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Kôkaku kidôtai: Sutando arôn kompurekksu—or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for those not fluent in Japanese—follows a continuity separate from the original Manga and movie. All the characters that fans will recognise are here, but in using the broader canvas of a twenty-six episode run the series is more about Section 9—the government agency that Major Motoko Kusanagi works for—rather than concentrating solely on Kusanagi herself.

Much in the way that some themed live-action shows like The X-Files work, GitS:SAC introduces a central thread that runs throughout the season—that of the Laughing Man—but intersperses these Complex episodes with Stand Alone ones (do you see what they’ve done there?).

Kusanagi is still at the forefront in the majority of the stories, but other characters get more time to develop throughout the run. For those unfamiliar with the ‘original’ I’ll give you a quick rundown. Aramaki is the head of Section 9, with Kusanagi basically being second in command and heading up most of the operations. Batou is there to back her up and works closely with Togusa. The latter is almost completely human, but Kusanagi and Batou are full cyborgs with the brain being pretty much the only organic element of them left.

Major Motoko Kusanagi
The driving force behind the series is the delving into the blurring of the lines between humanity and machines where both connect seamlessly in the future society. The Tachikomas are used at times to illustrate this—think a tank controlled by an Artificial Intelligence and you’re pretty much there. Kusanagi and Batou were once completely human, but the Tachikomas’ origins are purely machine based and their exposure to humanity does see them learn. Having a tank that can think for itself might not always be a good thing though. Anyway, onto the episodes that this volume brings to us.

The Episodes
There are four episodes included here, and all of them appear on both discs (the only differences are in the soundtracks). Each runs for a little over twenty four minutes.

Episode 5—Decoy (Complex Episode). Carrying on from where Episode 4—Interceptor left off, Section 9 is trying to unravel why the Laughing Man has made a reappearance after six years. The Task Force investigating him/her/it has not turned up any leads in ages, and is now under investigation itself for inappropriate use of surveillance equipment. More worrying though is the threat to the Superintendent General’s life.

Episode 6—Meme (Complex Episode). The assassination attempt on the Superintendent General has raised even more questions. With multiple assassins all appearing to have been infected by a cyber-virus, is this the work of copycats or are things being orchestrated by a single Laughing Man? Not trusting the Special Investigations Unit to handle matters properly, Section 9 take over the Laughing Man investigation...

Episode 7—Idolater (Stand Alone Episode). Marcelo Jarti pays frequent visits to Japan. An ‘advisor’ to the Jenoma People’s Army and hero to his country, many attempts have been made on his life but he always manages to survive. His current visit is under the watchful eye of Section 9, but can they uncover how he makes these miraculous escapes and what is his connection to the Korinkai Yakuza?

Episode 8—Missing Hearts (Stand Alone Episode). A friend who works at the local hospital brings the case of a little girl to Kusanagi’s attention. A severe illness had meant that she was close to being completely cyberised in order to save her life, but a donor heart was found just in time. Strangely, though, no one knows where the donor heart came from...

Batou and Togusa find something interesting
Only getting to see four episodes at a time every couple of months—or longer for this second region two release—can leave the Laughing Man story arc feeling a little disjointed. Thankfully the re-watchability of the episodes is generally good, so going back isn’t a problem. The last episode of the previous set kicked off the arc, with the three-parter essentially setting things in motion with its completion here, but the gap between releases can make the Stand Alone episodes feel like they are getting in the way. Don’t get me wrong—the isolated stories are just as well written and handled as the ‘mythology’ episodes, and are just as worthy of your time. Idolater is one of the standout ones thus far, with a fair amount of action thrown into the mix, but Missing Hearts develops Kusanagi’s character quite nicely and shows her more ruthless side when the girl’s plight strikes a chord with the Major’s own childhood.

Visually, all the lessons learnt during the making of Ghost in the Shell have been improved upon in the years since, and although the character animation may not seem as smooth in places everything here matches the movie for production values. From the use of colour to the attention to detail and the ‘depth of field’ effects, the style has certainly made the transition to the small screen. Almost all of the main Japanese voice cast return from the movie, with only one exception (Aramaki, since you ask), but Richard Epcar (Batou) is the only returnee for the English version. As with the film though, the English version is every bit as good as the original track.

I should also mention that at the end of each episode is a 60-second short featuring everyone’s favourite A.I. tanks. Tachikomatic Days is a bit surreal, and not at all serious, but each short should raise a smile.

