Bandai // 2004 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // April 21st, 2005
Mysteries and conspiracies abound!
Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex leapt out of the gate with a promising first volume and an electrifying second volume. Volume Three wasn't as impressive. The manic plots slowed down to a trickle while the doomsday tone evaporated. The animation kept stride, losing some of Stand Alone Complex's smoothness and visual polish. I feared that the ambitious concept was running out of gas.
It appears to have been a minor lull. Volume Four of Stand Alone Complex brings us crashing back into the action without giving us the courtesy of pausing for breath. We join our favorite Section 9 team as they rush to a meeting. In short order, the team finds themselves entrenched in a gun battle that will rattle the skulls of anime fans for weeks. This intense opener is followed up with a series of slower, intricate stories linked through a common theme. Stand Alone Complex's gripping blend of cyberpunk, realistic action, sociopolitical intrigue, and characterization is back with authority.
Stand Alone Complex combines two distinct narrative structures. The "Stand Alone" episodes, though loosely integrated with other episodes, tell distinct, encapsulated stories. Viewers unfamiliar with the overarching storyline can jump in and enjoy these episodes as is. "Complex" episodes are tightly connected into an epic plot of social, political, and cyber intrigue. Staying on top of the "Complex" story arc demands both careful observation and familiarity with the previous "Complex" episodes.
Volume Four contains four "Stand Alone" episodes. This will undoubtedly frustrate fans who are anxious to see the Laughing Man plot continue. I, for one, am relieved. The "Complex" episodes are quite dense and require much thought, and that line of storytelling is at risk of overburdening itself. Volume Four gives us a nice, long, back-to-basics break where we can concentrate on action and character without burning out. It also makes Volume Four an excellent way to introduce people to the series. The creative team has worked out the kinks, and these episodes are worth watching more than once. If you are a Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex apostle, present newcomers with Volume Four; it will hook them without giving away any major plot points.
The four episodes on this disc loosely track the emergent intelligence of the Tachikoma tanks, who have become more giddy and scatterbrained with each passing episode. The discussions below contain episode-level spoilers.
* Episode 13: "Not Equal"
A young girl with a machine gun and a bitter expression shows up in a known terrorist hangout. She's the spitting image of the heiress to a huge fortune who was kidnapped 18 years ago -- right down to her DNA patterns. The team sent in to research this enigma has not been heard from since. Section 9 is on the case.
It gets ugly so fast that you might wonder what the hell just happened. We finally learn that the Tachikomas are not just annoying window dressing as all hell breaks loose. The merry tanks mow down enemies and rain a hail of explosive shells while Section 9 snipers, helicopter pilots, and commandos show their stuff. "Not Equal" is anime's answer to the Omaha Beach invasion scene in Saving Private Ryan, fiercely fought and rich with detail. If Major Matoko's bodyguarding heroics in "Meme" represented the peak of individual combat for Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex, then "Not Equal" is the group combat showpiece. From the bottom of the waves to the tops of the clouds, the screen erupts into an action orgy underscored by purpose.
This description may lead you to expect something epic, but "Not
Equal" succeeds precisely because it is not epic. Anime is in fact
overstuffed with epic battles that signify little. Stand Alone Complex
retains an intimate focus that gives the battle its power. Intelligent action
with stunning audiovisual fireworks is the mantra here.
* Episode 14: "YE$"
Section 9 gets word that future Tokyo's version of Alan Greenspan is the target of disgruntled enemies. This reclusive financial whiz lives in a veritable fortress, but the powers that be are nonetheless concerned. The opening sting operation leads nowhere, which is a realistic touch that would be refreshing in live-action police dramas.
The cybernetically enhanced assassin is a great character, and her weapon of choice is a great visual metaphor: death by coin shrapnel. Though it lacks the intensity of "Not Equal," "YE$" still has energetic action scenes and an understated sense of danger during the mansion infiltration. The twist at the end is "classic" Stand Alone Complex, tying up the episode while opening a can of conceptual worms about the future of e-trading. The show is both futuristic and familiar, a careful balance that believably draws us from the now into the possible future.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Matoko's reduced clothing and the witty
byplay it inspires in the Chief.
