After several years of pleading and cajoling, I finally got my fiancée to sit down for a run through the 2000s Ghost in the Shell series. As of this writing, we’re not entirely done with it—we still have to get through the movie that wrapped everything up—but we’re far enough along that I have stuff to blather about.
Let’s start with one of the biggest: Worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding in anime is a crapshoot. In any given series, you might get hints of a bigger picture in the background, especially if it’s part of a franchise spanning multiple platforms; the old .hack franchise is a good example of this (multiple animated series, four or more video games, at least one manga, multiple novels), along with more recent works like Fate (a series of visual novels leading to half a dozen animated series, multiple movies, and at least three video games). But most anime are remarkably self-contained, held together by singular plot elements and storylines that seldom hint at anything beyond what you see on-screen.
Stand Alone Complex breaks that convention in its entirety. Over the course of two seasons and a movie, we get to see a near-future, soon-to-be alternate history Japan from its rotting alleys to its poshest skyscrapers, stopping along the way for visits to Germany, England, Mexico, “Eurasia” (an ambiguous term in real life, more so in the series), and Taiwan. Everything, whether it’s in Japan or in these other places, implies a bigger world still reeling from multiple global conflicts.
We get about thirty years of world history that explicitly, plausibly differs from our own, give or take only a few details here and there. It’s not always a pretty place, and true to the conventions of cyberpunk, it’s seldom a happy one. The first season delves deep into social psychology with its titular Stand Alone Complex, but the second one really goes into the guts of Japan struggling with ethnic nationalism, international affairs, and a huge, seemingly intractable problem involving a refugee population. The movie goes even further than that, explicitly calling out Japanese racism and cultural exceptionalism in the face of changing demographics.
The worldbuilding done by Production IG is such that the series can get away with making ‘little’ things huge. Anime, especially now that the technology involved has gotten cheaper, has no problem throwing in jaw-dropping visual spectacles. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann literally threw galaxies like ninja stars and blew up a universe in its final battle sequence, and the movie adaptation somehow got crazier than that.
Stand Alone Complex’s worldbuilding is so thorough and methodical though, and its commitment to a realistic scale is so strong, that a single bridge blowing up or one tilt-rotor vehicle being suicide bombed somehow carries more weight than any of that stuff. When the tanks roll in along abandoned streets as the drums pound and the music jars you in your seat, when cruise missiles slam into warehouses and planes get shot down; these things matter and they have enough weight to compete with live action film.
We watched Dejima, the refugee stronghold, get bombed towards the end of the second season. It does not shy away from the human impact of this violence. More recent anime might linger for a quiet moment on a body part sticking out of the rubble, but they’re mostly concerned with making the bombardment itself look cool. This is to be expected, now that entertainers can finally make war look as awesome as most consumers think it should be. It’s even easier in an animated format, where the explosions and the hardware all blend more readily with the character designs.
What happens to Dejima looks uncomfortably real, from innocent people being consumed by explosions to a young boy—maybe a ten-year-old by the look of him—standing outside bawling his eyes out before another missile hits. Ten years after I first saw this series, I watch these scenes now and my mind immediately goes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or the ongoing debacle in Syria. We often get footage of missiles launching; we hardly ever stop to linger on what happens after they hit. I studied the defense budget for four years. I can tell you a ship-launched missile costs something like 2.3 million dollars per shot at the low end. I cannot tell you the human cost. Nobody can, but Stand Alone Complex does not shy away from it.
On the other side, we also get to see a culture that’s proudly, defiantly descended into suicide bombing, complete with a four-episode arc culminating in the eventual death of a young bomber. The critique of that strategy and the showcasing of its own human costs is especially poignant coming from a Japanese perspective: this is the country that invented the kamikaze, after all. Brainy and political as the rest of the series is, I have absolutely no doubt that the Production IG committee knew exactly what they were doing and how it would be received when they brought suicide bombing into play. And putting aside Japan’s own historical context, Stand Alone Complex was produced back in 2004-2005 or so, when suicide bombings actually made headlines and were a hot button issue internationally.
Perhaps more than one of the most horrifically realistic conflicts in anime, Stand Alone Complex brings us no fewer than four of the most relevant antagonists to ever come out of cyberpunk. The big dog here, the one that sticks with me in part because we just wrapped up the second season, is Kazundo Gouda.
Anime is full of memorable villains, but Gouda stands head and shoulders above almost all of them because he’s basically a real person. Let me break it down for you.
