In the not-so-distant future (2030), a complete body transplant from flesh to machine is possible. Main protagonists are agents of “Public Security Section 9” (an elite secret police squad of 7 people) whose level of prosthetic enhancements ranges from minor modifications to full cyborg.
Section 9 specializes in cyber-crimes (that became a major threat to public security with the recent technological developments). They deal with rogue AI’s, hackers possessing another’s body, remote controlled robots, information theft, data manipulation and even organ trafficking. Offenders they’re after are not your usual bad-guys, as most of them are either socially desperate, pursue a noble political agenda or simply confused in the fast-changing world they live in. The protagonists are more often than not facing a thin line between law and ethics.
So, if you take GitS:SAC at face value, it may appear to be your usual crime-action series (with sci-fi elements) with plenty of gunfights, combat tactics and dynamic twists in investigations.
The incredibly vivid world of Ghost in the Shell serves as a perfect stage for many interesting philosophical, psychological and sociological themes.
• Where is the line between man and machine?
• What is the definition of selfhood and can AI’s achieve a state of self-awareness in which they can be treated as sentient beings and, more importantly, should we treat them as such?
• How does the easily-accessible global data transfer influence human behavior?
• Existence of a “Ghost” (soul/consciousness) and the possibility of its digital transfer between bodies (cyberbrains)?
• Body and mind in the context of one’s identity: which is more essential? Is it my body (my corporeal worldly representation) what defines me? Will I remain myself if my body is replaced but my memories are preserved? If my physical representation completely changes (its every part replaced) but my “Ghost” survives, is my identity still intact? How much of one’s form can you alter without affecting one’s essence? (The series is brimming with philosophical references. An example is an Ancient Greek paradox called "The Ship of Theseus". Plutarch questions would the ship remain the same if it was replaced in its entirety piece by piece)
Those are some of dominant questions this series tries to unravel never giving one definite answer, because, well, there is no one unambiguous explanation.
Stand Alone Complex is also used as wordplay for the two types of episodes in this series:
Stand Alone episodes – Although a part of a coherent timeline, plots of these episodes are independent from one another. The protagonists are usually faced with a crime, a mystery or a mission which isn’t directly related to the overarching narrative but through them the viewers are better acquainted with the GitS universe and characters. Almost every stand alone episode has a twist ending and usually leaves a lingering question for you to think about when it’s finished. The episodes are of varying quality; while some are brilliant, others are fine.
Complex episodes - The plot of these episodes focuses on the "Laughing Man", a mysterious hacker whose actions have shaken the corporate world of futuristic Japan. The narrative is interspersed by stand alone episodes providing you with a realistic experience of a long-term investigation. Its incredibly contrived plot is inspired by works of J. D. Salinger (in particular "The Laughing Man" short story, and "The Catcher in the Rye"), which are introduced naturally and with subtlety, so that you never get the feeling of forced pretentious quoting.
The narrative is consistent and free of plot-holes and fillers. Dialogues are masterfully written and even the complex philosophical themes are seamlessly introduced into characters’ dialogues. No themes are over-discussed and the characters rarely repeat themselves (which is why you have to watch it thoughtfully).
The manner in which the characters are established is sort of unique compared to most anime. Instead of forcefully telling you who the characters are, the series will introduce fragments of their personalities through subtle gestures and hints of their backgrounds. Even then, the characters remain partly mysterious, because, like real people, they are not always honest and they don’t walk around while endlessly talking about themselves until the audience figures who they are. Furthermore, if you want to fully grasp the characters you have to pay attention on their gestures (which are never exaggerated), the overall atmosphere and all the little details. Nevertheless, they are deep, thoughtfully designed and self-consistent.
Even minor characters seem thoroughly developed and that is extreme anomaly in this media.
One of the best things about the characters is that, even though they are skilled and use implants to exceed their human possibilities, none of them is unnaturally powerful. They still face human barriers, they make mistakes, they are intelligent but not indisputable and that makes them lifelike. Their relationships are believable, logical, complex and never overstated.
If there is anything you could criticize, it would be Motoko’s attire. Why would someone in their right mind casually walk around wearing nothing but underpants, boots and a leather jacket? Although it is explained during the series, it seems silly and inappropriate considering her job description. Clearly there are better ways to express your individuality. Then again, you can’t argue that she is quite an eye-candy wearing that.
ART & ANIMATION 8/10
Art style is absolutely gorgeous. Each character has a completely unique design with varying body anatomies and facial characteristics. Their mimics are realistic, subtle and distinctive. While uncommon in the cyberpunk genre, the perpetual intentional use of bright colors in the series (many events occur in broad daylight) is in contrast with dystopian themes and it creates a unique appeal. This also helps visually emphasize emotionally intense scenes whose gloomy atmosphere then have a stronger impact on the viewer.
This series doesn’t really shine in the field of animation, especially when compared with its predecessor, the original Ghost in the Shell movie. There is an abundance of static scenes with nothing more than just dialogue and sometimes even there the animation is reduced to its bare minimum (when they communicate via their cyberbrains, they do not move their lips), BUT I think they did majestic work with what they had. It is a perfect balance of CGI and hand-drawings, and action scenes are done very well (they managed to save up the budget in static scenes).
One more virtue of this series is music. It was composed by Yoko Kano and it's linked with themes wonderfully. It contributes to the atmosphere of the world and even independently it is very enjoyable. Opening theme “Inner Universe” was performed by Origa, and it is written in Russian, English and Latin, while ending theme is “Lithium Flower” performed by Scott Matthew and I liked them both so much that I never once skipped them.
I count GitS: SAC among my most favorite anime of all time, and I believe everyone who likes cyberpunk should watch it. It looks great, sounds great and it has great story and voice acting (in sub version, I never watched dub). What more do you need?