“Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” opening, song by Yoko Kanno
I’ve finally finished watching the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The first season, at least. I watched a few subtitled episodes of the show around the time when it was released in Japan in 2002, but at the time it wasn’t something that could hold my interest. At that time, I was deeply enamored with the colorful ninjas of the Hidden Valley of the Leaf in the show Naruto, which was just starting to take the world by storm. To its merit, Ghost in the Shell: SAC had exciting robots and futuristic weaponry, but it functioned as almost a backdrop to a detective story of political corruption and turmoil. A lot less sexy than the mastering of jutsu’s and fighting tournaments of the early episodes of Naruto.
Scene from the Ghost in the Shell film (1995)
In the 90’s, Mamoru Oshii’s animated film Ghost in the Shell was one of the most popular vectors for anime discovery before shows like Dragonball Z and Pokemon brought anime to the mainstream in the United States. I remember anime as an underground culture back then – you kinda had to know somebody that knew about it. I remember glimpses of anime in the back of gaming magazines or a few tapes in the back of a video store. I probably ended up first watching the Ghost in the Shell film after a friend let me borrow a VHS tape of it. Even finding it hard to follow the plot, it’s always been a favorite film to watch simply because of the visual detail.
Jumping back into Ghost in the Shell: SAC show, I quickly discovered why I lost interest in it in the first place. It’s a great looking show, but a lot less flashier than the film. Sure it has some robots and shooting and explosions, but it also has a slow methodical pace. Most episodes have a whole lot of talking about things you know little about, with only a few scenes of action if you’re lucky. GitS: SAC must be watched intently as every line of dialog seems like its there for a reason. From the first episode, you’re dropped into the situation and there’s not a lot of scenes with overt exposition explaining the situations. This is a good thing because if you’re engaged, everything you need to know will be eventually spoon-fed to you over the course of its 26 episodes. It’ll make good sense in the end. Most of it, anyway.
Batou providing backup to Major in Stand Alone Complex
The series follows “Public Security Section 9,” a government organization specializing in investigating cybercrime and terrorism. A division that doesn’t publicly exist as they report directly to the Prime Minister. The first episode starts with a hostage situation that Section 9 is called in to handle. The police and military are already involved and from there you follow Section 9 Chief Aramaki navigating through the mixed signals of the political chain of command in order for him to determine if and what kind of action must be taken. Through the dialog you get an understanding of Chief Aramaki’s respect from both the police and the military and a taste of his relationships with military officials, who find it hard to tell him the truth.
“The Truth” seems to be elusive in the world of GitS: SAC. The main plot revolves around this hacker dubbed the name “The Laughing Man.” He, or she, becomes legendary for kidnapping the president of nanomachine company on live television 6 years prior to the start of the show. At the start of the show, the Laughing Man makes a return but nobody is sure if it’s the original or a series of copycats, as the motive for the new crimes don’t appear to match the initial incident. Not only can The Laughing Man not be trusted, the same can be said of the government officials. A large part of the show involves Section 9 uncovering secret truths of officials within the government and depending on the repercussions, deciding how or whether to act on them. As a result, it seems like the only “believers” of truth are the agents of Section 9, as they don’t have political or monetary ambitions and are motivated only out of justice. It’s pretty convenient that all the protagonists are 100% good guys, but it’s sort of at the expense that nobody outside of the organization can be trusted.
The Tachikoma of Stand Alone Complex
One of the most surprising subplots of the show involves the Tachikoma robots. Initially, I believed that these AI robot “think tank” companions, with bubbly voices, seemed little more than the “cute anthropomorphic character” anime trope. The stereotypical cute characters that tend to provide a bit of comic relief to contrast the dark situations of the show, as well as serving for more merchandise to sell. By the halfway point in the series, I better understood that the what purpose the Tachikoma served in the story.
At the start of the series, you learn that Tachikoma are experimental robots that Section 9 begins to work into their missions. Members of the Section 9 unit can bark commands to Tachikoma and they’ll understand and carry out their orders accordingly. These “think tanks” offer stealth reconnaissance and heavy artillery when situations escalate. In dangerous situations, the Tachikoma are essentially disposable and since they share a hive-mind AI and their bodies can simply be replaced if destroyed. It doesn’t stop there, as we eventually discover that with extended exposure to people and new experiences, the Tachikoma learn and start to display signs of individuality. Section 9 must then evaluate the potential danger of working with robots that can evaluate situations and as well as act on their inhibitions.
What I love about this subplot is how it’s presented – in details sprinkled in across the series. Early on, the Tachikoma are a bit clumsy and ineffective but as they grow with experience, their role on the team becomes more seamless within each mission they take on. Initially I thought the Tachikoma dialog was kind of useless and annoying but it becomes clearer that it’s showing their child-like curiosity of the world, as they understand more every time they’re “set loose” in the real world. Their usage becomes so effective within Section 9’s missions because they help mitigate risks and can function autonomously. They can preemptively stake out a situation and capture a suspect even if a Section 9 agent hasn’t yet arrived at the scene.
As big as an advantage the Tachikoma are, at a point in the story they’re no longer in use. I expected that the Tachikoma made Section 9’s jobs easier but the team is just as strong without them. The stakes become higher when the main characters become more at risk in their encounters and must attack enemies head on. What I like about how they wrote the characters for this part of the show is that it showed to me that although their job became easier with the help of the robots, they didn’t allow them to be a crutch and they didn’t complain about not having them when situations were rough. It’s like they saw the Tachikoma strictly as a tool. Which is inspiring from the human perspective because you shouldn’t feel limited when you don’t have the best tool for a job. But from the robot’s perspective, a bit depressing to only be thought of just a tool when you’re just coming to grips with your own identity.
It’s a beautiful show. Check it out! I didn’t even get into the soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, which I listened to religiously for years despite only ever watching a few episodes of the show.