Monday, July 31, 2006

REVIEW: Out of Steam? Not a Ghost of a Chance!

[Article for Toon Zone News 20.7.06]

A much belated review thanks to some personal physical distress to my hands. Irrelevant as this may seem to you dear reader, it offers me a perfect lead in to my opening for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG Volume 5.

Imagine cybernetics becoming so physically integrated that the only aspect of humanity left is the spirit—or “Ghost”—of the user. Having to write this full review with a physical hand complaint still present, the idea of extreme and endurable prosthetics is very attractive. Not only can you look great—as fans of the story’s heroine, Major Kusanagi, will attest—you’d have the ability to interchange bodies; the power to jack into any electronic network, manipulating or screening anyone else attached; you’d have endurance beyond comparison and thereby hands that don’t suffer discomfort when reviewing screeners. Sounds a perfect world to me, n’est pas?

Any one who has read Masamune’s legendary comic book, Ghost in the Shell or followed the movies and TV series that followed will know the world of the mid 21st century is anything but perfect. Political intrigue, technological mayhem and human greed wrapped tightly by the blur of man and machine. Masamune’s original comic book was a wondrous mix of a dark future painted with an almost whimsical touch of intelligence. It could be gory, it could be humorous, it could be both, but it always treated its audience with respect, and this has been true of its move to animation.

This volume is one of the later ones of the second season of the animated television series. If you’ve not read Ghost in the Shell, or seen any of the animated genres, might be best to go read an article on Mickey Mouse. There is a lot to catch up on and those uneducated in all things cyberpunk might be best enjoying a yarn from Walt’s favorite rodent instead.

This volume contains four episodes, some of which follow the current season arc, some stand alone. I’ll presume that those reading the review of this later volume will be aware of concepts and characters and move straight onto the episodes themselves. If you’ve not had that good fortune, try and keep up.

In actual fact, my DVD player was being cantankerous with the Japanese soundtrack on the screener so I was only able to watch it in the English dub. I’ll presume again that those who have watched previous volumes will know what to expect on this score.

Red Data
“Red Data” is possibly the most unusual of the four episodes. Set in Taiwan, the Major goes on the hunt for Kuze and runs into a young kid who is in trouble with some local gangs. The story follows the season’s Individual Eleven arc but actually proves its worth as a rather gentle character piece; the majority of the story is simply dialogue between the Major and the child. This is certainly an interesting dynamic for Major Kusanagi, who then gets to explore the more maternal aspect of her character. The direction is smooth and the colors are rich. The pacing however is what makes this feel rather special—it just nonchalantly walks through the narrative without falling into any specific formula or expectation. It feels like a chapter of a book rather than an episode of a futuristic anime thriller. The final scenes in the hotel just play so smoothly with an air of intelligence and grace with some lovely dialogue and good characterization.

Trans Parent
A left over story concept from the show’s first season, “Trans Parent” has the Major and Batou on a mission to Berlin to locate the terrorist known as Angel’s Wing. This is a really beautiful stand alone story and almost worth the DVD on its own. You need to understand very little about the character and story background to GitS to enjoy this. The pacing for “Trans Parent” is as with “Red Data,” a confident waltz through this gentle tale. This is very much a Batou adventure and manages to mix a little film noir into the atmosphere thanks to Batou’s internal narrative and an organic soundtrack. The whole tale oozes professionalism. However, when a show lightly touches an alternative genre, it does tend to hit some familiar notes. There are some narrative techniques which are a little formulaic in kind, but in implementation doesn’t harm the story, merely enforcing the cross genre. The ending scene in the church is beautiful even if it’s predictable, proof that a story can fall into certain genre expectations and still deliver.

Chain Reaction
Here we’re moving back to the story arc with something a little more to anime expectations. The pacing has picked up and the action is a little more spotlighted. Nevertheless the characters remain well realized and drama isn’t lost in any of the more action orientated storylines. Not quite as unique as the first two parts but what it does, it does well. The hunt for Kuze works and the finale has a little twist to it which isn’t apparent thanks to some nice visual direction and well developed plot. Not quite as memorable as the first two episodes, but nevertheless a solid piece of storytelling.

Fabricate Fog
“Fabricate Fog” is really a second part to “Chain Reaction,” picking up where the last episode left off. The action is even more at the forefront; however the previous episode did enough to build the foundations to let this ride. There are some nice character scenes in here—particularly among the refugees and Kuze. I really like the Kuze character; it’s rare to have a character act like a megalomaniac, yet have a certain truth and honesty in his desire. This episode does a lot to realize those elements of his character and questions the line between terrorist and freedom fighter. The final few minutes pick up the action and the volume ends on a very different tone to which it started.

The Tachikoma epilogues help add that little comic touch present in the original comic. On a personal note, I’ve always found it a pity that the animation itself keeps so far away from the original touches of abstract humor by Shirow Masamune. It’s an interpretation, but this is one anime which would have benefited from the more comical Japanese visualizations from time to time. It certainly helped the original comic books from becoming too rooted in its own serious agenda.

The DVD features complement the volume, with cast interviews that are surprisingly enjoyable. Often DVD cast interviews can be rather inert affairs, but these are quite informal and having the director Kamiyama as the interviewer helps keep the information relevant and informative.

Overall this is a nice volume that offers a collection of episodes that have a hint of diversity while remaining true to the spirit of Ghost in the Shell and the second season arc. It is not totally inaccessible for new watchers, though clearly it would be better for the uninitiated to start their Ghost in the Shell experience with a DVD or comic book that covers earlier parts of the storyline.

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