Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex: Volume 3 Review

The burning question, “Who is the laughing man”? crops up once again. Not only are Section 9 curious but so is just about every major hacker on the net, fuelling debates with regards to his or her motives. So many questions raised and so little answers given. When will the speculation end? Meanwhile Major Kusanagi, Batou, Togusa and even Tachikoma travel their own path; unveiling past secrets and learning a little more about humanity.

Due to its stand alone nature there isn’t a great deal to elaborate on so I shall just point out some of the more important moments that occur in each episode.


Stand Alone Complex delivers quite an eclectic mixture of episodes for its third volume. Kicking off with a virtual debate that takes place across the net, we listen in on a 20-minute discussion which is centred on “The Laughing Man”; with each participant trying to reach his or her own conclusions as to the identity and purpose of the mystery hacker. It’s an interesting opener for several reasons and it’s certainly the slowest episode of the series so far, which is very constrained in terms of locale. The stand out aspect of the series has been the remarkable writing and it’s thanks to the staff once more that episodes like these can be as compelling as any of the others presented here. This is where the writers earn their continual praise; the attention to detail is great and as Chat! Chat! Chat! shows, as long as there is credibility to its telling it can not only easily compete against the best in anime but also against some of the finest US drama/investigation shows. This is a series that goes beyond animation and it’s one that deserves its due credit. The world of Shirow could be as real as any other; everything has some kind of purpose and so many incidental moments and technological processes present themselves in this episode alone.

Throughout previous volumes we’ve been offered the occasional insight into some of the major characters. Much of it has been speculative or suggestive, with just enough to keep things interesting day in/day out. The other three episodes lend themselves to several players. Jungle Cruise takes us on a personal journey with Batou as he investigates a series of identical murders. His attitude has always been a little curious but here it borders on rude as he talks down to his fellow officers. We soon learn he has a deep past that relates to the events taking place now and it fuels the most spine chilling episode seen yet. A serial killer kidnaps women and skins them alive, above the waist in a T-shirt pattern. I’m not exaggerating when I say chilling; the cries of the victims and the tense atmosphere sends shivers down the spine, without really showing anything; the sound is more than enough. This harrowing episode is just as much poignant. Several scenes are masterfully handled, even taking the tested cliché (which comes at the end when Batou must fight his feelings) and executing it superbly so that it feels fresh enough. With a well fleshed out storyline (which for 20-minutes is damn impressive) its level of believability and character situations makes for another excellent extension of the series.


Portraitz has the hard task of trying to live up to the preceding episode. Togusa is given plenty of screen time as he goes undercover, though not a great deal is discovered about him and he’s one of the fewer characters who we know enough about not to have to concern ourselves too much. While it seems like a standard investigation there are a few twists up its sleeve, it also has some fine moments of animation that lend toward a claustrophobic atmosphere. If Chat! Chat! Chat! bordered on a little complexity for some viewers then this episode will also need much attention paid toward it, as some of the technology is explained and finer details are examined.

The last episode on the disc, Escape From dispenses with political and dark storylines to provide an entertaining, lighter piece. As a result of Batou fuelling his Tachikoma with natural oil, the little AI unit goes for a walkabout. Whilst in town he comes across a little girl who is searching for her lost dog. He decides to help her as they cover a large portion of the city, but his own inquisitive nature leads him to a major revelation. We begin to learn more about Tachikoma and how the units freely think. There’s a moment when Kusanagi refers to them as just machines, to which they revolt by shouting that her words are discriminating, that they too have feelings. Further more we see into how their AI brains work. There’s some sweet and surprising moments as Tachikoma learns a little about humanity from his new friend and complimenting such sweet sentiments are a couple of beautiful instrumental pieces from composer, Yoko Kanno - perhaps my favourite from the entire soundtrack. As the episode progresses things become more sentimental and tender. A gripping episode throughout that carries plenty of charm and proves to be very moving. Tachikoma is a wonderful character so I hope we see much more of these bots in the future.


Episodes

Chat! Chat! Chat!
Kusanagi goes under cover and participates in an online debate, with hopes of discovering some truths about “The Laughing Man”. Several members of the table talk in length over what they believe to be conspiracy plays, while at the same time looking in detail at the crimes committed by the “celebrity”. As the arguments become increasingly heated, Kusanagi suspects that one or two members might have a secret or two up his/her sleeve. Is she getting too close to the truth?

Jungle Cruise
A sadistic killer is loose. His crimes are unlike anything seen before, skinning his victims alive and making them watch their own gradual demise. Only one man is familiar with the killings - Batou. When the CIA contacts Section 9 to help in their investigation, Batou and Togusa must tag along, but Batou is hiding something dark from his past. Does he know the killer? Why is the CIA acting strange? As memories come back to haunt him can Batou stay sane enough to do the job at hand?

Portraitz
Togusa is sent undercover to investigate a serious hack, which leads to a government facility that treats sufferers of “Cyber-brain Closed Shell Syndrome”. He discovers that all of the children are being used to create “Barrier Mazes” for the government’s gain. As his investigation continues, Togusa learns of some hidden truths, but some of the more important questions and turns of events will uncover a much deeper conspiracy - just who is “The Chief”?

