I'm of the belief the Ghost in the Shell franchise, up to and maybe even including its first manga incarnation, has never existed as a fixed thing. It's more akin to a jazz standard, where each successive creative team takes the core material and riffs on it in such a way that the finished product only suggests the original. You wouldn't ever mistake John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" for what Rodgers and Hammerstein II laid down on paper, but one glance and you can see the unbroken thread, however long it is, that entwines them both. And in the same way, Ghost in the Shell: ARISE is as unlike the original manga as the TV shows, OVA, and theatrical films that were also developed in parallel from it, but it finds its own way to nod in turn to each of them before facing a different direction.
But just because ARISE has a new approach (it's technically a prequel to the events explored in the various GITS incarnations) doesn't mean that approach will work by dint of being different. ARISE is in fact a very good production, but it's hard to ignore how it falls short in ways that only put into contrast how other parts of this franchise — Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex in particular — aimed so high and were able to hit so much.
But is it the worst thing in the world to measure up only somewhat short against one of anime's high-water marks? If that's the harshest charge I can levy against ARISE, it still fares far better than the vast majority of anything currently in release.
Before the beginning
The conceit behind ARISE is intriguing enough that I can see why the producers elected to mine a whole series of OVAs out of it: how did Motoko Kusanagi and the rest of her compatriots join Section 9, and under what circumstances did Section 9 itself come together?
Some hints of how this all went down have been dropped before — mostly in GITS:SAC:2nd GiG — but ARISE is not a formal prequel to that show. In fact, it frankly ignores a few key details of Kusanagi's early backstory, although it replaces them with new ones that are scarcely less intriguing. Here, Kusanagi has had a cyberbody since birth, and has never known what it means to have a full-blown biological body. I hope this conceit is explored a little more thoroughly for its psychological implications in future installments, because here it's mostly used as a plot element and not as a character trait.
What ARISE does not lack, by any stretch, is plotting. For a first OVA episode that clocks in just south of an hour, it is a veritable bramble of plot, although it's well-enough deployed that it never devolves into utter confusion. Like many of the GITS installments, though, it backs into its story incrementally: it's set in roughly the same near-future setting (the year 2027, some time after a fourth world war left Japan at a loss). And it opens on a moment of noirish intrigue — the unearthing of a coffin, that of Japanese military man Mamoru, nominally a Boy Scout but suspected of corruption and bribery. The only thing that kept from being court-martialed was encountering an untimely bullet in an alley. But there's no body in the coffin, just a mobile land-mine (depicted as one of the sorts of synthetic doll figures Shirow seemed fond of) that's stopped dead by none other than Major Motoko Kusanagi when she steps out of the rainy shadows.
As with the rest of the cast, Kusanagi has been given a youthful makeover — in her case, doubly so since she never had a biological body to begin with. This incarnation of the character is more waifish, a little more temperamental than we remember her. It's going to take her a few years to become the Kusanagi we've known, especially since she's still an army officer at serious odds with her employers over how much of a right she has to her own (synthetic) body. Mamoru was a mentor and father figure to her, and she is determined to find out how, or if, he went terribly wrong. Worse, Kusanagi herself has been framed for apparent complicity in some of his actions.
Section 9 rising
Kusanagi is not the only one who wants answers. So does Chief Daisuke Aramaki, the gruff Public Security man present at the botched unearthing of Mamoru's coffin. He offers Kusanagi work as an independent contractor: her hacking skills and her expertise with cybernetic prosthesis would be something most any government official would covet for a crack team. But she resents being anyone's lapdog — something her superior in the army, the statuesque Kurutsu (I suspect her name is a reference to "Kurtz" from Apocalypse Now) has more or less resigned herself to accepting.
