Ghost In the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – 2nd Gig – Volume 2 [攻殻機動隊]

The amusingly acronymed GiTS franchise has become synonymous with cyberpunk since Masamune Shirow’s original manga, with Mamoru Oshii’s epic 1995 movie adaptation placing the dystopian, cyborgs-in-existential-crisis universe right up alongside those of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick in the collective consciousness of people who fantasise about seedy neon-lit bars, neural jacks and voice-activated image manipulation devices that go whirrr….clunk.

Stand Alone Complex, now in its second season, was a bold yet surprisingly successful attempt to translate the action to the small screen, and its format of self-contained episodes encompassing small details relevant to the series’ overarching narrative is brilliantly addictive. To build on the inherent anticipation that this formula generates, each program declares itself in its title sequence: “Dividual” episodes are relatively unconnected to the central plot; “Individual” episodes tie in with one particular storyline, while “Dual” episodes have particular relevance to another, more conspiracy-oriented narrative.

I’ve never come across anything like this before, and it’s a myriad of similar little touches which really set the show apart. A further example: in the divisions between certain scenes, the script from the previous scene scrolls rapidly down a window on the left-hand side of the screen. It’s quirky, but it works, and it’s this kind of hyper-aware design ethic which has helped Production I.G. create such a name for themselves in the anime industry.

Production values, slickness and artistry characterise Stand Alone Complex, but the writing isn’t far behind: high-minded literary references, and curiously relevant discussions of social and political philosophy are not what you’d necessarily expect from an anime series about an elite cyborg crime-fighting unit.

Despite the series having a strongly narrative-led approach, the central characters are a near-perfect balance of enigma and likeability, with Major Kusanagi retaining the bravado and simultaneous frailty which made her character so appealing in the first Ghost in the Shell movie. Togusa, the former police detective, wasn’t given much backstory in the episodes included on this DVD, but stories like Excavation, in which he deals with the fiancé of a man killed in mysterious circumstances, present a glimpse of his character’s emotional history so brief that you might miss it.

A side-note here on the thrice-cursed Tachikoma: these little blue robot-spider things occasionally plague the series with their ear-wrenchingly shrill wittering and untranslatable “comedy”. They’re also given their own short after each episode, which is frankly where they should stay, and I take great glee in damning them utterly by removing one entire point from the rating system purely because of their existence. The spectre of Jar Jar Binks possesses them: they are so utterly incongruous that literally nothing would be lost be expunging them from the series entirely. I’m done.

A mounting sense of conspiracy and the intertwining of the two major plot strands, is what Second Gig does so well. Terrorists known as the “Individual Eleven”, who commit crimes with entirely different MOs but are linked by a single ideology, and an intrigue set amongst the internal politics of Japan’s defence forces are both compelling in their own right, but the tantalising hints at connections between the two (which might be no more than a two-second shot of a character who seems out of place in a single episode) are what have kept viewers hooked.

The writers are able to manipulate the slightly ridiculous lexicon of cyber-hokum with the assured ease of old-hands, although the phrase “cyber-brain rapper” unfortunately did draw a snort of derision from your jaded reviewer. With all the prosthetic bodies, ghost dives, telepathy, thermoptic camouflage and flashing lights, it must be a herculean job to keep the thing bombing along so coherently, but they really do manage it so well as to make it seem effortless.

Visually, the series is an improvement over the first, but (obviously) not a patch on the sheer beauty of Innocence, the recent sequel to the original movie. However, I’m willing to guarantee that there will be at least one highly striking shot in each episode: be it Kuze’s wielding of the samurai sword in Inductanceor the dark menace of a glance down the alley in Fake Food. Overall, the art is rarely short of anything which isn’t essential viewing for lovers of this aesthetic: dark earth-tones, blues and greys contribute to a gritty atmosphere which is never drab and always tinged with excitement.

The action sequences are brief, but impeccably directed, and violently punctuate the sparsity of the long dialogues which are the mainstay of the series. These are well-written even to the point of occasionally sounding rather too scholarly: the ideological discussion in Inductance might be a little heavy-handed. However, I’ve never seen such an elaborate justification for a terrorist act given in any TV show, and with terrorism always on the menu in our forlorn age, it’s refreshing to see some attempt at treating the subject with intelligence. Putting an Iraqi character in Lost is not an audacious revision of the media’s preconceptions about extremism: creating a sympathetic terrorist who is totally unconnected from any didactic look at me I’m being controversial but ever so slightly oblique about it at the same time social allegory is, and Second Gig is all the more laudable for it.

The music, which pervades the show, is phenomenal – mournful, perfectly recorded strings and synth pads suddenly erupt into tight, heavily-processed techno basslines precisely on cue. Raw incidental, synth-based sounds are reminiscent of Japanese electronica pioneers like Ken Ishii – the whole sonic texture is thoroughly apt and highly listenable, even during action sequences, which are notoriously hard to score well.

Second Gig still has its problems, but don’t we all? Translation issues are relatively minor, and the dub isn’t bad, although certain voices still grate and the usual breathless diction occasionally becomes rather too comical: I’d love to have Richard Epcar around just to say things in the voice of Batou: you know, just go to the shop and ask for some butter or something. Fortunately, subtitles are always an option with a DVD, so you’re free to pick your preferred system. This, and certain cultural issues, will always be a barrier, but the producers of the DVD have tried hard to make it as easy as possible for anyone willing to overcome them.

The technological fetishism, and the occasionally very protracted dialogues will definitely put certain people off. At times, the backstory and intrigue can become overwhelmingly complex, and so it’s curious that there is some overt pandering to those who have missed preceding episodes (“Remember, that time when we investigated the plutonium rods and it turned out that it was all part of…”). I’d never seen the show before I was given the review copy of this DVD; I jumped straight into the middle of the second season and really enjoyed myself, so all that stuff is entirely unnecessary.

It’s also not hard to see what’s going on: there are goodies and baddies, and there will probably be a plot twist late in the series and so on. Despite being very well-drawn, I’m not convinced that the writers can particularly pull anything out of the bag in the last few episodes: it’s probably not up to 24‘s high-tide mark of TV thriller plotlines.

It’s a little difficult for me to see why anyone would buy an individual DVD of four episodes, and not the whole series – the bonus interviews with two character designers are mildly interesting, but certainly don’t offer much real incentive – so giving a score is something of a brainteaser.

With that in mind, and because I’m not qualified to rate these episodes alongside others, I’m going to extrapolate to a rating for the whole series and give a few caveats. If you’re any kind of fan of “this kind of thing”, even a very, very casual one, then you should provide this series with an extra point in your head: pretend I said nine. The awful unwashed public, however, get an eight for their troubles, because Second Gig is slightly too earnest to attract the truly sceptical. It can be a little humourless at times, even pompous, but it remains an exemplary piece of sci-fi anime which shows how intelligence, impeccable craftsmanship and television aren’t incompatible concepts.

Ghost In the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – 2nd Gig – Volume 2 [攻殻機動隊]
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Additional Information

Ghost In the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – 2nd Gig – Volume 2 [攻殻機動隊] (2006)
Director Kenji Kamiyama
Stars Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn , Akio Ōtsuka, Atsuko Tanaka
Genre Anime

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