterization aspect of the show. There is a surprising amount of depth in the dialogues between the members of Section 9 and those they pursue, which often times is the only portal into understanding the respective character’s persona. Though the characters remain somewhat innately enigmatic, they serve a pivotal role in providing different views on other characters and the world that they occupy.
One caveat that lightly burdens the series is the lack of [balanced] development of the characters on an individual level. There were some members that were rarely elaborated upon even though they were essential to the team. Some characters changed while many remained the same—which isn’t necessarily a fault–but the series could have taken it step further to add a deeper element of empathy. Sporadic and detailed snapshots were provided for certain characters which were a delight, but tantalizing nonetheless, for they often incited the urge to want more. The characters were generally solid, but alas, there was a lingering emptiness—a feeling of something “lacking”.
The connection that is often forged between the audience and the characters they watch or read is important but due to the “dehumanized” nature of the series, GitS was underwhelming in that aspect. Although, it can be easily argued that it remained true to its ambitions and what it was trying to achieve, the overall experience could have slightly improved if individual characterization was given more weight. Despite that, the characters were all interesting and maintained the allure of the GitS world with grace.
Aesthetically, the series does not disappoint. GitS has this precocious ability to show and tell, which allows it to manifest into an unforgettable audio-visual-sensory experience. The art and animation are commendable not just because of fluidity and style but because of well it intertwined with overall atmosphere. The visuals and sound work hand-in-hand to provide a front-and-center view for the audience, thus producing a remarkable atmosphere. For example, the urban metropolis, sprawling with celestial skyscrapers and engulfed in a sea of endless lights– is often infused with a continual dark and destitute tone– that is partly depicted by off-setting the vibrancy with shifts in darker colors and shades. One can feel the alienation dripping off the atmosphere and embrace it as if it were their own. Truly, the animation and art style provides a very visceral experience.
Further complementing the atmosphere is the sublime soundtrack of GitS. This doesn’t come as a surprise to many considering Yoko Kanno is the woman behind it all. From the OP to the overall background music, GitS provides a euphonious journey for one’s ears. The meshing of various dialects and fusing distinct styles– such as jazz, classical, and electronica-rock– all are combined to assemble one of the most spectacular soundtracks that will surely find a place on one’s playlist.
In essence, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is truly a gem that paints a very interesting picture of not just a potential future, but also of one that parallels the present. As humanity continues to leap towards a rapidly changing future and form a holy liaison with its pursuit of technological advancement, many of us can’t help but ponder upon where all these efforts will take us, and more importantly, whether they will be worth it. Until then, astute creators and artists will continue to prophesize and fulfill their roles as latent harbingers. To exploit that imagination and satisfy one’s curiosity comes the GitS: SAC narrative that should be experienced by all those who are interested in such a reverie. Graced with the wisdom of a sage and the creative curiosity of youth, Stand Alone Complex is a tale that can be thoroughly relished on various planes of cognition and enjoyment.