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 anime 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, an elite police force fighting against various forms of crime including terrorism & espionage, with its members being 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 tend to disrupt the main story's flow and make the narrative 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 particularly 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, robot 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, and the 3D models of various machines blend perfectly with 2D character animation. In general, I wouldn't go as far as calling the animation a masterpiece, yet the excellent rating seems fairly appropriate here.
Well, soundtracks are probably the strongest part of the whole Ghost in the Shell franchise. Kenji Kawai's music in the GITS movie is amazing indeed, and all the tracks there belong to 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. No doubt 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 Tachikoma (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.
Speaking of the main cast, it basically consists of 4 characters:
- Daisuke Aramaki, the chief of Section 9 with sharp analytical mind and plenty of experience & political connections, which enable him to pull the strings behind the scenes and gain the necessary information for the team. Seldom directly involved into police operations, he still maintains control over his agents and coordinates their actions with guick & authoritative decisions. He is fairly strict yet very loyal to his subordinates, often even risking his career to protect them;
- Motoko "Major" Kusanagi, the squad leader of Section 9 with exceptional fighting & hacking skills, great intellectual abilities, and major curves on top of that. Undoubtedly, Motoko is the most famous and popular character among the fans, although the way she is portrayed in the 1st season of SAC is probably less believable than in the 2nd season and the GITS movie, because this "version" of Kusanagi is TOTALLY badass with no flaws & weaknesses at all, which makes her a bit too unrealistic in my opinion. Not that I don't like her though - of course, I do;
- Batou, the second in command under Kusanagi who often acts as a tough guy of the team. Despite that, he is by no means an average brute - in fact, he is pretty clever and even quotes various philosophers from time to time; it's just that this role fits him because of his strength & experience. He cares a lot about all his teammates including Tachikomas despite being fairly carefree on the surface, and he also has very interesting chemistry with Kusanagi which, however, never really goes in the romantic direction;
- finally, Togusa - literally the most human member of the team as his body has no artificial parts aside from some cybernetic augmentation to his brain. In GITS movie, this was actually the main reason why he became a part of Section 9: they wanted to have at least one member who was still able to think like a "normal" human, so that they wouldn't end up thinking the same way and always had an alternative view on a problem. Unlike the movie however, the series provides no substantial ground for his inclusion in the squad. As a result, Togusa has no distinctive role and factually does the same job as Batou and The Major, often ending up weaker in comparison simply because he is not a cyborg and has no physical abilities of his colleagues. Nevertheless, this doesn't make him a worthless character: he is a good detective, as well as a very nice guy & real family man, so he still adds more human qualities to the team, albeit in a different way.
Overall, this quartette of protagonists is impressive, well-defined and fairly easy to sympathize with. The only remaining issues are they don't get much development, and we learn very little about their lives before joining Section 9. One reason is most of their development and background exposition happens in the 2nd season; the other reason is the nature of the series as its primary focus lies on story, philosophy & action. Eventually, that doesn't become a serious problem because the protagonists are very fitting for this kind of show just the way they are; I only wish the other Section 9 members i.e. Ishikawa, Saito, Pazu and Borma got a bit more spotlight, as they receive little attention throughout the series and seriously lack in presence department compared with the main cast. Thankfully, this issue is also fixed in the 2nd season where all four receive more opportunity to shine, with Saito and Pazu even getting personal episodes.
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.