Reviewby Theron Martin,
Ghost in the Shell: Arise
In the year 2027 (two years before the original movie and three years before the time of Stand Alone Complex), Motoko Kusanagi has yet to join Public Security Section 9 and is instead affiliated with the Army 501 Organization, a special military body for heavily-cyberized individuals. As a Super-Wizard-Class hacker, she is hired by Aramaki, leader of Section 9, to investigate the death of her former military superior officer Kanzaki(?), who died in a supposed mugging while under investigation for corruption. That convoluted investigation brings her into contact indirectly with police officer Togusa and more directly with undercover agent Paz and ex-Ranger Batou, who has been led to believe that Kusanagi is the criminal behind Kanzaki's death. At the end of the complicated affair Aramaki offers Kusanagi a permanent new position and the opportunity to form her own covert team capable of taking independent action.
Later (in the second OVA), while working to establish her new team, Kusanagi learns that one of the Logicomas (essentially a Tachicoma) has been hacked. The case eventually traces back to a colonel who has been condemned to death for war crimes, who orchestrates an elaborate plan to force the revelation of state military secrets in a presumed attempt to get at the buried truth of what really happened in the incident he stands accused of. Helping him to that end are several former subordinates, including Batou, Ishikawa, and Borma. Meanwhile Kusanagi, having formally been given the rank of Major, enlists Paz and the sniper Saito to her cause while also working with a highly-cybernetically-skilled American agent who may be more than she seems. Again things get complicated and messy.
Masamune Shirow, the creator of Ghost in the Shell, has no peer in anime and manga when it comes to imagining a future with cybertechnology and the extent and ramifications of what can be done with it. One of the few who comes close is Tow Ubukata, the creator and screenplay writer for the Mardock Scramble franchise, so him being called on to do the series composition and screenplay for the newest Ghost project is a natural fit. Between his writing and the oversight of Chief Director Kazuchika Kise (the animation direction for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence), these two new OVAs retain a visual look and storytelling style very much akin to the Stand Alone Complex TV series, even while other things are being changed.
Those changes are what will most immediately catch the attention of established franchise fans, whether more casual followers or hard-core devotees. Those highly knowledgeable in franchise anime lore will recognize that some established bits of character background have been retconned: Kusanagi has now been a full-body cyborg since birth and thus has never known a human body, rather than becoming that way as the survivor of a plane crash when she was a child (as established in SAC); she never previously served in a military unit with any of the Section 9 members; and her initial encounters with, and recruitment of, some of the other members has changed drastically. The only substantial effect of this, however, is that it gives her and Batou an opportunity to initially be at odds and even fight each other on a couple of occasions. The much more drastic change, which will be readily apparent even to the most casual franchise fan, is that this is a somewhat different Kusanagi than either her movie or TV series incarnations. One constant criticism of Kusanagi over the years is that she has been cold in temperament and thus difficult to relate to, but this version is a younger, more fiery and expressive Kusanagi, something which both OVAs take great effort to show; even putting her in a sharp red outfit is part of the effort to make her more inviting as a character. This is also visually a much different Kusanagi; she trades the mature, sexy, more physically imposing look for a shorter, more youthful, and more petite build that could almost be called cute. That seems to put her at a physical disadvantage, as throughout these two episodes she gets manhandled more readily and more frequently than she ever did in the movies or TV series.
Otherwise, though, the content remains largely the same. The plots afoot in each installment are just as complex as anything seen in the TV series, with all sorts of intricacies, hidden motives, and complicated cybernetic issues abounding. Fanciful but also scarily realistic technological advances also abound, such as the “walking land mines” which look like female gymnasts but can undergo some creepy transformations in pursuit of their prey, memories being altered by a virus, or a massive traffic jam caused by networked traffic and vehicular AIs being hijacked for immense processing power. The action is every bit as crisp as ever, too, including some detailed hand-to-hand fighting scenes, an impressively-animated “pursuit through traffic” scene, and plenty of fantastical stunts, including some things done with cars and motorbikes which look cool but likely aren't physically feasible. The two installments do have distinctly different structures, however; the first one has its action components but is framed more as a mystery-suspense tale, while the second one is more of an all-out action story despite the complicated reasons for why the action is happening. This is because each was helmed by a different director, who put his own stylistic stamp on the subject matter. (This point is discussed in more length in the Extras.)
