Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The 2nd Gig.
Ghost in the Shell is probably the most developed of the worlds imagined by Masumune Shirow, with two movies, two manga volumes and now two TV series. It would be easy to imagine the charm starting to fade, after all sequels are so often weaker than the original. Thus I was very pleased at what I found here... with one little proviso.
Motoko Kusanagi, better known as the major, is one of the most skilled special force soldiers alive. Her body is youthful because it's completely cybernetic, but within it is a brain that has seen innumerable conflicts and been honed into a ruthless, intelligent and efficient killing machine. And she's gathered a group of skilled veterans who are capable of matching her pace, and adding specialties of their own. Together they form Section 9, an elite government counter-terrorist group pledged to taking the fight to those who deserve a good dose of justice, ideally while their plans are still underway, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after the event.
That's going to be a tough task here though. They're on the back foot from episode one as various acts prove to be the first steps in a carefully laid plan. There's certainly no shortage of suspicious people around, the government is corrupt and a refugee crisis (in the aftermath of the fourth world war) is destabilizing the country and instigating violence on both sides of the resulting divide. Section 9 is going to have to move fast, and intelligently to even survive... let alone actually stop whatever the hell it is that is boiling up in the background.
Normally, when the synopsis mentions a "complex plan" it doesn't actually end up being all that complex. Kill the bad guys, gather a bit of information, and then off for a big shoot out with the enemy boss. However this story is Shirow's patented "philoso-vision". I don't actually know how deeply he's involved, but if its not him then someone has done a fantastic job of simulating the experience. What this actually means is that the plot is based as much around a philosophy as anything else. It forces the cast to understand the mindset of the entire environment before they can hope to make any progress. Thus each event must be considered on multiple layers, both an act and a statement, which may also be part of a larger act, an independent action or even a carefully prepared decoy. This story is quite capable of making your head spin.
The story is set in the future, minds of this age are cybernetically enhanced and constantly networked. This isn't just backdrop though, partly because Shirow has made tech fetishism a defining trait (there's almost too much detail!) but also because the technology effects the meaning of the events. Thus this plan is not one mastermind giving orders to his henchmen, instead the game is played with pieces of information and influence. For example a large part of the plan has been laid in such a way that it will be picked up and absorbed by people who don't even know they're part of the plan. Nor is it clear who is actually driving the action, because the outcome is actually a result of all the players involved. In other words the whole thing is complex and confusing, almost as much for us as section 9.
This is where we come to the first checkpoint. This series, even more than the first one, is very talky. There's a lot of dialog, a lot of which is almost willfully obscure, and some of the logical links are pretty weak. By and large it does work, if you follow it carefully there's enough pieces to make it feel like a coherent whole, but this does require a fair amount of work on the part of the viewer. If you were hoping for lots of action against clearly defined enemies then this may well prove a disappointment.
The second checkpoint is that Section 9 spend rather a lot of the time on the defensive, or even losing. They start well behind, breakthroughs prove to be scarce and they take some relatively serious blows. In other words the mood can be a bit grim and strained at times. It does generate a sense of threat and pressure, that the story is serious and important, but it does come at some cost to the indulgent pleasure and emotional release of watching the bad guys get what they deserve. If you wanted some stories about the leads kicking butt this could also disappoint.
If this doesn't phase you then this is definitely a show worth checking out. It's intelligently written (perhaps too much so) and the plot flows through the well developed characters. Each of them adds their own viewpoint, and interpretation, which both extends the meaning behind each event and tells us more about the character. Even more so than the first series each of the members of section 9 get a solid chance to grow as characters. The biggest character growth is possibly in the Tachikoma's. What would simply be vehicles in a less informed production are fully fledged players, intelligent observers and downright cute with their childlike enthusiasm in this one. Their presence does a lot to give some humor and lightness to the show.
Technical design is also up to the dizzying standards that Shirow has set in previous productions. The mechanical items used in the production are carefully designed, rendered in detail and their strengths and weaknesses often an element of the story. This extends beyond material objects, the depiction of various real world environments is excellent and the representation of the global network, including a fair amount of hacking and subterfuge in this realm, is very well done. It's even quite exciting which is a good trick for the often passive act of computer hacking, its made somewhat easier by the fact that the Tachikoma have been upgraded so that they can also be involved in this domain. The military / political aspects are equally well observed, there's a feel for tactics and some good drama in how the action plays out.
In conclusion if you liked the previous ghost in the shell excursions you'll probably enjoy this one a lot. If you want a complex story, intelligent dialogue and interesting characters in a well developed world then its also a fairly safe bet. It's a very high quality continuation of the mood and themes that have made ghost in the shell such a novel and interesting set of titles.
The production is certainly capable of supporting the story, it's very well done. The opening montage balances cool, style and variety in a nicely balanced flow, with the Russian lyrics adding a nice touch of the exotic. The actual animation continues in this vein, it's well paced, well observed and well animated. Environments have a "feel" to them and shape the action, the gear also adds to the action, even the thermo-optic suits that make the characters effectively invisible manage to add to the experience which is a good trick if you think about it. The production gives the feel of strong and capable direction, in terms of how scenes are shot and the flow of action, which really amplifies the extremely proficient execution. The acting and voices are superb, a vital component in a production like this where there are multiple leads (even though Motoko is the default lead she doesn't really dominate the screen-time). The ambient music is strong enough to make me seriously look at buying the soundtrack. I assume by this point you get the picture, this is a top class production in which a goodly budget is well used.
A brilliantly produced anime delivering a very rich serve of exactly what one should expect from ghost in the shell. One third weird philosophy, one third adoration of high tech and one third militaristic violence... and the strange thing is it all works. Although the wordy and complex dialogue may not be for everyone. This is a very strong sequel and a title worth checking out.
No complete reviews from any of the sources I trust it seems.. although I don't expect that to last too long.