Ghost in the Shell transcends.
It stands above the crowd of typical anime series because it is a genuinely original work of uncompromising cyberpunk. It offers a believable yet imaginative setting and a fantastic cast of characters. It gives us great action and a plethora of interesting sci-fi ideas. It leans on a few fun anime tropes without ever feeling cliché or too embedded in Japanese culture to translate. Simply put, Ghost in the Shell is an anime perfect storm. While they are not all equally good, every manga, film, and TV show is worth your time.
The same is true of the latest release, Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Arise was created by Production I.G., the same studio that gave us the fantastic Ghost in the Shell TV series Stand Alone Complex (SAC). Arise reboots the franchise by retelling the origin of Motoko and her Section 9 squad. It features new writers, directors, and a new voice cast, but for the most part keeps the designs of Motoko's squad mates the same. Motoko Kusanagi, the iconic hacker extraordinaire lead, is really the only character to get a complete makeover.
Her stoic personality remains mostly unchanged, but her origin and appearance are revamped. She no longer looks like an adult woman; her new design is more of what the Japanese might call “chibi,” or cutesy. Frankly she looks to me like a teenage boy thanks to her short hair, small stature, and masculine demeanor. Her back story is tweaked to help explain her talent as a hacker and cyborg soldier. We learn that Motoko is unusually skilled at controlling cyborg bodies because of her birth. Her cyberization began while she was still in the womb, and thus she has no memory of ever having a flesh and blood body.
The special snowflake birth back story combined with her childish look gives the Major a distinctly “magical girl” feel. This is a pervasive trope in Japanese fiction, and it can work well in some contexts. It just does not really suit a character like Kusanagi. She was never meant to be some mystical little fairy with a hidden ultimate power. Instead she was a world-weary pro with skills honed from experience. In Arise it is hard to understand why someone as young and small as she is so incredibly powerful. It never crosses into Mary Sue territory, thankfully. Kusanagi is not invincible in Arise; she makes mistakes, is more than once bested by adversaries, and generally only succeeds with the support of her team. But still, the look just seems incongruent with the world and the character, especially given the fact that she is the only major character with this childlike form.
So what is the point in making a great character like Kusanagi suddenly look like a kid? Kusanagi being a strong female character I think may have been part of the motivation. The contrast between Motoko's conspicuously feminine, slender frame, and the swift, violent actions she often carries out, has always been an interesting visual trope in GitS. By making Kusanagi even more small and frail – literally making her into a little girl – that contrast is even more emphasized. I don't see it as a worthwhile tradeoff, however. Just in terms of looks I find it less appealing and rather boring compared to previous incarnations.
The good news is that the Major's redesign is my only major (heh) criticism of the show. Everything else about it is excellent. Arise is similar to Stand Alone Complex in that it is very much a details show. It never shies away from complexity. The sparse humor, efficiently packaged technical explanations, the natural personality conflicts – all of it gives the show a real sense of life and rewards people for paying attention. I love the way the show always digs into inter-agency politics and questions of jurisdiction and procedure. It adds a level of believeability to the narrative without ever bogging things down.
I like how Motoko cares about the nature of her team. She does not want her squad to just be another police force, or military unit cleaning up political messes. She insists on an independent offensive unit that has full authority and funding to resolve threats no other agency is suited to handle. For this reason she and her squad mates bristle whenever they are asked to formally join the public security agency, liaison with other departments, or even serve under American CIA operatives in one instance. There is this meta theme about the importance of how governments solve problems and maintain security. Motoko has to balance her and her team's desire for autonomy against their need for government clearance, top of the line equipment, and expensive maintenance for their cyborg bodies.
On top of the richly layered narrative is an incredibly stylish show, more so than SAC at times. The animation is fantastic, particularly the dazzling action scenes. Every episode has at least one really solid, tense fight scene that harkens back to the great set pieces in the original film. While some of these callbacks feel a bit forced, they are at least well-executed. 'Visual feast' is an apt term to summarize the look of the show.
The stories are also all quite good and the longer runtime allows for meatier plots. The first episode gives us a solid introduction to Motoko with a tightly-paced whodunit murder mystery that makes us question the reliability of the protagonist's point of view. The second episode brings in the rest of Motoko's future section 9 squad mates, only the narrative takes a fun twist and sets them up as antagonists. You get lots of great action that avoids feeling like 'jobbing' – battles that diminish one character to boost another. Episode three brings in section 9's resident non-cyborg Togusa, whose no-nonsense detective work one-ups The Major in a story that displays her more vulnerable side. Episode 4, perhaps the most ambitious yet weakest entry, plays with the idea of false memories and identities as a super hacker triggers a mass shooting. Though the ending felt a bit random, the concepts it explores are interesting.
There is a fifth border that was divided into two shorter episodes called “Pyrophoric Cult.” It was released under the Alternative Architecture version of Arise as a prelude to the Arise film named Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. Both the fifth border and the movie are excellent. The former has some of the coolest action scenes in the series, as we see the squad go after a man believed to be the elusive hacker Fire Starter. The movie serves as a perfect capstone to the series. In the same way that Solid State Society added depth to numerous characters with its winding narrative, Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie will make you see Motoko and several supporting characters in a new light. It is just as good a story as SSS only I did not find it as captivating thematically. SSS dealt with a very topical issue – the social consequences of the aging Japanese population. The New Movie juggled some interesting ideas too, though they were less relevant and not handled with the same nuance.
As good as it all is, nothing in Arise seems to justify a reboot. The plot arc of the four 'borders' essentially covers the birth of Motoko's team, and it is a solid narrative in its own right. The thing is, SAC had a good thing going, and you could have easily told the same good stories we get here in Arise in that world. Rebooting everything now only adds unnecessary complexity to an already fragmented canon. The fact that Arise is filled with homages to SAC and the original movie only emphasizes the sense that there really was no need to start over (they reference the manga's opening scene twice). What's more, the Major's redesign just does not work for me. It clashes with the world she inhabits and is aesthetically a downgrade for my tastes.
Once you get past these issues you are left with an engaging, meticulously crafted work of art. You get gorgeous animation, fantastic action scenes, a rich sci-fi universe, complex, multi-dimensional characters, classic noirish mystery, and a spectacular soundtrack to boot. While it is not exactly the direction I would have wanted the franchise to go, it is still a great addition to the series that stands on its own well for newer viewers and is an absolute must-see for fans.