Escape From
Batou’s Tachikoma wakes up after natural oil feed and takes off to the big city. As he explores the surroundings he meets a young girl called Miki who asks if he’ll help her find her lost dog, Locky. The pair begins their search, striking up a good friendship whereby Tachikoma learns a few things about human values. The major is naturally pissed at his attitude change and forbids Batou to give it natural oil in future. Later, Tachikoma finds a cyber brain and when Kusanagi jacks into it she discovers a world of boxed up joy.


The DVD

Manga Entertainment brings us another 2-disc edition of the series. As I received check discs I cannot confirm the packaging. There seems to be several images floating around online that show different covers for each volume. Perhaps some are slipcase artwork and others are amaray ones.

A/V

Presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.78:1, Stand Alone Complex would be damn near perfect if it actually had a “normal” release. Good things first: The image is crisp, colours are extremely lively and Edge Enhancement doesn’t appear to be a factor. Unfortunately (and that’s a word I seem to be using too much lately) Manga have screwed up the transfer in several places. There have been problems in the past with relation to this series; it’s an ongoing one which still doesn’t seem to be looked at seriously, despite the errors being pointed out. Pixelation is the biggest threat, much like volume 1 we have a couple of moments when the image becomes blocky. There’s only one time when this is actually intentional and that is when Kusanagi jacks into a brain during episode four. Speaking of Escape From the picture breaks up for approximately 1-second during the end credits. Sure it doesn’t interfere with the episode contents but that’s not the point, it’s still a slip in quality. The episode also shows a considerably higher amount of banding than the rest, during hazier scenes. Portraitz suffers from a picture break up during the 20-minute mark, while another small but noticeable flaw is at the very end of the “Tachikoma Days” short on the episode Jungle Cruise; The credits abruptly stop near the end.

As for sound we get the usual options: Japanese 2.0, Japanese 5.1, Japanese DTS, English 2.0, English 5.1 and English DTS. With this series checking all tracks is priority (though impossible to watch 4 times over) as there seem to be differing problems with them from what I’ve seen in previous volumes; so I try to base comparisons from what I find listening to the Japanese track. The DTS 5.1 for the most part is a cracking track and there’s little to say about it that hasn’t been said already so that leaves me with the bad points. Once again we have several technical glitches that somehow have sneaked through and taken up permanent residence. Around the 21-minute mark on Jungle Cruise there is a loud pop/crackle, followed by a 1-second drop out. This problem occurs on the DD 5.1 and DTS tracks. Elsewhere the DD 5.1 suffers from some out of sync audio on the Japanese track, while the English one goes unaffected. I really fail to see how these transfers can be so consistently flawed.

Extras

Interview with Akio Ohtsuka (Batou) - 11:16
The actor talks about playing Batou and what is required in order to bring out the best in him. He starts off by talking about the recording environment and working with the others actors and how important it is to bounce lines off of each other. We get to see some good behind the scenes recording footage before he goes on to mention Batou’s characterization. As a complicated figure with no outwardly expression to play off (such as his eyes being nothing but grey implants), Ohtsuka explains how he channels everything through his voice to convey a greater sense of the character. We can see he enjoys playing him very much and is grateful to return to the role for this series after the successful film.

Interview with Wakabayashi Kazuhiro (Sound) - 10:50
Kazuhiro starts off by talking a little about working on the film and then with director, Kamiyama for the series; which requires him to work out the sound and direct the voice artists. We look at some studio recording before he mentions that being strict and demanding is all part of the job, while he enjoys it he may need to crack down on the actors at times. We then learn a little about sound design. This is particularly interesting as Kazuhiro explains that Kusanagi and co have titanium skulls, so that figuring out the sound it makes when they jack in or talk via signals can be challenging. Also due to the series being designed for 5.1 he can create a number of sounds while taking into consideration dynamic and low-range effects. Finally he talks about Yoko Kanno and how he selects various pieces of her music as well as “Tachikoma Days” and the fun to be had from doing those.

Note : There is also a 1-second drop out toward the end of the seventh minute.

Ghost in the Shell Video Game Trailer (0:55)
A trailer for the new PS2 game, which looks pretty swish.

Character Profiles
These appear in each episode’s sub menu and are pretty pointless as tell us nothing that we don’t already from the episodes. They would also be better placed in the extra features menu because they’re easily looked over here.

Quiz
This appears on disc 2. Like before just answer all ten questions correctly to see a sneak preview of the next episode.


Overall

Three volumes on and Stand Alone Complex remains wholly captivating. The series has yet to disappoint (though that’s not an invite or anything), providing some fascinating episodes that owe thanks to the brilliant writing talents involved. In terms of emotional play this is by far the most effective; with some gruelling moments as well as heart felt sentiments.

Unfortunately Manga Entertainment once again drops the ball on this one, with several imperfections dragging down both audio and visual. As such I won’t whole heartedly recommend the disc, unless the viewer is a little less than fussy. Saying that the series doesn’t seem to be faring too well on any region, but that shouldn’t really be any consolation to us.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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