Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is an action-heavy sequel to a once-thoughtful anime (2023)

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The Ghost in the Shell universe is difficult to wrap one’s head around, and anyone would be forgiven for asking where the newest piece in the puzzle, Netflix’s Ghost in the Shell:SAC_2045, fits in. The answer is hidden in the initialism in the title: this is an extension of the Stand Alone Complex continuity, spinning out of the television show Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which has an entirely different continuity from the original manga and its influential movie adaptation.

But let’s recap the whole Ghost in the Shell list: There is the original manga by Masamune Shirow that had occasional sequels in the decades after its original 1989 run. The 1995 movie adaptation, directed by Patlabor creator Mamoru Oshii, reimagined the world of the manga, and became a watershed moment in Western sci-fi and sci-fi cinema, inspiring The Matrix and generally influencing depictions of an interconnected, always-online near future, full of deception and inequality. Oshii crafted a side-story, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, that explored the world further in 2004, but it came out after the television show Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which has an entirely different continuity and tone. Soon after that, Oshii pasted some CGI over scenes in the original Ghost in the Shell movie and released it as Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which, again, is not the same as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Then there is the most recent Ghost in the Shell property — Ghost in the Shell: Arise — that spawned yet another timeline as an origin story, as a series of movies that were later repackaged as a television show with a little more content.

There are also some OVAs and movies connected to each of these timelines that I’ve declined to mention. It’s a real threads-and-pushpins, connect-the-dots, the-conspiracy-goes-all-the-way-to-the-top situation — which brings us back to Ghost in the Shell:SAC_2045. This is a Ghost in the Shell that focuses on action and intrigue and elides the more existential questions. The show still has a stubborn, leering attachment to women’s bodies, which is, disappointingly, something that it shares with basically every depiction of the Ghost in the Shell universe. (Many of the iterations begin with the slow-mo assembly of a nude female robot, and this one is no exception.) Big guns, artistic representations of virtual communication, and conspiracies abound. Also there are giant spider robots that talk like babies.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is an action-heavy sequel to a once-thoughtful anime (1) Image: Netflix

It is at this point that I feel I must put my cards on the table. Even though giant spider robot babies are a welcome tone modulation for the series’ self-seriousness, the Stand Alone Complex version of events is not my favorite. The slower, more contemplative version seen in the original movie and Innocence is more my speed. This is not to say that the original film is perfect; it’s only 83 minutes long but so stuffed with silent montages of rainy alleys that it feels a good 40 minutes longer. But it’s hard to understand why so much of the bombastic action of Stand Alone Complex is necessary in a world where a form of the internet has wormed its way into people’s necks, consciousness is portable, and the line between life and artifice is long past blurring.

At least SAC_2045 treads some new territory for the property. The series takes place a decade and change after Stand Alone Complex, and the world has devolved into a state of “sustainable war” instigated by United States to bolster its economy that then led to “the Global Simultaneous Default” where all currency, whether real or virtual, was made worthless and all debts were erased. The world balkanized, terrorism ran rampant, and class divisions are starker than ever. People have mortgaged their organ systems and personal lives for cyborg implants, all of which are easily hackable. Only a year after the Default, we find the former detectives Motoko and Batou running and gunning through Southern California, now mercenaries for a private military company that may have more power than the beleaguered United States itself.

The show is playing with some thematic toys that may be beyond its capabilities. One may easily argue that “sustainable war” has been a part of the American military-industrial mission since the end of World War II, and treating it like something new is a bit naïve. Also, presenting Motoko and Batou in their new roles as super soldiers loses its appeal when you watch them mow down armed dissidents rebelling against nebulous moneyed interests (translated as “one-percenters” in the subtitles). It seems like, by the end, the series may try to make a point about the impossibility of a few special people overthrowing supermassive systems like “sustainable war” or mass surveillance. But it’s clear that you’d be able to see much better execution of the theme elsewhere, in something like Metal Gear Solid or the documentaries Citizenfour or Hypernormalisation. It’s also unclear how much SAC_2045 wants to use these weighty issues as structural content as much as it wants to use it as a superficial way to lend the project a sense of thematic urgency.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is an action-heavy sequel to a once-thoughtful anime (2) Image: Netflix

This late-night-Wikipedia-binge headiness might all be palatable if it weren’t for the uninspired 3D CG approach this show takes. CG anime can be done very well — look at Land of the Lustrous or BEASTARS, both from the studio Orange — but it requires a more thought beyond “let’s use some mocap suits and call it a day.” Main characters in SAC_2045 are more action figures than anime, swanning about without much physical presence. Movements are too smooth and isolated. Facial expressions are limited. The background characters make you wonder if someone was running low on time and pulled the assets from a last-gen Yakuza game, hastily applying a few cartoony lines to their faces. Investing any emotion in any of these characters is an uncanny adaptation process at best.

Now, someone invested in finding some meta point to this project might say that such artificiality is intentional — look at the sex worker robots that only snap to attention when a potential client comes nearby or the former college football players who are still in uniform when executing an insurrection — but rarely does the “it’s weird on purpose” angle work on me if there’s nothing else behind it. Even beyond the CG elements, there are problems. The settings are all spartan rooms and featureless desert; nothing lived-in. The visuals amount to a generic, bargain-bin version of Ghost in the Shell’s influential aesthetic. At least they gave Motoko real pants this time, even though they are cut much lower than the waist of her bodysuit.

I don’t think this was an IP dump of a project. There is a clear love for the characters, and all the principal voice actors from Stand Alone Complex are back. Though Motoko is more of a beautiful-but-deadly warrior than a world-weary detective struggling with her remaining humanity, this is a faithful, nihilistic evolution of her Stand Alone Complex character. There is also significant production continuity: The director of Stand Alone Complex is back for this season, to be succeeded by the director of Appleseed, another Masamune Shirow creation, for the second.

If you truly loved Stand Alone Complex, I can’t say you’d be disappointed with the show’s thematic ambition, but there’s none of the visceral aesthetics or mood that made Ghost in the Shell an indelible element of how we think about our interconnected lives.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is now streaming on Netflix

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