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Sunday 15 January 2006

DVD Review of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

reviewed by Lawrence Person

Directed by Kenji Kamiyama

Written by Shirow Masamune (source material), Kenji Kamiyama, Junichi Fujisaku, Yoshiki Sakurai, Dai Sato, Shotaro Suga, Nobutoshi Terado (Japanese version), Mary Claypool, Marc Handler (American version)

Starring English Vocal Talent Mary McGlynn, William Knight, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Michael McCarty, Dave Wittenberg, Sherry Lynn

This is the golden age for U.S. anime fans. What was once a trickle of U.S. releases has turned into a veritable flood, due to two economic and technological drivers: First, the widespread adoption of DVDs has made it economically feasible for companies to tap into what were previously niche markets, especially those already primed by the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, as well as juvenile fair like Pokťmon. Second, the rise of Internet file-trading on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent has lead to a thriving culture of "fansubs": files of Japanese anime programs not yet been released in the U.S. which have been translated and subtitled (or dubbed, in which case they're "fandubs"), with varying degrees of fidelity, into English by (mostly) American anime fans. Rather than making futile attempts to crack down on P2P networks as the MPAA and RIAA have done, companies which release Americanized versions of Japanese anime view fansubs as free advertising for forthcoming product. Conversely, fansubbers hold up their end of the bargain, withdrawing fansubs from the P2P networks once commercial domestic DVDs are in the pipeline. The result is a win-win situation.

Among the best series to be released over here is Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (henceforth GitS:SAC), a TV series based on the original Ghost in the Shell movie (which was, in turn, based on Shirow Masamune's original manga series). The action in the film takes place either previous to, or independent of (think of all the different versions of Batman), the events of the first film. At its best, GitS:SAC is the most interesting, sustained postcyberpunk media work in existence, intellectually (if not visually) superior to the original movie, and almost worthy of direct comparison to the post/cyberpunk works which inspired it. (However, while the works of one literary figure are referenced throughout the first season, no one has ever accused J. D. Salinger of being a Cyberpunk...)

Set in the densely-realized postcyberpunk setting of "New Port City" (think Japanís Gotham City), GitS:SAC follows the investigations of Section 9, an ultra-elite police cybercrime and "special problems" team, a job especially important in a society where much of the populace has various cybernetic implants, including partial or completely cybernetic brains.

Each member of Section 9 has their own specialty: Section chief Daisuke Aramaki runs the show while navigating the treacherous mazes of government bureaucracy. Major Motoko Kusanagi, the field leader and ostensible main character, is a full-body cyborg with extensive skills in both physical and computer intrusion (as well as being the requisite female anime lust object). Batou, another full body cyborg and the Major's closest associate, provides the muscle. Togusa is the only team member who hasn't been cyberized (though he is able to jack in), his specialty being old-fashioned police work. Ishikawa is the top computer expert. Saito is the weapon's expert and sniper. Bouma and Pazu round out the team but are given short shrift, at least in season one.

Section 9 also has as much police power as a liberalís nightmare of a John Ashcroft Presidency. In addition to employing exotic weapons, tremendous amounts of processing power, optical camouflage, and (mostly) cybernetic bodies, they also have a small team of spider-like, AI pocket tanks called "Tachikomas" at their disposal. The result plays like a cross between CSI, SWAT, and Neuromancer.

There are two types of episodes in the first season of Stand Alone Complex: Stand Alone episodes, with no connection to the season's overarching storyline, and Complex episodes, which reveal that storyline. The Stand Alone Episodes are a mixed bag, with Section 9 tackling a variety of cybercriminals, terrorists, potential assassins, and government corruption, and include some of the worst episodes. "Jungle Cruise," featuring Batou tracking a serial killer from his ex-military days, is clearly the nadir of the series. (It is also the most manifestly anti-American episode, though "the American Empire" is mentioned in others.) The best of the Stand Alone episodes is "Tachikoma Runs Away," in which one of the tanks spontaneously decides to go out for a stroll through the city. What starts out as a light-hearted, charming romp changes, halfway through, when the Tachikoma find a cyberbrain being offered up for sale in the Akihabara... and those "ghost diving" into it don't want to come out.

The Complex episodes are far more interesting, following Section 9ís attempts to get to the bottom of the "Laughing Man" case. Six years before the show opens, a cyber-criminal held an executive of a micromachine company at gunpoint, then blackmailed several large corporations before disappearing. (Due to the animated logo he superimposed over his face during the broadcast, a smiling figure in a sideways baseball cap with an animated quote from Salinger's Catcher in the Rye ("I thought what I'd do was, pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes") running around outside it, the media dubbed the mysterious figure "Laughing Man".) As the plot unfolds, Laughing Man proves to be the ultimate hacker, capable of such feats as hijacking multiple video streams simultaneously, taking over someoneís cybernetic brain entirely, or even editing his own images out of someoneís cybernetic eyes, and all in real time. The deeper Section 9 looks into the case, the more tangled and dangerous it gets, revealing a dense web of decoys, copycats, corporate scandals, an experimental drug, and government corruption which runs all the way up to the top. As the show goes on, the plot gets stranger, and bloodier.

(You donít have to have read Salingerís "The Laughing Man" to appreciate the story, but you will probably twig to a clue or two early if you have. Besides, itís much more enjoyable than The Catcher in the Rye.)

