Anime Reviews: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Its slick visuals and thought-provoking story make Stand Alone Complex an essential action anime, though its flat characters and filler episodes weigh it down.
Title: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a.k.a. Koukaku Kidoutai STAND ALONE COMPLEX
Production: Production I.G.
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 10/1/2002 to 10/1/2003
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, strong language, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In the year 2029, information is exchanged instantaneously and much of mankind eschews their natural bodies in favor of cyberization--replacing organic body parts with mechanical ones. Despite all this, while the nature of crime has changed drastically, the nature of mankind has changed very little, and so Public Security Section 9 is always hard at work. Specializing in counter-cyberterrorism and international espionage, each member of Section 9 has a valuable role to play--roles that become increasingly important when one of their investigators uncovers the renewed stirrings of a long-abandoned case: The Laughing Man Incident. Six years ago, this kidnapping case went unsolved because of the perpetrator's ability to masterfully hack into any system, but now that it's resurfaced, Section 9 has their work cut out for them.
The Good: Looks pretty slick for a decade-old series; great opening theme; exciting action and intriguing plot; Batou is a fantastic character...
The Bad: ...and the rest of the cast are wholly frigid and forgettable; Yoko Kanno's most lackluster soundtrack; lots of filler episodes
The Ugly: Now the Major's going around without any pants on! What gives?!
Sometimes, the hardest series to sit through aren't the worst--sometimes, they're the ones that could be great and have moments of greatness but, alas, fall short nearly every time. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is such a series. As for my history with the show, much like the Ghost in the Shell film, I knew it was out there and I knew people liked it, and (unlike the film) it even aired on Adult Swim back when I was an avid watcher, but despite all that, I gave it a pass anyway. Was I justified in my hesitance to check this series out? Let's find out~
First of all, it should be noted that Stand Alone Complex was made in the early 2000s when digital animation and painting were still in their infancy, so many TV series that utilized these techniques at the time have not aged very well at all (looking at you, Ninja Scroll TV), but Stand Alone Complex was animated in such a way that it still looks pretty great to this day (even if a couple in-between frames look a little iffy). For a dystopian sci-fi anime, there's a lot of bright and vivid colors at play, and the various settings are quite attractive and imaginative. The animation is likewise very solid, especially during the many action sequences, showcasing the series' astronomical (for 2002) budget and delivering a visual experience that tries its damnedest to rival the original film. Even the conspicuous CGI used for the Tachikoma and other large robots still looks good, even though they're animated in a very low framerate. It's not the perfection of a modern ufotable production, but for a TV series over a decade old, it's still very much watchable if visuals are a priority for you.
As with any show, the first impression is made with the opening theme--this time, it's "Inner Universe" by Origa and composed by Yoko Kanno. There's a great combining of futuristic synths and throbbing bass with Origa's elegant and operatic vocals that just makes this opener a real treat (though it's hard to not be distracted by how laughably awful the fully-rendered 3D CGI animation is). On an interesting note, the lyrics are entirely in Russian and English--no Japanese to be found!--which is a tad unusual for an anime opening, but it fits right in with the show's more multicultural setting. As a first impression, this opening is aurally fantastic (though visually hilarious).
Onto the content of the show itself, Stand Alone Complex features quite a bit of intense, flashy action to go along with its more heady, complex storyline. On the action front, there are all-out shootouts, car chases, fist-fights, knife fights, tank fights, full-on sieges, and all manner of combat present throughout the series, and each one is given tender loving care by the animators. As for the story, there's a lot of corporate espionage going on with complicated business dealings and corporate scandals and all that kind of thing, and it all weaves a tale where the very benefactors to Section 9 could be the black, corrupted heart of evil themselves. Even many of the individual filler episodes unrelated to the conflict at large contain some very memorable events and twists. And that's not even touching on the show's philosophies about the nature of man, the dangers of over-reliance on technology, memes, and the titular Stand Alone Complex--all of which are central to the main story and reveal quite a bit about not just this fictional world, but also our very own. Great stuff all around.
The last major high point of the series for me is Batou, who, alongside Major Kusanagi, is Section 9's main muscle and Stand Alone Complex's main source of human connection with the viewers. He's brash, sarcastic, headstrong, and driven by his emotions--which is odd, since he's one of the more cyberized members of Section 9--but his directness and humanity are what make him, in my opinion, the best character in the show.
Because, unfortunately, just as with the 1995 film, the vast majority of Stand Alone Complex's cast are flat, distant, and frigid. The Major is always no-nonsense and cold, Chief Aramaki is always a talking head spouting exposition, I don't even recall seeing Ishikawa outside of his data gathering chair, and who even cares about Bolma and that sniper guy? Togusa is probably the closest to being as human and likable as Batou, but I blame this on the fantastic dub and the decision to have Our Lord and Savior, Crispin Freeman, bring Togusa to life. Honestly, I didn't give a rat's ass about what happened to anyone other than Batou, and in a series where death is a very real possibility and a major threat to our heroes' team structure, that's not a good sign. Maybe things will improve in the sequel series and the characters will be more attaching, but why can't they be attaching now?!
Another problem I had is with the soundtrack (aside from the opening theme). Long story short, it's pretty mediocre and doesn't fill me with any emotion whatsoever, other than frustration. And the only reason frustration is what it makes me feel is because the soundtrack was composed by Yoko Kanno! If it were anyone else, it'd just be a mediocre soundtrack, but mediocrity coming from one of the greatest modern-day composers is just...just...AAARRGGHHH!! It's just unforgivable! It's practically a sin! What happened?! Was she being rushed? Did she just not find any inspiration? This should not happen!
And finally, just to piss in my Cheerios some more, more than half of the series is made up of filler episodes. Now, to be fair, these filler episodes do tend to be very good, and you can tell when you're on one at the episode's title card ("Stand Alone" episodes are filler, "Complex" episodes are plot), but really, guys? 14 out of 26 episodes needed to be filler? Are you kidding me? Even Noir didn't have that much filler, for crying out loud! Even One Piece, with its infamous and numerous filler arcs, still has a 6 to 1 story-to-filler ratio! Come on! Seriously!
I really hope 2nd GIG is more consistent than this, because it's hard for me to say I liked Stand Alone Complex. Yeah, the story's great and it's pretty and the action's thrilling and Batou carries every scene he's in, but 14 filler episodes? An almost entirely frigid and unrelatable cast? Yoko Kanno sleepwalking? Good anime with major flaws are almost unbearable to watch, because you end up with frustrating issues like these. Would I recommend this series? Yeah, of course. The cyberpunk fans in the audience don't have a choice in the matter, and general anime fans will surely delight in the philosophical plot and vigorous action sequences. Just take my griping with a grain of salt and check it out--who knows, maybe the things that bothered me won't even cross your mind.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. Rock-solid animation, thrilling action, and a heady storyline are Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex's main strengths, as well as the chief reasons for viewers to see it, but it does come burdened with a largely unrelatable cast and a plethora of filler episodes mixed in.