Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 3rd 2005
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
The Laughing Man takes a break in this volume as Major Motoko Kusanagi and the technologically elite Section 9 investigate a series of stand-alone incidents in the era of AI and cybernetics. Their first case is a young girl who has become the leader of the terrorist group that kidnapped her, and apparently hasn't aged in sixteen years. Next, Section 9 delves into financial matters as they race to save an eccentric investor whose fortune has become the target of a coin-shooting assassin. Even among their own ranks, however, things are turning worrisome as the Tachikoma tanks have become too smart for their own good. Does Batou have enough heart to let them go back to the lab for repairs? As if that weren't bad enough, he then has to go and investigate a suspected spy that he once idolized as a boxing champ and Olympic silver medalist.
Well, it had to happen eventually: the fourth volume of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex isn't quite as stunning as previous installments of the series. While the technical elements like artwork and music continue to stand out, the storytelling takes a dip as the stand-alone episodes go into autopilot. The format of mysteries and twist endings starts to look predictable, and the Tachikoma episode succumbs under the weight of its own soul-searching. Kusanagi's solution for overly talkative, wannabe philosophers? Send them away on a little vacation. Sounds like good advice for Mamoru Oshii as well, if he ever feels like directing another Ghost in the Shell movie.
The main disappointment on this disc is the absence of any episodes relating to the ongoing Laughing Man case. For fans who are following the "complex" part of the series, these self-contained exploits may be less appealing, even though the episodes are satisfying enough on their own. The mystery-solving pattern of each case should be familiar among viewers now, and if you're getting the hang of how things work in the year 2030, the conclusions won't be too surprising. There's a lot of quiet, suspenseful crime-solving to sit through, but those who are patient will be rewarded with thrilling chases, gunfights, and in Episode 16 ("Ag20"), a bareknuckle boxing match featuring Batou. The one exception is the cerebral Episode 15, "Machines Desirantes," where the Tachikomas begin to question their own existence and the relationship between humans and machines. This is as close as it gets to Mamoru Oshii's approach to Ghost in the Shell, so be ready to hit the rewind button and backtrack on the dense dialogue. Incidentally, the Liar's Paradox ("This sentence is false") gets paraphrased in this episode, so logic and philosophy geeks will get a kick out of that.
With the storyline running on autopilot, the principal characters do the same throughout this volume. In Episodes 13 and 14 ("Not Equal" and "YES"), it's the suspects and victims who are the central characters, with Section 9 being the lens through which we view them. Batou is the main focus of "Ag20," but it doesn't develop his character the way "Jungle Cruise" did. In fact, the Tachikomas are the only characters who really experience a major event, and their little sojourn into philosophy reveals a lot about their "identity," a concept that might seem unusual when applied to machines. Make sure to check out the hilarious scene where they pretend to be "more robotic" so that Motoko will stop looking at them suspiciously.
As always, Production I.G sets a high standard for the visuals in this series. Unlike most animation studios, even their backgrounds catch the eye, particularly in the stark industrial setting of "Not Equal" and the ostentatious mansion that plays host to the final act of "YES." Backgrounds like these create a convincing world that's a lot like our own, but still surreal in its technological splendor. The character designs are as consistent as ever, with a level of detail and anatomy that most other animators would kill for. While some of the basic movements like walking and speaking seem just a little choppy (an effect of digital processing perhaps?), the animation still blows most other anime shows away, especially with the sprightly Tachikomas and the dynamic action scenes. To see the animators really going all out, however, watch the "Tachikoma Days" shorts after each episode, because this is Production I.G just having as much fun as possible, with an offbeat sense of humor to boot.
Yoko Kanno's musical intentions become clearer in these episodes of Stand Alone Complex, as she holds back on her musical explorations and turns to a more unified score. Straight-up rock with an electronic edge sets the tone throughout most of this disc, although other instrumentations and styles are still fair game. At this point in the series, some of the tracks start to repeat too, but Kanno is still the composer of choice for orchestrating the many moods of this show: suspense, conflict, regret, and yes, even comedy.
Bandai and Manga Entertainment's dub of the series continues to be easy on the ears, with characters like Motoko, Batou and Togusa sounding as definitive and consistent as voice actors can be. However, the Tachikomas push the cuteness angle a little too far, and with an entire episode focusing on them, those high, chirpy voices become a real test of endurance. Their highly inflected, energetic way of speaking cleverly illustrates their increase in AI, but it doesn't change the fact that the Tachikomas' voices are really high. If you seriously want to get into their heads, the DVD contains an interview with Tachikoma voice actress Sakiko Tamagawa (yes, she plays all of them), plus an interview with Koichi Yamadera, who plays Togusa.
At its heart, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is really just a cop show—but what a fascinating cop show it is. Although there are no new insights on the Laughing Man case, each of these episodes is an exploration into a bewildering world that's supposedly just 25 years away from the present day. At this point in the series, some of the episodes start to have the same structure and feel, but you'll want to watch each one to the end. That's right, even the Tachikoma episode, because despite their smart-alecky attitude, they're really quite endearing. Is the ever-thinning line between human and machine something we ought to worry about? Watch this show and find out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Consistently outstanding artwork and music, no matter what the story's about
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