One of the first rules I set for myself when I created Ganriki.org was to avoid talking about things that were already in progress, since I've always found it easier (and more profitable) to say something of interest about something after it's already over. The realities of the industry have prevented this, and so I've bent that rule here and there — most notably with Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, which demanded I say something about it while it was still being released.
Now all four of the originally planned episodes of ARISE are out, and I can look back over my shoulder at it. And now I realize, with no small amount of dismay, that everything I had to say about the first installment has applied across the board. It's a good show — far better than most of what debuted this year — but not a great one, and not simply because it exists in the shadow of such greats as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the original Ghost in the Shell film. It has the words, and maybe even some of the music, but it still doesn't quite swing.
It's never easy to speak ill of any part of a franchise that has foundational significance. Ghost in the Shell and its spinoffs remain for me as high a high-water mark as anime is likely to have for a long time, but that hasn't kept some parts of it from falling short. ARISE works on its own terms, but only in the most functional, programmatic way, and that's a letdown coming from a property that never contented itself with merely being functional.
The tangled web they wove
All four installments of ARISE have been heavy on plot, so much so that they felt like two-hour productions crammed into the space of a single hour. Part of me admired the economy of storytelling involved, if only because I've warmed a chair through far too many projects that felt like they could have lost half their runtime without also losing a single plot point. But that also means there's only so much room for character, insight, perspective, and pacing. There's literally not a single line of dialogue in ARISE that isn't devoted to advancing the plot or explaining something, but there's also never a moment of breath or reflection, save for a few moments at the end. And even those are little more than a phoned-in back-reference to a moment from the original film, one that did have soul.
The story that consumes so much of ARISE's attention (and, by extension, the audience's) is, like the other three installments, a tangle of incident and motive and events that requires at least two viewings to completely untangle. It involves Motoko and her team — now closer than before, but still not quite the team we remember and love — working to unravel a mind-hacking incident that at first appears to be a terrorist action. It turns out to be the work of a hacker, "Firestarter", that consists of a pair of identical twins occupying the same body and mind. Some of Motoko's old Army rivals also show up to complicate things further, and some aspects of the psychology of the hacker are embodied by way of metaphors taken from The Wizard of Oz. All of these pieces are by now familiar entries in the Ghost in the Shell tactical playbook.
It's not that any of this is dull. The episode moves at a snappy pace, and Production I.G's animation gives all the goings-on a gorgeous gloss, so there's never a shortage of things to look at. (One great bit of animation has Motoko and Batou fending off attackers by hand, in slow motion, while at the same time arguing strategy over their mental links.) But when it's all over, it's difficult to say what any of it has added up to, other than a convoluted way to move Motoko, her teammates, and her supervisors to the point where Stand Alone Complex more or less begins. What's more, the breathless pace at which everything is fired at us further works against it being absorbing; we've just barely finished assimilating the importance of one thing before the story caroms off on another development. Maybe that's a consequence of switching from a TV series format to an OVA format — and also, in turn, a consequence of each episode being that much more self-contained instead of being part of a proper extended storyline.
This last installment of ARISE also cemented my sense of what one thing has been most consistently wrong with this part of the franchise: the tendency to confuse, or conflate, complexity or convolution with depth. Just because something has a tangled plot and requires multiple viewings to sort out doesn't mean it has a great deal to say. ARISE has wanted to tap back into all that made the Ghost franchise so involving — the dividing line between man and his creations; the growing complexity of politics in a connected and wired world — but has lacked for a single, overriding way to do it. Stand Alone Complex used the stories of the Laughing Man and the Individual Eleven as backbones for all that they meditated on, and it worked. With ARISE, the ostensible backbone is Motoko getting the team together, but the mechanics of the team-building process reflect few of the show's greater concerns.
In the end — and how it pains me to say this about anything with the Ghost in the Shell name on it! — for all of its production gloss and elegance, for all the effort poured into making it smarter than the competition (and it is automatically notches above anything released in its year), ARISE ended up being just another high-tech cop show. It deserved better. So did we.