Major Motoko Kusanagi and Section 9 continue their cybercrime investigations in the age of AI, tackling individual cases while delving further into the mystery of the Laughing Man. Kusanagi pops into a Laughing Man chatroom to see what the Internet is saying about this criminal phenomenon, whether it be rumors or facts. On the stand-alone side of things, a soldier from Batou’s military days re-emerges as a serial killer and drags Section 9 into foreign affairs, and then Togusa has an odd encounter as he investigates a database hack at an institution for damaged-cyberbrain patients. The disc closes out with a touching episode about a Tachikoma tank gone loose, who inadvertently finds a cyberbrain containing a filmmaker’s last attempt to reach an audience.
After introducing the world of Ghost in the Shell and setting the plot in motion, the third volume of Stand Alone Complex now goes for some strong emotional hits. Few will forget the chilling “Jungle Cruise” episode, where we learn about Batou’s past as a military ranger and watch a murder investigation turn into a personal battle. On the other end of the scale, “Escape From” is a lighthearted departure from the usual tone of the series, but who can resist the charm of a grade-schooler befriending a Tachikoma? And of course, none of this would be a Ghost in the Shell production without excellent animation and music throughout.
At its core, Stand Alone Complex is still just a cop show, but its high-tech setting makes it a cop show where you can’t solve mysteries via present-day methods. The series demands a solid understanding of how machines, humans, and the Internet relate in the year 2030, but the results of this intellectual investment are often rewarding. The trickiest part to navigate may be the “Chat! Chat! Chat!” episode, not because of technological jargon, but because it’s so heavy on dialogue. Feel free to rewind as needed on this one, because it’s one big infodump about the Laughing Man case (and that’s why they call it the “complex” part of the series). Luckily, the remaining episodes are all primarily stand-alones, making them easier to follow. This volume is rather light on action sequences—”Jungle Cruise” and “Portraitz” are the only episodes where anyone brings out a gun—but the introspective, laid-back tone makes it even more engaging than a series stuffed with overblown action sequences.
Except for that one formalist experiment (“Let’s stick Motoko in a chatroom lol!”) on the DVD, each episode features a closer look at one of the characters from Section 9. “Jungle Cruise” is the best of the lot, revealing a darker side to Batou and giving an extra dimension to the gravelly-voiced, wisecracking tough guy. Togusa’s undercover work at the institution lets us look at the future through the eyes of Section 9’s only flesh-and-blood member, seeing the mind-boggling results of an entire generation that has grown up “wired.” Even “Escape From,” with a Tachikoma as its main character, achieves emotional weight by introducing a little girl searching for her lost dog. Together they learn about the qualities of humans and machines, and the result is adorable yet profound.
Production I.G’s work on the visuals is crisp and fluid as always, with realistic character designs that avoid the “anime style” shortcuts of lesser shows (the best part is that older people actually look like older people). Because this volume is light on action, the animators don’t get much of a chance to show off, but they take every opportunity they can—just check out Togusa getting clocked in the head in “Portraitz.” Even backgrounds become works of art, as in the visibly cold and clinical hallways of the cyberbrain patients’ institution, or the glowingly rendered sunset when Tachikoma and friend get to a hilltop park. Computer effects are also presented with great care—little things like net-diving sequences and monitor displays have a unique, intricate quality that represents the future in a believable way.
Naturally, nothing says “Stand Alone Complex” like the music of Yoko Kanno, and her musical talents continue to be in full force on this volume. A wide range of styles and timbres set the mood from scene to scene, whether it be a pained adagio as Batou chases his quarry or a quirky children’s tune as the Tachikoma goes on a joyride. What may disappoint fans is that the music is less intrusive than usual—it’s fun to hear those elegant Kanno melodies stand out, but this time she does a fine job of blending it into the anime, which in the end is the true aim of background music.
Also pleasant to the ears is the dub provided by Animaze studios through Bandai and Manga Entertainment. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn continues to play the role of lead character Matoko Kusanagi confidently, while Richard Epcar is in full command of Batou’s voice whether he’s spouting a one-liner or screaming with rage. Even the one-time characters in “Chat! Chat! Chat!” provide an amusing caricature of what the Internet might sound like. Although the DVD lacks art galleries among the extras (which would probably be awesome to look at), it includes interviews with Akio Otsuka, the Japanese voice actor for Batou, and sound director Kazuhiro Wakabayashi. And of course, the “Tachikoma Days” shorts after each episode are a cute, irreverent counterpoint to the series—even if their sense of humor isn’t for everyone.
Badass cyborg women, speculative computer science, and talking tanks might not be for everyone, but if you want to know what quality anime looks like, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a prime example. Volume 3 makes a few narrative missteps, but it still delivers stronger story and more emotional punch than the average anime can in 26 episodes. With the show also currently running on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, there are hardly any excuses to miss it. Look to the year 2030 and make sure to check out one of the best anime titles currently being released.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Continues the high standards of the series, with individual characters getting a chance to shine
− Chatroom episode is one big infodump; not a whole lot of action on this disc
The Laughing Man takes a break in this volume as Major Motoko Kusanagi and the technologically elite Section 9 investigate a series of stand-alone incidents in the era of AI and cybernetics. Their first case is a young girl who has become the leader of the terrorist group that kidnapped her, and apparently hasn’t aged in sixteen years. Next, Section 9 delves into financial matters as they race to save an eccentric investor whose fortune has become the target of a coin-shooting assassin. Even among their own ranks, however, things are turning worrisome as the Tachikoma tanks have become too smart for their own good. Does Batou have enough heart to let them go back to the lab for repairs? As if that weren’t bad enough, he then has to go and investigate a suspected spy that he once idolized as a boxing champ and Olympic silver medalist.
