Anime Action Cyborg Barbie Returns! Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 Season 2 Review
Wow, it’s been over two years since Netflix unleashed the first half of this unexpected continuation of 2002’s watershed sci-fi/action/police procedural anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The original two seasons comprise one of my favourite anime shows ever. Based on the dense, cerebral (and somewhat horny) 1991 manga Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, it was one of studio Production IG’s biggest early-2000s hits. Writer/director Kenji Kamiyama would later work on Eden of the East, 009 Re:Cyborg and Napping Princess, but here he returns to his greatest success. Although he directed the entirety of this sequel’s first twelve episodes, this second dozen is shared with Shinji Aramaki, director of some other Shirow adaptations (various versions of Appleseed), whereas Kamiyama maintains his chief writer credit.
In my original review of the first twelve episodes, I remarked upon how SAC_2045’s CGI implementation made the characters look plasticky. This was in marked contrast to the standard 2D animation of the original show. Unfortunately, this aspect of the production has not improved during the two-year interim. The characters look like they’re moulded from latex, and flop around comedically as one might expect of shiny, mechanised sex dolls. It does make it very difficult to take the otherwise intense action seriously when the main female character’s lips look so pink, and so soft, and… so… yielding…
The first episode picks up the story a few months after the conclusion of the previous season, completely failing to resolve that horrible cliffhanger they made us suffer for two years. Just as well this is Netflix and we can binge the whole thing in an unholy orgy of writhing synthetic bodies, spurting fluid and spectacular violence. Yeah, expect some answers — sort of — much, much later. It’s still 2045, and the economy continues to struggle after a worldwide financial crash triggered by the rogue AI “1A84” developed by — surprise — the US government to perpetuate the “sustainable war” concept, designed to keep the wheels of international commerce running. Turns out that its stated directives to “make sure the rest of humanity keeps kind of ok but make sure the US is the only country that profits” are impossible to reconcile, so of course it went berserk, infecting an untold number of random people’s cyberbrains, re-writing their personalities and abilities, unleashing a new race of “post-humans”.
These post-humans are SAC_2045’s main boogiemen (and women) — weirdly silent, nigh-on indestructible sentinels with inscrutable goals who run rings around our heroes, Japanese Public Security Section 9, as they try vainly to work out just what in Hell’s name is going on. Section 9 are in good company, because for much of the runtime, the viewer is also completely in the dark as to what is happening and why. It’s ok though, there’s lots of pretty scenery and stuff goes boom. A lot.
Dancing and twisting to avoid hails of bullet fire, the post-humans are a weird reverse — homage to The Matrix, considering that movie owed much of its look, tone and content to 1995’s original Ghost in the Shell movie. I can’t help but imagine it’s deliberate. Although their drunken-fist-esque balletics look ridiculous, it does also kind of sell them as creepy, inhuman and nigh-invincible adversaries, always multiple steps ahead of Major Kusanagi, Batou et al. Their silence and inability to directly communicate (is that because their brains’ speech centres have been melted or something?) add an extra layer of mystique and also a likely deliberate narrative obfuscation that means communication with them is repeatedly shown to be pointless, and the heroes must progress the plot by guesswork, luck, and running in guns blazing.
Writer Kamiyama has never been shy to include political themes in his work, and his dislike of the US has never been more evident than here. Although the post-humans are the most apparent clear and present danger, slimy US civil servants manipulate and smirk in the background, while entire armies of rollerblade-wearing elite cyborg special ops soldiers invade Japanese territory with their thermopto-camouflage and hilariously enormous guns. The US government blackmails and discredits the half-American Japanese president and even attempt to manipulate his government into deposing him. He does have an annoyingly floppy blonde haircut, so we can’t really blame them for that. Russia doesn’t get a pass here either — there’s a political murder via polonium poisoning that’s incredibly on-the-nose.
