The hardest criticisms to make are for good work that falls short of greatness, or that squanders good will. Such feelings come on all the more strongly when dealing with something that has a pedigree — something that because of its name brand, or the people involved with it, or both. You're not as peeved by a total stranger cutting you off in traffic as you are by a friend blowing off a big night out.
I felt this way about Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, and I feel the same way about the feature-film follow-up to that series: it's not that they're bad, it's that they're never more than only okay. What's worse is that it is, in the end, a retread, and for a series that has always prided itself on looking fearlessly ahead, that's a shame. The words are here, and even some of the music, but I never really wanted to get up and dance. And by the end of it, when the whole thing made a deeply misguided attempt to hook things back up with the old Shell we knew, I didn't even want to get up.
Complex, not stand-alone
ARISE ended with Major Motoko Kusanagi (human brain, robot body) having assembled her team of special agents for a near-future Japanese government, funded by an off-the-record budget. Their first mission involves two apparent terrorist incidents that take place back-to-back on the same day. First is a cadre of former military men — resentful of the government that has summarily cashiered them and left them without a future — who take hostages. Motoko and the gang swing into action and make short work of the kidnappers, but someone who looks exactly like Motoko is seen leaving the scene ... and moments later, the Prime Minister and Motoko's former commander, Kurtz, are both killed by a suitcase bomb on the other side of town.
Who's responsible? Ask the most logical question: Who benefits? Motoko and her men — sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes chafing under her whip hand — set to work untangling a Gordian Knot of complications that might require more than one viewing to nail down. The last testaments of the soldiers, all with obsolete cyborg bodies, say nothing about an attack on the Prime Minister — but one of their number went missing before the incident. What's his connection? And what about the shadowy man running a pan-Asian trade association and with a dismaying amount of clout at his disposal? And how did Kurtz get mixed up in all this? And ...
Constant readers will know by now I'm no fan of convolution for its own sake. Aside from more often than not being a pretentious way to give something airs of importance it doesn't often deserve, it puts up a wall of confusion between the work and the audience. If we can't figure out what's going on, or why, or to what end, or even what it means to the people involved, it's hard to care and even harder to connect that care back to the characters.GITS:TNM is not nearly as bad in this respect as some other things I've seen, but it's still an obstacle.
What's sad is how we've seen far better here. The episode-by-episode flavor of Stand Alone Complex helped portion out its plot-sprawl into bite-sized chunks; cram all that into a movie and you get indigestion. Solid State Society, the feature-film follow-up to SAC, suffered from some of that, but offset it by dint of us already being strongly invested in the people involved. TNM does eventually unravel itself and make sense, but like its immediate predecessors, everything that should be human about the movie — like the nods towards Motoko's parents — starts and ends as plot busywork. It's as inorganic as Motoko's own body — which, incidentally, gets trashed in a fight yet again this time around, something that feels ever less like a thematic element and ever more like a mere running gag.
What grinds one's gears
You may not be a fan of Film Crit Hulk's propensity for the CAPS LOCK key, but his essay "The Age of the Convoluted Blockbuster" makes a fine case for why modern big-budget entertainments are such over-plotted, under-dramatized messes. His test case was J.J. Abrams's risible Star Trek Into Darkness, but what he says about it applies broadly:
When we look at the stories in Abrams’ work we don’t find much in the way of story at all. We find plots. It’s all master secretive plans built on reveals upon reveals upon reveals. We watch as brilliant characters play a high-stakes game of trying to outsmart each other. We watch those plans get teased out in incomprehensible ways. We watch them unravel a story without a hint of organic discovery. We watch films where the mechanical plot dictates character reactions, rather than character’s actions dictating the story.
Emphasis mine. What's most saddening is seeing this propensity now leaching into some of the very things I was drawn to precisely because they seemed to represent an escape hatch from the doldrums of Hollywood. When Ghost in the Shell was at its best, it was densely plotted, but it put character first, and made the things that happen outgrowths of character. Stand Alone Complex's mindgames are gradually revealed to be the product of a personal philosophy, one that the protagonists come to understand and even empathize with. The episodes that aren't about the Laughing Man function as little essays into the personalities of the team — why they do this kind of work, what it's done to them, and what kinds of choices they make as a result. They were characters, not chesspieces.
GITS:TNM doesn't work this way. Or rather, it tries to, but it hasn't the faintest idea how to make good on the deal. If ARISE and TNM were intended to show us "where Motoko Kusanagi and Section 9 came from", they failed, because by the end of both of those things we know nothing more about her or the rest of the crew than we already knew from the rest of the franchise. Motoko is there to perform the supplied busywork and to look good, and there's a handful of subplot stuff thrown in about Motoko's parents, but they don't drive anything. Neither, for that matter, does Motoko herself. Sad, that one of the most self-determinant and autonomous characters (female or otherwise) in all of anime has now been reduced to the status of a pretty plot cog.
The Ubukata blues
It's time for me to come out and say what I've been biting my tongue over ever since ARISE landed on these shores: it's all screenwriter Tow Ubukata's fault. I wanted to chalk it up to a slew of other things — e.g., the soundtrack not being by luminaries like Kenji Kawai or Yoko Kanno, but rather the mediocre Cornelius — but it's on the story level where ARISE and its children have consistently flunked out.
Back when Ubukata gave us Mardock Scramble, I read it and felt like we were seeing an interesting compromise between the headtrip, New Wave-style SF of folks like Richard Calder, and the somewhat more mainstream, accessible SF of folks like Richard K. (Altered Carbon) Morgan. Then I re-read it, and realized I'd been duped: it was all smoke, mirrors, and projectors. I liked that Ubukata worked overtime to make us care about his main character, the ex-prostitute Balot, but he did that by way of embedding her in a story that was ultimately more style than substance. I didn't mind that Ubukata was essentially using La Femme Nikita as his text — you've got to get your inspiration from somewhere -- but the cold-blooded realism of her story clashed badly with the surreal SF trappings. All the things that seemed like colorful scene-setting at first glance later came off as weirdness for its own sake. When translated into a three-part OVA, the absurdity of the story became all the more imperially naked.
Ubukata's problem is not that he's incompetent. His scriptwriting for all the episodes of this incarnation of GITS have been slick, efficient, workmanlike. But all of the things that made GITS worthy of the name — the mystery, the spirituality even — fell off the map under his hand. The few times it did show up, such as the sad business with Motoko's lover in Ghost Tears, were few and far between, and did not provide any driving force for the story. By the time GITS:TNM came along, Ubukata had deprecated all of that material in favor of pure Tom Clancy-ism, all process and no insights. This, I fear, is one of the many mistakes that stand to be made by the Western Ghost in the Shell project: they'll see it as essentially another Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible installment, and never notice that such things were only part of the story, not its sum.
The climax of the film is infuriating. (Skip this graf if you hate spoilers.) It consists of nothing less than the opening sequence to the original Ghost in the Shell film, right down to that iconic shot of Motoko rendering herself invisible. Why do it? Ostensibly to "connect" the events of this continuity back to the one we know, but the real reason is to wink at the audience, to manipulate them in the same manner as an Elvis impersonator, to remind them of old past glories instead of inventing new ones, and to exploit that easy frisson.
All that, unfortunately, seems to have been the hallmark of this project from the beginning: not a chance to reinvent or rediscover, but merely to retread and reiterate. And to think I got into anime to get away from all that. But here we are. It's a shame.