While we are focusing on what aired ten years ago, the story really begins nearly two years prior. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex premiered in October 2002 and raised the bar on anime storytelling. It was not just “great anime”; it was great storytelling period. A new generation was introduced to the near future, cyberpunk police work of Major Kusanagi and Section 9, and the series was a success in Japan and the US. Which brings us to January 2004 and the premier of 2nd Gig. Would the series suffer from the dreaded “sophomore slump”? Or would it continue and possibly even exceed the first season’s brilliance?
The first season’s story focused on a traditional mystery; a hacker known as the “Laughing Man” was causing havoc leading to the exposure of a massive conspiracy between the government and powerful corporations. 2nd Gig takes the conspiracy to a larger level, as various individuals are attempting to use anti-immigration sentiments in Japan to gain political power. This is a brilliant story device but is also the reason why the second season does not quite hit the same bar of excellence as its predecessor.
One of the reasons I have enjoyed the world of Ghost in the Shell is the near future technology and how it affects the world. We are not in a world of FTL spaceships and utopian societies. Humanity may be able to extend their lives and replace limbs with mechanical ones, but the issues they face are no different than the ones we face today. 2nd Gig introduces us to a Japan that needed cheap labor after the last two world wars depleted their workforce; immigrants rushed in to fill that void. Now, the immigrants are looking for more rights, if not outright citizenship, while the citizens are looking to pitch them out to reduce the increasing taxes needed to support services for immigrants. Sounds a bit too familiar, perhaps something from a headline in 2013 rather than 2030.
The story weaved against this backdrop is more a brilliant game of cat and mouse than a mystery; the main villain is revealed fairly early in the series. What follows is an intricate dance between him, Section 9, and a mysterious man named Kuze that provides the same quality of character development and action (and Tachikomas!) of the first season. However, this also serves to make the villain distant and almost detached from the story. We are watching a live chess game where one of the participants is playing his moves over the internet. It just does not feel as absorbing, as engaging as hunting down the villain.
2nd Gig compensates for this by revealing a large piece of Kusanagi’s past and tying it to Kuze and his plans for the immigrants. It is a solid character thread throughout the season, one that pays off in a massive way at the end. This leads me to how both this season and the first broke their episodes down. The first season had “Complex” and “Stand Alone” episodes; the former were the main story about the Laughing Man with the latter being more character focused pieces. 2nd Gig expands this with “Individual”, “Dual”, and “Dividual” episodes. The first two types are the main plot threads with the last again being character focused pieces.
While the character focused pieces may not directly affect the main storyline, they build out our cast and give us the how and why they take action when we are. This is realistic storytelling at its best; how we behave in the large moments are predicated on how we choose to behave in all the small moments in between. This creates a team we can connect to on more than a surface level; they are not just reacting to move the plot along. They are acting on their emotions, their instincts, their morals every step of the way. They stumble and make mistakes; they are, despite any cybernetic enhancements, just as human as you and I.
Even though 2nd Gig may not be as engaging a story as its predecessor when it comes to the villain, it still remains a solid piece of storytelling a decade later. The plot reflects the concerns and issues of society a decade ago and today. Fantastic action and character development? Check marks and A+ all around on those. Fantastic musical score by Kanno Yoko? Hell, yeah! If you have not picked up this season or its predecessor in the past decade, grab those holiday gift cards, shake out your couch cushions for loose change, and get the money together to purchase it. You can still find the excellent DVDs produced by Manga Entertainment (distributed by Bandai) on sale at reasonable prices or in a collected release. This deserves to be on your shelf. Did I mention the Tachikomas?