If naked plastic smoothed-crotch automaton brawling is your idea of a good time, look no further than Netflix’s new Cyberpunk Barbie anime, also inexplicably known as Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. It boasts incredible photo-realistic backdrops filled with awkward, unnaturally shiny doll-people who look so laughably out-of-place that even after 12 episodes it is impossible to ignore the frankly baffling design choices that threaten to completely spoil this otherwise entertaining show.
Let’s back up a moment. For those not in the know, Barbie is a plastic doll first marketed by Mattel Inc. in 1959, making this landmark show a little late for her 60th birthday. Probably production delays, I expect. Barbie’s famous for being the toy most likely to be defaced and abused by children, and latterly she’s starred in a multitude of disturbing, plasticky CGI-animation shows, of which this effort is apparently the latest. Wikipedia lists no less than 37 CGI animated appearances for this doll, who clearly gets around. The site lists 2020's release as Barbie: Princess Adventure, but I assume it isn’t yet updated with the new, edgier title Netflix christened it with.
Ghost in the Shell was a 1989 manga written and drawn by the legendary Masamune Shirow (a pen name of Masanori Ota), who penned multiple notable works of 80s and 90s manga sci-fi and anime. Astounding in its prescience, it’s hard to believe GitS is over 30 years old now. I first discovered Shirow’s work with the 4-episode 1988 Dominion Tank Police OVA series on PAL VHS, and from there tracked down Studio Proteus’ Appleseed, Black Magic, Orion and Dominion manga translations as published by Dark Horse. In 1995, I eagerly awaited the publication of Shirow’s latest manga, Ghost in the Shell, in 8 issues of a monthly “floppy” comics format. This became one of my very favourite manga as I read and re-read it multiple times over the years. As good as Mamoru Oshii’s anime movie version was (released at the tail end of 1995), I always felt it missed something. Oshii faithfully adapted the bare bones of the plot and kept much of the opaque philosphising but lost the character and flavour of the world while tearing out the humour.
At its core, Ghost in the Shell is a procedural police story, though it is set in a future world where human beings can elect to implant “cyberbrains”, secondary computerised brains that act as digital memory storage/backups and also as direct portals to electronic information and the worldwide web. With such technology comes new risks, as citizens with cyberbrain implants become susceptible to external hacking attacks. The series combines investigative police work with musings about the nature of the soul, and whether the soul itself can become digitised, or copied. It explores these concepts in fairly scattershot but endearing fashion, with a mixture of fast-paced action, detailed world-building and goofy comedy.
Motoko Kusanagi, the total-body-replacement-cyborg, is a hyper-competent no-nonsense team leader who runs the government-affiliated Public Security Section 9, essentially a cyber-terrorism response unit. Kusanagi is the main viewpoint character, and through her is explored much of the (post)human angst and identity issues central to the title’s themes. She is accompanied by Batou, he of the disturbingly blank prosthetic eyes and Togusa - youngest member of the team, and the only one without any significant cyborg implants (other than the standard cyberbrain). Apart from their white-haired boss Aramaki (“old man”), the rest of the characters are sketched pretty thinly in the original manga.
