By Bob Clark
When Masamune Shirow first produced the manga Mobile Armored Riot Police in 1989, it must have seemed at least somewhat familiar to several of his prior comics works and anime adaptations thereof. Like Dominion: Tank Police, it followed an expert unit of paramilitary officers maintaining law and order in a future Japan with dystopian overtones. Like Appleseed, it explored relations between human, cyborg and robotic intelligences, and the ways in which new advances in technology continue to shape civilization’s progress. Finally, like both of those works, and pretty much everything he’s done since, it also managed to include enough T&A to damn near qualify itself as pornography, especially when it came to portraying the lesbian tendencies of his heroine military officer, who just happened to find herself disrobed on a regular basis as a part of her espionage-related duties. But if you’ve never heard of this manga and find yourself all but salivating at the prospect of a work which could easily double as lofty action-adventure science fiction and softcore hentai smut, then allow me to burst your dotcom bubble. Because in all likelihood you’re probably at least nominally aware of Mobile Armored Riot Police, though that’s not the name you know it by. Odds are you know it as Ghost in the Shell, and as directed in its animated adaptations by Mamoru Oshii may know it best as some of the most widely seen and respected anime works of the past twenty years. But if that’s all you know, then you still haven’t availed yourself a decent view of the full scope of the franchise’s awesome potential.
Yes, Oshii’s films, both the 1995 original and the 2004 sequel Innocence are among the most critically lauded anime of the past twenty years, and stand as impressive explorations of cyberpunk themes and philosophical concerns through a patient and timely aesthetic that’s at times unique for a form of animation that is famous for its split-second pacing and largely action-packed content. But at the same time, they both largely ignore the political landscape of Shirow’s manga, something that helped raise it above the near-pornographic fanservice prevalent throughout its tale of Major Motoko Kusanagi and her adventures in Japan’s Section-9 military-police force. Though she and her stalwart, dead-eyed companion Batou combat all sorts of international criminal fiends in the films, they’re largely paper-tiger enemies to the artificial-intelligence masterminds at the hearts of both story. Each movie is more of an abstract tone-poem than a traditional narrative-centric effort, more concerned with its long, wordless stretches that seek to evoke feelings of existential angst in the viewer rather than provoking them with more substantial concerns. In many ways, Oshii is right to do this, playing to the core strengths of cinema’s visual power to impress feelings and moods upon the audience rather than relying upon more specific ideas of politics and economics that can only be adequately expressed in verbal communication—there may be plenty of exposition in his Ghost in the Shell features, but they’re largely irrelevant to the dominant audio-visual experience of the movie’s animated tapestry. By relying on pictures instead of words, Oshii expresses universal concerns of humanity’s sociological evolution alongside technology that go beyond the limited reach of language, and creates a set of movies that work on a near subconscious level. For a pair of stories concerned with the question of whether or not natural intelligence has any more right to claim the spark of a sentient soul than those which are artificially developed, his tactic of attuning the viewer to their feelings, rather than thoughts, is a savvy one.
That’s why Kenji Kamiyama’s counterpart with the television series Stand Alone Complex is so welcome an experience, as it offers a long-form anime that is in many ways structured and created along a set of aesthetic, narrative and thematic principles that are diametrically opposed to Oshii’s features, while at the same time using the same characters and core designs from those films and the original Shirow manga to achieve a blend of the two that goes beyond what either works were capable of expressing alone. While by no means as engaging as either of the films on purely cinematic grounds as animation or the comics as sheer-original works of sci-fi, Kamiyama’s series gleans the essential substance it needs from them and comes up with a synthesis that has enough of the past elements to remain recognizable to viewers well-versed in both versions while idiosyncratic enough to stand out as something unique and meriting attention on its own ground. Probably the biggest difference is simply in the ways that Kamiyama takes full advantage of the serial nature of television storytelling to spread out Shirow’s complex background of rival national and economic factions vying for supremacy in a post World War III future world with a deliberate and drawn-out pacing similar to that found in Oshii’s features, which stretched out engagements against terrorists, assassins and rogue A.I. units to the point of Malick-intensity, though often at the expense of providing a larger, more detailed picture of the socio-political state of the world it entailed. Though Kamiyama places more emphasis on Kusanagi’s Section-9 as a para-military unit on one black-ops engagement after another than the features, he draws out the substance of each mission to give each episode a feel that goes far above and beyond other similar kinds of action-espionage shows, animated or otherwise. Though the set-pieces are always imaginative and entertaining, the emphasis is less on the gunfire, fight-sequences and explosions and more on the ideas that they seek to express. To quote Michael Mann’s Heat, the action is the juice, but in this case more of a V8 than mere Tropicana—the anime equivalent of tasty brain-food.