SIGNIFICANT PLOT DETAILS FOLLOW — SPOILERS
Although she’s the undisputed face of the franchise, the purple-haired and perpetually mysterious Major Motoko Kusanagi takes something of a backseat in her own show, as much of the focus moves instead to… Purin Ezaki. So, if you’ve read my previous writings on the subject of new, hyperactive pink-haired character Purin, you may recall these quotes:
“I only hope that in the upcoming season, terminally irritating new pink-haired character Purin comes to some kind of pointlessly painful, swift and sticky end. She is so annoying.”
“Hopefully she’ll die horribly/tragically/heroically/messily/pointlessly/painfully/screamingly in the second half of the series.”
Um… I’ve never felt quite so guilty or ashamed to be so completely, horribly correct. This second part does a lot to humanise Purin by relating her tragic past, explaining her one-sided attachment to Batou (it’s heartbreaking that he can’t remember who she is), adding extra layers of pathos and depth, giving her a compelling story and stakes… and then murdering her in the most brutal, heartless fashion, after she self-sacrificingly saves someone else’s life with her actions. I felt a bit sick, to be honest. That bastard Kenji Kamiyama knew what he was doing, inserting a seemingly incongruous and irritating character, knowing full well he would make her fun and engaging, only for her to suffocate in a pool of her own blood, riddled with gunshot bullets. How dare you make me feel things, you monster!
Purin ends up becoming one of the most compelling aspects of the narrative, as a copy of her personality (rebuilt from her online memory storage/diary) is reconstituted in a completely prosthetic android body. The existential horror of this isn’t dwelt on in detail, but to begin with, Purin doesn’t realise what’s happened to her and runs around the android factory in a tonally weird, prolonged state of undress. Once she remembers her death, and then realises she no longer has a ghost (soul)… she sheds a very non-android-like tear. She’s not the original Purin, but a soulless copy. Unfortunately the show never quite digs deep enough into the philosophy or ramifications of this to satiate my twisted desire for existential nightmare fuel. It doesn’t answer what limitations she might have now that she no longer has a ghost, and she pretty much continues on as before, albeit with superhuman physical abilities. I wish there was less vagueness around this part of the story, it’s a lot more interesting than some of the endless action scenes that punctuate the back end of the show.
DETAILED DISCUSSION ABOUT THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THE ENDING FOLLOW — ENORMOUS SPOILERS
For a story that relies so heavily on its high concepts, it’s a shame that the exposition and storytelling remain so clumsily obtuse. To be fair, this has always been an issue with the Ghost in the Shell franchise as a whole, but at some point I either have to accept that I’m too dumb (unlikely), or that I don’t pay enough attention (not guilty) or that Kenji Kamiyama hasn’t met an idea he couldn’t overcomplicate, obfuscate and confuse to the point of incomprehensibility. When you look back at the whole story, it really isn’t all that complex. But when it comes to why characters act the way they do, why certain events happen, and what everyone’s motives and plans are… the whole thing falls down like a pack of cards.
I still don’t fully understand what the post-humans were trying to do, and why it had to be done the unnecessarily over-complicated way they did it. The final episode is so disconcertingly odd, it feels disconnected from the rest of the show. Perhaps that’s deliberate, but it feels like an unsatisfying conclusion. Like… everything is built up to this apocalyptic confrontation, and then it all… kind of… stops. I suppose it’s tied into the very heavy George Orwell 1984 references. Season 1 of Stand Alone Complex did this too, with frequent references to JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and his other short stories.
In this season, we’ve got references to “Big Brother”, “Room 101”, “Doublethink”, the name of the rogue AI is 1A84. Antagonist character Takashi Shimamura (meaninglessly) expounds his philosophy as “War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery”. Most of these references are surface-level only. They could probably have used Animal Farm instead and make it work with minimal changes. The only interesting use of 1984’s concepts comes at the conclusion with the concept of “Doublethink”. Essentially we are given no confirmation on what actually happened during the climactic battle. Some characters appear to have had their memories wiped, other people remember events one way, while others remember it differently. Both sets of conflicting memories are apparently ok, because this is now a new world, with an evolved humanity, each individual living their own individual online-integrated best life where inconvenient things like truth and history aren’t important or even shared with others.
