Bandai // 2004 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // August 5th, 2004
It is a time when, even if nets were to guide all consciousness that had been converted to photons and electrons toward coalescing, stand-alone individuals have not yet been converted into data to the extent that they can form unique components of a larger complex.
There are few anime titles that reach the level of fame enjoyed by Ghost in the Shell. This cyberpunk exploration of humanity, crime, and existentialism touched a collective nerve; it became an underground hit that broke into mainstream acceptance. Though some criticize it for being too slow and too dense, it is hard to argue against its high level of approachable philosophy or its sexy techno-chic trappings. In fact, a back-to-back viewing of Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix will reveal a host of close similarities, from the characters Trinity and Cypher to action sequences to distinctive sounds and a curtain of green alpha-numeric characters. In fact, Ghost in the Shell influenced a host of cyberpunk stories.
It is no wonder that fans have been clamoring for a return to the world of Ghost in the Shell. Good anime is satisfying in and of itself, but once you've become invested in the characters, you tend to want more. Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex is a 26-episode television series based within a world parallel to that of Ghost in the Shell. The show has the blessing and occasional creative input of Ghost in the Shell creator Shirow Masamune, but it is primarily driven by Kenji Kamiyama (of Blood: The Last Vampire and Jin Roh: Wolf Brigade fame). The result is a show that evokes certain elements of its parent anime yet stands alone (much like its moniker "Stand Alone Complex").
Section 9, a secretive investigation/police/espionage/dark-ops organization, monitors the physical and cyber worlds for suspicious activities (such as rogue superhackers invading politicians' brains and causing massive terrorist warfare). When it encounters such malfeasance, Section 9 sends in a crack team of covert operatives. Bateau, a cybernetically enhanced human, has steely eyes (literally) and massive titanium biceps. Detective Togusa, a pure-human cop, balances the team through his irrational intuition. The team is led by Major Motoko, a cyborg with a hint of honest-to-goodness consciousness. With this team of operatives in the field, Chief Aramaki holding down the political side, and an array of spectacular military technology, Section 9 does its best to keep the world intact.
Our first exposure to Stand Alone Complex is an impressive CGI opening credits sequence. Ethereal choir music evokes the consciousness angle of Ghost in the Shell, while a healthy amount of thermoflague, bullets, and robotic tanks reminds us of the gritty side. Though I'm not completely sold on the 3D version of Matoko, it is a powerful beginning -- perhaps one of the best credits sequences ever.
The first episode immediately aligns itself with Ghost in the Shell. Major Matoko stands atop a building, receives orders directly into her cybernetic brain, and then leaps over the edge to confront a bad guy. Hey, that's just like Ghost in the Shell! Similar references populate the first disc; depending on your point of view, these are welcome ties to the source material or insecure attempts to prove legitimacy.
Legitimacy arrives early: Stand Alone Complex quickly demonstrates that it is a series with a mature tone, thorny problems, and few easy solutions. Section 9 takes a hard line with criminals (or potential criminals), and the criminals cut no slack, either. In the opening scene, Matoko shatters a suspect's ankle, then his wrist, and finally threatens to shoot him in the head. This progression of violence is a miniature echo of the tactics employed by Section 9. In some cases there is no good answer, and the team must choose between death and destruction. Considering that this is a television series, which usually indicates dumbed-down plots, the intricacy and darkness are both welcome and surprising. Let's examine the stories one by one.
* "Episode 1 -- Section 9"
A television series based on a movie has the advantage of a quick establishment arc. "Section 9" dives right into confrontation, introducing us to (or reacquainting us with) the show's premise through a skirmish in microcosm. We meet Matoko and her team in the field. Though it isn't spelled out, we can assume that Matoko is a cyborg because she jumps off of buildings, sends viruses through the net, and shoots with pinpoint precision. Bateau reveals his cybernetically enhanced nature by running down the street at vehicle speed. The "old man"'s status is demonstrated when he walks into a room and quells a skirmish between the military brass and local police with his mere presence. The team is precisely where they were when we first met them several years ago.
"Section 9" announces its own spin on the Ghost in the Shell universe. The episode is heavy on action and detective work, light on philosophy and existentialism. The characters give no indication of their personal or moral crises; as far as we're concerned they are highly trained operatives doing their jobs. We are introduced to a handful of tertiary characters, most notably the Tachikomas, which are small military tanks with high-pitched voices that provide comic relief. (Yes, you read that right: Ghost in the Shell now has comic relief. Out of all of the changes, I predict this will be one of the most controversial.)
Both the action and the detective work are superbly handled, and the
cyberpunk trappings remain intact. "Section 9" does a fair job of
evoking the Ghost in the Shell vibe within a brief 27-minute window. It
is light on the depth and density that made Ghost in the Shell so
engaging, which is vaguely disappointing. Nonetheless, the episode won't
alienate either old fans or new. Given the tricky balancing act, "Section
9" earns the benefit of the doubt.
* "Episode 2 -- Testation"
In "Testation," an advanced attack vehicle runs amok and Section 9 must determine why. The answer to that question is surprising, and it casts the team's subsequent decisions in an emotional light.
With the business of establishment out of the way, Stand Alone
Complex is free to launch its first solo flight. "Testation" is
almost totally devoid of ties to Ghost in the Shell. There is a moment
when Major Matoko attempts to wrench open a tank hatch with her bare hands, and
we can't help but recall a similar scene at the end of Ghost in the Shell
where she rips her arms out of their sockets. Otherwise, the episode weaves its
own story. The conclusion of the episode creates a piercing moment of
realization that cements the show's creative power. The middle act is a tad
slow, but the opening and conclusion create enough intensity to remove any doubt
of Stand Alone Complex's merit.
