The protagonist in all the various versions of Ghost in the Shell is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the number one field operative for Public Security Section 9. Section 9 is a top-secret counter-intelligence counter-terrorism outfit. Section 9 handles cases that are too sensitive or too dangerous for any other Japanese Government agencies. In this near-future world that means mostly counter-terrorism work and that work mostly involves artificial intelligences. It also means tangling with other intelligence agencies and getting involved in some nasty political infighting.
It should be explained first of all that Major Motoko Kusanagi is not entirely human. She is a cyborg but she is much more robot than human. In fact there’s there’s only one human thing about her. She still has a human brain. Which means she still has a ghost. Ghost in this context refers to the essential core of our personalities and most importantly it refers to our memories. Our human memories. Whether the ghost is also a soul or not is a question to which no-one in this future world can give a definite answer. What matters is that it is the ghost that makes us human. The body is just the shell. The Major has a ghost. Is that enough to make her a woman rather than a machine? She thinks that it is, but she’s not sure.
The concept of the ghost and its relationship to the shell was at the core of the original movie and it’s a theme that is elaborated upon in many different ways in the Stand Alone Complex TV series.
There are two kinds of episodes in this series. There are the Stand Alone episodes and there are the Complex episodes. The Complex episodes form part of an ongoing story arc. While the Stand Alone episodes are self-contained stories they also contribute to the gradual building up of our understanding of this cyberpunk future world, of the main characters, and in particular to our understanding of Motoko Kusanagi’s contradictory and slightly troubled personality.
Special mention must be made of the great opening and closing songs composed by Yôko Kanno.
If you haven’t delved much into anime the Ghost in the Shell franchise is not a bad place to start - there’s plenty of intelligent and complex science fiction ideas without too much weirdness and there’s plenty of action. Since it takes place in a subtly different timeline you could watch the TV series before watching the movie, but both are equally worth seeing. There are other excellent science fiction anime series (such as Cowboy Bebop) but some of them tend a bit too much towards giant robots or they’re mind-numbingly complex (such as the superb Serial Experiments Lain).
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is very much in the cyberpunk mould. Some of the violence is quite graphic and there is a small amount of nudity. Whether anime nudity bothers you or appeals to you is a matter of taste but there’s very little of it and there’s no sexual weirdness although there are some sexual themes. The violence is much less extreme than that found in some anime TV such as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.
This is anime for grown-ups and in any case is going to be way too complex and cerebral for younger kids.
The coolness factor is very high.
Cyberpunk is a genre that you might think would date very quickly but good cyberpunk (and this series is definitely very good cyberpunk) actually doesn’t date because it’s not really concerned about the details of how technology works. It’s more concerned with the social and existential consequences of technology.
The DVD boxed set offers both the English dubbed version and the Japanese language version with English subtitles.
The first episode gives us a hostage drama with the terrorists being geisha robots(!) and a senior government minister being one of the victims. He isn’t killed but something worse happens to him.
Episode three is more interesting still. There’s a wave of mass suicides, among androids. To be specific, among a particular model of female sex robot. The Jeri model had been extremely popular but is now out of production. However the Jeri still has its hardcore fans who are addicted to its particular charms. But why would someone want to destroy these sexbots? Because this is a case of mass murder, not mass suicide. Of course robots cannot actually be murdered, or commit suicide for that matter. They’re not human and they don’t have real feelings. Unless of course the rumours are true, that some androids have ghosts. Which means they may in fact be alive. Whatever alive means, and there’s no certainty about the meaning of that term in this world.
Episode four begins a series of complex episodes concerning the Laughing Man, a super-hacker cyber-terrorist. The story is however much more complex than that. The Laughing Man may or may not exist. He may be several people. Or several groups of people, or organisations. His motives are completely unknown. It’s an actually an old unsolved case but Section 9 now has some ambiguous evidence that might justify reopening. And in fact the case is about to become a very live case. This is full-on cyberpunk stuff and it’s very nicely executed.
In episode seven Section 9 is concerned about a foreign revolutionary leader who has been the subject of countless assassination attempts. So many that it seems a miracle he’s still alive. This story is another exploration of posthumanist themes and more specifically the psychological dimensions of posthumanism.
