Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is an anime that needs no special introduction since it often gets praised as one of the most outstanding shows ever created. The question is, what are the reasons for those high accolades and are they actually justified? Well, let's look into the matter to find out the truth.
While often claimed to be the best cyberpunk ever, GITS SAC is ironically one of the less typical representatives of the genre. Although it does share the name, the main characters and the focus on cyber technologies with its famous predecessor, the Ghost in the Shell movie, this series doesn't continue the movie's plot, and the "punk" & gloomy atmosphere is pretty much absent here since the creators decided to make the anime accessible to a general audience. Did they make it worse? I think, no. While the show indeed became a little more mainstream, it also gained a lot in the story department.
The story takes place in a society with amazing technologies, precisely:
- cyberbrain i.e. human brain with cybernetic augmentation that allows its user to have a mental interface with computer networks and thus communicate at distance, transmit & download information directly into the brain or simply enter the net like virtual reality and operate there;
- advanced prosthetics: in the world of GITS SAC not only one can replace injured limbs & organs but also have an entirely new artificial body. Consequently, this technology permits cyberbrain users to transfer their minds from one body to another which makes it rather easy to prolong life or conceal a person's identity;
- some other important innovations include robots with artificial intelligence; micromachines utilized to maintain connection between cyberbrain and computer networks; and thermo-optical camouflage used by special forces.
Unsurprisingly, not only these technologies change the everyday life as we know it but they also alter people as such, blurring the line between man & machine, virtual & real worlds. Therefore, the story tackles quite a number of thought-provoking matters, from classic sci-fi themes (like the aforementioned artificial intelligence) to philosophic questions of memetics and hyperreality, explaining how information is transferred in modern society and how it affects our perception of reality. All those topics gain importance every day due to rapid technological growth, which makes this futuristic series very relevant to our present world. That's why I highly recommend to watch it attentively as it will sure give you enough food for thought.
However, even if you are not that much into philosophy or science, I believe you may still enjoy the show since it has absolutely kickass action and one of the most thrilling detective plots ever. Essentially, the series tells a story of Section 9, a police department which is more akin to FBI or CIA rather than simple police as its members are simultaneously proficient in the arts of combat, hacking and detective work. The main plotline revolves around their exciting chase after the Laughing Man - a highly-skilled hacker, accused of corporate terrorism and blackmailing. Eventually, the whole cat & mouse game turns out even more complex and interesting than it looks at first, involving more parties and providing fantastic social commentary... but I won't elaborate on that to avoid spoiling: let's just say I'm not a tiny bit overrating the qualities of the story.
Like most, this story has its obvious drawbacks. I presume, there are three of them:
1) contradictory setting. The anime focuses too much on cybernetics, therefore you get the setting where people have androids and crazy technologies like the ability to transfer one's mind to another body... and yet they drive 20th century cars and live in 20th century houses. It just doesn't work that way. However, the amaziness of plot twists and those questions & technologies almost negates the setting issue, and soon you simply stop paying attention to it;
2) while the anime is clever indeed, it may occasionally feel pretentious, prolix and difficult to grasp as the characters happen to carry lengthy discussions overcomplicated with pathos and philosophy. Well, that's bearable considering all the things they say are very interesting and plot-related - it's just the complex presentation of ideas that needs some time to get used to. Not to mention the show isn't only about talking: it also has very dynamic action and some nice comic relief like robotic tanks that read books(!);
3) half of the series are stand-alone episodes that break the integrity of perception and make the narrative look somewhat choppy. Yet they aren't your typical fillers because those little stories are very memorable and they allow to explore the world, flesh out the characters and tackle the main topics from different perspectives. You won't have much trouble with this aspect of the show (in fact, you may even like it) if you're generally ok with episodic format.
Overall, the aforementioned drawbacks are effectively compensated with the positives, and the story successfully blends intellectual matters and pure entertainment in a very original & enjoyable way.
Unlike some other great series, GITS SAC does not feature any unique art style; what makes its animation outstanding nonetheless is the overall quality. You would never think this show was made in 2002: it still looks like a contemporary work and even better than many today's anime in terms of both drawing and cinematics. The latter becomes especially clear when the action kicks in: not only it has everything you could ask for (gunfights, car chases, hand-to-hand combat, mecha combat etc.) but the choreography is very impressive and pretty realistic at the same time. On another note, the animation employs quite a lot of CGI yet it doesn't spoil the picture at all - in fact, it gives everything a sort of robotic look that ideally fits the show. In general, I wouldn't go as far as calling the animation a masterpiece yet the excellent rating seems more than appropriate here.
Well, soundtracks are probably the strongest part of the whole Ghost in the Shell franchise. However, while the music in the movie is amazing indeed, there's not really much of it and all the tracks are of the same style. GITS SAC takes a different approach: the soundtrack by Yoko Kanno is very diverse, with songs in different moods, styles and languages, but of the same exceptional quality. So, besides it's beautiful and breathtaking, it also provides you a great opportunity to find a song that best suits your personal taste. Needless to say, it gets a 10/10 score.
At first glance the cast resembles a regular special squad... except their commander is a lady dressed (or should I say undressed?) in a very peculiar way, and they also have wacky AI tanks with high-pitched voices for fire support. These fanservice and comic relief elements may initially feel wrong in a serious anime that GITS SAC is. However, as the show goes on and the characters get some time to prove themselves you inevitably start to appreciate both their personalities and genuine brilliance as special agents. Even Tachikomas (those AI tanks) have a number of interesting and really great moments of their own as they end up playing a much more important part in the show than mere comic relief.
The only remaining issue is that while the characters certainly aren't cardboards, they still don't get much development, remaining cool rather than deep. One reason is most of their development happens in the 2nd season (also known as 2nd GIG); the other reason is the nature of the series as its main focus lies on story, philosophy & action. Yet that doesn't become any serious problem because the protagonists are still easy to sympathize with and absolutely fitting for this kind of show; I only wish the supporting characters like Saito, Pazu and Borma got a little more spotlight.
As for the Laughing Man, I won't go into detail for obvious reasons - let's just say you'll be very surprised when you learn his actual role in the story.
As you could already guess, GITS SAC is one of my most favourite series and I highly recommend you to watch it in case you haven't. Bear in mind however that it strongly demands your thinking and attention to follow the story and appreciate its ideas. So, you'll need to use your brain quite a lot, and if you do, you'll certainly understand why this show belongs to the golden classics of anime and why it deserves the time I took to write this long review.