The cover boasts that the episodes have been ‘Encoded from High Definition Masters’. This does not make it clear as to whether they have been sourced digitally or from a print, but given the distinct lack of grain—or indeed any sort of marks at all—I would be very surprised if it was the latter. The average bit rate for the episodes on disc two is a touch higher than that employed on disc one, with the Dolby Digital disc lagging behind by about 0.4Mbps, but you would be hard pushed to see any difference.

The Major does her Karate Kid impression
Presented in anamorphic widescreen at around 1.85:1 (quite wide for a TV programme) detail is always high, including that in the background (the characters on a lift panel are perfectly rendered, I just can’t read Japanese). The image is rock steady, colour is superb throughout and, as you would hope for an animated feature, black levels are perfect. Shadow detail is more of a problem for live-action transfers, given that lighting is not really an issue for a ‘cartoon’, and the darker scenes are impressively realised.

If I have one complaint it’s that the English subtitles are not very well defined and can be a bit difficult to read in places. The region one discs all have yellow subtitles with a nice, hard, black border, but here they are plain white and not particularly thick characters. You can’t have it all I suppose.

I really don’t think this could look any better on DVD, I just wish the same sort of care had been taken with Ghost in the Shell: Special Edition.

As alluded to earlier, the two discs in the package contain the same episodes but with a different selection of soundtracks. Both discs have fairly active 5.1 tracks in both Japanese and English that can place you right in the centre of the action. In Meme especially there are some nice touches, such as doors opening in the rear right and a Tachikoma in the front soundstage dangling a suspect in the rear soundstage. The Tachikomatic Days shorts use the surrounds surprisingly well also. It’s all a little gimmicky, but it is done well and the clarity is faultless.

Vocals are nicely presented, with front stereo separation used well where required, but the bass lacks finesse in both the disc one (Dolby Digital) and disc two (DTS) versions and seems a little heavy-handed. Other than the language, there is no discernable difference between the Japanese and English track on the two discs, and overall the DTS tracks just shade the opposition—but only just.

Kusanagi, Batou and Tachikoma
There are also three additional Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks—English and Japanese on disc one, and English only on disc two—but all of them lose the playfulness that the rear action provides and clarity is well down when compared to the multi-channel tracks.

Stick with the 5.1 tracks, even if it means your equipment down-mixing into Pro Logic surround. The surround action and clarity of the sound is too far above the Stereo tracks not to recommend otherwise, and overall they are well done.

The majority of the extra features are housed on disc one. Firstly, for each episode you can view the source code—which basically boils down to a step-by-step Plot Synopsis of the entire episode (you have been warned).

Also accessible via the individual episode menus are a set of Character Profiles. These are the same wherever you access them from and include details on recurring characters Paz, Akafuku and Borma, as well as four characters that appear on this disc—Nanao, Marcelo Jarti, Gonjo Kanekichi and Tamoaki Kokita.

Under ‘Explore Components’ on the Main Menu you can access a couple of interviews, both presented in 4:3 with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo audio and optional English subtitles.

Interview with Osamu Saku (9m24s) sees the actor giving his views on his character of Section 9 Chief Aramaki and how he approached the role.

Interview with Yoko Kanno (11m19s) features the composer of all the music featured in GitS:SAC, interspersed with music clips from the Soundtrack CD (which, as far as I can fathom, is only available as part of the Region 1 GitS:SAC Special Edition).

Finally on disc one is a rather large set of Trailers. Coming in at 33m14s, forty—yes, forty—trailers for various Manga Entertainment offerings are showcased here, and at least each has been allocated a chapter so that you can skip through if you wish.

Over on disc two, the only extra is a Quiz. Answer all ten multiple choice questions correctly and you are treated to the first 7m16s of Chat! Chat! Chat!, which just happens to be the first episode on the next volume.

Section 9 (minus Togusa)
Not an impressive collection of features, and the interviews do suffer from not having all of the on-screen captions subtitled (something that the region one edition does rather well), but at least a similar effort is being made across all the volumes. It will be interesting to see how they pad out Volume 7 though, as that should only have two episodes on it.

Eight episodes in and the series is really starting to show that consistency is the name of the game. Solid stories and lots to see for those that wish that the original movie was much longer, it is only starting to hint at the effect the Laughing Man storyline will have (although I believe episodes 20 to 26 are the ones to watch for in that respect).

The discs offered here are almost identical to the region one Volume 2 Special Edition. With the addition of a boatload of trailers, the quiz, the plot synopses and the character profiles, technically this set gives more, but nothing that is worth recommending one version over the other—although North America does get a soundtrack CD as part of the package. Sonically and visually the presentation of the episodes is excellent, so if you like this sort of thing then pick it up.

If anyone Anchor Bay or Manga Entertainment is listening though, can the releases be a little more frequent please…?