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"Ghost in the Shell": The Laughing Man Strikes Back

When the cult favorite Ghost in the Shell was being transformed into a television series based on the original manga, the creative staff split the series into two different types of episodes. “Stand Alone” episodes were self-contained stories that didn’t directly deal with the main plotline, while “Complex” episodes dealt with the overall storyline.

The year is AD 2030, and much of Japan has been cyberized, meaning that instead of their normal, fleshy bodies, people have fully cybernetic parts of varying degrees. This allows for more versatility on the job market but has also given rise to corporate espionage and an increase in the number of hackers roaming about. One group dealing with the criminals out there is Public Security Section 9, led by chief Daisuke Aramaki and field commander Motoko “Major” Kusanagi. They have their work cut out for them when a police cover-up involving interceptors (basically cameras in the cops’ eyes) gives way to a resurgence of the Laughing Man, a notorious super-class-A hacker that kidnapped the CEO of Serano Genomics and threatened his life on national television before committing various acts of blackmail and corporate terrorism. Togusa, the only non-cyborg in Section 9, clues the team in on the investigation and finds many important clues as to what’s really going on, but can even the heavily-powered Section 9 uncover the truth when the real culprit is one of the most powerful men in the government?

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man is a compilation movie that combines the various “Complex” episodes from the first season of the TV series as well as a few of the more important “Stand Alone” episodes into one long movie. I’ve never really been a big fan of compilation movies, as the story tends to move far too fast and many of the little details which enhance the storyline and sweeten the ending get lost. While Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: The Laughing Man tries its hardest to break the mold, when all is said and done it unfortunately crashes and burns.

Much of the problem occurs in the movie’s early moments, which is rather odd since many of these compilation movies have excellent beginnings before falling apart at the end. Here, however, we’re treated to a condensed version of the first half of the series. Episode 1 is shoe-horned in as an unrelated event in the middle of Episode 4 (the first “Complex” episode), and the “Nanao=A” two-parter, which could have been left on the cutting room floor without affecting the overall plot, is given twenty minutes of screen time. And since there is no new footage at all, all the scenes are tied together with brand new dialog. Unfortunately, this only worsens the pacing of the film and makes it look even more like a more-expensive clip show instead of a true film.

Nowhere is this more evident than when the film deals with the Tachikomas. The little blue think-tanks were rather humorous characters that developed their own individuality during the “Stand Alone” episodes, only to be sent back to the lab mid-series, then come back in order to rescue Batou near the end of the series. Here, the Tachikoma’s development and de-commission all happen in the same scene, junking the majority of their development. For those who have seen the series already, this isn’t as bad, as we’ve already seen all the moments the Tachis have in their development. However, to the new viewer, the Tachikomas’ sudden development and being sent off comes out of nowhere, and while their sacrifice near the end of the series is still heart-breaking, it just doesn’t have the same impact without the “Stand Alone” episodes to complement it. The relationship between the Tachikomas and Batou suffer the most because of this, as we only get a brief line or two about how close they are before the big fight near the end, which may leave new viewers wondering why the tanks adore Batou so much. The writers try to tie all this into the main storyline, but it’s such an obvious rewrite I’m almost insulted they tried to shoehorn it in at all.

The other characters also suffer from the lack of “Stand Alone” exposure. Batou gets very little to do until the second half of the film, and much of his development is cut out. It almost makes it seem as though he’s a minor character on the level of Saito or Pazu through the first half of the film, even though he’s supposed to be on the same level of importance as the Major or Togusa. In the series we saw him having fun, learning who his childhood hero is, and learning about his history with the American Empire. All of that ends up junked, reducing Batou to little more than the Major’s love interest. Aramaki, a man of great respect and wisdom, gets very little to do, as many of his greatest scenes are cut out, and his two spotlight episodes are junked entirely, including the episode dealing with his brother. Though Motoko and Togusa get the most development, even they are shortchanged as we don’t get any hints into Motoko’s early years; nor do we get a look at Togusa’s personal life. Hell, it’s never mentioned, let alone seen, that Togusa has a family until the final fifteen minutes or so of the film! The “Stand Alone” episodes provided a the bulk of the character development for our heroes, and without them, the story feels hollow, especially in the beginning.

