After spending last month focusing on fantasy, I thought it only fair to take a turn with the kissing cousin of that genre, science fiction. This turned out to be both easier, and harder, than I thought. Science fiction is a popular genre in the world of anime, so there’s a ton of shows to choose from. Many of them are exceptional, too, which gives me the opposite problem I had last month.
Fantasy in anime is very hit and miss. Real fantasy, I mean. Shows where the protagonist isn’t an average Japanese teen slacker that through some twist of fate becomes a hero in a fantasy world. Not only are there very few true fantasy anime series, many of them are based on video games, and aren’t exactly what you call awesome. Finding enough to spend a month on was tough.
With science fiction, it’s the totally opposite problem. There’s so many science fiction anime series out there, it’s hard to even know where to start picking shows, much less narrowing down a list of five I want to talk about this month. Even if I just rule out mecha shows, like the Gundam franchise, I’ve still got a huge number of shows to sift through, way too may of which are truly excellent.
What I’ve ended up doing is focusing on shows I personally enjoyed a lot. While this isn’t exactly what you might call a best of list, or even anything even remotely like anything but my personal opinion, it’s the best and most efficient way I could come up with to create a list of shows that kept me from pulling my hair out.
So, yeah, don’t be expecting to see Steins;Gate or Serial Experiments Lain show up this month. For one, I didn’t care for them as much as everybody else seems to. For another, they are only barely science fiction. Most science fantasy than anything, if I’m to give my personal opinion.
Also, no Neon Genesis Evangelion. Enough people have written enough words about that show, that there’s nothing I could ever really offer to add to the subject in a meaningful way. Except that Shinji is a pussy. I feel that’s pretty meaningful.
Or possibly I’m just getting more snarky these days. It could go either way.
Regardless, for this months science fiction spectacular, I’ve decided to focus in on some series that are both well known, and some that aren’t, because I forge my own path, and don’t follow the crowd, man! You can’t keep me down! I do my own thing! Yeah!
Though, if I’m to be honest, I just have weird taste in anime.
Which brings me to the first of this months science fiction series, the 2002, 52 episode, mega hit, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, from anime studio Production I.G., makers of many incredible things, such as Blood: The Last Vampire, Eden of the East, Patlabor, Kimi ni Todoke, the original 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, and that anime sequence from Kill Bill.
Yes, really. Production I.G. is big shit, ya know. They make anime sequences for Quentin Tarantino movies. That makes them big shit. It’s simple math. Production I.G. is big and Tarantino is shit. 1 + 1 = 2.
Stand Alone Complex is based on Masamune Shirow’s hit manga of the same name, rather than the 1995 film, so while the characters and setting are the same, the story line is completely different. Which is kind of a thing with Ghost In The Shell. If you are looking for a franchise with any kind of continuity, you would do well to look elsewhere. Pretty much every version of Ghost In The Shell is disconnected from the rest.
This version, what was basically my introduction to the world, themes, and concepts of Ghost In The Shell, revolves around Public Security Section Nine as they deal with rogue A.I.’s, cyber-terrorists, and political corruption in the year 2030, all while hunting for the hacker known only as The Laughing Man. Later, in the Second Gig, they deal with with a group known as the Individual Eleven, and a potential civil war.
This is more or less what Ghost In The Shell does, too. They deal in big themes, ideas, and concepts, all while being action heavy. It’s an incredibly delicate mix, and one few shows really get as perfect as Ghost does. SAC is no exception, either.
Naturally, at the forefront of everything is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg with specialized skills in infiltration, assassination, and espionage. Generally referred to as just The Major, she has long been a pretty well known character, not just for her epic levels of badassery, but also for being a pretty open lesbian since as far back as the late 80’s.
Of course, since The Major is a total cyborg, with no organic parts left, calling her a lesbian is a bit disingenuous. She has no actual gender, and it’s hard to say what she was even born as. The point Ghost In The Shell makes is that it doesn’t matter. The Major is the Major, and that’s enough.
Even when played by Scarlet Johansson, apparently.
SAC makes this part of the world it crafts, as well, by having the gender of its lead be utterly irrelevant to pretty much everyone, except for a single off hand joke made by Batou at one point, which The Major was quick to make a retort to. Otherwise, The Major is simply treated as The Major.
Don’t get me wrong. That’s a damn fine cyborg, but intellectually, I have to appreciate the idea that’s being presented, especially in regards to how it is presented. It’s never an overt statement, so much as it is just the way things are. When you have a valid point, there’s no need to shout it, after all.
Speaking of Batou, The Major’s number two guy, we get a sort of flip side to her own personality. A chain smoking, beer loving, workout junky, Batou is heavily cyborged, retaining little of his original organic self. As such, he has little need for any of these things, but uses them as a means to remain connected to his humanity, another idea the show explores.
In the face of rapidly advancing technology, how do we hang on to our humanity?
Of course, answering that would take me a lot longer than I really want to spend on a post about an anime, so let’s just say SAC tackles the idea really well.
Divided into two seasons of 26 episodes each, as well as a feature film titled Solid State Society, SAC offers us what is probably the most comprehensive look at the world of Ghost In The Shell. This is important because it gives us a much greater exploration of the ideas and themes that the world setting explores. Specifically, that of identity, gender, and what those things mean as technology becomes an ever greater part of our lives.
