We're still trying to retrieve Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's jaw from the floor.
Our reviews of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 1) (published August 5th, 2004), Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 3) (published January 20th, 2005), Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 4) (published April 21st, 2005), Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 5) (published May 19th, 2005), Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 6) (published August 4th, 2005), and Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 7) (published September 1st, 2005) are also available.
"I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes."—from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
As a longtime fan of Ghost in the Shell, I wasn't sure what to expect from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 1). The first four episodes were a pleasant surprise, retaining the movie's techno chic and existential premise while expanding the boundaries of the story. Volume One is immensely enjoyable, but the story glossed over character development. Though polished right out of the gate, it had an uneven tone that wasn't completely satisfying. Obvious nods to The Matrix, the sublimation of Motoko's role, and a dash of zany humor left me a little leery of the show's direction.
All hesitancy has dissipated with the advent of Stand Alone Complex Volume Two. Although I knew what to expect this time, the show surpassed those expectations. With tight pacing, lush visuals, layered stories, and incredible action sequences, Stand Alone Complex Volume Two delivers two hours of nearly flawless anime. It is exciting to witness the dawn of a series that will become an enduring classic of the genre.
Facts of the Case
Volume One's late introduction of the Laughing Man plotline gathers steam in Volume Two. Section 9 takes it upon itself to investigate the Laughing Man case from an objective standpoint, but the conflicting evidence goes deeper than they expect. With enemies literally coming from all angles, the team must use their full resources to stay ahead of the situation. Viewer relief is provided through a pair of stand-alone episodes that give us insight into Motoko's past.
After watching the action sequences in this volume, you may need to retrieve your jaw from the floor. Volume One had its fair share of decent action, but these four episodes take it to a new level. The hand-to-hand combat scenes, gunfights, and other action set pieces in Stand Alone Complex rival those of blockbuster live action films.
You may think "so what, it's anime. Of course they can create great action sequences!" Not so fast. Many an anime has striven to give us the ultimate adrenaline surge—and failed. Anime battles devolve into blurry whirlwinds of streaky light. Hand-to-hand contests become staring contests with an occasional flash of colliding limbs. There is rarely enough detail, the pacing is too fast or too slow, or the tension feels forced. Don't misunderstand me—there are plenty of great action moments in anime. However, good anime action sequences are far from a given.
In Stand Alone Complex, the action is cinematic in scope and detail. The episodes take time to set up each climax, so we're drawn into the story and keyed up for the fireworks. Volume Two has the Section 9 team, particularly Major Motoko, involved in a heavy dose of overwhelming fights. The enemies she faces escalate in ability, giving us more and more respect for her skills. All of the movie reviewing buzzwords apply to these scenes: edge of your seat, taut, thrilling, heart pounding…you know the drill. Stand Alone Complex Volume Two has set the modern anime standard for gritty violence and thrilling combat sequences.
The series also has a brain. Stand Alone Complex's vision of the future is bewildering yet believable. Cybercrimes such as "ghost hacking" eclipse mere larceny as police concern numero uno. When any bystander could become your mortal enemy, police work is infinitely more difficult. We're treated to intelligent plots involving organ stealing, cyber-brain hacking, corporate manipulation, and other cyberpunk themes.
When you combine Stand Alone Complex's superlative action with its smart storylines, and then throw in a noble anime lineage, you wind up with one hell of a series. Stand Alone Complex has already delivered on the promise of the Ghost in the Shell name, and we still have more volumes to go.
If the devil is in the details, consider Stand Alone Complex angelic. There is no other way to describe the transfer than "reference quality." You'll have to look long and hard to spot the few flaws in the transfer, mostly of the "twitter" variety. Little to no edge enhancement exists to mar the sharply detailed renderings. The blacks are deep and the colors are rich, but the series maintains a realistic palette. The animation is glossy, smooth, and bright. If you took Blood: The Last Vampire's lush visuals and wrapped them around four solid stories, you'd get Stand Alone Complex Volume Two. My only complaint is that the CGI car chases seem slightly stiff; although CGI is generally incorporated smoothly, I always notice the cars.
The soundtrack is equally immersive. Both the English and Japanese DTS 5.1 tracks explode with power and resonate with detail. When Stand Alone Complex is quiet, you pick up on many subtle details that sell the environment. When it is loud, you're rocked out of your seat. Though I give the edge to the Japanese vocal cast, both languages are handled with maturity, and both casts deliver top-notch acting performances.
