‘Ghost in the Shell’: Three TV variations on a cyberpunk theme

June 22, 2011 | 4:22 p.m.

NEW ON BLU-RAY: “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man,” “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig: Individual Eleven,” “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society”  (Bandai)

Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, with one of the Tachikoma robots, in a scene from "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man." (Shirow Masamune - Production I.G./Kodansha)

Animation historian Charles Solomon takes a look at three TV incarnations of the “Ghost in the Shell” universe.

Mamoru Oshii’s landmark film “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) largely defined the cyberpunk genre and influenced the Wachowski Brothers“Matrix” films. The movie follows cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi — who resembles a cross between the Terminator and a Playboy centerfold — as she fights and plots her way to the super-hacker known as the Puppet Master. At the end of the film, she vanishes into the cyberworld of the Net to explore the possibilities of existence without a physical body.

The broadcast series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” (2002) captured the feeling of the original film more effectively than Oshii’s overblown sequel, “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.” The direct-to-video features “The Laughing Man” and “Individual Eleven” were cut together from episodes of “Stand Alone Complex.” The series was written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama, the creator of the hit series “Eden of the East.” Kamiyama, who  oversaw the reediting and rewrote some of the dialogue, is a skillful filmmaker who can lead an audience through an complicated story.

Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou in "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man" (Shirow Masamune - Production I.G./Kodansha)

The “Stand Alone” adventures take place in a parallel world, where Motoko didn’t vanish, but continues working with tough cyborg Batou and the other officers of Public Security Section 9. They outsmart, out-fight and out-hack the mecha, cyborgs, humans and human-prosthetic hybrids that stalk the mean streets of 21st century Japan.

In “Laughing Man,” Motoko and her crew must penetrate an intricate web of deception surrounding a bogus cure for  the debilitating disease of “cyberbrain sclerosis.” The most vexing questions they face involve the über-hacker the Laughing Man, who may be the perpetrator of the deception — or an ally eager to expose corruption in high places.

The Laughing Man conceals his face behind a smiling cartoon, which he manages to insert into the most carefully guarded data. Like Kamiyama’s feature “Eden of the East: The King of Eden,” the key to the story comes from the last chapter of J.D. Salinger‘s “The Catcher in the Rye:” The Laughing Man’s logo smile is circled by the quote “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes.”

Major Motoko Kusanagi in "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Individual Eleven" (Shirow Masamune - Production I.G./Kodansha)

In contrast, the plot of “Individual Eleven” has overt political overtones. Terrorist incidents tied to an underclass of Asian refugees from World War IV threaten the stability of the Japanese government. In their efforts to advance the refugees’ cause, the Individual Eleven cell turns to suicide bombers and Russian mobsters selling stolen plutonium. Motoko and Batou play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the terrorists, set against the frayed relations between Japan and an American Empire attempting to reassert its military dominance despite its economic weakness.

The TV movie “Solid State Society” picks up two years after “Individual Eleven.” The Major has left Section 9, but remains in the thoughts of Batou and the rest of the crew. The storyline combines elements from the first two features: Corrupt politicians are manipulating an increasing number of aged patients tended by network of computer-controlled cyber-nurses.

All three films work on their own, but viewers who watched the original television series will miss the intriguing subplots Kamiyama introduced. The most interesting side story involves the Tachikomas, the crab-like robots used by Public Security Section 9, which have begun to develop individual personalities and a sense of their existence. They like Batou, who trains them and gives them “real oil,” but fear Major Kusanagi. Looking to “Flowers for Algernon” and “I, Robot” for inspiration, the Tachikomas speculate that as they evolve individual consciousness, humans are moving toward a collective identity through the Web.

Working with a much more limited budget, Kamiyama doesn’t try to reproduce the staccato rhythms or opulent visuals of Oshii’s films, but he blends drawn animation and CG animation capably to create a trio of butt-kicking high-tech adventures.

– Charles Solomon


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6 Responses to ‘Ghost in the Shell’: Three TV variations on a cyberpunk theme

  1. Steven K. says:

    Quote "Mamoru Oshii’s landmark film “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) largely defined the cyberpunk genre and influenced the Wachowski Brothers‘ “Matrix” films."

    I suppose that'll be news to those of us who thought "Neuromancer" and "Blade Runner" largely defined that genre.

  2. Gary Armstrong says:

    Most importantly the TV series, added characterization to the very glassy and cold depictions seen in Oshii's film adaptations. They are often mere vehicles for passages of "meaningful" dialogue (that become overblown monologues most commonly), or plot points at worst. And that's from a fan of Oshii's versions.

    The TV series managed to combine Shirow's style and Oshii's political leanings in to something far more watchable, making a thematically similar work but with characters the viewer can really get behind and invest in.

  3. Guest says:

    "All three films work on their own, but viewers who watched the original television series will miss the intriguing subplots Kamiyama introduced."

    Wrong way around. The series has all of the subplots missing in the compilations.

  4. ash2theb says:

    I watch all the movies and the series and they were awesome.The opening credits were like watching the matrix if it were a music video. I suggest ppl who want watch it or are watching the movie first start with series than work your way to the movies saga because u get why the characters acts the they do, plus the series is a bit more whity than the movies and it make u think what gonna happen next. For those who think "Neuromancer" and "Blade Runner" (third fav) were forerunners the cyberpunk genre think again "Ghost the Shell" is the mother of them all. PS also check out "Armitage" (second fav) if you can't enough of this cyberpunk genre.

  5. Nico says:

    I personally thought the series was crap. The first movie was the best and the second didn't quite capture the original, but was more true to it than the series.

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