As a gateway for many fans into the wonderful world of anime - even, as becomes apparent in the commentary, for the staff who worked on this very show! - Ghost in the Shell surely needs no introduction... but it can sometimes require some explanation. The cyberpunk vision of a transhumanist dream in Ghost in the Shell is a feat of pure post-religious faith, liberating our confined material existence from the violent squabbles of the world and making new souls for ourselves in limitless electrics. Just as the omnipresent and omniscient bodiless consciousnesses spread throughout the 'net, so to do our imaginations, as the Ghost in the Shell franchise has had multiple iterations over the years - from Shirow Masamune's original manga, we have different reinterpretations from the famous 1995 movie and its sequel Innocence, and the Stand Alone Complex TV series. From manga to movie to TV and now to OVA, a fourth iteration of Ghost in the Shell is arriving in the franchise's 25th silver year, Arise. A series of four OVAs released over 2013-4 in Japan (the last in the series came out this September), the new continuity of Arise takes us back to a point before all of the previous versions of the series' heroine - back to the beginning of Major Motoko Kusanagi's career working for Public Security Section 9, the start of her fight against cyber-crime and the discovery of something more which lies beyond it.
Arise has firm sci-fi credentials behind it, being written by Tow Ubukata - the author of another famous cyberpunk adventure Mardock Scramble - and directed by Kazuchika Kise, a veteran of the anime industry who has not only worked on dozens of titles but also has extensive experience of the franchise's particular aesthetics as a key animator and animation supervisor for the Ghost in the Shell movies and Stand Alone Complex as well. Can Ubukata's ideas be filtered through Kise's style to allow the ghost to stalk even deeper haunts, or after twenty-five years have we been left with a hollowed-out empty shell that has finally given up its spirit?
Before she began her work at Section 9, Major Motoko Kusanagi was a soldier and part of the army's Unit 501, a special formation dedicated to the research of cyborg combat. There was plenty of opportunity to engage in "field testing" as the planet was torn apart by World War IV - but now the war is over and the guns are being put away. Japan is no land fit for heroes to live in, though, particularly when you yourself are made from metal, wiring and plastic. Motoko is not a person, she is a weapon - and now one that is surplus to requirements. Faced with redundancy not just in her job but in her very being, can Motoko find new purpose in the world? Chief Aramaki, of the newly-incorporated Public Security Section 9, does believe that he has a use for Motoko's talents in the field of cyber-warfare to address the growing threat of computer criminality. The Major is reluctant - she has had her fill of taking orders - but as many conflicting and competing interests seek to control the peace just as they won the war, is there anything else to find?
This release of Ghost in the Shell: Arise includes the first two episodes of the four-episode series. The prequel series looks into Major's beginnings with Section 9 and her "getting the band together", so to speak, recruiting all of the familiar faces that we've seen in other versions of the series. Unfortunately, there isn't much expression of character or sense of rapport between any of them - there's more personality in the rival soldier in Unit 501 that wants to kill Motoko than her supposed allies! Even though Arise is meant to be a fresh look at the franchise, there still seems to be the safe bet that they're just dropping in the familiar faces because we expect to see them and they're there only because Kusanagi's future demands that they be there. There are some small heresies - Togusa loves his Mateba Autorevolver, he'd never criticise it! - and a potentially interesting diversion that goes nowhere in Batou and Motoko; although they are normally such close confederates, they start off Arise as rivals and antagonists, but again there's little chemistry between them. The drive to get everyone on-board becomes particularly ridiculous with the sniper Saito - after the Major bribes him to rat on his comrades, a counter-offer from Batou encourages Saito to re-rat against the Major - despite the fact that Saito's inherent untrustworthiness is plain as day and he tries to kill the Major, she still goes and offers him a job! The overriding need to get the ducks in a row also leads to Saito's implausible survival of his helicopter getting blown up in mid-air. Altogether, Saito's origin story in Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig was much better told.
Arise changes Kusanagi's backstory too - while Stand Alone Complex suggested that she was cyberised as a child after suriving a plane crash, it's now the case in Arise that after the death of her mother while still in the womb, her brainstem was extracted from her under-developed foetus and immediately implanted into a cybernetic frame - the Major has literally been a cyborg since before birth. The implications of this are enormous, and the effects that it would have on mental development (or even social control, if Motoko was grown into her current body at the demand of her guardians) can only be speculated at. It's incredibly disappointing then that all it amounts to is a throwaway reference for the sake of tying up a plot point - Motoko suspects that she's been hacked because she's suffering phantom pains, which she shouldn't get because she had no original limbs to lose to prosthetics in the first place. That an unimaginable whole new form of life can be dismissed inside a single scene is a tremendous waste.
