Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 – Episode 1 Review

So before this post gets fully under way, I want to note that this was written a little over a month ago when the show first came out. Since then I’ve watched the rest of the first season, so a review of the remaining episodes of season 1 will come as a single review sometime soon, but I hope this look at episode 1 showcases how odd a transition it is into this series.

During this trying time of COVID-19 and UK lockdown, I’ve been digging through the archive of anime Blu-Rays and DVDs that I’ve collected over the course of many a year. A large portion of my collection remains unwatched even after watching what has now amounted to more than 150 episodes since I resolved to this effort. One major factor of this has been boredom, there’s not a lot to do, you know, with everything being closed but another is that as we closed out the Winter 2020 season (which runs from January through to March) of anime shows we began to see many shows from the upcoming Spring season being delayed, so I waited it out a few weeks, got stuck into my archive and my fears came to be. The shows from the Spring season that had actually made it to air are now being delayed, to resume broadcast from their first episode again in Summer, but some directors have made predictions that we may be lucky to see these shows return at their new scheduled dates with many citing that while the bulk of the animation and voice work is either completed or at a point where it can be completed at home (with many studios now in a position to carry out the entire animation process from home), the problem rears it’s head in the compositing stage, which is taking the many layers of animation produced and bringing them together into the images we see displayed on our TVs and this is a process that, currently, can’t be done from home. While graphics tablets are easily attainable even at an industry level standard, the kind of software and processing power needed for the compositing process is unfeasible for a home effort, so as these studios close their doors due to the state of emergency declared in Japan over the past couple of weeks, it may be a while before we see any new anime gracing our screens. So, my initial worry that the Spring season would be a complete write off has come true but now it seems that I now worry that Summer also could be the same. But alas, I’ve got enough in my collection to last me a while, especially if I start digging into the stuff I have seen in my collection.

With that quick insight into the anime industries current state-of-affairs out of the way, what I actually want to talk about isn’t a show in my collection but the one new show that caught my attention and the only one to make it completely out of the studio doors this season so far. And that show is Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045, produced by Netflix, animated by Production I.G and directed by Kenji Kamiyama. This show is a sequel to the Stand Alone Complex strand of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, which consisted of 2 seasons and a movie (there’s also recap movies for both seasons of the TV show but I’m going to ignore them for now). The original Stand Alone Complex began airing in 2002 with the second season concluding in 2005 which was then followed by the movie in 2006. So, this sequel has been 14 years in the making. And if I’m being honest, if this sequel was good, you wouldn’t be reading any of this.

It barely feels related to its predecessor in any way, to start off it’s animated in a completely different way. Gone is the beautiful hand drawn animation of the original, to be replaced by horrendous CGI that would look at home in a PS2 game. The original did have elements of CG used, but it was well executed and only used for certain things, like the Tachikoma robots, something that would have been hard to execute with hand drawn animation. Taking place 15 years after the end of the movie, all the characters somehow look much younger.

© Production I.G 2002
© Netflix 2020

Pictured above is the character Togusa, the top design is his original look in the first series and the bottom design is how he appears in 2045. I can barely believe that these are the same character. The same can be said about most of the other characters such as our main protagonist, Motoko “Major” Kusanagi, pictured below.

Motoko Kusanagi Character Appraisal (Ghost in The Shell: Stand ...
© Production I.G 2002
Netflix's Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 trailer reveals a new look ...
© Netflix 2020

As with Togusa, the top image is her original character design and the bottom is her new design. These barely look like the same character.

Before I go any further though, I want to interject some background knowledge on the franchise of Ghost in the Shell, that will be crucial to understanding why I found this first episode so jarring. Much like many anime in Japan, Ghost in the Shell’s many anime incarnations are based off a manga. That manga is of course called Ghost in the Shell, well kind of, while that’s the title that original author, Shirow Masamune, always wanted the series to be called, his publishers preferred the title Kokaku Kidotai, which roughly translates to Mobile Armoured Riot Police, riveting title, right? So, the original manga began serialisation in 1989 as Kokaku Kidotai: The Ghost in the Shell. The title being an homage to Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine, a book about philosophical psychology, which would act as inspiration for many of the core themes of the series. The original manga then finished serialisation in the following year, 1990 and the individual chapters then printed in a single volume in 1991. And that’s really all there is to say about the manga, while it certainly revolutionised certain parts of the industry and the cyberpunk genre, its original reception is hard to gauge now. There’s very little info I could find about it without the context of the movie. Which leads me to the next part of the GITS franchise’s history, the 1995 movie directed by Mamoru Oshii, the movie that cemented the franchise into anime history. Except, that’s looking at it retrospectively. The movie originally was a box office bomb and is now considered a bit of a cult movie, despite it being hugely popular, because it only began to sell well in the home video market. The movie is often hailed as a masterpiece and is personally one of my favourite movies. It took the core ideas of the manga and honed them, exploring them in a concise way, yet leaving them up for interpretation from the viewer. This was then followed up by a sequel, directed again by Oshii, in 2004. While not on the same level as the first movie, it’s still certainly a good movie. It’s also worth mentioning that the first movie has inspired a lot of Hollywood filmmakers over the years, one of the most notable being the Wachowski’s, who showed up to their pitch meeting for the Matrix, slapped on a VHS of Oshii’s movie and said “we wanna do that for real.” Back to the history lesson. Before the release of the second movie, we reach the release of Stand Alone Complex, which I’ve already given a brief run down on. Much like its movie counterpart it explores many of the same themes but has the room to go a bit more in depth. Like with the development of the Tachikoma robot’s AI over the course of the first season and how they’re treated by the different characters. There’s also an OVA (Original Video Animation) series called Arise, that’s an interesting attempt at exploring the establishment of Section 9 and looks at the groundwork of the world of GITS. However, it does stumble it’s way through this by re-treading old ground, making it old hat. So while an entirely passable entry into the GITS franchise, it does feel a little mooted by all that came before.

