Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex had long been one of those anime I always heard about and knew about. It seems the reception is nothing but varying positives and even though it came out years ago, I never got around to it when I really should have. But now that the time finally came and went, I have to say, better late than never.
Stand Alone Complex, despite being nearly a decade old, still holds up as a fantastic anime today. It follows an episode structure that I find to be masterful when done correctly, which is involving a main plot combined with not really filler, but not really character building stand alone episodes peppered into the series. The result is an extremely plot-driven anime, regardless of whether or not it's the main plot or a side one.
Short and Sweet
Story - 9.5/10
Between the sci-fi futuristic setting and mysteries surrounding crimes in this world, it's hard not to have your curiosity flowing during an episode. Stand Alone Complex contains some of the most intelligent writing around, with plenty of interesting ideas presented, and characters rarely ever seem to sit around and talk too much which lets the action pick up at a great pace. It's also is a rare anime where there really isn't anything I consider to be real filler. The stand alone episodes hold up great just like the complex main plot episodes. There wasn't a single one out of all 26 eps that I didn't enjoy and the only one I even thought could have been better was the very last one. Not that it was a bad ending, but the resolution of the main plot seemed like it didn't have the total impact it should have.
Animation - 10/10
While there isn't anything overly artistic about the animation of SAC, I gave the animation a high score because of how well it holds up for being a ten year old anime. It looked stupiendous back when it came out, and it hasn't aged poorly in any form. It has sort of a timeless look where nobody is ever going to watch it and feel like it's out of date. Colors and cityscapes look beautiful and the world is rich with detail. Although it does have some questionable moments of CGI in episodes, most of the time it's quite beautiful, particularly on the Tachikoma robots, computer screen tech, and creating nice depth and lighting effects. The action and fast paced stuff is also animated with such top notch fundamentals and camera work. Seeing metal get shot up doesn't usually look this good.
Sound - 10/10
Yoko Kanno composes a triumphant opening and ending theme here, compounded with an exceptional and somewhat overlooked OST that fits the setting and tone to a tee. It's a creative blend of sounds ranging from rock to techno, but everything does it's job to suit the moment and futuristic world. Voices are all very well acted, and do a great job distinguishing the characters and all seem very fitting. The only thing that ever comes close to faltering in the sound department is the childlike voice of the Tachikoma, which I know some people flat out hate. It tested my patience on an infrequent occasion, but I came to love those high-pitched think-tanks.
Characters - 8/10
Stand Alone Complex is story-driven, and if one comes in expecting to get a whole lot of backstory and development on characters, they may be disappointed. The cast is all likable and cool, but the show pretty much trades it's character development time in to spend it's hours weaving the plot. Motoko is a favorite for obvious reasons, being a rare strong-willed and non-cliche woman who can get the job done. She never waivers, and she doesn't stay predictably hard during the course of the show either. Batou was probably my second favorite behind the Major, and he gets blessed being the focus of some great moments that show off his skills. Togusa was another character I found myself respecting the longer I watched. He's definitely the kind of guy that could have been written poorly and turned into a hated face of an anime. I also enjoyed the Tachikoma and they actually may be the ones who technically got the most development of the show, and I loved their last few appearances.
Overall - 9.5/10
With no strong flaws, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a very impressive anime that knows it's fundamentals and plays to the strengths it has. It's never trying to be something it's not or appeal to people who wouldn't be interested. This is a thinking viewer's anime with some great moments of action and a little bit of humor. I was hooked from the opening moments of the first episode and left wanting more by the time I saw the closing moments of the last. There's a high value for rewatching this series and I can finally understand the classic status that this superb anime is given by most.
This is a spoiler-free review. That being said, there may be some spoilers related to the original 1995 movie. You should watch the movie anyway before viewing SAC.
This is going to be more detailed than my usual reviews due to my potentially controversial opinion.
Overall: 8.25/10 - Ghost in the Shell SAC is a series that still lives up to modern standards despite its age. Animation and sound are well above most series and the overall story is excellent. The society is entirely believable and the atmosphere is great. That being said, it is not without flaws. Cyberbrain hacking crimes can get repetitive over time and the gaps in between Laughing Man episodes make it hard to remember the information in them. Moral and ethical issues are presented, but rarely explored and the backstories of the characters are barely touched on. Even so, Ghost in the Shell SAC is a great series with an engaging storyline that is a must-watch for all cyberpunk fans.
Recommended for: Everybody who like science fiction, cyberpunk, and crime shows.
Story: 8.5/10-Very good
Creativity/uniqueness bonus points: +.5 The basic concepts aren't particularly unique, but the implementation was interesting.
Humour bonus points: Most humour didn't really work for me.
