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Twenty Years Later: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

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Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is twenty years old. What an absurd thing to say. Twenty years ago was when old anime came out. Stand Alone Complex will likely always be an image of modernity in my eyes. We’ve finally reached the point at which this modern era of anime has been going for two decades.

I suppose I’ll always think of Stand Alone Complex as the representative of modern anime reaching a certain milestone. In five years, Stand Alone Complex will be a quarter of a century old, and therefore so will modern anime in my eyes. Sure, maybe the industry will have changed drastically by that time, but it seems unlikely at this point.

That’s because Stand Alone Complex came at a time when new technologies were beginning to make a major impact on anime, and it was an early example of the standard that the entire industry would soon follow. For most, especially in TV animation, this took until the mid-2000s, but Stand Alone Complex was blazing the trail early in the young new millennium.

© 2002-2004 Shirow Masamune / Production IG/ / Kodansha

This is why the 2000s is probably the most fascinating decade of anime from a historical and stylistic perspective; it was by far the most transformative. These technologies made their waves across all manner of animation, filmmaking, and other electronic production across a similar range of time, but for anime, especially when we look at productions in terms of decades, it’s very easy to see how significant this evolution was. Look at a selection of anime from 1990 and a selection from 1999. They’re likely to generally feel like they’re from around the same time. Do the same with 2010 and 2019. You’ll find a similar result. Now take a bunch of anime from 2000 and another batch from 2009. They’re worlds apart.

The most obvious element that affected anime and virtually everything else with similar elements was the switch from analog to digital. These are vague enough concepts that the impact can be very different depending on what medium you’re dealing with, but for the Japanese television animation production industry, this meant a somewhat gradual shift from hand-painted animation cels being moved across backgrounds and photographed on film to drawings being scanned or eventually drawn entirely virtually with digital paint applied and all the inhuman precision afforded by being able to manipulate your work on a computer however you wish. The intersection of animation and digital production finally achieved perhaps the greatest goal of many filmmakers – given enough time and effort, they could theoretically make every pixel of every frame exactly what they wanted.

As the digital revolution made its way to home theater hardware, bulky CRT TVs with their traditional square design started to be phased out in favor of slick flat screens. Just like the content that would be played on them, the analog aesthetic of static, scanlines, and curved glass would be gradually replaced with flat surfaces that similarly offered the ability to control each pixel with unprecedented precision. With these much lighter pieces of equipment came the feasibility of the TV being a widescreen format just like films had always been shown in theaters, and either letterboxed, cropped, or squished for home video presentation. Once that became the standard, television content naturally had to follow suit and start being produced in a new 16:9 aspect ratio rather than the long-standing 4:3.

The last piece of this puzzle took the longest. Early digital TV anime was still largely produced in standard definition. Even if you had one of those newfangled flatscreen TVs, it may not have had a resolution any higher than 480p while the transition was still underway. TV broadcast, not all of it even digital yet, wasn’t going to switch to full HD immediately. The home video standards that could store high definition content weren’t released until 2006. So at the time, this new technology was revolutionary and allowed for things that were never possible before, or at least a lot more difficult, but once all the hardware and protocols caught up and started displaying content in 720p, 1080p, 4K… those early digital productions looked a little rough in retrospect. For all the strengths of digital, analog has any number of qualities that could be considered superior on a subjective level. I tend to lean more to the digital side on average, but even if you’re looking at quality purely in terms of resolution – the most digital perspective one could possibly have – the fact is that a digital production is essentially locked into its resolution while analog, for all its imperfections, has theoretically infinite resolution. Sure, when it’s on film there’s only a certain level of detail you can get out of it, and we’re starting to reach the upper limits. And yes, at a certain point you’re probably only getting the blemishes and mistakes after a certain point. But when you animated something entirely digitally at no more than 480p and didn’t keep the raw assets around, your new film scan is likely to fare a lot better in HD than an automated upscale.

These three aspects form the primary core of what made anime transform so much across the 2000s. At the beginning of the decade, nearly every TV series was shot on film in 4:3 and released in SD. By the end of it, nearly all of them were digital in 16:9 and native HD. In live-action, these changes aren’t necessarily always as striking, but for 2D hand-drawn animation, the change in aesthetic between analog and digital is a dichotomy unlike anything else one could observe in how different anime looks “now.”

© 2002-2004 Shirow Masamune / Production IG/ / Kodansha

These were the elements that applied across the board, but of course these new digital technologies also introduced the ability to use 3DCG either to enhance the 2D base as nearly all anime does now or to replace the classic aesthetic entirely, as western animation was much more eager to adopt. This was not only much sparser and more optional but such a divergence that the two can hardly be compared, but it’s still important to this history lesson and indeed how it relates back to this series that broke all ground.

For as poorly as a lot of early digital TV anime holds up these days, Stand Alone Complex still looks remarkably new, especially for a series that aired 52 episodes in just over two years. While many series took until not only the mid but for some the late 2000s to switch to widescreen, Stand Alone Complex was there from the beginning, arguably subtler but I’d say even more revolutionary than being a fully digital production. Sure, if you slap it on your 4K TV today you can tell it wasn’t animated in native 1080p, but compared to even the next several years of contemporaries, it doesn’t look bad at all.

