For most of its first season, Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045 ranks so far below the previous GITS installments it borders on self-parody. Almost nowhere in it can be found traces of the work I knew and loved, one that had many prescient things to say about the irreducible complexity of modern life and about how cyberpunk dystopia was already all around us. Shell, nothing; withered husk was more like it. Doubly inexplicable given how Kenji Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki were co-directors.
Then over the second half, and especially over the last three or so episodes, it improves so much that it finally seems worthy of the name. Only the second season of the show, whenever it drops, will bear out whether or not it truly is. But if you can slog through some of the worst material associated with this franchise, you'll be rewarded with something that feels halfway like it at its best. Up to you if you think that's worth it. I'm still on the fence.
Getting the band back together
At some point I mean to write in detail about the earlier adventures of Major Motoko Kusanagi and her crack team of cyber commandos. Their story, in the Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex incarnation, spanned two seasons of TV and an OAV that are among the finest anime projects around, and maybe some of the finest TV in any form.
SAC_2045 picks up some time after the OAV left off, with Kusanagi, Batou, and most of the rest of Section 9 now slugging it out around the world as a mercenary-for-hire outfit. Only Togusa, the most grounded and humane of the gang, remains in Japan in something like an official capacity.
Two things happen more or less at once to get the plot ball rolling. Aramaki, the "old goat" who formerly headed up Section 9, is out to reassemble the old team to combat new threats aimed at the first foreign-born Prime Minister of Japan. But the team is currently under the hire of a shady figure, another American operative, who wants them to track down a slew of "post-humans" — otherwise ordinary people manifesting apparently superhuman powers.
What theoretical interest any of this should generate is all but killed by the execution. The first four or five episodes are ultimately pointless; they do little more than set up artificial obstacles to keep the team from being brought back together sooner. They could have been condensed into an episode and change, if even that, and lost nothing. Worse, much of that first half is larded up with action for action's sake, technically impressive stuff but ultimately empty-headed.
It's not as if the predecessor shows eschewed action; they just knew better than to use it in place of something more fitting. The opening episode for Stand Alone Complex had an action scene (the "geisha-bot" hostage sequence) laid out with elegance and logic, and which underlaid the mystery at the heart of the episode. SAC_2045's opening-episode action is a dumb shoot-'em-up that plays like a poor man's Mad Max installment, takes up most of the episode runtime, and is ultimately a red herring: it's not there to do anything except fill the air with burnt rubber.
A minor Major
Then over the course of the last few episodes of this first season, the show does something I didn't expect to pull off. It recaptured a sliver, and then more than a sliver, of the flavor and mindset of the "classic" Stand Alone Complex material. The plot at that point has turned to a young man, purportedly a post-human, who uses a quasi-social-media app to deal out crowdsourced vigilante justice. At first the idea's explored in a rather dippy way — when will people learn a show like this doesn't need any more comic relief than it already has? — but by the time the season stops in medias res, it almost feels like the GITS:SAC we knew and loved is back online. Almost.
The only problem more egregious than the show's writing and storytelling, though, is its visuals. Most Shell fans, me included, wrinkled their noses when they saw the game-console-cutscene CGI animation used in SAC_2045. After the elegant balance of CGI and hand-drawn animation in the previous GITS project, this show just looks ugly and cheap. Doubly so when a project like Beastars can use the same toolset but produce something that looks far more appealing and nuanced. Even worse is the way the show wastes Ilya Kuvshinov's character designs. They were clearly aiming for a more petite version of the Major, along the lines of her look in the Ghost In The Shell: ARISE series, but onscreen she looks downright infantilized. At this rate, next time she shows up she'll be in a pram.
I hold out some hope that the second half of the show will continue in a better vein. After being teased with how much things improved, it's hard not to hold that belief. But while I'm holding out hope, I'm not holding my breath.