General Plot and Structure 3.5/4 - Ghost in the Shell SAC is primarily episodic, with an overlying mystery about a terrorist known as The Laughing Man. Most episodes in the show are dedicated to a single case each. These can be varied, though the most common theme is "cyberbrain hacking" which is basically hacking a person's brain implants to control them and/or steal their memories. Some are interesting and some can get repetitive. One issue here is that these cases rarely span more than one episode and they are more about Section 9 figuring the case out than they are about the audience having a chance to solve them, which makes it a little less engaging.
There are episodes here and there in the beginning and middle of the show that each involve a different Laughing Man incident, but it is difficult to remember the details because these episodes are sandwhiched between all of the other cases. The culmination of the Laughing Man case occurs in the last seven episodes and was by far the best part of the show, elevating it from mediocrity.
Probably the biggest issue with SAC is that it takes the polar opposite approach of the movie in philosophical presentation. In the movie, rather pretentious and unnatural segues are used to narrate the philosophical issues of the society. In SAC, however, we are presented with a significant number of moral and ethical issues that are shown and then sidelined. While the characters don't need to go on ten minute speeches to talk about their feelings on these issues, it would have been nice if they were discussed a little bit more.
Pacing 2/2 - Pacing was good, the individual cases were fast without being overwhelming. The final arch was just right.
Emotional impact: 1.5/3 - Emotional impact varied, but was usually pretty mild. There were some fairly disturbing cases.
Conclusion 1/1 - The ending was excellent in all areas.
Annoying/mindset-breaking negative points - None
Animation: 8.5/10-Very good
Artwork 2.5/3 - The artwork looks about average compared to modern anime, but was outstanding for the time.
Character Designs 2.75/3 -Character designs were very good, all of them were easily differentiated.
Action Animation 1.5/2 - While not as good as the breathtaking animation in the movie, the fighting scenes are solid. CGI is excellent for the time, but can look a little jarring on occasion.
Other animation 1.75/2 - Animation outside of battles is good.
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Personality 2.5/3 - Personalities of all major characters are great, however there is a near-total lack of backstories to any of them. Questions like how a seemingly normal detective ended up working for Section 9 and what made Motoko and Batou who they are are left unexplored.
Development 1.5/3 - Development was very mild.
Uniqueness 3/4 - Motoko is very unique, the other characters are somewhat unique.
Voice Acting (Dub) 2.75/3 - Motoko's voice took a little getting used to, but they were all quite good.
Music 5/6 - The music is fitting to it and both the ending and opening are very nice. I particularly like the ending.
Sound Effects 1/1 - Excellent
I know that Ghost In The Shell Stand Alone Complex is hailed as one of those anime masterpieces that you MUST see. So I gave it a go.
And after viewing it, I think it's definetely a good anime but it does have many flaws.
It's a sci-fi cyber-punk anime set in the future. It revolves around Section 9, a special and secret law-enforcement body whose mission is to prevent crimes and catch the bad guys. It's a very technologically advanced future world, where it's common for people to replace their original body with an enhanced prosthetic version; internet technology also allows brains to be linked and connected in special networks that facilitate information sharing and communication. All members of Section 9 have a military background and prosthetic bodies - the only thing that differs is the degree of cyberization. The series is a combination of stand-alone episodes (by some described as "filler" episodes) where Section 9 sets off to solve some kind of crime or catch some criminal, and a main story-line which takes over completely in the last 5 or 6 episodes. And I must say that until episode 20 or so I didn't care at all for the Laughing Man main story, it just seemed too complicated and as it was continually interrupted by the stand alone episodes I found it difficult to keep in mind all the details and follow what was going on. But the final episodes are without a doubt the best. The story really kicks in and it's a good watch. As for the stand alone episodes, quality varies: some are decent, some not so good.
Animation is ok and the music is more than ok. Especially the Op is amazing.
As for the characters, that's one of the aspects that could have been developed much better. There are 8 members to section 9, but only three are ever in the spotlight, the rest are just there in the background. And even those 3, the Major, Batou and Togusa, by the end of the anime they do come to have distinct personalities but they have no background so you know nothing about them, and there is basically no development. Ok, it isn't a character-driven anime, but I think that a bit more character building and development could only have made it better.
