Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Masamune Shirow, sigh, such a talented and interesting individual. But so much of his life output has been flawed and incomplete. And as a result it's so nice to run into something like this which, to be blunt, kicks more ass than even his patented "femme fatalities" can manage.
There's always something alluring about special forces. People of extreme natural talent who are then trained to a knife edge of sharpness and honed on whatever battlefield awaits them. It's the ultimate extreme sport and those who lose are often out of the competition in a particularly permanent way. Public peace section 9 is a small unit of just such people. If there's some threat the police can't handle then these are the people who get the job. And headed by the fearsome Major Kusanagi they have no intention of losing.
They're not purely focused on conflict though, in such a case the superior numbers of the SWAT teams or the army would be the correct call. As much of their work is about discovering the nature of the threat, or even the existence of a threat, as it is neutralizing it. And given this is set in a future world, where AI and advanced cybernetics have opened up entirely new forms of existence, the arena in which they hunt is massive, strange and ever-evolving.
Oh yes, it feels so good. Shirow's undeniable strengths are capitalized on by a production that can match his vision. His fascination with the military mindset, his obsession with complex systems and behaviours (such as the twisted politics of this future world) and his awesome sense for technology are all richly portrayed. This title gives a sense of depth, of complexity and had me feeding one tape after another in so I could find out what happened next. This is some exciting stuff to watch.
To start with the team, inherited from the Ghost in the Shell manga, are all there and have enough time to assert their roles. The main people we run into are the wizened Aramaki (command and control), Major Kusanagi (tactical lead, expert hacker and major all-round ass-kicker), the very human Togusa (detective work) and the master of disaster Batou (pointman). These guys make sense as a team and work very well together, they all have their specialities but they all work together so well. Their flexibility allows them to take on virtually any challenge and meet it while giving us an insight into the sort of people who would take on such dangerous work. They're surprisingly deep and intriguing characters. There are some in the background we don't get to see as much of, a sniper and a hacker, because they have a more support oriented role which is a shame. But then since almost any of the main characters have enough personality to drive an entire series by themselves there's only so much that can be done.
Next are the stories, something that has always been the weakest point with Shirow material. See the guy comes up with these insanely convoluted and detailed plots that we only get small slices of. Or, if you want to take a negative position, he never actually works out the details so that the stories actually make sense and hang together. Basically his writing can be extremely annoying because so much is left unsaid, hints and fragments of some larger event or philosophical truth are given but closure and conclusion much less often. This is of course magnified by the short running time of each episode and the fact that many stories are restricted to only a single episode. This series succeeds, theres enough pieces to be satisfying in virtually all the stories, but you must be comfortable with the fact that there will be mysteries left. And the advantage of his writing are these stories provide glimpses into intriguing situations and worlds that carry depth and excitement and can express that in an extremely short running time. I suspect some other writer has worked closely with Shirow to guide his hand, and it works very well at keeping the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of his peculiar vision.
Finally there's the technology. Shirow is clearly in love with the fine details of technology, even if he has to invent them himself. This goes well beyond technological design into the realm of a philosophy of technology. Entire systems of technology, innovations and their rippling effects upon the tangled minds of humanity are envisioned with extremely believable depth, and depicted with the accuracy of a design blueprint. Combine this with his love for exotic and elite people and you have the engine that drives his stories and makes them so unique.
It is actually the technology that leads to one of the surprise stars of the series. The team uses Tachikoma's, basically extremely manueverable robotic vehicles, for their missions. But Shirow, the master of technology, takes it further and makes a story of it. They're imbued with AI, they've been given a particularly innocent and childlike personality to match their role, and they evolve through the course of the series. Basically what would be a vehicle in a lesser work is a character and a philosophical discussion on the nature of existence in this one. Not only that these robotic weapons end up being extremely cute! Meanwhile Kusanagi, the visually cute female, is actually the scary one. It's so much fun and it works so well.
Of course the topping to all of this is the production which is spectacular and gets better over the course of the series. The characters look great, they move well and fit into the detailed environments. Technological items are well depicted to bring out Shirow's design and the action, although rarer than you might think (it's a quite wordy anime) is extremely well depicted and very dynamic with lots of movement. Atmospheric effects, rain, smoke, darkness, invisibility and explosions are all captured extremely well and the use of computer animation allows some complex machinery (cars especially) to be well represented. Incidental sound is excellent, the voices are top notch and even the music is great (not so sure about the lyrics, but who really cares). This is a really good looking production with a lot of style that also manages to really bring out the richness in Shirow's creations.
I will, incidentally, pick on two faults. The first two episodes had an animated opening to the extremely catchy opening song (in Russian it sounds like). From that point on they went to a purely CGI opening. And the main thing I noticed is how bad the CGI is. It can't compete with square on technical competence and it can't compete with the old opening on character, it's really pretty ugly. Also Major Kusanagi's character design is somewhat odd spending a lot of time walking around the office in legwarmers and a bodice top. It doesn't look that attractive and it really stands out more than it should. It also means, because her legs are "white", that she looks somewhat ill proportioned in long camera shots. Remember what the Skyhooks pointed out, women in uniform can be very sexy while dressed to fit the environment. Thankfully Kusanagi's personality and presence rise above any such minor issues.