The switch in directors does not have a major impact on the artistic and technical merits between the two. Aside from the aforementioned changes to Kusanagi and Aramaki not yet having white hair, character designs are generally consistent with those from the TV series, as are equipment designs. Background art and visual technical detail are as strong as ever, though occasional brief downgrades in the artistry show through. Animation is typically slick and robust enough to keep the fight scenes wonderfully detailed, but the only place where any improvement is shown over the TV series is in some car designs and the way they move. All previous entries in the franchise have set high technical standards for their times, but this one does not raise the bar. Graphic violence is not particularly strong (especially by franchise standards) and fan service is muted in the first episode and nearly non-existent in the second.
The soundtrack by pop star Cornelius (whose other anime work is the Appleseed: Ex Machina soundtrack) is a decidedly mixed bag. It relies heavily on electronica themes and sounds, many of which are underwhelming and sometimes feel like a drag on the story content, especially in action scenes. Also unimpressive is the electronica opener, which comes in slightly different visual versions for each episode and especially pales in comparison to the sharp openers for the TV series. Better are the separate closers for each episode.
The entirely new casting in both Japanese and English dubs is also a mixed bag. The cast choices for Funimation's English dub would probably uniformly be fine if this series is evaluated entirely in isolation from its predecessors, but comparisons to the long-established vocal performances for certain characters are inevitable and not always favorable. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Maxwell acquits herself fine in a performance reminiscent of Mimi Woods' rendition of Kusanagi from the first movie, and Jad Saxton is virtually indistinguishable from previous voice efforts for the Tachicomas as the main Logicoma, but John Swasey's Aramaki lacks the signature gravelly quality of William Fredrick's rendition from all previous franchise entries and thus never feels quite right. Other major characters are not as big of an issue but do require some getting used to. Interestingly, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, the voice of Kusanagi for all other franchise installments except the first movie, is back but in a supporting role, which is a bit jolting when first heard. English script and performance quality are all solid. (For detailed thoughts on the Japanese dub changes, see Michael Toole's earlier review.)
Funimation is giving this release the deluxe treatment, with the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of each episode contained in their own cases and the whole fitted into a sharp artbox. The Blu-Ray version is a very distinct visual upgrade over the DVD version, although the audio quality does not improve much. Each case includes booklets which contain story summaries, glossary-like notes, character and mechanical designs, and a handful of creative team interviews and commentaries; the comments about what Ubukata and the directors were aiming for in certain scenes is particularly insightful. On-disk Extras are quite substantial, too. Both disks contain Logicoma-focused shorts (as per the TV series), assorted promotional videos, trailers, and teasers, and a clean version of the opener for that episode, while the first disk includes a fan-interview feature from the Anime Expo 2013 debut and the second disk includes an English staff/cast audio commentary, panel discussions with key Japanese staff for both episodes, a Decode 501 File (which provides details about Unit 501), and a clean closer. The audio commentary talks extensively about what went into the script writing and the philosophy behind some of the casting decisions and also reveals that, for two of the key voice actors, the original movie was their “gateway” title. The panel discussions go into some detail about some of the stylistic choices made in each episode, though the booklet commentaries are meatier.
Because it is essentially starting over from the beginning, Arise should be accessible to franchise newcomers, and indeed appears to have been made as much with them in mind as established fans. That it largely eschews delving into philosophy in favor of just telling its story also helps prevent it from being too heavy despite the intricacy of its plotting. While not as visually or philosophically cutting-edge as previous franchise installments, its first two episodes are nonetheless welcome additions to a franchise which never seemed to run short on ideas or good excuses for action scenes.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : C+
+ Intricate plotting, detailed action scenes, inventive cybernetic elements.
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