The other thing that was a disappointment to me was how the topics are dealt with. There's an array of really interesting themes, but most times the anime just stays on the surface of them: some are just hinted at and some aren't even considered. Which is a pity. Think of prosthetic bodies as opposed to a person's individuality: how many times can you change body before you let go of your sense of identity? This topic turns up at the end of the series, but it isn't analysed in depth. There's some mention of "ghosts" in the series, that would be what we commonly refer to as souls, but it's just a suggestion. I found the tachikoma episodes really interesting; tachikomas are these military robots whose AI at a certain point starts evolving really quickly so much so that they even develop seeds of individuality, but the Major feels they are more of a risk than an asset and gets rid of them. It would've been another thought-provoking topic, the possibility of robots developing consciousness and individuality - but just the surface is scraped. And what about all the info sharing and the brains being connected as opposed to one's privacy? How deep can the sharing of memories and information go? More than once Batou hints at the Major's predilection for female bodies as if it's a weakness on her part, but does gender really mean nothing? Isn't it something that defines your personality and identity? And there are many more issues that aren't considered at all.
So as there is no character development and the plot although good is by no means exceptional, the overall scoring for me remains just a tad above average.
The year is 2030 AD, and the available technology is enough to make me think that it is pretty likely that a non-oil alternate energy source must have been discovered prior to 2030, although that is pure speculation. Watching SAC made me realize that I should not bother with lasik eye surgery, and just find myself a pair of those sweet prosthetic eyes (Yes! I can finally return to 20/20 vision, with a guidance system and some other features to boot.) The futuristic setting surrounds an elite group of law enforcement agents known as Section 9, headed by Motoko (a.k.a. The Major), who receives backup from a team equipped with intelligence, muscle, sharpshooters, a persistent old man with connections, and some interesting robots.
SAC has two episode types – stand alone episodes, which in case the name did not give it away, are entirely episodic, and complex episodes, which are interspersed throughout the series and follow a case surrounding a suspect known as “the laughing man.” The series never drags, probably since the stand alone episodes provide fresh plots, and upon returning to a complex episode, the viewer must refresh their memory about prior events related to the case, which keeps things interesting. I enjoyed the format of placing the complex episodes throughout the series as opposed to keeping them together in one spot; it seems to highlight the idea that Section 9 works on whatever case is most pertinent, returning to the laughing man when time permits. The complex episodes ultimately serve as the vehicle for the climax and resolution of the series, but that does not mean the stand alone episodes are worthless; in fact, many of the stand alone episodes provide a comedic or quick detour from the sometimes heavy laughing man case. As a side note, I give bonus points to any writer that includes references to one of my favorite books, The Catcher in the Rye.
The story of SAC is as much about the members of Section 9 as it is about the cases they try to solve; even the best plot concept needs good characters to help the events unfold effectively. The relationships between Section 9 members define the manner in which they can solve cases, and often dictate the direction in which the plot turns. The plot may seem a bit formulaic – something happens, a new case is introduced, the characters attempt to solve the case, and it may or may not get resolved – but then again, sometimes formulas work; the formula in this case helps SAC succeed in telling a story, which is better than ditching the formula to allow the series to wander about until it finds eventual failure.
Regardless of someone’s like or dislike for the GITS movies, I don’t think anyone will question the success of the animation and visuals; SAC is no different, and its animation mirrors that of the movies. The well thought out and executed cityscapes provide a great backdrop for Section 9’s missions, and an equally good mixture of day and night scenes varies the timbre of the series well. The animation style makes for good battle scenes, complete with cyborg parts flying every which way (you may not realize whether certain individuals are human or cyborg until you see bunches of wires and machines exploding about the screen.)
I only need say two words, and for many people, that will be enough: Yoko Kanno. As always, Kanno delivers, this time with a bass heavy, funky techno-jazz, setting the pace and tone of each car case, death scene, and emotional moment. The opening hits you like a subtle car wreck (if there is such a thing), letting you know this series will be fast paced and deliberate, with a few chances for the viewer to catch their breath and regroup. The background music adds suspense and intensity to the events as they unfold, but never overpowers.
I am a subbed kind of person, but this is one series that I have watched both the dubbed and subbed versions, and I am basically indifferent between the two; the voice acting is great either way. Occasionally the dialogue feels a bit choppy, but I think that may be more a consequence of the fact that the members of Section 9 constantly relay orders and information – hence, no time for extemporaneous or drawn out thoughts.
For those of you who have watched any of the GITS movies and cried due to lack of character development, watching SAC may be a good way to help you look more highly upon the GITS saga. Some background information presents itself directly, but insight into the characters is gained mainly through observing the Section 9 team work through cases and going back and forth with their sometimes biting remarks. Okay, I admit interactions do not necessarily translate into the strongest character development, but the members of Section 9 with all their idiosyncrasies are a great construct for the events that take place in SAC.
The series must choose a few key characters, and the spotlight generally shines on Motoko, Batou, and Togusa; honestly, it would be difficult for every member of Section 9 to receive in depth analysis, and since Motoko, Batou, and Togusa tend to work the front lines, they are appropriate candidates for receiving the most attention. However, each minor character is developed to the fullest extent within the series and plays a unique role within the team and the plot. Even the AI support team known as the Tachikomas, have personalities of their own, which develop immensely after Batou spoils them with treats and affection (think of them as the resident puppy dogs.)
