Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

As a husband, father, seminary student, and anime reviewer, there are some shows I would love to revisit, but I simply don't have the time. This list is pretty short, actually; a lot of good programming is entertaining, but a second viewing isn't all that necessary. But some shows are so good, they demand repeats: Macross, Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, and a few others immediately come to mind. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has just joined that list. Although I've not been a huge fan of Mamoru Oshii's films nor of Masamune Shirow's manga, this 26-episode series is just about the perfect realization of the original concept.

Many of us are familiar with the world of Ghost in the Shell, but if not, you're in for a sci-fi treat. In a Tokyo not all that far removed from today's, people have gotten into the habit of becoming cyberized. Minds can jack directly into the Net, which is both fascinating and terrifying, and bodies can be replaced at will as people move their "ghosts" from one setting to another. Although the idea is awesome, there is also a great deal of real danger ranging from new cybernetic diseases to the ability of some high-tech gurus to hack into one's brain. Section 9 exists as a secretive government agency that handles crimes connected to cyberspace; Major Motoko Kusanagi, Batou, and the other agents of Section 9 are a ragtag group, but they are the best watchdogs of this brave new world.

Although there are other meanings behind the series' title, Stand Alone Complex, its simplest version is found in the show's structure. A good chunk of the episodes are stories about individual members of Section 9, "standing alone" as it were as one-shot tales. However, there is an ongoing story surrounding The Laughing Man, a hacker whose bizarre crimes are legendary and whose motives are unclear. Section 9 investigates the Laughing Man incident throughout the series' run in "complex" episodes.

From start to finish, Stand Alone Complex is a fantastic journey into the electronic dreamscape. First off, I've rarely seen televised anime look as good as this. It holds its own against Cowboy Bebop's artwork and even occasionally surpasses it. At times, this show is simply gorgeous. It's no surprise, perhaps, since the Ghost films set a high bar for animation standards, but only the pickiest art snob will not appreciate the work by Production I.G. on display. The soundtrack is courtesy of the brilliant Yoko Kanno; she's possibly Japan's greatest modern musical composer, and her work here is excellent throughout. And though I appreciate the style of shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, the colors and designs of Stand Alone Complex are stunningly realistic. It's an anime fan's feast.

All this would mean little if the show wasn't compelling, which I found problematic with both Ghost films. But Stand Alone Complex is streamlined, giving us all the best parts of the franchise without its burdens. Although the plot of the Laughing Man case can get confusing and there are intelligently composed philosophical bits here and there, the doctoral level conversations that made Mamoru Oshii's films slow to a crawl are absent. The show is cerebral, and yet some episodes are still action-packed. There was never a point in the entire run where I noticed any filler. And though the show acts as a prequel to the films, there is solid character development that helps us get to know some of the players a whole lot better. There's even some surprising dramatic tension in the final story arc that made me wonder how they were going to pull it all off. They do, amazingly enough, and though the last episode is possibly the show's slowest, it gift-wraps the entire package for us. There is enough nuance to watch the program several times to understand all of its parts, especially the complexities of the Laughing Man. And yet there's also plenty of fun...and fans of Shirow's goofy Tachikoma mechas that lit up the manga but never appeared in the films will be pleased to see them in action.

So why is the show not getting an A+? I had to debate this one for a while, but I feel I have to give consideration to problems Stand Alone Complex cannot overcome on its own. Granted, they are problems within the entire franchise, and Complex is saddled with them. They all come in the form of Major Kusanagi. Although she isn't the best looking anime female ever created, her artistic design in Complex is one step away from ugly. As a major character, she just looks...weird. Perhaps that's part of the intent; after all, she is using a created body to house her ghost, and maybe it should look strange. But it's a problem for me.

Second is the way Kusanagi is dressed as a character. She goes around in a barely-there suit covering only the essentials most of the time. When my wife Catha watched a bit of an episode and saw Kusanagi, she said, "Only a guy could have designed a female who liked dressing that way." And she was right. Kusanagi is easily one of the most powerful heroines in the entire anime canon, but her favorite outfit is nothing more than a fan service nod. I know I will get arguments about how it fits her character. That doesn't matter to me. Some people won't watch this show because Masamune Shirow created the character looking like a nymphet, and that's too bad.

Besides these very minor issues, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a great show, an excursion into a believable, beautiful, and frightening near-future. It's a rare mix of action, thrills, and intelligence. You owe it to yourself to check out one of the best anime available on the market today.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex -- profanity, violence, brief nudity/adult situations -- A