* "Episode 3 -- Android and I"
An older model of cyborg is a customer favorite because it can be easily reprogrammed into a perfect mate or sex surrogate. When this outdated line starts committing suicide, Section 9 discovers that a custom virus is responsible. Determining why the virus is created and who is behind it leads to a complicated political situation.
"Android and I" is another episode that approximates Ghost in
the Shell's philosophical depth and socio-technological commentary. There
isn't a lot of action this time but rather a focus on the implications of the
hacker's actions. The finale is double-layered, presenting us with one touching
conclusion followed by a surprising twist that casts the events in a new light.
The use of old movie footage (animated, not actual) to tell a side story is
creative and establishes an interesting technological metaphor. For a short
television episode, "Android and I" packs a lot in.
* "Episode 4 -- Intercepter"
"Intercepter" begins with a mysterious death, one that involves Section 9. The truth behind it leads the operatives to lean on informants to produce a media war. The media conflict brings an unknown combatant to the surface, a secretive opponent that will require all of Section 9's resources to defeat.
Just in time for the end of Volume One, Stand Alone Complex
inexplicably switches from episodic to serial form. This is a frustrating and
rather cheap trick to pull when the previous three episodes have existed as
distinct entities. Nonetheless, "Intercepter" is the most consistently
entertaining episode of the lot, giving us a bit of suspense and mystery at the
beginning, creative street work in the middle, and a powerful press conference
at the end.
What these episodes have in common is that they have nothing in common. Television series episodes tend to be self-derivative, establishing a rut for themselves. No such rut threatens Stand Alone Complex; each scene must be evaluated anew.
The episodes also share great music and animation. I kid you not, I've been humming the opening song for days on end. The rest of the music is just as good, enhancing stunning animation. Kenji Kamiyama brings his experience on Blood: The Last Vampire and Jin Roh to the table and creates involving moments. When Matoko apprehends the first suspect, she is holding him hostage with a gun at his temple, but she turns as a helicopter rises over the rooftop. The subsequent fluid shot of Matoko turning to look while the camera "shakes" with the helicopter creates a great effect. In general, Stand Alone Complex weaves 3D and 2D animation together cleanly, although some of the driving scenes are a bit too smooth to be convincing. Colors and black levels are rock solid and deep, creating lush backdrops. There are few artifacts to mar the presentation, resulting in a gorgeous transfer.
We can always say that recent audio tracks should sound good, but credit is still due when they get one right. Both the Japanese and English tracks are involving, clean, and dynamic. Action sequences get a boost through proper surround effects, while the mains fire with authority. The dub is surprisingly free of stupid translation syndrome.
I've never been excited about clean opening credits before; I finally appreciate the extra. The opening credits are both involving and touching. Bandai also includes shorts entitled "Tachikomatic Days" that presumably ran alongside each episode. These shorts explore the comic side of cyber-tanks learning to read and talk. It is a bemusing comic take on an intense series, but I applaud Bandai for having the grace to include these shorts as regular material rather than advertising them as extras. The extras are rounded out with two interviews. Director Kenji Kamiyama gives a concise and decidedly noncongratulatory peek into his directorial decisions, while voice actress Atsuko Tanaka (who, by the way, is stunning) discusses the philosophy behind her character. The interviews aren't particularly deep, but they are interesting and count as real extras, which anime extras frequently fail to do.
If Mohammed moves the mountain, is it okay for the mountain to move Mohammed? When The Matrix arrived, I was amused and a little indignant to see so many touches copied verbatim from Ghost in the Shell. I feel the same bemused indignation at Stand Alone Complex. It borrows heavily from The Matrix, as though daring us to point out the comparison. Kenji Kamiyama freely expresses his preference for Hollywood blockbusters, so it is safe to assume that he's seen The Matrix and its sequels. Stand Alone Complex pumps up the "falling curtain of strange letters" effect while incorporating some very Matrix-like sound effects. We also see a nod to the jump program, a disappearing act reminiscent of phone-jacking out of the Matrix, and a bit of bullet time for good measure. I prefer to look at this as intentional goading of the Wachowskis, an inside joke of sorts.
Ghost in the Shell = deep, Stand Alone Complex = not so deep. This might be a good idea because Stand Alone Complex is a series with brief episodes, which have neither the run time nor the attention span to support deep socio-technological ruminations. Nonetheless, fans of the former can be forgiven a shade of disappointment at the shift in focus.
I'm not thrilled with the Tachikomas. There, I said it. I also don't really dig Matoko's hairstyle, clothing, or relative lack of focus. I'm not saying that the Matoko we know and love is gone; rather, she has been subsumed into the overall picture. In fact, Stand Alone Complex seems to favor Togusa as the main character. This is Volume One and the story arc has not been firmly cemented, but I for one would appreciate a tighter focus on the character that brought us to this point.
Are we really going to have outdated models of cyborg by the year 2030?
Nitpicks aside, Stand Alone Complex delivers a snappy series with great sound, music, and animation. The first episode is on the slow side, but further episodes give us character development and touching plots. Ghost in the Shell -- Stand Alone Complex should please both old fans and new, and the series has a lot of headroom left.
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Review content copyright © 2004 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 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)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Tachikomatic Days
* Interview with Director Kenji Kamiyama
* Interview with Voice Actress Atsuko Tanaka
* Official Site
* Production IG
* Binary to ASCII converter