Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex: Volume 1 Review
Those with even a basic knowledge of anime should by all accounts know of Masamune (Dominion Tank Police, Appleseed) Shirow's extravagant manga and/or Mamoru Oshii's subsequent anime movie adaptation Ghost in the Shell, which was one of 1995's most striking films, capturing a grim realisation of our future and steadily mixing action and intelligent storytelling. Ten years on and the film deservedly warrants its place amongst the greatest science fiction films of all time.
In 2002 director Kenji Kamiyama and his team at Production I.G. (the same team who worked upon the classic feature film) returned to Shirow's work and adapted several of his stories along with their own new creations for this first series, spanning 26 episodes.
The year is 2030, the real world and its virtual one co-exist as humans enhanced with cybernetic implants work alongside machines capable of simulating human thoughts. These machines, as well as various cybernetics are prone to malfunction and when that happens Section-9 steps in. Led by Major Motoko Kusanagi the special force, armed with highly intelligent super-tanks known as Tachikoma's set out to terminate all known threats and in the process learn some valuable lessons.
Considering the way that Ghost in the Shell ended it would be difficult for the production crew to follow up and bring us a series with any lasting appeal. There was only one way around this and that was to ignore the events of the first film and forget about the notorious "Puppet Master" who quite frankly had it in for Major Kusanagi from the beginning. So with that out of the way the series simply lives up to its name. Stand Alone Complex is just that - a collection of stand alone episodes that run like any great cop show: there's intrigue, action, humour, mystery and when I.G. are involved some of the hottest looking animation around, although it is worth noting that the characters have been toned down in appearance to accommodate the budget, but still by any other standards it's a damn fine looking series. If that isn't enough to please fans then there's a whole lot more.
In a welcome return the original voice cast are back and as good as ever, settling into their roles with ease almost ten years after the events of the first film. It's great to hear Atsuko Tanaka as the Major, Akio Otsuka (Batou), Koichi Yamadera (Togusa) and Tamio Oki (Chief Aramaki) flex their vocal chords again, bringing back that much needed and important element, that as much stays true to the original material. These actors have a good understanding of their characters while we, the viewer are just getting to know them. It has been promised that as the episodes progress we shall see the characters develop further, which is a great thing to hear even if at this point it’s not entirely necessary. See, Stand Alone Complex works as being a series about a group of special agents who are also friends. They lean on each other and we understand this much clearly, but in due course it is perhaps inevitable that we learn a little more. For now I am happy to wait as I feel I know these characters already and in the meantime these episodes breathe a whole new life, where many others prefer to focus on an overall arc.
Having said that by the end of this volume the team have left us with a cliff-hanger. Is this merely the first of a two part episode or much more? I don't know for sure but I suspect this "Laughing Man" who debuts in episode four may well be the series' equivalent of "The Puppet Master". Part of me expects to hear more from him in subsequent volumes but I'm hoping the overall run carries on in the same way it started.
With the addition of a new major character (Saito) and a more prominent Ishikawa there also comes a new form of ally in the Tachikomas - adorable "little" blue tanks of which eight serve Section-9. Voiced by Sakiko Tamagawa you’d be hard pressed not to fall in love with the curious machines, which show signs of extreme intelligence in their child-like state. Section 9 shows no prejudice and embrace technology, utilising the Tachikomas to aid them in almost every mission. These vehicles are agile and accurate and through the four episodes here take quite a number of scene stealing moments in some terrific action oriented pieces, not to mention the all out cute tags at the end of each episode's credit roll that are designed exclusively for them. Rather than give away plot details of the next episode we are treated to an assortment of philosophical debates and stupid experiments, carried out by the Tachikoma team which have been lovingly written.
As far as volume one is concerned that just about leaves me done but I can't finish without giving an enormous amount of praise to the musical genius that is Yoko Kanno. Fans may know her from Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, Wolf's Rain, Escaflowne and many more. Ms. Kanno is undeniably the queen of anime soundtracks, each and every time inventing new sounds, never repeating any one tune and always producing memorable pieces of work. The world is a better place with Yoko around and if I sound like I'm gushing too much well then that's because I adore the woman and her work on Stand Alone Complex is a real treasure. Yoko has arranged a compilation so emotionally charged and beautifully stunning that if you listen to some of these numbers away from the series they may just bring a tear to your eye. If any album regularly makes it into my player it is "Be Human" - a collection of assorted tunes that focuses primarily on Tachikoma's endeavours to become more human. Yoko hits every mark at every opportunity, be it from dance and pop to jazz and blues, covering every spectrum of sound and producing a score that suits the series down to the ground.
Volume one of Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex features the following four episodes:
Section-9 receives a call informing them that robot geisha have taken politicians hostage. During the afterward investigation they come across evidence that may suggest that a government minister has stolen important documents.
After destroying several tanks at Kenbishi Industries, a scorpion-like Tachikoma makes its way toward the city. The machine demonstrates an unrelenting force as it heads toward its destination and even Section-9 are having trouble in stopping it.