That being said, the second half of the film works a lot better than the first half. Since the last six or so episodes are all “Complex” episodes, it makes merging them into one a lot easier. The pacing improves significantly, more time is spent on the plot at hand, and the development of the three major players (Motoko, Batou, Togusa) is kept in their entirety, so that the film doesn’t lose much impact. Even the development of the Laughing Man himself is mostly retained in all its entirety. If only the creative staff had re-animated some scenes and junked the “Nanao=A” and “Vocation Center” episodes, the overall movie would have flowed much better and would’ve been a decent watch. While I commend the staff for extending the running time to two-and-a-half hours (instead of the typical 95 minutes given to these kind of projects), I still feel the movie would’ve been better if they had junked some of the early plots or extended the feature into two 2+ hour movies.

As I said above, the movie is composed completely of footage from the series with no new animation (except for the title screen, of course). That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the animation is very fluid, and much of the work done on the “Complex” episodes trumps the often off-model work done on the “Stand Alone” episodes. Some scenes, such as the Major fending off the various terrorists trying to assassinate Daido early on or when Motoko faces off against the armed suit trying to rescue Imakurusu, are extremely fluid, very vivid, and use the CG in the show to its fullest effect, providing a thrilling experience. That being said, the show is still really bright, even at nighttime, and the lack of details makes the designs seem a little flat. Motoko’s standard swimsuit outfit also just looks horrible on her, especially when she’s got her jacket on. In terms of television animation, the visuals are still rock solid and trump most other anime shows on the market. Unfortunately, there’s a little series known as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG (which is getting its own compilation release in the form of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG: Individual Eleven later this year) whose animation blows this movie’s out of the water.

In a move that makes sense only to Bandai, the dubbing of the show has been moved from Los Angeles to Canada, as Ocean Group Westwood (InuYasha, the various Gundam series, Death Note) has taken over the voice cast, meaning we get a lot of sound-alikes. I will compliment the cast on their ability to imitate the original dub, as many of the Ocean VAs sound remarkably close to their LA counterparts, especially Allison Matthews (Motoko), David Kaye (Batou), and Trevor Devall (Togusa). That’s where the problem lies. The dub is so concerned with sounding similar to the original dub that many of the readings feel stilted and the dub just lacks the charm of the original. Probably the best voice in the cast is Devall’s Togusa, though I’m not sure if it’s because of Devall’s abilities or because I keep thinking of Mu La Flaga (Devall’s role in Gundam SEED) whenever I hear him. Regardless, the problems would’ve been avoided if Bandai & Manga had just used the same dub cast as before. The Japanese version does use the original cast, which adds some consistency to the feature. As always, Yoko Kanno’s music is simply a joy to hear, though I do wish she had found some way to include “Lithium Flower,” the original series’ ending theme, into the movie.

All the extras are on Disc 2 of the release. The main feature is the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Archive, in which Atsuko Tanaka (Motoko) talks with director Kenji Kamiyama about transforming the series into one long feature film. Also included are some behind-the-scenes footage from the TV series production, narrated by Sakiko Tamagawa (Tachikoma). While not quite as interesting as the interviews on the series DVDs, the feature still has some interesting aspects that are worth a look-see. However, if you’ve watched a number of these kind of specials, much of the information will feel redundant to you. Also included is a special “Tachikomatic Days,” where four of the Tachis try their hands at ADR dubbing. The short is cute and funny as most of the TD shorts are, but it’s not quite as good as some of the other shorts, especially the ones on the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd GIG DVDs. The only other extra is a handful of trailers for .hack//ROOTS, Eureka Seven, Dead Leaves, and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance. It would’ve been nice to include a commentary track or something from the dubbing crew, as the extras here are kind of slim for a two-disc set.

Overall, is this worth money for fans of the show? Honestly, I’d say no. It’s worth a rental at least, just to see the new dub and the extras once, but for both diehards and newcomers, I suggest sticking with the series.

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