Episode eight deals with organ harvesting. This is a future in which artificial organs are available but there’s still a market for actual organs. This is a story with personal significance for the Major, bringing back childhood memories (and memories are incredibly important to her given that they’re the one truly human thing about her).
In episode ten Batou must confront ghosts from his own past as Section 9 hunts a particularly savage serial killer. They’re getting coöperation (of a sort) from the CIA but they begin to suspect that this killer may have been created by the CIA as part of a particularly nasty phase of the Third World War.
In episode eleven Togusa goes undercover in a clinic that treats children with cyberbrain closed shell syndrome, a kind of cyberpunk autism thing. These children are being used for something, but what? And is it connected to the Laughing Man case?
In episode twelve one of the tachikomas wanders off on its own and befriends a little girl who is looking for her lost dog. And the tachikoma finds a cyberbrain which causes great consternation in Section 9.
In episode thirteen a young girl kidnapped by the terrorist anti-cybernetic Human Evolutionary Front reappears sixty years late, looking not a day older. Section 9 has to assault an abandoned floating factory complex and what they find is more than a little disturbing. In this future world there is clearly tension between those in favour of cybernetics and those bitterly opposed to it on ideological grounds. A very good episode.
In episode fourteen Section 9 is investigating a financier whose transactions, on an enormous scale, are causing some concern. The Major also has to deal with a young lady who is actually a yakuza battle cyborg, but what the yakuza’s interest is in this matter remains to be seen. A good episode.
In episode fifteenth Major decides that the tachikomas are becoming a problem. They’re starting to show signs of individuality, which is not supposed to happen. They’re starting to take an interest in philosophical and even theological questions. They’re supposed to be reliable weapons systems and she’s not convinced they can be trusted if they’re questioning the nature of the cosmos and the existence of God. Maybe they’ll have to be dismantled but that’s going to be tricky. The tachikomas are very good at surveillance. How will they react if they find out? Not much action in this story, in fact one at all, but it does deal with one of the recurring themes of the series - the relationship between humans and robots.
In episode seventeen Motoko and the Chief are in London for a counterterrorism conference. The Chief is asked for help by a lady friend whose bank may have become involved in Mafia money-laundering. The bank is robbed and the robbers take the Chief and his lady friend hostage and then events take several unexpected turns. The British police turn down Motoko’s offer of help but needless to say that doesn’t stop her. A very clever plot with some nice twists. Excellent episode.
In episode eighteen there’s an assassination plot against a visiting Chinese government official, with some personal complications for Aramaki (the Chief of Section 9) involving an old friend, now deceased.
Episode nineteen involves a fiendishly complicated plot to kidnap girls, apparently for organ harvesting. One of the kidnapped girls is the daughter of the former prime minister but everything hinges on whether the kidnappers knew that. And on the relationship between the ex-PM and the Northern Territories Mafia. Is there a double-cross going on? A good episode.
Episode twenty is a Complex episode, another instalment in the Laughing Man saga. Things are becoming more and more paranoid with a number of government agencies involved in trying to suppress a vaccine for a cyberbrain vaccine. Togusa thinks he has a lead but he may not know what he’s getting himself into.
Episode twenty-one is another Complex episode, with Section 9 in conflict with the narc squad. And when I say conflict I mean they’re shooting at each other. It’s all connected with that vaccine.
Episode twenty-three is a very talky explanatory episode giving more details of the conspiracy involving medical micromachines and cyberbrain vaccines, and the kidnapping of the head of Serano Genomics which may or may not have been connected with the Laughing Man.
In episode twenty-four Section 9 itself is under siege as a result of corrupt political machinations. It’s a fight for survival. Lots of action in this stand alone episode. I can’t say anything at all about the plotlines of the final three episodes without revealing spoilers. All I will say is that at the end it gets quite existential and starts to seriously confront the consequences of living in an artificial information-saturated society.
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is complex grown-up science fiction (although it’s certainly not without humour and light-hearted moments). And there’s no shortage of action. Very highly recommended.
It's available on both DVD and Blu-Ray in boxed sets which also include the second season (or 2nd Gig).