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Masamune Shirow created Ghost in the Shell over a decade ago now. Originally a (highly explicit) graphic novel, it concerned the operations of an elite covert security services department known as Section 9. Headed by the wise old Aramaki, the field unit consisted of team leader Major Motoko Kusanagi, her heavy arms backup Batou and a series of other operatives including Togusa, Ishikawa and Saito, along with a unit of robot droids called Tachikoma. Their missions were always clandestine, sometimes involving assassination and were noteworthy for their use of the 'net as both an offensive and defensive weapon. You see, the 'ghost in the shell' of the title refers to the fact that many of the operatives (including the Major herself) are cybernetically augmented, and posits the question: how much of your human self can you discard before you lose your spirit, i.e. your 'ghost' and can indeed fully automated creations ever have a ghost?

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7
The original book consisted of several different tales about this Section 9 and the hazardous and complicated missions that they take on, but it was soon adapted into a groundbreaking feature-length anime which basically told one broad, all-encompassing story about Aramaki, Motoko, and the team. The movie is excellent and probably still stands out as the best Ghost in the Shell production, although it is not the most faithful adaptation (despite being the only one to at least attempt to retain some of Shirow's rampant nudity—normally involving the Major herself). It also did not leave things very open for a series.

Feature


Due to the fact that the movie (and its visually opulent but Byzantine sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) did not use a great deal of the material from either Shirow's first book or his own overly convoluted sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface, a TV series was commissioned to make better use of the wealth of source material. This series largely disregards the occurrences in the movie (or, at the very least, pre-dates them—although there would still be some significant continuity errors), instead setting up a framework for telling the ongoing and myriad adventures of Section 9.

The series is called Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex (1st Gig, or Season 1) and the first reason for this title is simple—it consists of both standalone episodes and 'complex' episodes which form a part of a continuous story arc that runs the course of the entire season. The second meaning of 'standalone' (the one relating to the story itself) is not revealed until the final episode, so I won't spoil the complicated revelation. There are slightly more complex episodes than there are standalone ones and they mostly concern a mysterious cyber-terrorist known only as the laughing man.

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7
Over the course of the season we have seen Motoko and her men track and try to stop the elusive Laughing Man, both in reality and virtuality, often unable to prevent him from hacking into people's minds and causing no end of trouble to promote his mysterious terrorist agenda. Some of the episodes are almost completely devoid of action (there was one where a net-based team, including Motoko, merely convene online to discuss the Laughing Man's first appearance) and even hardcore fans are likely to have preferred the visceral and more satisfying fix of the self-contained standalone episodes but this, the seventh volume of the series, presents the final three action-packed and dramatic episodes in the season and they are all a part of the complex story arc.

So far we have seen the history of the Laughing Man explained (in the net-based episode) whereby he once kidnapped an important businessman called Serano, who owned a company which professed to have a cure for cyber-brain sclerosis. Aramaki's unit uncovered the fact that Serano's supposed cure actually contained a viral implant which the host was unaware of during an operation where the Major went undercover pretending to be the Laughing Man. Unfortunately now the Section is under threat because of that operation. Serano is aware that they know the truth and has enough political muscle to put into action a plan to take them down, revealing to the public the existence of the Section, ruining their credibility and accusing them of creating the whole Laughing Man phenomena merely to draw attention away from their own true black ops assassination operations. Aramaki himself is taken in for questioning and a heavily armed military strike force is dispatched to raid the Section 9 building and recover the members of the unit, dead or alive.

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7
  Ghost in the Shell is a fantastic creation that (whilst I still maintain the first movie was the best animated production to come from Shirow's brainchild), out of the volumes in this series, is easily the best. There was an episode a couple of volumes back which echoed the occurrences in the movie, and nominally in one of the first book's chapters, where Motoko tries to take on an armoured Scorpion Tank single-handedly, but aside from a few instances like this, none of the episodes have so far had the tension or gravitas of the movie—until now.