Another interesting idea that episode one really does not take full advantage of is the major's status as a military cyborg - all of her fittings and implants were supplied to her by the army. She doesn't have a National Insurance number, she has component serial codes - she doesn't have freedom of action as her body is quite literally government property, and if she wants to control her own life she has to buy her own freedom or be evicted out of her own head if she can't keep to the repayment plan. Scriptwriter Tow Ubukata here is rehashing one of the very same topics that preoccupied his novel Mardock Scramble, as the heroine Balot also needed to 'buy' her new cybernetic body through public service. However, Ubukata takes care not to outstrip his own IP! The problem confronting Kusanagi is only lightly touched open and ultimately does not hinder or really even affect her in any significant way. Mardock Scramble did the crisis of needing to objectively justify your existence without any fundamental value with a lot more pathos, and even Deus Ex: Human Revolution thought about the problems of existence on credit more. It could have been a very pertinent and currently-topical comment about the de facto economic traps of modern wage-slavery, but once again it's entirely overlooked.
There's yet another thought that fizzles out as well - the revelation of a rogue sentient AI. In the original Ghost in the Shell movie, this was a fundamental meditation on the nature of self and what constitutes humanity - here, it's just a quick climactic chicane of a twist which is ended in seconds by rather prosaic gunfire.
Maybe it's being too fast to judge, though. If Arise did reflect on the latter two, would it just be repetitively retreading over old ground? Only so much can be said in a limited running time - rather than trying to rush around too many topics superficially like Ergo Proxy (which, for all the word is exaggerated and abused by the internet, is one of the few anime that can legitimately be dismissed as pretentious), Arise is concentrating on one area. If the series is adding to the canon with its own distinct theme, a futuristic philosophical concept which is a regularly-recurring motif that confronts the characters, it appears to be "false memories". We are all ultimately just brain-boxes being sent and sending out electrical signals - Betrand Russell's flux of sense-data - and the brain-jacking of Ghost in the Shell: Arise makes it explicit. Whether it comes from an eye or a camera, your senses can be deceived and your inputs scrambled - fundamental aspects of your character, important events which have shaped your world-view and dearly-felt beliefs, are something you may have settled on because you misremembered or misinterpreted them - or had them implanted into you. Can we really trust anything that we suppose we have seen? And even if it's not true, does it matter if it's comfortable?
The concept of false memories is used very well in the first episode of this collection, and also runs through the second episode, but the application is a lot clumsier because of the unnecessarily convoluted plot behind them, forcing a group of soldiers into a rebellion by making them think they're victims of a crime they didn't commit and encouraging them to steal something that the mastermind didn't even need them to find. This is done by taking over the navigation AIs of thousands of cars on the roads so they parallel-process a system hack... presumably the drivers couldn't just turn off the engine - or have they been stuck in their cars endlessly driving around the highways literally all day and night while this crisis is going on? The A-Team it is not!
There are more plot-holes in the second episode too - one of the villains is an officer being given a court-martial for war crimes; he is now using his cyber-brain to hack the government's database and air out all its dirty laundry in a Wikileaks-style revenge, even as he sits in his prison cell. Now, I work in tourism for my day job, and a question I often have to suffer are customers asking what the hotel's Wi-Fi is like - it's their first priority, even before the rooms and the food. I should send them all to Japan - the 4G connection there is astounding! Couldn't they have just... put him in a cellar? Or a concrete building? Or taken out his transmitter? Made him wear a foil helmet? My mobile phone has difficulty picking up a signal when walking past a tall building - it just strikes me that there was a way to counter this threat that didn't need bloody gunfights, car crashes and dozens of casualties... it's a shame, because complex layered conspiracies is meant to be a classic strength of Ghost in the Shell but here it misses the wood for the trees and knots itself up in completely contrived convolutions. Time will have to tell if the theme of "false memories" is built on any further in the latter half of Arise.