Perhaps the thing that impresses me most about Stand Alone Complex’s aesthetic so far ahead of its time is how well the CG holds up. CG in anime still looks bad pretty often, even twenty years later. But despite being made at a time when throwing CG in your 2D TV anime was almost guaranteed to be a disaster, I honestly believe that Stand Alone Complex still holds up as one of the finest examples of utilizing a significant amount of CG technology to dramatically enhance the presentation of a 2D series.

Of course, for as technologically and aesthetically revolutionary as Stand Alone Complex was, not only was it not the first anime to break this kind of ground, it wasn’t even the first Ghost in the Shell anime to do so. Mamoru Oshii’s original 1995 film was the poster child for introducing these elements of the future into anime production and making history by doing so. I think in retrospect the 1995 film looks like a piece of cel animation with burgeoning CG technology thrown on top – which is what it was – while Stand Alone Complex looks like the ideal that that experience was meant to achieve, but there’s no diminishing just how essential the innovations of the 1995 film were to the entire industry, let alone its direct successor. In that sense, Stand Alone Complex was only continuing on a path set for its by the first animation of its franchise, but the fact that it came only seven years later and produced 52 episodes on a television schedule makes the leaps in sophistication all the more impressive in my book.

This is what it means to be a Ghost in the Shell anime, or at least what it meant at the time. These two subsequent but largely unrelated productions both achieved the same goal outside of their storytelling: they blazed the path forward for the future of their industry. How fitting that this be the paradigm of a series so concerned with innovative future technology and how it affects the world going forward. For a solid decade, Ghost in the Shell was exactly that for the animation industry, always pushing forward and introducing something new for generations to learn from.

And all that is only the visual production side of the series. It’s also essential for an effective Ghost in the Shell story to take that same care of looking to the future and analyzing the repercussions of technology in profound new ways, and Stand Alone Complex has that in spades. Kenji Kamiyama built upon the work that Oshii had done, and Masamune before him, to create a Ghost in the Shell entirely his own. Oshii was succinct and impactful in his under-90 minutes, but Kamiyama uses the breadth of his sprawling 52 episodes to dive deep into the philosophy at the heart and mind of this franchise. With that much time, you can have long arcs dealing with Section 9 battling the insidious forces that threaten their fragile cyberpunk society, you can have episodic character studies of all the major characters, and you can spend an episode with adorable Tachikomas philosophizing their AI off for 20 minutes. That’s exactly what Kamiyama does, using his time to present a multifaceted Ghost in the Shell that extends beyond what most would expect from it and tells every kind of story he had in mind.

But in case it needed just a little icing on that cake, how do you match Kenji Kawai’s haunting score from Oshii’s film? Well back when she was still active in anime, you couldn’t do much better than to enlist the legendary Yoko Kanno. From her work in the theme songs by the likes of the late Origa and Cowboy Bebop alum Steve Conte to each distinctively Kanno composition accenting the series proper, this series stands alongside her aforementioned magnum opus as a timeless piece of evidence that she will always be one of the greatest anime composers of all time despite not having touched the medium in nearly a decade. So much about Stand Alone Complex wouldn’t be what it was without each element working perfectly together, and Kanno’s score is certainly one of the most essential of those.

While both seasons of Stand Alone Complex not only impress me for holding up so well for so long but also rank as my all-time favorite Ghost in the Shell productions, the latter season, 2nd GIG is a major step up above its already triumphant predecessor. It builds upon everything the first season achieved so magnificently and adds a great deal to each element that makes it so strong. By 2005, the production quality had shaken off any early growing pains you can see from the 2002 material, to the point that I think it looks as good as or better than plenty of new series from 15+ years later. The balance of a captivating overarching plot and deep character material is even more compelling. And the theme songs (and the accompanying animation of the OP in particular) still stand out to me not only for nostalgia but as timeless and truly excellent pieces of work.

I mention that Oshii and Kamiyama’s work represented what Ghost in the Shell was at the time, and how they separately managed to reinvent their industry in new and exciting ways both in terms of technological production and storytelling. I’d say this is in direct contrast to what we’ve gotten from the franchise since. ARISE is fine for what it is, but when a new Ghost in the Shell anime feels like everything else that comes out at the same time, it’s lost what made that franchise so special.

That’s still much higher praise than I’d give to Stand Alone Complex’s own direct continuation we’ve gotten in the past few years. Even with Kamiyama back on board, SAC_2045 feels like an embarrassment to the heights he had reached, and I actually would’ve preferred it not exist within the same universe, although it’s easy enough to ignore after all this time. Although it does follow the trend of using the newest technology for its animation, it looks as bad as its original series still looks so good after all this time, and even its writing and direction feel like a shell of what once was. No pun intended. Maybe we don’t need more. We’ve had the best of the bunch for twenty years.