With the Section effectively disbanded and all of the operatives running for their liberty and their very lives, we get to see how each of them deals with the crisis. Obviously Batou stands out as truly being a force to contend with (and Motoko shamefully does not get quite as much action screen-time as I would have liked) but other highlights include the impossibly irritatingly-voiced Tachikoma droids actually doing something useful for a change, Togusa resorting to taking the law into his own hands, and Aramaki having to use all of his cunning to unravel the complicated political machinations that are threatening his department.

For those who have followed the season in its entirety, it is a worthy conclusion to the first series, rounding off as many loose ends as you could expect it to, and for newcomers it may be difficult to get into but it is nonetheless likely to prove highly enjoyable viewing. I personally cannot wait for the second series (2nd Gig) which, from the trailer, looks very promising indeed.

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7

Video


Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is presented in a lovely 1.85:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. The line detail is generally excellent, with characters looking well observed and clear at all times, although there is a little softness (it is difficult to discern whether or not this is intended), particularly during the longer shots—sunrises and the like. There is no grain as such, but moderate hazing, perhaps to smooth out the animated look. As for the colour scheme, it is rich and broad and luscious, from the blues of Motoko's apartment, to the golden sunsets, the lush green forest canopies and steely silver city blocks. Blacks are also solid, allowing for good night time shots and decent shadowing. Although not on the same visual level as the second feature film (which simply looked amazing), the animation here is generally brilliant, despite the fact that the second season looks like it might be even better.

Audio


If you want soundtracks, you've come to the right place. These Stand Alone Complex releases have more soundtracks than anything else I have come across - Dolby Digital 5.1 English or original Japanese, Dolby Digital 2.0 English or original Japanese, and DTS 5.1 English or Japanese. The first four variations are options on disc one, with the superior DTS options on disc two. Dialogue is presented clearly from the frontal array (and enunciated better on the Japanese version because the English vocal actors have to read the script cold, i.e. without having run through it first and without the presence of the other contributors) and all of the voices sound their normal selves, including the irritating Tachikomas, who are marginally less grating in the Japanese dub.

There are plenty of effects to throw at you—particularly on these episodes—with raging gunfights, massive explosions, crowds cheering and screaming, car chases, you name it. The six-speaker surround sound efforts also take note of the more subtle nuances, from guns being chambered to computer information scrolling across a screen, making full use of the medium. We also get an overpowering score, starting with the interesting if slightly odd opening track (which is not as good as some of the dramatic themes from the original movie, although these episodes do use more orchestral efforts to crank up the tension) to the pervasive beat during the action sequences. Even when there is little going on, the mix broods menacingly in the background, reinforcing the fact that these episodes are of particular importance.

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7

Extras


All of the extras are on the first disc, basically only consisting of an interview with the director, Kenji Kamiyama and a bunch of trailers, although each episode does have a brief 'previously on' summary and a grounding in the concepts behind the episode's story. The interview footage lasts fifteen minutes and has the director talking about the whole series, the characters, and the adult nature of the show (despite a lack of the violence and nudity and general bleak sentiment of the original movie and presence of the largely irritating Tachikoma instead). He discusses the brainstorming process that the creative crew undergo and his intolerance for contributors to air their negative opinions (which is probably why the Tachikomas get such a Jar Jar Binks over-sized role). Overall it is nice to hear from the director but a commentary would have probably been better. In addition, either the forced English subtitles are not up to scratch or he does not make sense because at times his philosophical musings become almost as indecipherable as the series'.

The trailers include generic anime trailers along with a trailer for the visually breathtaking Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and the fun shoot 'em up video-game Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, that has some excellent video segments. For the final disc in the series (and a two-disc set as well) I am disappointed that they did not go to the trouble of including featurettes, deleted concepts, full commentaries or even some preview material for the upcoming second season.

Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex Volume 7

Overall


Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex is a superior piece of animated TV. Over the course of the twenty-six episode series, we have seen many twists and turns and significant character development, along with a strong story arc that now concludes with this final volume in the series. And it has been worth the wait. The video presentation is decent and the audio options are ludicrously numerous, but nonetheless superior. For this momentous closing chapter it is a shame that they did not include a few more extras but fans of the series will want to pick this up anyway to complete their collection. For newcomers, I strongly recommend you purchase the box set, which is seriously good value for movie. Then you can catch up before the second season hits the shops.


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