Kusanagi is resourceful and dogged, and soon assembles a trail of evidence leading back from Mamoru into a swamp of corruption. Along the way, she encounters more faces familiar to fans of GITS: the mere-human policeman Togusa, at somewhat hapless odds with a world that seems to be more and more for machines and not people; the rough-and-tumble (and cybernetically enhanced) Batou, who manifests here as a rival and not a partner (at least, at first); and a multi-legged robot called "Logicoma" whose chirpy voice and hopelessly optimistic attitude ought to be way too familiar.
But Kusanagi's trail also leads back to signs of tampering with Kusanagi's own memories — including her memories of the very man she idolized. Where all this leads is too convoluted to recap in the space of a review, but any veteran GITS fan can see how many of the core themes in the series are touched on: the nature of memory and identity in a world where everything can be rendered as pure information; the ethical and moral quandaries of a world where everything is wired up by default; and the way politics is gray by default, not black or white — but that by itself is not license to avoid taking sides or indulging in evil.
I mentioned how many of the characters we know from the series manifest here in prototypical forms, and how in time that becomes one of the show's strengths. I like how the series has the invention, and sometimes even the nerve, to take these familiar faces and make them distinctly unfamiliar, even unsympathetic. At its best, it's a move that endows these characters with something to push against if they want to become anything like the characters we knew and remembered. There's a palpable dramatic tension arising from watching the characters swim (or drift, or hurtle headlong) towards the places where we have known them best. We wonder what it will cost them to finally arrive, to become those people and fulfill our expectations.
Imperfection doesn't imply failure
What ARISE lacks most — so far, at least — is something that both the theatrical films and most especially Stand Alone Complex exhibited in their own idiosyncratic ways. That thing was, in a word, soul. It was the way the icy, intellectual preoccupations of the series could fall away at any moment and reveal unexpected — and remarkably deep — rivers of emotion. Dai Sato, screenwriter for much of SAC, has cited Rod Serling as a major influence on his work, but Sato didn't let his plot twists do the heavy lifting. The majority of the time, they led to a revelation or an insight that was as heartbreaking as it was grim — e.g., a rampaging tank possessed by the disembodied intelligence of its creator, making up for the loss of his original body.
ARISE swaps Tow Ubukata (Le Cheavlier d'Eon, Mardock Scramble) into the writer's chair, and much of his back catalog hinted at him being a good choice — after all, Scramble was drawn directly from his similarly cyberpunkish novel (even if it hewed closer to La Femme Nikita than it did GITS's CSI: Newport City 2027 approach). But the things in ARISE that should work as wellsprings of emotion only end up yielding the occasional, obligatory trickle. Here, the influences are more Tom Clancy and Philip K. Dick, in roughly that order — or maybe Dick by way of Mamoru Oshii, as per the larger pool of influences that have formed around the Shell mythos. The end result, again, is a show that does a great job of getting us to think and forcing us to keep up with its knotty plotting, but seems hamstrung on getting us to feel much of anything. (The show has no trouble deciding how it wants to look, at least. Production I.G, who gave us Stand Alone Complex, are in fine form here, with a sleek blend of hand-drawn and digitally-created imagery filling each shot.)
The GITS fan in me wants to make much more hay of this emotional shortcoming than I really ought to, in part because of my own attachment to the material. I grew fond of the because, at its best, it fused two apparently incompatible halves: the coldness of its subject matter and plotting, and the warmth of its characters and their personalities. ARISE has only about 75% of that formula: it's got the cold side down pat, but the warm side is still in beta. The door's been left open for how that can be improved in future installments, of which two more are on the way as of this writing.
I am not a proponent of the idea that it's our duty to support even the inferior specimens of things we want to see more of. I do, however, believe in giving credit where it's due. ARISE doesn't raise the bar for what's possible with GITS or anime generally, and for that reason I feel let down. But it's too easy to get used to the idea that any particular franchise — or genre, or medium of expression — will automatically push boundaries by mere dint of being continued. What ARISE does give us is still good enough, and not by a little, either, to rank as one of the better anime releases of the last couple of years. Now let's see where they go from here.