Let's take a peek at the episodes, but don't read the summaries unless you don't mind spoilers.
A description of "Decoy"'s plot is misleading. "Decoy" is basically a half hour of political intrigue and grunt police work. The Old Man flexes his authority by opening an investigation of the Laughing Man case, much to the chagrin of the dubious police commissioner. Major Motoko delves into the net to determine the backstory of the case, while Bateau, Togusa, Paz, and the rest of Section 9 re-question the witnesses. A final confrontation in a cheap apartment yields no actual suspect.
You might think all of this is rather dull. It is not. Stand Alone Complex finds ways, both subtle and non, to generate a huge snowball of drama. The episode feeds on a constant stream of tension, beginning with the certainty of the commissioner's execution and ending in a tense raid on the suspect's apartment. While nothing physically dangerous actually occurs, the gravity of the situation is such that every conversation takes on additional significance. Will Section 9 misstep and tip their hand? Will the police take direct action against them? Will the Laughing Man open a can of whup-ass and pour it all over the city? These questions lurk in the background like splinters in your mind.
In light of this tension, Motoko's behavior is particularly eccentric. She takes herself out of all normal channels, even going silent to her own team. The reasons for this are both personal and professional. On the professional side, she uses the time to hack into the net from an alternative terminal, using rumor and word on the street to her advantage. The location of this terminal speaks to the personal: It is located in a ritzy penthouse apartment with a couple of lesbians who have intimate knowledge of Motoko. She might be there to recharge her emotional batteries. Knowing that our reticent Major has friends is cool; knowing that she shares a lesbian love tryst is really out there.
It is hard to describe, but "Decoy" simply works. We see Section 9
in full swing, using subtle biological and technical clues to uncover a deep
hidden subtext to the Laughing Man case. The conclusions they form are nothing
short of brilliant, and we feel proud to be along for the ride. A tense showdown
at the end leaves us in disquiet (the freaky sex doll helps in that regard).
If you've seen The Matrix, you may recall a training program in which Neo checks out the woman in the red dress. It turns out that she is an Agent ready to put a cap in Neo's face. Morpheus stops the program and teaches Neo a valuable lesson. "Meme" is what might happen if Morpheus let the program continue and watched Neo confront hidden enemies for a half hour straight.
Motoko slips into a high-profile press conference, where an attempt will certainly be made on the Commissioner's life. His bodyguards know it, the Commissioner knows it, and Section 9 knows it. No matter how prepared everyone is, the Laughing Man has proven his devious and elusive abilities. Motoko is keyed up and ready to rock.
When she does, it is an all-out orgy of mayhem. Section 9 is sporting cloaked Tachikomas on the ceiling, a sniper team outside the building, and a team inside, and it still isn't enough. It turns out that someone has hacked into the brain of one of the Commissioner's bodyguards. Unsurprisingly, Motoko is the first to identify the suspect. When she races to intercept the hacked assailant, the Commissioner's bodyguards key onto her. The resulting melee surpasses any fight scene from the original Ghost in the Shell, and even eclipses most live action flicks.
Motoko finally "subdues" the assailant. Then the action really begins. In a stunning mixture of intrigue and raw action, we learn that dual plots have been hatched. One of those plots has led to the conversion of dozens of bystanders into assassins. Enemies come out of the woodwork spraying bullets, and Section 9 makes like jumping beans to intercept them all. It is a dizzying spectacle.
Other stuff is crammed into the episode, but your brain might take awhile to
catch up with your racing heart. This is what the infamous "Burly
Brawl" in The Matrix: Reloaded could have been.
Enter "Idolator," a stand-alone episode. Without the tightly wound constraints of intrigue, we are free to enjoy this pure cop story. A popular revolutionary makes routine visits to Tokyo. The problem is, he was almost certainly assassinated in the recent past. Section 9 must determine whether the Marcelo Jarti stepping off a plane is indeed the real Jarti and, if so, why he keeps visiting Japan.
