#1 Poorly explained setting
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a TV anime created as an alternative to the classic 1995 movie of the same name. It is a cyberpunk police thriller revolving around the members of Public Security Section 9. They are an elite investigation and assault unit tasked with combating the most dangerous crimes in Japan’s society.
I consider myself quite a fan of the original movie, but have many issues with Stand Alone Complex. First and foremost among them being the dire state of its world-building. In a movie, I can accept when information about the world is kept vague in the interest of brevity. Not everything has to be completely explained if it’d take up too much runtime without adding much value. Stand Alone Complex, however, has over 50 episodes to work with, yet feels even less explained than its movie counterpart.
Its world is constructed out of overlapping sci-fi concepts and has an elaborate history, none of which it introduces well. The narrative just dumps keywords on you without explanation, seemingly presuming that you’ll look them up later. You get lines like “He’s in autistic mode” and you just have to hit up the wiki to discern what that even means. I am not one for exposition dumps, but when you casually bring up that we had 2 more world wars in the span of 20 years, I’d like some more info on that real quick.
Even when they do resort to exposition, it’s not at all helpful. Entire episodes are dedicated to characters sitting around, debating the plot. It is excruciatingly boring, but rather than expand your understanding of the world, these act more like recaps of the ongoing plot.
This becomes an issue when Stand Alone Complex weaves its sci-fi jargon and world-building into the mystery story lines; acting as if you have any foundation to understand what it’s all about. It’s possible, I guess. I could figure things out if I rewatched the episodes again and looked up a few things online. I just don’t want to do that because Stand Alone Complex was not engaging me enough to make that prospect seem appealing.
#2 Filler by design
The gimmick behind Stand Alone Complex is that it is purposefully designed to have filler in it. Its episodes are divided between Standalone and Complex chapters. The complex episodes serve to progress the actual main story. Meanwhile, true to their name, Standalone episodes are side-stories that serve to flesh out the world. As the first point in this review indicates, the latter does not go over well.
What actually ends up happening is that the main story fails to ever really pick up steam. Attempts to build up intrigue fall flat, because any follow-up is delayed for several episodes at a time. Sometimes main characters just go unmentioned for so long that we genuinely began to wonder if we missed something. Then the end of the season begins to loom and a bunch of complex episodes all get packed together, negating any benefits of balancing main and side-stories.
Besides not doing a great job at fleshing out the world, the standalone episodes are also very inconsistent. Some are quite okay, others painfully dull. You never quite know what you might get. A good example of the baffling pacing you have to deal with is Pazu. He’s a member of Section 9 and framed as a main character, but he isn’t properly introduced. He’s just kinda there all the time and doesn’t do anything. Then, in the latter half of season 2, you finally get an episode that explain his backstory. Not only is the episode itself lame, I also can’t comprehend withholding a main character’s introduction until episode 39.
Please keep in mind that the above is just one of many “good examples” the series has to offer. Stand Alone Complex has far more terrible filler chapters to offer. How about an episode where half the runtime involves the protagonist trying to seduce a teenager. Or how about 20 minutes of God-awful courtroom drama?
#3 Underwhelming villains
Main characters are not the only ones suffering from poor writing. The villains are similarly held back by mediocre characterization and poorly-paced development.
Each season has its own villain and both fail to really build up much mystery. Their identities are revealed early on in their respective storylines, at which point it just becomes a matter of outwitting them. The villain of season 2 is particularly egregious in this regard. You got a world where you can replace or alter your body on a whim, yet he decides to walk around with the most menacing “villain” face imaginable. The plot twist surrounding his involvement with the crimes being so obvious that it stopped being fun to even jest about.
Season 1’s Laughing Man fares a bit better as a character, but here too the narrative gives their identity away too easily. It becomes more about retroactively understanding the Laughing Man than a genuine manhunt. Even then, the character isn’t so impressing that their personality compensates for the lack of mystery.
#4 Graphical errors & CGI
The 1995 movie was a visual masterpiece, but I was willing to cut Stand Alone Complex some slack. The production of a long-running TV anime is naturally going to very different from a single movie. I was prepared for a visual downgrade here and there.
Stand Alone Complex is an anime that I could best describe as being selectively nice. I love the backgrounds in this anime. It does great job of painting these amazing city skylines that help sell the semi-dystopian future. Then you zoom in on it and see the animation mistakes and awkward CGI. Characters that look wildly different from episode to episode, or weird cuts that feel like they weren’t meant for a final product. Issues that I can accept to some degree in older anime, but which are way too prevalent in Stand Alone Complex.
How much it draws attention to these issues is certainly a problem. It’s hard to ignore the low-effort CGI crowds when you get lengthy crowd shots where puppets stiffly loop through their awful animations. Or when you have scenes where nothing can distract you from a janky animation presented in full view.
#5 A series milked beyond its breaking point
I want to circle back to the start of this review. Ghost in the Shell first rose to fame as a 1995 movie adapted from a short manga by Masamune Shirow. It quickly became one of the most iconic anime licenses of the time. A cyberpunk masterpiece that was recognized as being miles ahead of the competition.
Stand Alone Complex aired 7 years later and already felt egregious then. A messy reimagining of the original story, stretched out across a luxurious 52 episodes + movies. That wasn’t the end of it though! There is also Ghost in the Shell Arise. A reimagining of the reimagining that began airing in 2013. It retains some of the creative staff, but the directing, screenplay, and production are all by new people. That’s wasn’t the end of it though! In 2020, fucking Netflix got their grubby mitts on the franchise. They made Stand Alone Complex 2045; a CGI abomination so far removed from the original that it may as well not be a part of the series.
Don’t get me started about the live-action movie. I want to fry my own brain at this point.
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