Reviewby Theron Martin,
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045
ONA episodes 1-12
In 2042, the Big Four world powers (America, EU, Russia, China) instituted the concept of “sustainable war” as a means to revitalize economies. In 2044, the Global Simultaneous Default disrupted all electronic transactions and devalued physical currency, leading to widespread unrest and civil war. By 2045, “sustainable war” has become a widespread reality. In that environment, the mercenary team GHOST, led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, makes a living – and has their fun – traipsing from conflict to conflict. Getting roped into an odd mission by American intelligence leads to the discovery of a dangerous new threat: “post-humans,” individuals who have developed superhuman levels of computational and physical capabilities. That leads to most members of GHOST being drawn back to Japan and into a reinstituted Section 9, where faces both familiar and new await.
This Netflix exclusive series is a direct sequel of the 2002-3 TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, its 2004 sequel Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG, and the 2006 follow-up movie Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society. Hence it has no connection to the original 1995 movie and shows no sign of using some of the revised character impressions established in the Ghost in the Shell: Arise content. While this content is clearly meant for established fans of the Stand Alone Complex branch of the franchise, it can probably at least generally be understood by anyone familiar with any part of the franchise; specific references to earlier Stand Alone Complex content are few and often have to be carefully watched for to be spotted. (For instance, a picture of Yoko Kayabuki, the female Japanese Prime Minister in 2nd Gig and Solid State Society, is in a line of pictures of former prime ministers in a couple of different shots of the current Prime Minister's office.) In all, the story is set about 11 years after the events of Solid State Society.
Whether or not established franchise fans will want to check this out is another story. The biggest barrier is unquestionably going to be the conversion entirely to 3DCG, which in some respects makes complete sense (this is a series where manipulation of the digital world plays a big part, after all) but also creates a visual aesthetic that will, at best, be controversial. This is a TV-grade effort and not a top-end one at that, with the flaws most strongly showing in an utter lack of texture to the character designs and some somewhat stiff movements by background characters. The visuals fare much better – and even at times shine – when focusing on the Tachikomas, animating how the optical camouflage works, or playing out the sometimes-very-elaborate close-quarters fight sequences; one fight scene in episode 3 where the target nimbly dodges around or deflects everything that GHOST tries to do is the most impressive in this regard. Depictions of computer displays are also as impressive as ever, though the one dip into cyberspace leaves a bit to be desired. Oh, and it is very nearly as graphic as the original movie.
That the first episode is the worst of the lot (by far) also doesn't help. The episode plays out both visually and in composition like the most generic post-apocalyptic action title imaginable; as a long-time franchise fan, that episode made me cringe so badly that I questioned my commitment to watching this. Thankfully, the series does not remain that bad, though it takes a while to fully move past its generic aspects and recapture at least some of the complexity and methodical nature of the earlier TV series installments in this timeline. Kenji Kamiyama, who wrote and directed all previous Stand Alone Complex content (as well as Eden of the East and Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit), is back for this one and is listed as the primary writer, so I have to wonder what happened with those episodes. Once events move back to Japan and settle into a more familiar police procedural-type mode. the feel of earlier installments starts to return; even the somewhat odd episode about Batou and the bank heist is not out of character here, since it is at least somewhat in line with some of the “stand alone” episodes of the earlier TV series.
Even once the series hits its stride, though, the writing only sporadically recaptures the franchise's former glory. The concept of sustainable war is an interesting one, though also ill-defined in how it works. The same can be said about the “post-humans:” what they really are, how they came about, and why they act the way they do. Evidence vaguely points towards some event which triggered all of that, but it's still too early in the story to even speculate about what. That may come into better focus in the already-scheduled second season. Still, their existence smacks of something that was developed just to have a difficult foe for Section 9 to fight – one where their normal tricks won't work – rather than an organic development of the setting's details. The writing does better when it delves into political details, looks at how e-brains can be manipulated, and examines the ThinkPol program prominently-featured in the last quarter of this season, though I could have done without that fish-headed avatar. What's going on with Togusa in the last episode, resulting in the cliffhanger that these episodes end on, is also more interesting.
And speaking of characters, the familiar faces eventually reassemble as well. An African-American merc is involved with GHOST at the beginning, but as he is American, he parts company with the rest of the group when they go back to Japan and quickly gets forgotten about. The Tachikomas are also back in all of their childish glory, and familiar faces can be spotted even among the techs. The one new recurring characters is Purin, a young, pink-haired female tech who works with the Tachikomas and is essentially a Batou groupie, somewhat to his dismay. She fills the “ball of energy and enthusiasm” role that has kinda-sorta been occupied by the Tachikomas in past installments. Characterizations from returning characters are mostly the same as before, with the one significant change being that Togusa is no longer the resident family man; he is divorced now, with the impression given that the work he's doing came into conflict with his family. Whether because of that or because he has just toughened up in general, he is now much more of a bad-ass than before, but his humanity channeled through his family (which none of the others have) was what distinguished him before, so he feels a little lacking here. The Major, meanwhile, has just a slight bit more fire to her than before (a concession to her Arise characterization, perhaps) but is still largely the cool-headed professional with a penchant for sexy apparel.
The music for the series is done by the same duo which worked with directors Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki on the Ultraman ONA last year. Their limp, uninspired effort in the first episode is a significant contributor to why that episode is so bad, but they do better in later content and even occasionally capture the musical feel of earlier titles in the franchise that are not in the Arise chain. At no point would I call the music a strength, but it at least does not hamper the series in later stages. Opener “Fly with me” is an uninteresting song whose paired visuals use the classic “building Motoko” approach seen elsewhere in the franchise, but it fails to capture the sense of wonder and cutting-edge tech that earlier versions evoked; the sequence is only slightly more interesting than watching a 3D printer work. Closer “sustain++” also features Motoko in its visuals and is better but still not memorable.
The English dub, which will be provided by Netflix via Bang Zoom Entertainment, looks like it is returning all of the core cast from the earlier Stand Alone Complex titles except for the Tachikoma voices, but those are the most replaceable roles anyway. However, due to COV-19-related delays, only the Japanese dub was initially available. It is also returning its voice actors from previous content, including a few who have been with the franchise since the original movie. None of them have missed a beat over the years, as they all easily fall back into their familiar roles.
Ultimately the series recovers enough to be a passable effort (provided you can tolerate the 3DCG style) and it certainly leaves a strong hook at the end for anticipating the second season. However, all things considered, this is easily the weakest entry in the franchise so far – yes, even below Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which at least looked and sounded dazzling even if its writing was equally lacking.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Some dazzling action sequences, the Tachikomas are still fun to watch
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