I don’t get why this is supposed to be a good thing. Or maybe it isn’t. I can’t swallow that hyper-post-modernism insanity that there is no such thing as objective truth. Our society is predicated on the assumption that there is good and bad. If someone murdered my wife, I’d be very angry and want them to be prosecuted. You can’t just have the murderer say “well, I know what you saw, that’s not what happened in my version of reality though.” A “frictionless” reality where you can believe whatever you want sounds more like a nightmare than a utopian ideal to be pursued. I mean, it’s sold as being superior to the “sustainable war”, but to be honest, neither option sounds ideal to me.
For some reason, Major Kusanagi isn’t affected by the seismic alteration in humanity’s status quo, in the mass hallucination affecting their perception of reality. That she decides to leave Section 9 again at the end of the movie is fabricated as a homage to the end of the original manga, and the movie, with her saying goodbye to Batou, agreeing on a codeword for if they are reunited under different aliases, and then her jumping off a building and… escaping into the net, or something. It’s not that clear, and it doesn’t have the same thematic power as the previous versions of the same ending. I do wonder if there is already a follow-up planned? I don’t feel the concepts introduced here have been satisfactorily explained or explored in anywhere near enough detail.
Separate from the needlessly difficult to follow story, there’s a lot of fun to be had. The hyperactive, insectile/spider-like Tachikoma tanks are, as always, a fun source of comic relief, and in some ways act like the most human members of the cast. They’re so inquisitive and excitable, though also kind of alien, in that they do bizarre things and then randomly erase their own memories so as not to suffer consequences! Purin is less annoying than before, and has some funny interactions, and a very fanservice-y ten minutes or so running around completely naked. Don’t worry — she gets some clothing — yeah, skin-tight cosplay/fetish-wear. Hmmm. Masamune Shirow’s perverted spirit of cheesecake absurdity survives, despite the show’s overall very serious tone.
The rest of Section 9 get some time to show off their skills, even if they receive almost nothing in terms of character development. I could tell you almost nothing about Pazu, Saito, Borma or Ishikawa, other than they are very good at their specific chosen forms of lethal violence. Even usual audience-insert characters Batou and Togusa get little else to do other than move the plot forwards. Togusa gets a fun sequence where he has to run through a mostly-deserted city, following a parkour-ing adolescent, huffing with exertion up inclines and failing utterly to match her athletic grace and skill, as she catapults herself over fences and walkways. As a man no longer in the earliest flush of youth myself, I felt painful empathy for the poor, gasping Togusa.
Overall, SAC_2045 season 2 is a step up in quality compared to season 1. It’s heavily serialised with very little of what you could call “standalone” episodes, which makes something of a mockery of its links to the original. Thankfully the main story is interesting, even if the way it’s communicated is clumsy and needlessly overcomplicated at times. Major Kusanagi remains utterly badass, and I wish she’d had a bit more of a central role to play. I can’t believe the show made me empathise with, and regret my earlier hatred for, Purin Ezaki. I’d almost be happy if she turned up in further entries in the franchise. I think there would be a lot of interesting material to explore with her, if the writers could be bothered to write in depth, and not be continually distracted by All Of The Things Exploding All Of The Time.
Special mention should go to the soundtrack, especially the opener and closer, both by Millennium Parade, of recent Belle fame. In particular, I love closing track No Time to Cast Anchor. With effortless cool, a funky beat and breathy vocals it perfectly fits the somewhat quirky yet bombastic tone set by SAC_2045. I was continually irritated at having to scramble for my TV remote to prevent Netflix from skipping the song! The bastards seem to have removed the ability to prevent that from happening…
Despite the offensively plasticky sheen, I’m glad that SAC_2045 exists. It’s reignited my love for Ghost in the Shell in general. Maybe it’ll inspire me to finally go and actually watch more than a couple of episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Or perhaps I’ll just go back and rewatch Standalone Complex… again.
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 season 2
Number of episodes: 12
Released: 23rd May 2022
Available to stream on: Netflix
Written by: Kenji Kamiyama
Directed by: Shinji Aramaki
Produced by: Production I.G. and Sola Digital Arts
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
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