Well, it had to happen eventually: the fourth volume of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex isn’t quite as stunning as previous installments of the series. While the technical elements like artwork and music continue to stand out, the storytelling takes a dip as the stand-alone episodes go into autopilot. The format of mysteries and twist endings starts to look predictable, and the Tachikoma episode succumbs under the weight of its own soul-searching. Kusanagi’s solution for overly talkative, wannabe philosophers? Send them away on a little vacation. Sounds like good advice for Mamoru Oshii as well, if he ever feels like directing another Ghost in the Shell movie.
The main disappointment on this disc is the absence of any episodes relating to the ongoing Laughing Man case. For fans who are following the “complex” part of the series, these self-contained exploits may be less appealing, even though the episodes are satisfying enough on their own. The mystery-solving pattern of each case should be familiar among viewers now, and if you’re getting the hang of how things work in the year 2030, the conclusions won’t be too surprising. There’s a lot of quiet, suspenseful crime-solving to sit through, but those who are patient will be rewarded with thrilling chases, gunfights, and in Episode 16 (“Ag20”), a bareknuckle boxing match featuring Batou. The one exception is the cerebral Episode 15, “Machines Desirantes,” where the Tachikomas begin to question their own existence and the relationship between humans and machines. This is as close as it gets to Mamoru Oshii’s approach to Ghost in the Shell, so be ready to hit the rewind button and backtrack on the dense dialogue. Incidentally, the Liar’s Paradox (“This sentence is false”) gets paraphrased in this episode, so logic and philosophy geeks will get a kick out of that.
With the storyline running on autopilot, the principal characters do the same throughout this volume. In Episodes 13 and 14 (“Not Equal” and “YES”), it’s the suspects and victims who are the central characters, with Section 9 being the lens through which we view them. Batou is the main focus of “Ag20,” but it doesn’t develop his character the way “Jungle Cruise” did. In fact, the Tachikomas are the only characters who really experience a major event, and their little sojourn into philosophy reveals a lot about their “identity,” a concept that might seem unusual when applied to machines. Make sure to check out the hilarious scene where they pretend to be “more robotic” so that Motoko will stop looking at them suspiciously.
As always, Production I.G sets a high standard for the visuals in this series. Unlike most animation studios, even their backgrounds catch the eye, particularly in the stark industrial setting of “Not Equal” and the ostentatious mansion that plays host to the final act of “YES.” Backgrounds like these create a convincing world that’s a lot like our own, but still surreal in its technological splendor. The character designs are as consistent as ever, with a level of detail and anatomy that most other animators would kill for. While some of the basic movements like walking and speaking seem just a little choppy (an effect of digital processing perhaps?), the animation still blows most other anime shows away, especially with the sprightly Tachikomas and the dynamic action scenes. To see the animators really going all out, however, watch the “Tachikoma Days” shorts after each episode, because this is Production I.G just having as much fun as possible, with an offbeat sense of humor to boot.
Yoko Kanno’s musical intentions become clearer in these episodes of Stand Alone Complex, as she holds back on her musical explorations and turns to a more unified score. Straight-up rock with an electronic edge sets the tone throughout most of this disc, although other instrumentations and styles are still fair game. At this point in the series, some of the tracks start to repeat too, but Kanno is still the composer of choice for orchestrating the many moods of this show: suspense, conflict, regret, and yes, even comedy.
Bandai and Manga Entertainment’s dub of the series continues to be easy on the ears, with characters like Motoko, Batou and Togusa sounding as definitive and consistent as voice actors can be. However, the Tachikomas push the cuteness angle a little too far, and with an entire episode focusing on them, those high, chirpy voices become a real test of endurance. Their highly inflected, energetic way of speaking cleverly illustrates their increase in AI, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Tachikomas’ voices are really high. If you seriously want to get into their heads, the DVD contains an interview with Tachikoma voice actress Sakiko Tamagawa (yes, she plays all of them), plus an interview with Koichi Yamadera, who plays Togusa.
At its heart, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is really just a cop show—but what a fascinating cop show it is. Although there are no new insights on the Laughing Man case, each of these episodes is an exploration into a bewildering world that’s supposedly just 25 years away from the present day. At this point in the series, some of the episodes start to have the same structure and feel, but you’ll want to watch each one to the end. That’s right, even the Tachikoma episode, because despite their smart-alecky attitude, they’re really quite endearing. Is the ever-thinning line between human and machine something we ought to worry about? Watch this show and find out.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Consistently outstanding artwork and music, no matter what the story’s about
− Episodes start to fall into formula, and lack of Laughing Man episodes will disappoint some fans