Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a cyberpunk anime produced by Production I.G. that originally aired in 2002-2003 that continues to stand out, both in the world of anime, as well as the cyberpunk genre. Its great storytelling and deep characters are set against a cyberpunk background unlike any other. So sit back and let me go into depth about why, even after all these years, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is worth checking out.
It’s the year 2029, and humanity is still recovering from the last world war. Out of the ashes of war come technologically advanced societies that have begun to blur the line between humanity and machines, to the point where some individuals have completely shed their human bodies, transferring their ghosts into prosthetic ones, making where the cyber and the spirit end and begin harder than ever to define.
With full-body prosthetics giving people augmented physical capabilities and cyberspace that is so integrated that people’s minds can be directly hacked, governments are forging new teams to handle the ever-changing face of crime and cyber terrorism. One such team is Public Security Section 9, under the command of Chief Daisuke Aramaki and field commander Major Motoko Kusanagi.
If one were to only look at stills or even brief clips of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, it would be understandable if they were to question just how “cyberpunk” the series actually is. Much of the genre’s visual hallmarks are absent here. Every external scene isn’t backlit by neon signs, and every third person walking the streets isn’t sporting body modifications that are instantly apparent. There aren’t even a noticeable number of strangely colored mohawks present throughout the series 26 episodes. But while the show disregards these cosmetic hallmarks of the genre, it adheres closer to the essence of cyberpunk than many of its contemporaries.
The heart of cyberpunk has always been its look into the dangers of technology’s ever-deepening integration into our own daily lives, the dangers of unchecked corporate greed, and the abuse of the masses at the hands of governments with too much information and power. It is these cornerstones of cyberpunk that Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex puts focuses on. The fact that so many more bizarre visual trappings are absent simply makes the world feel closer than it otherwise would.
While the series devotes several of its episodes to one-off stories that serve to flesh out the numerous personalities of Section 9 or the greater world around them, the core storyline here revolves around a famous cyber-terrorist known only as The Laughing Man.
Years before the show’s start, The Laughing Man became famous when he kidnapped the CEO of a major corporation in the middle of broad daylight. Unfortunately, no camera that he passed by could capture his face, nor could anyone who saw him remember what he looked like. After this incident, he went on to blackmail several other corporations for millions of dollars before disappearing. Now, it appears The Laughing Man has returned. When Section 9 gets caught up in the unfolding events surrounding the reappearance of this legendary hacker, they soon discover there is much more going on than just a lone hacker with a grudge against the corporate world.
Throughout all of the stories present in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the narratives always manage a perfect balance of cool sci-fi action and deep thought-provoking analysis. While much of this thoughtfulness is pointed squarely at the technologically integrated society around them and its many struggles with both societal and individual conscience, a sizeable amount of it is also aimed squarely at the various members of Section 9 itself. This works to bring out a lot of deep character exploration of the show’s primary characters. Whether it’s the straight-laced husband and father Togusa, war veteran Batou, whose many scars are given amazing depth in shaping his personality, or even the unit’s AI-run support tanks, the Tachikomas, whose personality growth and childlike enthusiasm keep them as interesting as any other team member. But above everyone else in the show stands a figure that is the biggest reason for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex‘s excellence. The Major herself: Motoko Kusanagi.
If you have spent any significant amount of time in the anime community, the odds are good that you will recognize The Major. One of anime’s first leading ladies to hit America, The Major is a unique lead protagonist that manages to avoid many of the most common tropes of female characters in her position and still be a complex but subtle lead.
The biggest trope that Ghost in the Shell opts out of where its lead is concerned is its choice not to have the Major motivated by some painful trauma. While bad things do lay in Kusanagi’s past, the viewer is never given the impression that they define her. She isn’t on a quest for vengeance, right a personal wrong, or make sure no one is forced to live through the same violent trauma someone forced on her. She is who she is because she has chosen to be this person. And if she ever decides she wants to be someone else, there is little anyone could do to stop her.
I also always appreciate the respect her team universally holds for her. No member of Section 9 ever has a moment where they would question her command. Least of all based upon her gender. Kusanagi’s part in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is not weighed down by a constant struggle to prove herself. She has already proven herself. That’s how she got here. And if any foe thinks less of her because she is female, they won’t do it for long.
The final element that makes Kusanagi’s character one of my all-time favorites is how balanced they portray her. While initial impressions could make a person think the Major is just another cold, hardened battle commander, those impressions are quickly tossed aside upon deeper inspection. Kusanagi cares for every life that is put under her charge. If it looks like a teammate is down, Kusanagi is the first to check in with them. She hides her emotions often, as she is forced to make numerous cold calculations in the execution of Section 9’s missions, but they are always there.
The only area where the show fails its main protagonist is in the unfortunate choice of appeal. Spending most of the show in what amounts to a strapless one-piece bathing suit, Kusanagi’s visual design is a little cringe-worthy. Seeing her in a room full of Cabinet Secretaries and Intelligence officers in this outfit, while everyone else is wearing normal-looking attire, feels out of place. The fact that she is the show’s only significant female character, and the only person dressed in so unusual a manner, just makes it even worse.
Given that nearly two decades have passed since Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex originally aired, it would be understandable to wonder how the visuals for the show have held up. For the most part, the show still looks great. Though it certainly has its limitations.
While the moment-to-moment animation is strong, it holds to this strength by keeping a much tighter leash on its action sequences than many modern animes do. Despite this, there is never any doubt that the members of Section 9 are every bit as proficient in combat as their reputations would have the viewer believe.
The one part of the visual presentation that truly struggles is in its opening. Sporting a CGI opening sequence that wasn’t state of the art in its day, the last two decades haven’t made it look any better. Happily, the upbeat tempo of Yoko Kanno’s Inner Universe provides ample distraction. The techno sounds and excellent vocals in this song have kept it one of my favorite anime opening songs of all time.
When all is said and done, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex continues to stand tall among the many entries in its genre. With great characters, an interesting exploration of a deeply cyber-integrated world, and cool action that has only lost a couple of steps over the decades, this series is one that any fan of cyberpunk or anime can easily enjoy.