Ghost In The Shell has never been just one story. The perennial cyberpunk anime series, much like its cyborg protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, is the sum of many parts made by several authors, each piece contributing something to its whole. Ghost In The Shell is more than Masamune Shirow’s original manga, more than the 1995 Mamoru Oshii film that catapulted the series to global renown, more than even that shitty live-action remake we’ve all just quietly agreed to forget about. But for a generation of anime fans who came of age during the turn of the century, there’s arguably no iteration that’s done more to cement the series’ enduring appeal than 2002’s Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Produced between 2002 and 2005 by anime studio Production I.G. and directed by writer-animator Kenji Kamiyama, Stand Alone Complex was noteworthy not only for being the series’ first foray into television, but also for being the first adaptation of the series produced in the wake of the dot-com bubble and the subsequent formation of what we know today as the modern internet. Spanning 52 episodes and a made-for-television movie, the Stand Alone Complex series grappled with the implications of a society shaped by mass communication in a way that Oshii’s film never did, less as a philosophical abstraction and more so a material force holistically situated at the intersection of social media, politics, technology, and spirituality. The result was a procedural-serial hybrid set in an alternate universe separate from the manga or the films, combining Shirow’s affinity for explosive action and Oshii’s proclivity for existentialism into a show that was as smart as it was entertaining.
Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045 is the latest series in the Stand Alone Complex universe, the first continuation of the series in over a decade, and the first Ghost In The Shell series to be fully CG animated. A lot’s changed in the intervening time between Stand Alone Complex’s last installment, 2006’s Solid State Society, and this one, both onscreen and behind the scenes. Kenji Kamiyama returns as the series’ main writer and director, as does the original Japanese voice cast and their English counterparts. This time though, Kamiyama’s joined by co-director Shinji Aramaki, perhaps best known for his 2004 CG anime film Appleseed. Russian illustrator Ilya Kuvshinov succeeds Makoto Shimomura as the series’ new character designer, and Nobuko Toda and Kazuma Jinnouchi (Metal Gear Solid, Halo) replace Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop) as SAC_2045’s chief composers. This new series is a co-production between Production I.G. and Sola Digital Arts, who produced last year’s Ultraman CG anime for Netflix and are slated to work on Adult Swim and Crunchyroll’s forthcoming Blade Runner: Black Lotus.
Set 11 years after the events of the original series, Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045 steers the series in a direction it’s never gone before: that of a post-apocalyptic spy thriller. Major Motoko Kusanagi and her counter-terrorism cohorts have been disbanded in the wake of a global economic meltdown, a freak consequence of a newly A.I.-automated war economy gone horribly off the rails. In the ensuing aftermath, Kusanagi and her team have since relocated to the sunny coast of California where they’ve taken on a new gig as private security contractors for a walled community of “one-percenters” who survived the big crash. An adventurous new take for the series, though one that’s all too quickly jettisoned when Kusanagi and company are thrust back into the fray to combat a mysterious new threat in the form of superhuman enemies known only as “post-humans.”
Let’s not mince words here: If you were at all put off by SAC_2045’s CG art style when it was first announced, the show itself will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The original Stand Alone Complex was a benchmark in how to effectively meld CGI and traditional animation, so it’s not all too big a leap to witness the series finally making the transition into full 3D animation. However, the tone of SAC_2045 shifted toward a more action-oriented approach as a result of this creative decision, and the action itself is, in a word, awful. Hand-to-hand fight scenes feel weightless and plodding, with overactive camera cuts doing more of the work than the characters on-screen, and the frame rate of the series’ firefights noticeably slow to a crawl whenever a muzzle flash is visible. Kuvshinov’s character redesigns for the main cast are fine in and of themselves; it’s their implementation in 3D that leaves so much to be desired. Characters’ expressions vacillate between flatness and over exaggeration, particularly in the case of Prin Esaki, a new character to the series, whose moments of occasional physical comic relief more often than not come across as forced and insincere. The best parts of this new series are the investigation scenes featuring members of Kusanagi’s unit following leads and finding clues while the cinematography occasionally plays with the distinction of 2D and 3D perspective. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between to leave a lasting impression.
As underwhelming as the animation may be, Kamiyama at the very least seems to be enjoying himself in his return to Ghost In The Shell. The original Stand Alone Complex series was as ambitious as it was consistent in its storytelling, tackling everything from crowdsourced criminal conspiracies, refugee crises, and the perils of an aging populace. SAC_2045 casts a wide net to shallower effect, touching on everything from systemic wealth disparity, a gallingly simplistic critique of the military-industrial complex, and ham-fisted literary allusions to 1984 that feel derivative of Kamiyama’s previous work on Stand Alone Complex, all crammed into the claustrophobic space of a 12-episode season. That’s without considering the aforementioned “post-human apocalypse” storyline, which starts only halfway through the season before petering out by the end.
The first season ends on a cliffhanger, with a follow-up season of 12 episodes already scheduled for release sometime in the future, but from what Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045 has shown, it’s hard to look at the promise of more from this series with anything other than disappointment. As wonderful as it is to return to this series’ interpretations of Major Kusanagi and company after more than a decade away, you’d be better off dusting off Stand Alone Complex DVDs and give this one a pass.