Shirow was a frustratingly slow writer and artist (as anyone who’s been waiting over 30 years for Appleseed volume 5 will tell you) and it took an age for him to complete the sequel - Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-machine Interface. This was eventually translated into English in 2005, 8 years after the initial Japanese serialisation (that itself took between 1991 and 1997) ended. Somewhat like George Lucas, he never seemed satisfied with his creation and kept fiddling with it, adding bits in and removing others so that what he eventually released bore little resemblance to the story that preceded it. GitS 2 - the manga - was a disappointing, incoherent mess that seemed more interested in objectifying female cyborg bodies than continuing with the plot. In 2007 we got Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human Error Processor in English, which comprised chapters of what would have been a “proper” sequel to the original (in fact it was his first stab at GitS 2), had he not given up and started something bizarre. It is a collection of 4 short stories, the importance of which I’ll return to later.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (dir. Mamoru Oshii) was a 2004 anime movie completely unrelated to the GitS 2 manga that pitched itself as a sequel to the 1995 anime. Innocence loosely adapted a chapter from the first manga volume that in manga continuity preceded the ending of that volume (and subsequently the first film). Confused yet? Again, this was a mostly humourless examination of philosophy and existentialism that looked beautiful but seemed soulless and somewhat dull to me. Oshii himself apparently doesn’t consider this a “true sequel” to GitS 1995, which sounds like a cop-out. What both anime and manga versions of GitS 2 have in common is that they do both examine (SPOILER for 25-year-old movie and manga) the repercussions of Kusanagi’s decision at the end to combine her “ghost” with that of the emergent AI Pupper Master and transcend her normal human existence to become a transhuman denizen of the net.
Oshii also “did a Lucas” and returned in 2008 to the GitS 1995 anime to insert new CGI sequences and mess with the colour balance (presumably to bring it into line aesthetically with Innocence) to produce the confusingly-titled Ghost in the Shell 2.0. This is not a sequel, just an unnecessary re-skinning. Don’t bother with it, the original was fine.
I can’t write an overview of GitS without mentioning 2017's Hollywood live-action remake. This Scarlett Johannson-starring misstep certainly looked the part - the production design was amazing and I do not think they could have done a better job translating the look of the anime to live action. But why did they feel the need to do this? They ignored the existence of the manga and made a slavish adaptation of the 1995 movie, while removing anything thought-provoking and invalidating the ending. Whoever wrote this bastardised garbage clearly had no idea what they were doing, their grasp of the central themes of the story so weak that all meaning slipped through their fingers. Ghost in the Shell (2017) ripped out whatever soul the 1995 anime retained and left it empty. Apart from the perfect casting of Pilou Asbæk as Batou, I wish they’d either made something completely different or at least kept the original ending, or else what’s the point? Kusanagi is meant to reach for transcendence - not return to the status quo. I was so angry at the end of that film.
That leads me on to discuss what is for me the pinnacle of Ghost in the Shell adaptations: writer/director Kenji Kamiyama’s Stand Alone Complex (2002 - 2005), a 52-episode TV series that concludes with the movie Solid State Society (2006). No other adaptation has so captured the tone and content of the original manga series. It tells a mostly different story, but absolutely nails the characters - not only their business-like competence but also their human personalities and sometimes wry, often sarcastic, usually tongue-in-cheek humour. It is closest perhaps to the GitS 1.5 Human Error Processor manga, which is mostly police-procedural in nature. I tend to view the series as what would have happened had Major Motoko Kusanagi never met the Puppet Master and had never transcended this existence.
As the series progresses, there are characters/entities that fulfill a Puppet Master-like role, but this version of the Major is more grounded and less prone to existentialist angst. She’s more of a force of nature. Each of her comrades are more fleshed out, like Ishikawa, Saito and Pazu - barely even mentioned by name in the manga, let alone the movies. Stand Alone Complex uses its extended time to deeply investigate the show’s themes and discuss the kinds of social problems that might arise in such an advanced, connected culture. Although at times slow-moving and ponderous, it is worth sticking with until the end as the meticulously crafted plot threads weave together to make a spectacular whole.
One of the biggest differences between the 1995 movie and Stand Alone Complex worlds regards the inclusion of the “think tanks” - mobile AI weapon platforms called Fuchikomas in the manga, Tachikomas in the anime. These diminutive blue six-legged weapons of death sound and act like excited little girls, love Batou with a fiery passion and are terrified (somewhat justifiably) of the Major. Perhaps too light-hearted for the films, they provide much of the humour in the TV series and also pose many interesting questions about individuality and continuity of memory. They are shown to be jealous if any of their number get to experience new things, and demand to have their memories “synchronised” immediately. What could be annoying mascot characters are instead essential parts of the world, and any adaptation is missing something without them.