It helps explain why, of all the different versions of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Stand Alone Complex may be the only one that gets in deep and close with the uneasy associations made by its government black-ops squad and the relationship they share with an increasingly corrupt nexus of international political and financial interests. Oshii’s features were excellent as expressions of universal philosophical quandaries, but in ignoring the larger political realities of the sci-fi domains they took place in, they at times have a superficial quality to them, like an mythic allegory that would rather ignore the problems of the present by examining only the timeless problems of good and evil. By taking the films’ mature, austere approach to Shirow’s provocative, but sometimes juvenile manga, Kamiyama fleshes out the spectrum of rival factions and puts a face on all of the first and third-world parties that Section-9 works to either serve or subvert, in varying degrees. Characters like Kusanagi and Batou are forced to come to terms with just how much injustice lies at the heart of the society they seek to protect by their clandestine methods, and at times even prompts them to go rogue themselves in far more substantial ways than the digital-apotheosis at the heart of Oshii’s films. In subtly sympathetic antagonists like the anarchist-hacker “The Laughing Man” or the proxy-nationalist splinter-cell “The Individual Eleven”, we are given figures who have concrete and rather legitimate motivations for their crusades against the world’s dominant industrial powers, even as they create large-scale chaos that threatens the safety and security of innocent populations. It helps that Kamiyama renders his seeming-villains with airs of intelligence and literacy that are at once respectable and intimately down to earth—works by the likes of Mishima, Godard, Wenders and plenty other high-class writers, filmmakers and artists are referenced subtly and directly over the course of the series, but so are more approachable creators like J.D. Salinger.
Stand Alone Complex works well as a series which treats its cyberpunk themes and characters with a fair greater deal of sophistication than was entirely present in either the cinematic or comic-book incarnations. Oshii’s films offer a great deal of intelligent discussion and thought-provoking actions throughout their running time, but whenever his characters speak they tend to become little more than mouth-pieces for so many awkwardly shoehorned philosophical ramblings and intellectual namedrops, turning them into just the same kind of puppets as all the prosthetic bodies and malevolent artificial brains they spend so much time in combat with. Likewise, Shirow’s larger themes, however present, tend to be drowned out by his more adolescent fixations on large-scale mecha-violence and positively exploitative sex scenes. It’s to Kamiyama’s credit that in his efforts to blend the better angels of both preexisting works, he doesn’t go so far as to tone down or censor his content entirely—Kusanagi still dresses rather scantily throughout the show, wearing an outfit that’s only a hair-do and high-heels away from the thong-and-leather-jacket ensemble of Aeon Flux, but his forthright portrayal of her personality carries a great deal more credibility than her superficially confident character in the manga, or her equally vacant nature as a sleepwalking philosophy minor from the films. He even manages to include subtle hints to the character’s sexuality in a far more tasteful and naturalistic manner than her previous depictions—Shirow drew Kusanagi engaging in over-the-top lesbian orgies in the manga, chiefly because he wanted to include sex without having to include male genitalia, but Kamiyama merely includes the occasional lunch-date with the Major’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, or a post-coital meditation, musing on enemies foreign and domestic while staring at her sleeping lover. For the first time, the characters of Ghost in the Shell have a weight and depth to them beyond mere two-dimensional sock-puppets for the purposes of titillation or self-indulgent philosophical masturbation.
Finally they’re persons, as real as any fictional character, animated or otherwise, can ever claim to be, and it’s something that helps give the series a far greater degree of genuine heart and realism than either of its predecessors. In a story whose concerns are nothing less than the limits of what the definitions for humanity in an age where technology forces more and more encroachment upon our minds and bodies, and what those blurred lines mean for the likes of traditional intellectual freedom in the face of newly empowered national, economic and industrial monopolies, it helps to have characters that have just as much at stake in the fight as the anarchists they fight against and the masses they seek to defend, but may just as well be subjugating themselves. Kusanagi’s private life matters, because the right to privacy itself is among the series’ biggest cornerstones, and one that it finds ways of expressing beyond reducing its characters to mere talking heads. Kamiyama’s variously imagined intrigues of espionage, urban warfare and sci-fi entanglements all express a uniquely 21st century malaise of paranoia, excitement and awe in ways that Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s features only really hint at in the broadest of strokes. Entertaining on its own terms as a collection of episodic action-packed thrills and illuminating as an expose of the popular dirty-tricks team of spies and saboteurs in the dawn of the internet, Stand Alone Complex is an essential counterpoint to the allegorical quality of the theatrical films of the Ghost in the Shell series—instead of being timeless, it’s a show that is absolutely tied to its time, allowing its content to have an instantly relevant atmosphere to it, giving it the feeling as though its stories have been ripped from the headlines of newspapers that haven’t yet been written or printed. Expanding upon and deepening its source material in the same way that the television version of M*A*S*H outpaced its cinematic and literary counterparts, Kamiyama’s efforts here may not be as flashy, recognized or respected as those of Shirow or Oshii, but they definitely deserve to be.
In a time where we can witness the efforts of shady hackers exposing secrets that start toppling whole domino-chains of regimes, perhaps the most radical thing that a work of science-fiction can predict is not the spread of robotics or cybernetics, but merely the proliferation of classified-information, by any means necessary. Both within social collectives and as free-thinking individuals ourselves, we all contain multitudes of social, political and psychological neuroses that have the power to affect the world in dramatic ways, either by our willingness to blend in with the crowd or break free from it, whatever the cost. Like it or not, insulated by our various protective shells of identity, be they philosophical, political or technological, we are each of us our very own psychological stand-alone complex.