Gouda is a senior government official who works for something called the Cabinet Intelligence Service (CIS), which operates sort of like a public affairs office and an intelligence agency. Whatever his alleged job is, Gouda’s true work is manipulating public opinion. He produces storylines that ripple through mass media. He creates heroes and villains and easy narratives that the public can lap up instead of worrying about the actual complexities of the world they live in. He engineers most of the refugee crisis, including most of its central actors and tragedies. He’s driven by a combination of petty egotism and greed, and hardly anyone will ever know he exists.
Before suffering an accident that left him with that hideously deformed face and misshapen skull, Gouda was a relatively forgettable bureaucrat who jumped into the private sector and worked at a think tank. He worked on the marketing campaign for Japan’s anti-fallout scrubbers—the Japanese Miracle, it’s called. Among his other quirks: he’s almost guaranteed to be sexually insecure and deeply sexist (he’s a virgin who idealizes virginity itself as a heroic quality; all the victims we see affected by his ideological virus are men who were virgins when they underwent cybernetic prosthesis), he embezzled a fair bit on the side during his private sector days, he’s an absolute cynic about the nature of people, and he does all manner of weird crap just to be memorable. That beautifully hideous face of his is a deliberate choice—he could get it fixed on the cheap in one afternoon but he doesn’t.
I would bet multiple pints of my own blood that someone like this man exists. Maybe not him exactly, but someone close enough to pass.
The only truly unrealistic thing about Gouda is that he achieved so much power while laboring under an elective, easily remedied facial deformity. Real world politics is way more vain than anything Gouda operates in, and someone who looked like that would almost certainly be discriminated against to the extent that they’d have a harder time just making ends meet. At a bare minimum, he’d have to have some actual charm and charisma, maybe even social skills that extend beyond viciously manipulating people—and he doesn’t. It’s even a plot point that he doesn’t.
Gouda’s storyline also ties into something else I noticed as I re-watched Stand Alone Complex: concern about America.
We hardly see it directly, but the America of this series is something that could probably carry its own franchise. Watching the series again, I found myself wishing the ScarJo movie had just been Jane Excalibur Operating Out of Cyberpunk DC, as that’d be a helluva lot more true to what Hollywood wanted and what it could and would deliver, and more true to the franchise itself.
Within the Stand Alone Complex universe, America has schismed into three different countries: the Russo-American Alliance (aka Amerisoviet Union), the actual United States of America, and something called the American Empire. We never see the Amerisoviets or the USA proper, which is a shame, but the American Empire looms as the ever-present menacing buddy whose thumb presses down on Japan’s national jugular. I can’t recall a single good guy American in the series; the closest we get is a submarine captain who was ready to mass murder the people of Dejima and the best thing he does is back off rather than risk open war with a second shot.
I’ll be honest: I dislike the brand of Japanese nationalism on display in a lot of anime, including Stand Alone Complex. It’s a touch exceptionalistic for my tastes, bordering on jingoistic and even passively, unapologetically racist at times (traits not at all unique to Japanese nationalism, I’ll add; check out any Ip Man movie for the Chinese equivalent, and pick pretty much any white guy action flick for the American version—and this accounts for only three out of about two hundred countries on Earth).
But for all of that, I do find the American Empire absolutely fascinating as a critique of American foreign policy, culture, government, and more. It’s an especially interesting antagonist because from the start of Stand Alone Complex to the end of its second season, Japan and the American Empire are staunch allies. Their relationship only schisms because Gouda screws the pooch and bribes the Americans into attempting to nuke Dejima, which results in Japan seemingly severing the alliance altogether. Worse still, Gouda tries to defect to America. Maybe it’s a difference in translations and discourses, but the citizens of allied nations generally don’t defect to each other, even when caught spying or perpetrating other shenanigans.
It’s also worth noting that the breakup of America (mostly) happens along semi-plausible regional lines. The American Empire in particular is basically the Confederate States of America with special guest appearances by Texas and the lower Midwest. Juxtapose its map with the list of national-level American politicians who regularly advocate for heinous stuff and they match up worryingly well. It’s also where you’ll find a huge chunk of the American military apparatus (re: most of the stuff that isn’t in California). If the USA were to magically break up tomorrow, that section would be the most likely to pursue imperial ambitions, and might even do so while calling itself an empire just to piss off its critics.
I really could go on about this for a while. I haven’t gotten to my love for Section 9 yet, or for the Tachikomas, or cyberspace, cybernetics, and transhumanism, or Hideo Kuze, or the Laughing Man, or even the Puppeteer (who simultaneously manages to be lackluster compared to Kuze, Aoi, and Gouda, while world-class compared to most anime villains), or the music, or just the background details in general. But we’re already past the 2,000 word mark here.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Find it and marathon it. Both seasons, movie optional. You can thank me when you’re done.