Android and I
A series of android suicides has been causing concern for Section-9 and as they search for the reason behind them they discover a virus that leads them to the manufacturer. Now all they need to do is find out who did it and why.
Togusa receives a message from an old friend, telling him he has important information with relation to a government conspiracy. Soon a hacker calling himself "The Laughing Man" hijacks a conference, but who is he?
Manga Entertainment release Volume 1 in a two-disc armaray case that comes with a mini fold out poster, housed in a card slipcase. Both discs feature episodes one to four, the only difference being the 5.1 mixes offered. Disc One is for those of you without DTS capability, featuring Dolby Digital mixes, while Disc Two is for those of you with DTS capable equipment, swapping the Dolby Digital for DTS Surround mixes.
There has been much controversy recently over the quality of the R1 DVD release which exhibited a faulty DTS mix so UK fans were all hoping the Manga R2 was going to be considerably better. Unfortunately that isn't the case and that leaves me very cross.
Okay, let's get the good news out of the way first. Presented in anamorphic widescreen Stand Alone Complex looks almost pristine. The image is very sharp and features gorgeous colouring and high amounts of detail. There is an even amount of daytime and night time scenery, both of which are handled well, with darker colours looking suitably prominent. This transfer would ordinarily score an easy 9 if it weren't for several unacceptable errors on Manga's behalf. Firstly I'll just get the digital banding out of the way. Like most recent CGI anime it's a constant threat that never seems to go away and as such I'll let it go but that's where my charitable mood ends.
The transfer has some awful compression, the likes of which I haven't seen in any recent anime and although it is only particularly noticeable on at least two occasions it still makes for distracting viewing. If you take a look at this example image you will see the poor state of one particular scene as the shot switches to Batou from Kusanagi's viewpoint.
My second problem is with the optional English subtitles. For the first ten minutes of episode one they are horribly out if sync and there is nothing more annoying than this (except for shoddy authoring). Thankfully they improve later on but on occasion they do come back to haunt for a second or two. Both discs in the set exhibit the exact same problems, which leads me to believe that this may be a problem on all retail copies.
If Manga are willing to send out a replacement copy, should it just be my disc that is faulty then I will be more than happy to retract my statement. Otherwise let it be noted that this is unacceptable for a series that should otherwise look stunning and as such it looses serious marks.
Manga have provided us with six audio tracks: Japanese 2.0, Japanese 5.1, Japanese DTS, English 2.0, English 5.1 and English DTS. For my listening pleasure I checked out the DTS track on Disc 2 and what a difference it makes. I don't recall any anime series having quite as much of an aggressive and rewarding track as this. Yoko Kanno's score is channelled nicely and plays a large part in the series as it plays throughout much of each episode, as it does so a lot of tension is added to not only the action but also heavy dialogue induced scenes. Gunfire and explosions carry a lot of weight and whiz from front to rear speakers, along with a great assortment of atmospheric sounds. As far as I can tell the problem which plagued the R1 release is not present here.
The great thing about Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex is that both the Japanese and English dubs are excellent. Most of the principal cast members provide fine voice work, with original member, Richard Epcar returning as Batou. I chose to listen to the Japanese track which usually takes precedence but I'm pleased to say that both are very respectable.
Interview with director, Kenji Kamiyama
This runs for 12-minutes, where Kenji discusses the transition from manga and movie to animated series. He talks briefly about Shirow's input and how team I.G. came up with a new concept in taking the series in a different direction. Accompanying this interview are burnt in English subtitles.
Interview with Atsuko Tanaka
This runs for little under 11-minutes and has Atsuko-san discuss the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi. Aside from being extremely beautiful she is very interesting to listen to as she talks about the growth of her character. It is clear she is enthusiastic about her role and it is one she knows well enough. She points out some differences made for the TV series and discusses a bit about each episode presented on this disc, voicing her opinion on some of the subjects raised, such as android love!
This interview also features burnt in English subtitles.
Here we get a decent amount of information for the main characters, more than we actually find out in the episodes.
This runs for approximately 5-minutes but feels like a cop out. This is nothing more than the intro sequence dragged out for the duration while some horrendous clunky sound constantly repeats itself. I had hoped for some original concept designs.
I don't mind companies promoting their products but do we need 32-minutes of Manga’s entire back catalogue in previews that undoubtedly compromise disc space?
A little bit of fun for those who consider themselves the ultimate Ghost in the Shell fan. By answering all ten questions correctly you can be treated to a preview of episode 5.
Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex is a brilliant companion piece to the films in the series and should keep most fans happy. Its formula is a fresh change of pace and the animation simply rocks. Sadly the presentation is flawed and I hate seeing shows like this mistreated. There are no excuses for shoddy work like this and something has clearly gone wrong in the process. I hope that Manga and Bandai present a flawless disc next time as I would hate to see a repeat of the examples set here.
Last updated: 29/06/2018 10:36:41