Judge Adam Arseneau is a deaf-mute.
I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes…
So you enjoyed the Ghost in the Shell OVA and fancy getting into the critically-acclaimed television adaptation, Stand Alone Complex, but just don't have twelve hours to devote to it? You've read Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger's seven outstanding reviews from start to finish, poring over every word, but can't seem to dig up a spare $100 to shell out for the discs? Well then, my friend, have I got a review for you.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man, the newest release from Manga Video compresses the first series of Stand Alone Complex down into a feature film-length OVA, trimming and cutting the storyline to fit into a single serving. Designed as a "crash course" in awesomeness, this DVD is the perfect prescription to get one brought up to speed on one of the best anime series around—if you don't mind losing out on nearly nine hours of material, that is.
In the near future, technology has progressed to the point to allow human beings to upgrade their bodies with cybernetic replacement parts. Those who go so far as to replace their entire body with machine parts become "ghosts in the shell," machines with a spark of humanity and spirit within. The line between humanity and technology, already blurred, has become irrecoverably fused by the advent of such technology and the progression of the Internet, which now transmits directly into the brain of citizens. The flow of information pulses like the lifeblood of society, and for those skilled enough to navigate its currents, the world can be theirs.
Now, during a recent sequence of high-profile attacks of cyber-terrorism, it seems that The Laughing Man, a notorious hacker who committed numerous acts of corporate blackmail and espionage a number of years ago before enigmatically vanishing without a trace, has returned. These events catch the interest of Section 9, an elite domestic task force in the government, called in to clean up messes. Espionage, assassinations, protection, corruption—they handle it all. Its ranks are ex-military, ex-militia, and often ex-criminal, but they get the job done quickly and effectively with a maximum of discretion. The team takes it upon themselves to investigate the issue to chase down the master hacker, but soon find themselves knee-deep in political intrigue and danger that could tear their entire organization apart, if not the government itself.
At this point, not much needs more be said about Stand Alone Complex. For the uninitiated, all you need to know is that this is one of the best science-fiction stories around, anime or no, and every minute that goes by without you watching it is an empty, dead minute, hurtling you one step closer to dying unfilled. Seriously. A heady mix of politics, social issues, high-octane action, philosophical brainstorms, and cyberpunk, Stand Alone Complex fleshes out the world created by the manga (and only briefly touched on during the original feature film) into a detailed, fully realized universe. The story, a labyrinthine puzzle is slowly, delicately, tantalizingly unfolded from all angles as the story progresses, leading viewers down a rabbit hole of paradoxical ruminations on the nature of life, humanity and technology. Anime literally does not get better than this.
To accommodate editing the bulk of 26 episodes into a single OAV, some serious re-editing and tweaking were required. Under the supervision of series writer/director Kenji Kamiyama, dialogue has been rewritten to better glue together sequences of events that had previously been separate, in order to craft a more straightforward story. It works, in the sense that something unnatural has been constructed from the wreckage of something natural—first-time viewers will have no idea what is missing, but an awful lot of material fell to the editing floor here. In theory, all of the "stand alone" episodes that did not relate to the Laughing Man case have been removed in their entirety…except that even those episodes had small, seemingly insignificant plot points and conversation fragments dropped here and there that lead Section 9 toward its goal. For example, in the original series, an unfortunate side effect of Batou giving his Tachikoma unit natural oil instead of synthetic caused its systems to go haywire and ultimately culminated in strange side effects in the robot's AI. In The Laughing Man the robots still go nuts, but we have no idea why. Little stuff like this, you understand. The devil is in the details.
Indeed, the absence of these details in The Laughing Man makes me just a bit sad. Ideally, people will watch this DVD and then want to get into the full series and appreciate its subtle nuances, its astonishing level of complexity and detail and its slow, inexorable pacing, but the reality is, this probably won't happen. A shame, really. This is Stand Alone Complex Lite with thirty percent of the calories and sixty percent of the content stripped away. What is left behind is arguably still fantastic, but inherently problematic. In a perfect world, we would have no need for such re-branded and truncated material.
From a technical standpoint, Stand Alone Complex was near reference-quality in terms of audio and video presentations, and The Laughing Man is no exception. This title preserves the razor-sharp detail, the luscious black levels, the fantastic color saturation and the clean transfer, resulting in one of the best overall transfers for an anime on the market today. It literally shames other titles, it looks so good. The audio comes bundled with a plethora of choices: DTS, 5.1 Dolby Surround and stereo tracks for your pleasure, in Japanese and English. I was pleased to see the DTS track make an appearance here, a feature only available on the uber-expensive Special Editions of the Stand Alone Complex series releases. I was less pleased to see this only extend to the English dub, leaving the Japanese audio with the Dolby 5.1. Still, you cannot fault any of these tracks in performance—dialogue is clear, bass response is aggressive, rear channels are used expensively for perfectly placed environmental noises, creating a stunningly immersive experience. As for the English dub, it is mildly controversial.
One minor (or major, depending on the tightness of your rectum) sticking point that needs discussing relates to the English voice acting. The Ghost in the Shell films and both seasons of Stand Alone Complex had previously been provided by Animaze iNC (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf's Rain) using the same voice actors for the characters throughout, providing a nice level of consistency in a genre where there is often little. Unexpectedly, Bandai and Manga have chose to saddle The Laughing Man with a whole new set of voice actors, this time from The Ocean Group (InuYasha, Ranma ½, Gundam, X-Men: Evolution), throwing a verbal wrench into the mix.
For those particularly attached to the original voice actors, hearing new voices come out of recognized characters is a bit disconcerting. Frankly, this new voice cast simply does not perform as well as the aforementioned group, whose work was a cut above the average dub work. However, bear in mind that this DVD has been designed with the uninitiated Stand Alone Complex viewer in mind; the person who has not seen the series yet and wants to get in on the bulk of it quickly and cheaply. For these newcomers, changing the voice actors from a show they have never seen before is a moot point—the only people who will be affected by this are people who already have seen or already own the series on DVD. And why would such fans be buying or watching this set? This is the equivalent of a clip show DVD. Why buy a gallon of milk from the grocer when you have the cow at home?
This two-disc set contains the "feature" on Disc One, and what few extras are available on the second. On Disc Two, we get the "Stand Alone Complex Archive," a thirty-minute interview featurette with cast and grew (subtitled helpfully in English, as the majority of the conversation is Japanese). We also get the "Tachikomatic Days" mini-episodes making a return to form here, running a scant three minutes (in your choice of English 5.1 or Japanese 2.0), as well as some DVD trailers tossed in for good measure. Hardly worth the second disc, if you ask me.
Unnatural and edited as it may be, for those who missed out on Stand Alone Complex the first time through (and really, shame on you) The Laughing Man offers unparalleled value. For a measly twenty dollars (less if you rent), you can catch up on the meat from the first season of one of the best television anime series ever to air. Purists may whine and cry about the truncated format, the re-editing, and the new voice actors, but let's be honest here: you guys already have the series on DVD, don't you? So what are you complaining about? Go take your seven expensive discs over there in that corner, sit down, be quiet, and let everyone else have a go here.
It may be slightly less than ideal, but if I had a choice between showing people The Laughing Man, or showing them nothing from Stand Alone Complex, the decision is an easy one. Call it a gateway drug, if you will. If it gets people into Stand Alone Complex, I'm all for it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• Stand Alone Complex Archive
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