Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 31st 2007
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man
Japan, 2030. Modern technology has reached great heights, but crime still plagues human society—and that's when cyborg operative Motoko Kusanagi and the elite squad of Section 9 step in. Armed with the latest hardware and software, they follow the trail of the Laughing Man, a mysterious criminal who committed various acts of corporate terrorism six years ago and then disappeared. Now it seems that he has returned, hacking his way into people's brains and turning them into puppets of vigilante justice. But how do you track down a criminal so brilliant that he can wipe people's memories and leave only a laughing face as his calling card? The clues will lead Kusanagi and Section 9 to a conspiracy spanning the worlds of medicine, technology, and even the highest levels of government.
In the world of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the Laughing Man's symbol becomes a cult meme, appearing on just about any flat surface where you can stick a smiley face and a Salinger quote. Of course, life has a funny way of imitating art—the Laughing Man symbol has since become the geek world's choice for covering up faces of friends who might not want to be seen in your online photo collection. Yet the story of the Laughing Man goes well beyond some internet humor, and this DVD gives fans a chance to relive the central story arc of Stand Alone Complex's first season. With some judicious editing, cutting, and a few newly animated scenes, The Laughing Man successfully bridges the gap between TV series and feature film, and reminds us why Ghost in the Shell is still some of the best sci-fi that anime has to offer.
In truth, it would take more than a few paragraphs to fully sing the praises of The Laughing Man's deep and intricate story. But let's keep it short: what stands out the most is how the movie successfully blends dense themes of technology and philosophy with more standard shoot-'em-up action, all while weaving in a fantastic conspiracy plot. Unlike most other futuristic blockbusters, this one manages to keep the story on track all the way through: each scene builds upon the previous one until the Laughing Man's true nature is fully revealed, at which point the explosive finale kicks in and action fans can get their fill. If there is any fault to be found, it's that the movie still feels a little too much like a series of TV episodes strung together. The plot is complex to the point where some scenes become overloaded with explanatory dialogue, and viewers may have to pause just to mentally recap.
Most action thrillers would be content just to have a solid plot, but this one throws on some extra brain food with its discussion of technological and philosophical ideas. Although not as introspective as Mamoru Oshii's interpretations of Ghost in the Shell, there are still plenty of high-level concepts on display: the conflict of medical technology, politics and money; artificial brains and the modification of memory; and the question of personal individuality versus copycat assimilation into a network. Amidst these challenging ideas, however, the human aspect gets kind of lost—the characters are so caught up in the plot that they rarely develop or express themselves emotionally. In fact, the most expressive characters are the artificially intelligent Tachikoma tanks, who not only provide comic relief but contribute to one of the most heartfelt scenes in the entire story.
Like the rest of the Stand Alone Complex series, the visuals here are marked by slick, shiny colors and stylish design. From the inner workings of the Net to bouncy Tachikomas to geometrically imposing cityscapes, every detail is drawn with love and care, creating a cohesive future world that isn't too far removed from ours. The human and cyborg characters are also very distinct in design; even secondary characters are easy to remember after one look. The best part, however, is when the characters spring into motion, showing off the animation talents of Production I.G. Whether it's gunplay, acrobatics, or hand-to-hand combat, there are no cheap shortcuts here—every movement transitions smoothly from one point to the next. Static and establishing shots are also just as interesting, thanks to a variety of unique angles that draw the eye into each scene.
Although the story might take several paragraphs to explain and appreciate, the music score really only needs two words: Yoko Kanno. Like her many other works, Kanno expertly weaves a variety of genres into the music of the future. Perhaps Kanno's most memorable technique is when she sets high-intensity action scenes against a slow, melancholic track, creating even greater pathos than if it had been composed according to the traditional "rules" of film scoring. But since when has Yoko Kanno ever been about following the rules? The TV series theme song "Inner Universe" also makes its way into this movie, making for a complete listening experience.
For some fans, however, their listening experience may be shattered when they notice that the dub actors on The Laughing Man are different from the cast of previous Ghost in the Shell recordings. Taken on its own, the new dub performance is pretty solid—Motoko's no-nonsense attitude is still there, as is Batou's gruffness, Togusa's everyman nature, Aramaki's cryptic wisdom—but for those of us who have gotten used to the likes of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Richard Epcar, this cast change is something of a shock. On a more positive note, the translation and rewrite is fairly consistent; some of the more complex dialogue is rearranged to flow better, but otherwise the English script matches up pretty well with the Japanese track.
Bonus content is plentiful enough that it comes on a second disc for this release (or maybe that's just because the movie takes up so much space): a memorial making-of feature called the "Stand Alone Complex Archive", plus a cute little "Tachikomatic Days" comedy short. All in all it should be enough to satisfy those who want even more after the movie is over.
For an anime experience that's pleasing to the eyes and to the brain, it's hard to beat The Laughing Man, with its intricate yet coherent story and slick sci-fi action. It may not be the best place for newcomers to Ghost in the Shell—as a compilation of TV episodes, it doesn't offer a whole lot of introductory material—but this is where knowing fans can come and enjoy one of the all-time great story arcs (as long as they don't mind the change in dub voice actors). Whether you choose to enjoy it as a conspiracy thriller, or as a discussion about the challenges of technology and society, or both, one thing holds true: this is a story that's not to be missed.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ A brilliantly plotted, intellectually engaging thriller with great animation to boot.
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