SAC may be what Ergo Proxy wanted to become: a series about futuristic world with problems of its own, and the people who must take it upon themselves to prevent the world from deteriorating into complete corruption – unlike Proxy, SAC does not shoot itself in the foot with overtly philosophical musings. I admit there are some philosophical underpinnings mixed into SAC, but thankfully they never drag the series into oblivion. SAC provides a snapshot into the inner workings of Section 9 and its members, and gives the viewers a nice mixture of action, intelligence, and comedy. In the end, that is all I can really ask for.
Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex takes place in the not too distant future where most of the population has had part or all of their bodies replaced by cybernetic prosthetics. The main characters are members of Public Security Section 9, a government agency which investigates high tech crime and terrorism. If you have seen the original 1995 movie, you should be able to jump right in to this with no problem. It is also easily accessible for those not familiar with the franchise.
Lets break it down:
Animation/Art: 8/10. The opening credits are done in full 3D CGI, which, while dated a bit by today’s standards, is still beautiful. The rest of the show, however, is in traditional 2D animation, which still looks quite good. Some of the technology, such as power-armor suits and the spider-like “think-tanks” are rendered in 3D, and blend in quite well with the 2D animation. If there is one flaw with the mix of 2D and 3D animation, it has to be the cars. I don’t know why, but for some reason all the cars looked completely fake to me and it pulled me out of the story. Also, Major Kusanagi’s outfit, at least for the first half of the season, is entirely ridiculous. Now I like a bit of fan service now and then, but really, she’s supposed to be a professional here, and nobody else dresses like that in Section 9.
Story: 8/10. The series is divided into core, or “Complex” episodes and filler, or “Stand Alone” episodes. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but the main “Complex” story is quite involved, and you can lose track of details between core episodes because of the “Stand Alone” episodes. Also, a lot of the story is delivered by dialogue instead of on-screen action, so you really have to pay attention to the conversations, and there are a lot. This main plot line involves tracking down a super-hacker called the Laughing Man, and these core continuity episodes really do outshine all of the stand alone episodes, with the exception of Jungle Cruise. This series doesn’t delve quite as deep into the philosophical questions explored in the movies, such as the distinction between true life and a computer program. The idea of whether a machine can have a soul, or a “ghost” or if that is the sole realm of those who started out life as biological beings is touched on, particularly in the last several episodes, but not nearly to the depth you might expect from a Ghost in the Shell series.
Characters: 8/10. All the characters from the movies are back. Unfortunately, you don’t get nearly the character development and back story that you might expect from a full length series. The most memorable exception is Batou, who gets a whole episode about his past. This episode, titled, “Jungle Cruise,” is probably the best of the entire series. Its also the darkest, delving into gruesome war crimes Batou witnessed during the second Vietnam War, with the perpetrator now loose and recreating the same brutality in Batou’s jurisdiction and he is tasked with bringing him to justice.
Sound/Music: 9/10. Well, its Yoko Kanno, so you know the music is going to be outstanding. The opening and ending themes are fantastic. Inner Universe, the song which plays during the opening credits is unlike anything I have heard before, with lyrics in both Russian and English. Lithium Flower, which plays at the end of each episode is completely in English, and sounds so good I watched the entire credit sequence after every episode, just because I liked the song. The Dub is extremely well done, with Richard Epcar and Mary McGlynn reprising their roles as Batou and the Major. In fact, the entire cast is back from the movies. I guess I kind of grew up with Epcar and McGlynn as the voices of Batou and the Major (so to speak, I was 22 when the first movie came out) and I can’t imagine anyone else playing them. The only thing I didn’t like was the voices for the tachikoma “think-tanks.” Yes, I get the idea that they have the intelligence of a child, and I understand why that is, and I understand that the voice is to emphasize that fact, but still there is no real reason why the tank should sound like a child. It’s a machine, you can give it whatever voice you want, and I don’t think the audience would somehow miss the fact that they have simple intelligences just because the voice was tank-worhty.
Overall: 8.25/10. Definitely a classic, and one you NEED to have in your library. Sure, the writing has some small issues, and the animation is a little dated, but its still a strong science fiction offering, with outstanding action and an incredible soundtrack. I bought the DVD box set, and I believe it was money well spent. I’m really looking forward to reviewing the next season, SAC 2<sup>nd</sup> Gig.
Recommendation: I highly recommend checking out this outstanding series. It does contain a good bit of violence, and the story is quite cerebral, so its not for younger viewers. But be prepared to pay close attention to the details. They don’t spoon feed you the plot here, they expect you to keep on your toes.