The answer to this riddle, though predictable, fits right in with Ghost in the Shell—Stand Alone Complex's cybercrime themes. We're treated to a socially relevant exploration of identity, cloning, and the importance of a political ideal over a human being's integrity. These concepts may seem far-fetched, but humanity might be facing similar debates within a few decades.
Amid these sociopolitical-humanistic ruminations that characterize the
series, we find ourselves caught in some nasty gunfights. One particularly
gruesome sequence in a hotel corridor spares us no gore, be it exploding body
parts, intense agony, or slaying of innocents. After that, Motoko finds herself
pinned into hand-to-hand combat with two bodyguard droids. Finally, Motoko,
Togusa, and Bateau engage in a three-tiered assault that mires them in a highly
unusual confrontation. Each of these action sequences is top-notch, taking us to
and beyond the threshold of our expectations. After watching Motoko in
hand-to-hand combat using different styles of attack and defense, you may be
permanently spoiled. I can't think of many anime fights that rival these.
•"Episode 8—Missing Hearts"
The basic premise of "Missing Hearts" is just as plain as it sounds: A friend of Motoko's tips her off to a possible organ-smuggling ring. Motoko discovers that med students are behind the organ thefts, and she tracks them down. As far as the main plot goes, you won't be on the edge of your seat.
The sideshows are more compelling. In ring one we have Motoko's rabid personal interest in the case. (We'll call it a case, even though it seems remarkably frivolous by Section 9 standards.) "Missing Hearts" is a good opportunity to delve into Motoko's personal history, but we get mostly hints and whispers. The nurse who tips her off has the same intimate lipstick-lesbian undertones as the pair in "Decoy," which is beginning to paint Motoko as something of a slut. The biggest contribution made by this plot is that we now question whether Motoko chose to become a cyborg.
Ring two gives us the huckster CEO of an organ farm, a yahoo cowboy in a clunky metal body. His used-car-salesman organ pitches and farm of barcoded pig hosts is a hoot.
Finally, we have the Section 9 team unwinding a bit in ring three. Their prey is a handful of scared med students, and Bateau can barely hide his glee at unloading a few mortar rounds their way. Motoko's malice, born of a personal grudge, is chilling and kinder than her suspect deserves. The last scene features an amusing showdown between Bateau and Motoko that is heightened by its ultimate lack of physical contact. Seeing decked-out superspies having fun is fun for us as well.
Unfortunately, this circus doesn't gel into anything substantive. It is a
diversion and little more, although it is neat to see some of the scenes that
make it into the beautiful opening credits sequence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With its heavy focus on intrigue and the premeditated expansiveness of the Laughing Man plot, Stand Alone Complex gives itself a hill to climb. We know that the Laughing Man case is going to claim a heavy number of episodes, so we know in advance that it will likely be awhile before we see the real Laughing Man. This certainty leaks some of the tension from stories like "Decoy." Section 9 may think they're onto the real culprit, but we know they aren't. To their credit, writer Yoshiki Sakurai and director Kenji Kamiyama are fully aware of this limitation, and they do a credible job of providing mini-climaxes along the way.
In an anomaly of the reviewing gig, I've been given the DTS-only Special Edition disc in the regular release's packaging. That means I don't have access to the extras. You'll be treated to interviews with Osamu Saka (voice of Aramaki) and Yoko Kanno (composer) on the retail release, but I can't critique them. The Tachikomatic Days animated shorts are just like the ones on Volume One, which is to say quirky, puzzling, and not a great fit with the material in the episodes. In other words, light comic relief.
On the other hand, this quirk of screener distribution means that I can fully endorse the DTS soundtrack. See above for my thoughts on this powerful blast of surround sound. The one complaint I have about the soundtrack is the music. It is an atmospheric score with occasional forays into gut-crunching metal. That isn't the problem. The problem is that the "Section 9 goes into action" theme is always the same. After watching eight episodes, I can tell when the fit is about to hit the shan by musical cues alone. It would be nice if the main themes had some variety.
Though I enjoyed Volume One, Volume Two of Ghost in the Shell—Stand Alone Complex blossoms into a sophisticated balance of action, intrigue, and character development. Behind all of the antics onscreen is the notion that our future could actually look like this. At its best, cyberpunk tricks us into thinking it is the future, we just haven't seen it yet. Stand Alone Complex sells us on this notion. We have to pull for Major Motoko—it might be our own futures on the line.
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