We may pardon the second episode for its indulgences though, because it does at least set us up for a lot of hi-octane action with gunfights and car-chases aplenty. Both episode one and two especially feature superb action sequences ranging the whole scale from individual knife-fights to whole explosive skirmishes. They are animated smoothly and slickly with a pro-active camera, martial art athleticism, lots of detail as hulking robots and cyborg components get busted and broken, and they have some ingenious tactics used in them as well, such as a one-armed fist-fight as two damaged cyborgs still go at each other! The "mobile landmine" gynoids that feature in the first episode could be mocked for their very-female builds, but actually they are creepily effective thanks to their unreal sense of motion as limbs turn and stop too-precisely like unfolding tools on a Swiss Army Knife. Even if Arise is not philosophically satisfying, it at least offers you a fuse-blowing power-surge of cybernetic thrills and operator spills to make up for it.
Part of moving well is also looking good, and Arise steps up to the plate here as well. Each individual episode of Arise has a different director (with Kise as the overall supervisor) so there are small differences between the style of the two in this release here, most obviously in the cyberspace sequences, but they still remain part of a conceptual whole; Production I.G also offers a reliable job as always with a near-seamless integration of CGI and drawn animation, and whereas so many other anime just have wooden puppets jerking around in crowd scenes there still remains great fluidity and complex motion here in Arise. The virtual worlds look enjoy a dreamlike glow (one of the directors mentioning how the Major curled up foetally resembles the shape of a brain shows the subtlety you can discover if you look for it) and the ending sequence to the second episode is a mesmeric sequence of spiralling music-visualising neon vectors. The designs of the younger characters are suitably familiar but adjusted, and the alterations of technology are also appealing. This might be a blasphemy for Ghost in the Shell fans but I always thought that the Tachikomas that were fan-favourites in Stand Alone Complex looked rather unbalanced, flimsy and a wee bit daft with their huge abdomens and stubby limbs - the new Logikomas in Arise have a much more solid and robust design which makes them more credible as support vehicles while still retaining the spinning eyes and a little sniffling sensor dome-snout to give them the cutesy personality that's always ascribed to Section 9's robotic helpmates. Other than one somewhat silly sequence where a Logikoma goes swinging around the city like Spiderman in perhaps a lamentably late attempt to riff on Attack on Titan, it's a change that's an overall success.
The price of the package might seem steep for just two "Borders" (as the episodes are called), but the episodes are long - short features, not just TV episodes - and the experience is rounded off with a veritable cornucopia of extras. Multiple staff and cast interviews and background featurettes are included, as well as a pair of comedy Logikoma omake shorts for those who enjoyed the "Tachikoma Theatre" at the end of Stand Alone Complex episodes - although the humour is a bit stilted and doesn't translate well, especially for the dance sequence in the first one, they're still light-hearted fare. The English commentary for episode 2 that's included in the package benefits from the inclusion of the ADR director and the script adaptor in the booth along with Batou and Motoko's voice actor and actress - a problem with some commentaries is that the lack of a moderator leaves the cast rambling aimlessly about what they had for breakfast that morning, whereas this one definitely has a more structured and informative approach to breaking down the creation of the episode. Especially interesting though are two advertising features - one showcasing Arise's sponsorship of a motor racing team (although we don't learn if they won any races), and "Another Mission", designed to promote the Microsoft Surface tablet computer. This is quite remarkable, as it's not just a quick TV spot with a Ghost in the Shell sticker slapped onto the computer but is an entire short episode. It's a simple plot - Section 9 needs to download the secret files - and it's unvoiced, but it nonetheless has had a huge amount of effort invested into it with a wide variety of sets, detailed combat action, and entertainingly silly application of the Surface's features from catching a thrown computer that's just out of reach by slotting the keyboard into it, its slim profile letting it get passed off and hidden in a newspaper, and Chief Aramaki using the little prop to read the files in comfort. As product placement goes it's certainly a fun example.
The extras also leave me to wonder if Manga Entertainment might have jumped the gun by releasing Arise in two halves, and if instead they should had the patience to do the entire series in a single release. The reason for this is suggested in the interview with producer and director in the Anime Expo extra, where they say that the series was structured to lead you into stages of development - the mystery of episode one was the initial hook, the action-packed episode two was to hold your attention, and episode three - which we're missing here - will have a better effect with the more thoughtful material rather than slamming you with it right up-front. Unfortunately though I can't see it here in this release, so I'm afraid that the criticisms for the lack of philosophical engagement will have to remain. Even if the reflective potential of Ghost in the Shell: Arise has not been fully realised though, it certainly is a responsive one; Arise looks great and moves confidently, and is chock-full not only of plenty of value-adding material but numerous exciting action sequences which if not mentally stimulating are certainly emotionally entertaining.