* Episode 15: "Machines Desirantes"
The Tachikomas have always irritated me, but my irritation never blossomed into full-blown annoyance. I'm glad, because that last shred of patience had to cover a lot of ground in "Machines Desirantes." This episode features Tachikomas chattering nonstop about literature, death, immortality, self-awareness, and other cheery topics.
If their pesky voices grate on you, your nerves will be julienned by the time this episode wraps. But if you can flow with it, you'll be sucked into a disturbing juxtaposition of sentience, irresponsibility, and heavy weaponry. The Tachikomas are powerfully armed tanks with self-awareness, but they haven't been programmed with restraints to protect humans against that self-awareness. Kusanagi is the only character to sense the potential violence of the situation. If you think she's overreacting, the cloaked Tachikoma should confirm her caution. The tanks become aware that they are self-aware and stir themselves into a frenzy; a cloaked spy listens in on Matoko's dissection of their fate. Had she not shown such awareness and discretion, Section 9 could have been decimated from within by a riot of weaponry with a self-preservation instinct.
Though there isn't much outright action, this episode brings us closest to
Mamoru Oshii's heavy philosophical tone in Ghost in the Shell. Fans of
that movie will enjoy a note of comfort and familiarity, while newcomers will
probably be perplexed and possibly uninterested in this episode. It gives fans a
chance to reminisce, which alone elevates it above the "B" level.
Whether you like the perky critters or not, "Machines Desirantes" is
powerful either way.
* Episode 16: "AG2O"
"Machines Desirantes" sealed the fate of the Tachikomas, but "AG2O" executes it. The scene where they pass into the tunnel and vanish into black while chatting merrily draws parallels with gas chamber "showers" under Nazi rule. It is at minimum a cool visual reference, with the potential to rend your heart with its implications. Love them or hate them, their upbeat chatter has been silenced.
This puts Batou in a foul mood. One of those tanks was a friend of his. After putting that friend to death, Batou learns that one of his former heroes is guilty of espionage. Batou must observe and apprehend the man.
The episode unfolds with grace, and somewhere along the way it becomes clear that Batou has emerged into the main character of the series. I spent most of Volume One wondering when we were going to hear more about Major Motoko Kusanagi, and finally came to terms with Stand Alone Complex's ensemble nature. Yet "AG2O" dives so deeply into Batou that even if no future episodes feature him as heavily, the ripples from this one will color them.
Stellar hand-to-hand sequences and an escalation of cold-blooded fury
distinguish "AG2O." As the episode and the volume wrap, we're left
with a palpable sense of melancholy.
Both voice casts continue to shine; you'll be glad of the English dub when "Machines Desirantes" rolls around. The audio and visual excellence continues as well, and even improves. Some of the scenes, the war on the docks in particular, are so fluid and detailed as to approach photorealism. The night city lights take your breath away with their sheer spectacle, while Yoko Kanno's score blends in perfectly.
The interviews included as extras are not as compelling as Akio Otsuka's from Volume Three, but they are more interesting than 90% of the anime voice actor interviews I've seen. Tamagawa Sakiko makes me want to like the Tachikomas. Watching her work is much more fun than listening to the shrill little louses prancing about in glee. Yamadera Koichi provides insight into a character that isn't particularly well developed. Taken together, these extras provide a nice counterpoint to the action onscreen.
Volume Four puts Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex firmly back on course, delivering a good mix of action-centric and character-centric episodes while giving us a much-needed break from the Laughing Man. If you enjoy a conceptual challenge framed by kick-ass action and glossy animation, this series is for you.
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* English (signs only)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Tachikomatic Days
* Interview with Yamadera Koichi, the Voice of Togusa
* Interview with Tachikoma Voice Actress Tamagawa Sakiko
* Production IG
* Official Site
* DVD Verdict review of Volume One
* DVD Verdict review of Volume Two