The Japanese origin means that GitS:SAC can get away with risky narrative gambits American shows would never touch. For example, episode 9 takes place entirely within the confines of a virtual reality chatroom for Laughing Man "fans." Either you'll think it's utterly brilliant, or utterly dull (I tend toward the former). In either case, it's the most fully realized consensual cyberspace environment since those two minutes of Johnny Mnemonic that didn't suck. In another intriguing episode, Togusa goes undercover at a facility for disturbed children which happens to be the point of attack for a massive case of data intrusion. There children exhibiting "cyberbrain closed-shell syndrome," a sort of computer autism, are employed creating and breaching unique firewalls (or "attack barriers"). The children there are also waiting on the reappearance of the mysterious "Chief," who may be the Laughing Man himself.

It's rewarding to compare Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complexto the only other great science fiction show on TV right now, the new Battlestar Galactica, as both have the same overriding theme: What does it mean to be human, and where is the line between man and machine?. By almost every measure (plot, character, tension, conflict, acting, writing consistency, wit), Galactica is the superior show, and one much more deeply tangled in the thorny thicket of human relationships. However, GitS:SAC has one clear advantage over Galactica, and one that stands at the very heart of skiffy virtue: formal novelty.

Galatica excels at making full use of several of science fiction's vast array of used furniture: Hornblower in space, FTL drives, plucky fighter pilots, killer robots, evil Dopplegangers, etc. (Given how poorly most were employed in the original Battlestar Galactica, one cannot help marveling over how well Michael Rymer, Ronald Moore, and Christopher James have made a fine silk purse out of Glen Larson's sow's ear.) Though GitS:SAC does use a few standard elements of the Japanese anime SF tradition (sub-AI androids and, later, power armor), no other TV show (and comparatively little fiction) has gone to such depths exploring the downside of the increasing cybernization of the human body. Cyberbrains may allow perfect recall, voiceless communication and constant immersion in the datasphere, but they also let anyone with the right skills and/or toolset hack your mind. It's bad enough to have script kiddies pwn your PC; itís infinitely worse when a script kiddy can pwn you.

The world of GitS:SAC is recognizably our own, or rather, one recognizably extrapolated from modern Japan. While parts of the technology seem unlikely in the timeframe allotted, none seems impossible. Departing from the modern Star Trek paradigm of "technobabble technobabble problem, technobabble technobabble solution," GitS:SAC deals with real, cutting-edge computer security and biotechnology topics updated for the cyberbrain era. Firewalls, modular delay viruses, cyber-autism, and cyberbrain sclerosis are all among the issues Section 9 faces.

But the postcyberpunk elements of GitS:SAC are only half the story, the other half featuring police procedural drama heavily spliced with amped-up action. (Making allowances for the power and durability of cyborg bodies, the action is fairly realistic.) You would be hard-pressed to find an American cop show where such a large percentage of cases ended up in climatic gun battles. And to the best of my knowledge, none of the three CSI teams have a squad of tanks at its disposal.

The original animation is very good by Japanese TV standards. Due to the budget constraints of a weekly show (as opposed to movies or OVAs), many frequently use static shots, flashbacks, etc. to reduce the expense of full animation done for each episode. But GitS:SAC manages to minimize the impact of such stretches in ways that are organic to its setting; wordless cybercommunication allows ample use of cuts between static character shots without seeming cheap, computer-generated in-show computer screens relieve otherwise still shots, and the one scene really reused is the only camera footage of the Laughing Man's hostage incident (think the Zapruder film), all of which allows them to save up their budget for those impressive action sequences. The music by Yoko Kanno is exceptionally good. The voice acting is generally quite good as well, though occasionally lazy (one episode takes place in London, but didn't bother to give any of the locals appropriate accents). The writing is engrossing and highly literate, and only occasionally does the translation seem clunky or flat. Everyone involved (more than half a dozen production companies between the Japanese original and the American DVD release) deserves credit for a first rate job.

There are a few ways in which GitS:SAC falls short. For one thing, the issue of just whether Section 9 should have quite as much power as it does is never really addressed (the implicit answer is an unquestioned yes, since Section 9 are not only The Good Guys, but apparently just about the only agency in all of Japan that isn't tainted with corruption). This moral blind spot becomes more acute during the six episode climax to the Laughing Man case: Is Section 9 really so special, or the rest of the government so corrupt, that no one has the slightest qualm about them being forced to take out several members of their own country's special forces units in what is essentially a feint? (One of Batou's kill shots in the penultimate episode ("Sorry, but I had to hack your eyes, pal." BLAM BLAM!) is especially cold.) And finally, I wanted there to be one more mystery revealed at the end of the Laughing Man arc; the vaccine plot-point made me hope that something alone the lines of Ted Chiang's "Understand" might be revealed at the end. It was still a satisfying ending, but not quite a perfect one.

Buying anime isnít cheap; the seven volumes of Season 1 (theyíve just started releasing the second season as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig) will set you back over $100. (There are also deluxe editions of some DVDs; I havenít seen those.) However, with the exception of the strange and wonderful FLCL, no anime I've seen as richly rewards re-viewing as GitS:SAC. (The DVDs also include one feature not shown during the show's run on Adult Swim last year: the "Tachikoma Days" shorts at the end of each episode, humorous, slightly surreal vignettes featuring the AI tanks.)

The rule of thumb is that media science fiction is at least 20 years behind the written version, and that's about the time between the publication of Neuromancer and the release Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Itís not as good as Neuromancer, but it comes closer than anything else that's graced video screens.

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