So that’s why this series feels so jarring, it doesn’t handle these themes in the same nuanced way that previous incarnations have but instead is very heavy handed in its approach. After suffering through the opening theme music, which feels like it’s just cashing in on the music that’s currently popular today, I was greeted by numerous screens of text detailing the current state of the world. This on its own isn’t unusual for GITS but it’s where I began to see the major things that were wrong with the shows writing. It starts by catching us up on some of the events that have happened since we last were in this universe. In 2042, a group known as The Great 4, which consisted of the American Empire, China, Russia and the EU, pursued an endeavour to bring economic stability to its members. So the American Empire initiated war as an industry and it was dubbed “sustainable war.” The logical course of action wouldn’t you agree? But it goes about as well as you’d expect and each nation in The Great 4 put their own interests first and things went to pot. Then, in 2044, an event called The Global Simultaneous Default occurred which caused all financial firms to halt all transactions and all currency disappeared, physical and virtual. So war as an industry rapidly expanded, with many nations falling into civil war. Sustainable war then begins to threaten mankind with extinction. All that info is dumped on to the viewer in about 50 seconds, I had to rewind multiple times to catch it all and some of it raises red flags. If all currencies ceased to be how did nations fund their militaries to then resume war as a business? Surely there’d have to be economic reform and new currencies implemented, wouldn’t that hamper the expansion of any war effort? Let alone allow it to expand to an extinction level threat.

After this I was greeted with an almost 10-minute-long action sequence, which felt needless, since currently we don’t really know what’s going on and action has never been the main focus of GITS. It’s there when it’s needed or is a consequence to decisions made, being dumped in to action without context was very odd. Also everything during this sequence is moving, the vehicles are of course moving, the characters are moving both in the physical world but we also see them moving around in the virtual world that they communicate in, and then the camera is constantly moving too, with lots of gun fire and explosions, it makes for a very disorientating experience. After it ends, the Major and one of her squad mates, Batou, have a conversation about sustainable war, very on the nose. They mention that these people are victims of said wars, so I guess that explains the contextless action sequence, maybe? Oh, and now we’re in Tokyo. The show just jumps from the Major in Palm Springs, California to Togusa in Tokyo without any kind of real transition. Looking at the time code, this is normally where there’d be a break in the show but even with the fade out and fade in, it feels like I’m in a different episode with no connection to the previous events. And what happens with Togusa here really doesn’t have any bearing on anything but rather just feels like it exists to introduce him and the Major’s boss, Daisuke Aramaki, back into the show and fill some time, because after a conversation about Togusa not holding a grudge against the Major, or any of the Section 9 members, we flip back to the Major which is a far better transition than the previous one. So, what are the Major and co. up to exactly? They find a group of weapons dealers. So that’s what this episode is about? Right. But then just as we find out what the whole point of this episode was the Major and her group encounter a sentinel bot, which, and I wish I was joking, is a cardboard box that turns in to a guard dog. Then the credits roll. One nice thing I can say is that the ending theme is a far better and much more atmospheric song than the opening. But after all of that, I wasn’t left with a sense of “I wonder what happens, I should watch the next episode”, I was just left with a feeling of “what?” and a compulsion to turn off this series as fast as possible, so the next episode didn’t start.

With the plot of the first episode being a mess in its communication of the events happening on screen, how do the visuals of the show hold up? Now, I’m not against CG anime. Some look fantastic like the 2014 show, Knights of Sidonia, which featured some very well-designed characters, and the CG lent itself well to the mechs featured in the show but SAC_2045, is the opposite. Maybe it’s because of the jump from traditional hand drawn animation to CG. But even the simplest of things put me off, character movements are awkward, every character looks very soft and, for lack of a better word, squishy. They don’t feel or look human, which would be quite amusing given the shows themes if it weren’t such a deterring factor. I compared the animation in its styling to Source Film Maker when talking to a friend but some of the animations people have created in SFM look better than this show. The pace at which certain action scenes are executed can be quite sickening to watch because they’re so fast, and the camera constantly moving during action scenes definitely doesn’t help. This is somewhat reminiscent of the problem I face when playing Dark Souls games, the rapid movement and motion blur induce motion sickness in me that I haven’t felt since I was young. To touch on my point of the character designs I made earlier, I do like these character designs. But they look terrible in motion and they also feel like they were used in the completely wrong show, had they been used in a new project I actually don’t doubt I wouldn’t have a problem with them.

With everything I’ve discussed here, it was tempting to write this new series off and completely drop the show. But I eventually sat down and watched the remaining 11 episodes. But I’ve spent enough energy on this review and think the first episode, along with this review are a good showcase of how fans may show trepidation when seeing this show up in their Netflix recommendations. On that, I’ll be signing out. Thanks for reading!

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