Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
In the year 2030, the lines between real and virtual become ever blurrier as people enhance their bodies with cybernetic implants, while robots and computers come dangerously close to simulating human thought processes. When this fragile balance goes haywire, it's up to Major Motoko Kusanagi and the elite Section 9 of Japan's police force to step in. Armed with the best of 21st-century technology, Section 9 investigates cases unique to the wired world. Whether it's brain-switching politicians, runaway robot tanks, suicidal androids, or a ruthless hacker, Kusanagi and her crew are Japan's last defense against wayward machines... and against humanity itself.
Quick! What was the best anime series to come out of Japan in 2002? If you answered Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, well... you'd have to fight off a lot of Azumanga Daioh fans, but otherwise, many people would agree. In the years since Masamune Shirow's groundbreaking manga and Mamoru Oshii's movie adaptation, not only has civilization come closer to Shirow's thought-provoking vision, but digital animation has reached the level where it's possible to create a shiny 2030 world on a TV series budget. Call up the studio that produced the original Ghost in the Shell movie, throw in the most talented anime score composer in Japan, and the result is a show that lives up to the status of its predecessors.
A quick refresher for those who have missed the countless press releases: Stand Alone Complex is divided between self-contained, "stand alone" episodes and continuity-dependent episodes that form a more "complex" arc. Volume 1 opens with three Stand Alone episodes and Episode 4 starts off the Complex, ending on a cliffhanger that will surely coax fans into buying the next disc. Although the series initially looks like a conventional sci-fi cop show, don't be fooled. An average anime in this setting would focus on how spiffy and action-packed the future is; Stand Alone Complex turns inward and looks at human emotions and relationships instead. Episode 2, for example, starts out as a tale of wayward military technology and turns out to be a bittersweet portrait of a rebellious son and his doting parents, a theme that most futuristic shows would miss completely.
But don't be intimidated by the touchy-feely side of this series. Fans of gun-toting, rip-snorting, mecha-piloting action will still get their fill. Stand Alone Complex achieves an ideal balance between flashy chase scenes and cerebral plot developments, so that viewers will never get bored with either too much talking or too much eye candy. The Stand Alone investigations, while formulaic, are structured well enough that they don't insult the viewer's intelligence or make ridiculous leaps of logic. The only problem is that characters have a tendency to talk like books during plot developments--back-story and explanations are vital, of course, but having to absorb that much information in one big block of dialogue can be a bit of a brain-fry.
In these early episodes, the most interesting characters aren't necessarily the Section 9 staff--it's actually the people they investigate who set the tone for this vision of the future. The sickly scientist in Episode 2 highlights the moral issues of cybernetic body parts, while the runaway hacker in Episode 3 is a bleak warning of what happens when machines become too close to human. Even the Tachikoma robot tanks, with their inquisitive attitude, are characters in their own right that provide both comic relief and a unique take on artificial intelligence.
For all its deep thematic content, Stand Alone Complex wouldn't be half as awesome were it not for Production I.G's slick visuals. The top-tier studio respects Shirow's original character designs (most noticeable in Kusanagi's dated hairstyle), but adds a modern polish that brings this anime closer to the future. Avoiding the dour monochromaticism of typical cyberpunk settings, Production I.G uses vivid colors to build a world that's not too different from ours. The animation, exemplified by the fluid motion of the Tachikomas, is smooth enough to rival any OVA or feature film. This is definitely a show that's produced by real animators, not character designers who just want to see their creations flap their mouths. Even the CGI is flawless -- there are some split-second scenes where a car might look artificial, but aside from that, every vehicle is expertly rendered and blends in with the rest of the 2-D scenery.
Manga Entertainment and Bandai have teamed up to provide an English dub that's worthy of this series' quality. The casting of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as Kusanagi may sound unusual at first (especially to those accustomed to her Japanese voice), but her performance is as sophisticated as they come. The supporting cast of Section 9 is equally talented, bringing distinctive personalities to each character even when their main job is to stand around and dispense information. The only real assault on the ears would be the overly cute and chirpy Tachikomas, but high voices have always been a tricky matter.
No discussion of Stand Alone Complex is complete without bringing up the wide-ranging music score. With Yoko Kanno in the studio, any style is fair game for the soundtrack, be it pulsating dance beats, crunchy guitar riffs, frantic jazz, or heartrending string melodies. Many times she creates unique effects that would make serious composers jealous--and still the tracks manage to fit the scenes. With the scriptwriters already plumbing emotional depths, Kanno's distinctive score adds the final punch that will give viewers goosebumps and chills at all the right moments. If you can't afford the Stand Alone Complex DVD just yet, do yourself a favor and at least buy the soundtrack.
Extras on the DVD include insightful interviews with director Kenji Kamiyama and Kusanagi's voice actress Atsuko Tanako, but the real highlights are the delightful "Tachikoma Days" shorts after each episode. Even in these lighthearted romps, Production I.G doesn't skimp on the animation quality and sketches out humorous vignettes about the AI tanks when they're off-duty.
Effortlessly slick animation, a brilliant music score, and stories that touch the core of what it is to be human--who could ask for more in an anime series? These four episodes alone are great works in their own right, and the fact they managed to produce 22 more (plus a second season) is remarkable. Believe the hype and the advertisements, folks. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex truly is a series that "stands alone" above the rest.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A
+ Near-perfect visuals and music in addition to thoughtful storytelling.
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