The second of the Ghost in the Shell: ARISE films seems to be putting to rest one of the questions I've had about this new incarnation of the franchise: would it rediscover the mix of cool tech and warm humanity that made the previous iterations of GITS stand out like they did, or would it simply become Tom Clancy Meets Production I.G? The answer, sadly, seems to be the second option. And again, it's not that this shortcoming makes for a bad show, but it does point out how the earlier iterations of the franchise depended on a kind of alchemy that for whatever reason just isn't present here.
Again, don't take this as a sign the show isn't worth your time. It's still miles better than most anything else served up this season, and I continue to hold out hope that the things that made this franchise such a kick in the mind (and not just in the eye) are going to make themselves known to some degree by the time ARISE has fully arisen. But so far it hasn't happened, and I find myself having to settle for "pretty good", when I know "pretty good" is at the lower end of what I could expect from this material. Inflated expectations are always a bummer, because where do you go from up?
Never mind the mystique; here's the cyberpunk
The plot this time around is no less complex than before, but thanks to its emphasis on action rather than character or concepts, it's possible to boil it down a little more succinctly. A military man has been sentenced to death for committing war crimes, but before he can be executed, he hacks the city's transportation grid and brings everything to a standstill. Motoko Kusanagi, now under the command of Chief Aramaki, is sent in to investigate, and in the process arm-twists a few enemies into becoming potential allies. Among them is Batou, still uninterested in making a full-blown allegiance with her until she plays the sort of hardball with him we'd expect Aramaki to be pulling.
Much of the intricate plotting of the first ARISE, or of any of the GITS installments at all, has been shelved in favor of one set of action scenes stacked back-to-back with another. A fight between multiple war machines in an underground garage (with Kusanagi commanding a Logicoma) is excellently staged, and there's all sorts of antics involving Kusanagi on a motorcycle in both meatspace and cyberspace. It's all quite well done, but in the end it has the flavor of marking time — and there are times when it becomes flat-out silly, as when the Logicoma starts leaping across rooftops and swinging from a tether as if in imitation of a certain other spider-themed character in popular culture. I wondered if that was this installment's idea of a joke, but the way humor works best in a story like this — or any story, really — is when it grows naturally out of the people and the goings-on they're involved in, and not when it's imposed from above.
Here and there are hints of how the GITS of old is still lurking beneath the surface and waiting to completely rear its head. I'm not talking about the ongoing process of rounding up many of the familiar faces from GITS: Stand Alone Complex and adding them to the cast here; that's playing increasingly more like a callback to times past. Rather, it's those moments when the material seems to be completely aware of how it's balanced on the triple knife-edge between past, present, and future. The best such moment this time around involves a character introduced for the sake of this segment — no, I'm not going to say who it is; go spoil it for yourself — who turns out to be a lot closer to the Project 2501 of the original GITS film than anyone else in recent memory. It ought to be chilling, but it functions more as a standard last-mile plot-twist than anything else.
A little less soul
Things like that are yet another sign of how the creators of ARISE have apparently elected to make this a thriller first and a human story a distant second. The same goes for what now seems to be the an obligatory action scene in every ARISE episode that shows Kusanagi's arms getting smashed: instead of it being used as, say, a commentary on Kusanagi's alienation from her own physicality, it's just an excuse to show something cool and grotesque at the same time.
And now that I think about it, there's a host of other things missing that have taken their cumulative toll. The music of Kenji Kawai (in the movies) and Yoko Kanno (in GITS: SAC), for instance: their scores added that much more of a human, soulful element to the goings-on. At least one of the SAC soundtracks is a disc I'd pack for a desert island in lieu of that many more bottles of water. For ARISE, the music has been provided by Cornelius, and it's the sort of appropriately slick techno that gets the job done without hinting at anything greater lying beyond. In other words, it's much like the show itself.
I remain on board with ARISE for the long haul, but at this point I'm settling into the conviction that the people in charge this time around have only half the right idea.