Following Stand Alone Complex, animation studio Production I.G. (home of every GitS anime) inexplicably decided that a reboot was in order and between 2013-2015 released the prequel series Ghost in the Shell: Arise in the most convoluted, pointless way imaginable. Initially released as a series of 4 50-minute OVAs as Border 1: Ghost Pain, Border 2: Ghost Whispers, Border 3: Ghost Tears and Border 4: Ghost Stands Alone, the episodes were each cut into two and re-ordered with the addition of a concluding story Border 5: Pyrophoric Cult into the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Arise: Alternative Architecture. This bizarrely rearranged the “borders” into non-chronological order as follows: 4,1,2,3,5. I do not know what the rationale for this was, but Border 5 was essential viewing prior to the release of the concluding movie Ghost in the Shell: Arise: The New Movie (2015). In the West, only Borders 1-4 plus the movie were released on home video and streaming services, missing out Border 5 entirely. I believe the only way to see it legally in English is to watch it as part of Alternative Architecture on Funimation NOW (it seems to have been removed on Crunchyroll, at least for the UK). It was released on blu-ray separately by Anime Limited in Europe in German and French only. Can the producers not see that there is a problem when it takes a paragraph of this length to explain the watch order of a short series?
Arise stars a younger version of the cast, but is essentially more of the same. I found it boring and so far it is the only version of Ghost in the Shell I’ve been unable to finish watching. Maybe I’ll go back to it at some point. I’ll watch it in chronological order, though. This franchise is difficult enough to follow without artificially increasing confusion with needless non-chronological garbage.
Finally, in 2020 after a 5-year break, Production I.G. has revived the franchise with a direct sequel to Stand Alone Complex, set 11 years after the conclusion of Solid State Society. It is again written by Kenji Kamiyama, which bodes well, and he directs the first 12 episodes of a projected 24 episode series. The second half will be directed by Shinji Aramaki, himself no stranger to Shirow adaptations as he also helmed three Appleseed CG anime adaptations. As I alluded to before, the most striking aspect of this new production are the... uh... interesting aesthetic choices they made in regards to the character designs. I understand the freedom that CGI can bring in terms of sheer spectacle - and that is surely what they were aiming for with this. Did Netflix give them a blank cheque? Often CG anime looks like utter garbage, because for some reason the producers think that in order to make it more “anime-like” they need to cut frames to make it all jerky and janky. See: anything by Polygon Pictures (although I did love Knights of Sidonia even if the execution was awful). Lately Studio Orange has done well with Land of the Lustrous and Beastars, but they still look cheap compared to mainstream Western CG animation. SAC 2045 is not like these shows. It is polished to a shine that hurts. Except for the most important thing - the characters.
If you’ve ever seen the first Stand Alone Complex season, you’ll know the opening sequence is entirely in CGI. It was fine for 2002, Kusanagi looked artificial and doll-like, as befits her character. In 2020's SAC 2045, Kusanagi still looks artificial and doll-like, but unfortunately so does everyone else. The whole show has the air of an extended PS3 cutscene (I was going to say PS2, but it looks marginally better than that.) Although the action moves incredibly smoothly, at times the characters have no weight at all to them, like in a production-line Marvel movie action scene. They appear badly composited onto the backgrounds, and the terrible lighting of the models doesn’t help. For some reason they added hard outlines to facial features and the edges of character models - so although they are textured, they look almost cel-shaded, like they couldn’t quite decide what look they were going for and compromised on whatever this is. It is so distracting in a way that even crappy 2D hand-drawn anime never is. Every scene where Togusa appears, I was distracted by his ridiculous plastic hair. Even early episodes of Star Wars: Clone Wars have more convincing hair movement.