The first season focuses primarily on Section Nine as they investigate the Laughing Man case, a matter revolving around a hacktivist with an uncanny ability to edit himself out of video feeds and cybernetic eyes, in real time. Basically, he has the ability to literally remove himself from reality as we perceive it.
His most well known appearance was an attempt to expose collusion between the Japanese government and several manufacturing companies to suppress information about a cheap, affordable cybernetic health care discovery, in order to maintain high profits. As Section Nine pursues The Laughing Man, they begin to uncover this information as well, and begin asking themselves who they should really be trying to arrest. The Laughing Man, or the entire government?
What’s interesting about The Laughing Man is that he is inspired by the work of J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. One of Salinger’s short stories is actually titled The Laughing Man, and in turn was inspired by the Victor Hugo novel, The Man Who Laughs. In SAC, The Laughing Man’s logo, “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes.” is actually a quote from Catcher in the Rye, while the image is inspired by his short, The Laughing Man, which is about a group of boys playing baseball, and other things.
I don’t’ know what. I’ve always found Salinger to be a bit dry in terms of reading.
Still, there’s no arguing his importance in the world of literature, and having a cyberpunk anime be so heavily influenced by him, and his work, is just plain cool. I mean, damn, I would love to suffer such an awesome fate, ya know?
The second season, or Second GIG, follows Section Nine as they are reformed in the aftermath of the first season, and set out in pursuit of a terrorist group known as the Individual Eleven, some of whom are using a refugee crisis to their advantage, while others are motivated by the actual crisis to try and force the newly established government to do something helpful.
As Section Nine gets closer, The Major learns that one of members of the Individual Eleven is someone she knew in her childhood, and like her, has become fully cybernetic. This creates a conflict with in her, as her human tendency towards empathy and compassion wars with her obligation to her duty.
In both seasons, as well as the follow up film, the series spends a lot of time looking at the complexity of a society where the physical limits of our human bodies is more or less gone, and the effect it can have on our psyche. Since all that remains of many people is the brain, and in some cases, even that has been digitized into a cyberbrain, what then do we use to define our humanity?
It’s a pretty deep subject, and while the 1995 film is excellent, it doesn’t really have the time to delve as fully into the concepts the manga put forward as a series does. For that, I have to recommend SAC to anyone who is interested in the concepts, themes, and ideas put forward by Ghost In The Shell, to see them really be fully examined the way they should be.
As a side note, there’s no real way for me to fully examine this series properly in a blog post. The philosophical ideas alone that the show explores would take me a long time to really get into, not to mention its examination of gender identity, technology, the over reach of commercialism, and about a million other things. This series is fucking dense with ideas, all of which are explored really well, while still having solid character arcs, and plenty of action.
In other words, suck it Tarantino. You can’t touch this shit.
In terms of animation, SAC holds up incredibly well for a series that is now fifteen years old. It isn’t as eye popping as it once was, and is starting to show its age, but that it’s only really just now starting to get a bit rough around the edges is pretty amazing. Really, a credit to the work done by Production I.G. that all of this holds up as well as it does.
The character designs, on the other hand, are still every bit as brilliant as ever. There is no mistaking any of these characters for anyone from anywhere else. They are unmistakable to this day, and I really doubt anyone is ever going to be able to top the character design work done by Hajime Shimomura. These really are some of the most definitive versions of the character outside the original manga, and a template every anime version of Ghost In The Shell to ever come will no doubt use.
The series was directed, and primarily written by, Kenji Kamiyama, who is someone I have lived in awe of for a good while now. Really, this guy is so amazing. He’s one of the people I would love to just shake hands with before I die.
Why, you ask? Well, let me tell you why Kenji Kamiyama is so damn amazing, besides the fact he wrote and directed freaking Stand Alone Complex.
First off, he was a background artist, who’s work can be seen as far back as flipping Ducktales, Akira, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. In 2000, he really broke onto the scene with his screen play for Blood: The Last Vampire, which has gone on to be a pretty successful franchise in its own right. Then he did freaking Stand Alone complex, before achieving his final form by creating, writing, and directing Eden of the East.
Yeah. He’s that guy. The Eden of the East guy. Told ya he was a badass.
Just as a writer, I admire this guy. Really. He’s got mad skills as a writer, director, and animator. If I was gay, I’d be trying to marry the cat.
The music of SAC was crafted by living legend Yoko Kanno, the composer for shows like Cowboy Bebop, Vision of Escaflowne, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Space Dandy.
The music is fucking awesome, okay? Like, really fucking awesome. It’s freaking Yoko Kano, for shits sake. Of course the music is fucking awesome. What else can I say?
Yoko fucking Kanno!
Yeah. This series kicks all the ass in terms of writing, direction, and scoring. There’s a reason it was so successful, ya know?
Beyond all of that, though, and even beyond the big ideas the show explores, what makes Stand Alone Complex a real masterpiece is that the characters, all of them, are presented as real, believable people. Despite the vast cybernetics and all the science fiction stuff going on, the characters are well formed, fully realized, and easy to relate to.
More than anything, if you’ve never watched SAC, watch it for that.