Just when I was preparing to write off the ARISE series as being all skin and no soul — or, rather, ghost — along comes the third installment out of four to persuade me I might be mistaken. It's still not fair to say that ARISE has scaled to the heights formerly inhabited comfortably by previous installments in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, but I'm willing to say now it is a lot less distant from those heights than before. At least one of the previously missing ingredients has been restored, and it's one of the few that made GITS a classic franchise: the personal impact of living in a world where bodies and intelligences have become virtual commodities. The first two episodes of ARISE have been setup in more ways than one, it seems.
The future can cost you an arm and a leg
Most of that setup has revolved around Getting The Team Together, and as of this installment all the pieces are in place except one. Motoko Kusanagi's gaggle of experts for Section 9 are doing top-notch work, most recently when a series of bombings — terrorists? radicals? — rip through Newport City. But they're still one man short of being an official unit, no thanks to Chief Aramaki being a stickler for the rules. All signs point to police detective Togusa, seen in the previous installments, as being a likely candidate to become their final member, especially after he runs into static with his boss for mishandling an investigation involving a dam explosion. But he's got a few disadvantages: he's a family man, and he's almost all natural (no cyborg parts).
That last disadvantage starts to seem like an advantage — maybe not to Kusanagi and her team, but certainly to the audience — as the very technologies meant to put Kusanagi (and her comrades, and her enemies) a cut above ordinary humans reveal themselves to be booby traps. While in the process of busting the one apparently responsible for the bombings — he's a ringleader for a foreign weapons-smuggling outfit, but his M.O. doesn't really match — Kusanagi picks up some kind of strange cyberbrain virus that causes one of her legs to twitch uncontrollably. Given that one of her points of pride is how well she's able to control her artificial body, losing control like this is demoralizing in a way she isn't able to own up to. Batou is prepared to offer his own sympathies, but she's not prepared to receive such things from him; she'd rather hack his body and make him punch himself in the face for getting uppity with her.
There is one person Kusanagi does trust with both her body and her feelings, and that's her current boyfriend: Akira Hosé, a bespoke creator of cyborg prosthetics. He connects with her — both literally and figuratively — over how her cyborg body is not merely a container for "her", but is her. Such insights, and tenderness, show us how he's managed to outlast all her previous lovers, and have the timespan of his relationship with her measured with a calendar and not a stopwatch. Unfortunately, he's also mixed up with the weapons runners, and Kusanagi turns out to need a little help putting her feelings aside when dealing with something that tangled.
It isn't prequelitis that ails us
The above description makes the plot of this episode sound a good deal less convoluted than the way it plays out, and I suspect a certain degree of front-loaded convolution is par for the course in a show like this. It's no fun if you explain everything up front, because then the audience doesn't have the fun of watching how all the disparate plot pieces slide about and click into place. That said, there's no mystery or ambiguity about Akira being one of the bad guys; said revelation is just about dumped in our lap, and so the bigger mystery revolves around what his motives are for being involved in something this dangerous and depraved. The surprise, then, is in seeing how it all points right back to Kusanagi — or rather, the Kusanagi that existed once upon a time. (Having the past comes back to haunt most every major character in this franchise proves to be a dependable dramatic staple for it.)
I have been rewatching the Stand Alone Complex series in preparation for a multi-part retrospective of the whole franchise, and I remain convinced that ARISE doesn't rank lower on the list than Stand Alone Complex because it's a prequel — that is, because it concerns itself with the origins of Kusanagi's service in Section 9, etc. It's more about how that specific story has been told, and to what end. Even when it's on point — when it dealt with memory and personality in the first episode, or when it deals here with the limits of an artificial body — it always seems to be falling slightly short. Those concerns are present, but they don't feel so much like they've been made a part of the story as are simply guests in it.
Ironically, this problem only seems all the more acute now that we've hit an episode that comes all the closer to making ARISE work. I suspect that is a function of ARISE being a prequel, a follow-on to an existing franchise, rather than an entirely original creation. It's hard to be unfair, to watch something like this and not have unmeetably high expectations for how good it ought to be. And yet apart from all that, I still feel some fundamental spark remains missing — one that isn't tied to the presence or absence of a specific ingredient, but one that is instead the ineffable sum of the whole. Maybe by part four I'll have figured it out.
In the meantime, though, I should stop damning with faint praise. This series is still a fine piece of work, and one that has managed to follow up on one of the toughest acts to follow in all of anime without falling completely flat on its face. That deserves some kind of award, doesn't it?