One of the defining features of SAC 2002's storytelling was in the way the episodes were categorised. Season 1 had “stand alone” stories that in general did not impact the overall plot of the season and were more geared towards thought experiments and character development. “Complex” episodes functioned to drive the ongoing plot and certainly earned their title. Season 2 continued the clever naming conventions with “individual”, “dividual” and “dual” episodes. I wondered if they would continue this pattern with SAC 2045, and I can say with full confidence that they do. The first six episodes are very atypical for the franchise in that they are heavily serialised, action-heavy and fast-paced - essentially telling one story but with minimal exposition until the end. I was pleasantly entertained by it, but there wasn’t much to challenge my grey matter. Towards the end of episode 6 when the plot truly kicks in is when it becomes more interesting and it seems like they pulled off a neat narrative trick - get people re-invested in characters and the world, then unleash the technological weirdness.
Episode 7 is a total change of pace and tone that brings back the sorely-missed light-heartedness of some of SAC 2002's funniest episodes. Batou is trapped in a bank full of old people during a robbery, and suffice to say nothing quite goes according to anyone’s plan. Although it is a breezy, throwaway piece it exists to extrapolate on the plight of normal people in 2045's crumbling world following the institution of “sustainable war” to keep the economy going following a banking crash that makes 2007's financial crisis seem like a minor inconvenience. SAC 2045's world is very different to the 2030 of SAC season 1, and is much closer in state to the setting of Shirow’s Appleseed. Surely with the involvement of Shinji Aramaki this is no accident. The remaining episodes of the season maintain a loosely-connected continuity further exploring the ramifications of the existence of the new enemy discovered in episode 6. That the season ends without any resolution and on a cliffhanger no less should not come as a surprise, with another 12 confirmed episodes to come at some point in the future.
The aforementioned funny blue Tachikoma tanks are surprisingly prominent in this new series, and yes, they still sound like little girls and they are just as excitable. Watching this was almost like the series had never really gone away, despite the change in appearance. I found this to be much more similar in tone to SAC 2002 than I expected, and for that I was thankful. I’m unsure what to make of new character Purin Esaki who seems to have wandered in from a completely different show, perhaps some random romantic comedy. She is a creepy stalker-like character with an infatuation for Batou (that is thankfully not reciprocated) and her exaggerated mannerisms were like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Hopefully she’ll die horribly/tragically/heroically/messily/pointlessly/painfully/screamingly in the second half of the series. It was like someone on the production committee decided there wasn’t enough anime tropes in the show, so found a way in which several hundred of them could be mashed into one, ungodly pink-haired whole.
It’s difficult to discuss the deeper themes of the story for two main reasons - 1) SPOILERS, 2) the basic concepts introduced at the end of the first major arc are only barely explored in the second half of the season. Certainly some interesting points are raised, but there is no way to tell if the series will explore these in any further depth or just use them as a way to make plastic people bounce off or mutilate other plastic people. Suffice to say, the original GitS exploration of themes related to transhumanism are present and correct, if just seen from a slightly different angle. I’m glad that Kamiyama is writing this, as at least it should maintain consistency and coherency with his previous entries in the franchise.
Overall, despite the preponderance of plastic people doing plastic things, I thoroughly enjoyed this newest entry into this long-running franchise. For the moment, only the Japanese language track is available, but an English dub cast is listed in the credits, including the return of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as Major Motoko Kusanagi (she’ll always be my definitive Major) so hopefully once this whole ongoing pandemic situation is under control, the dub will become available. I’m looking forwards to the second half, and hope they can stick the landing with it. If dumb action-heavy shows aren’t your thing, I’d advise you to push through to the halfway point - it becomes much more of a Ghost in the Shell show from that point onwards. There isn’t a whole lot of meat to gnaw on in this season of the show, perhaps it’s best to view it as a chewy, plasticky appetiser for the upcoming main course.
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 season 1
Number of episodes: 12
Released: 23rd April 2020
Available to stream on: Netflix
Written and directed by: Kenji Kamiyama
Produced by: Production I.G. and Sola Digital Arts
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