Episode 19: Hello, Motoko

Television Man by Aidan Morgan

“Once I was a television who dreamed he was a man. But now the dream is over, and the television is switched on. Oh, and the PVR is full. And the VHS is flashing 12:00. Also, someone bent the antennae and I can’t watch Knowlton Nash deliver the news. What decade is this again?” —excerpt from a discarded David Cronenberg script

If you scan through Netflix’s new Top Ten feature, you probably won’t see Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 (granted, you may find it under “Trending” or “Originals” or “Impenetrable Anime with a Strong Female Lead”). If you’re a dedicated or even casual anime fan, though, you’ve probably been waiting months for the series to drop with a mix of anticipation and dread.

PlayStation Robot Refugees

Dread, you say? Why dread? Because the recent history of Ghost in the Shell has been marked by diminishing returns. After Mamoru Ishii’s 1995 film and Kenji Kamiyama’s 2002-05 television series, successive attempts at pulling the ghost from the shell have been less well received. A prequel of sorts called GitS Arise lacked much of the style and the philosophical noodling that set the earlier works apart. And then there was the 2017 live-action version that expected viewers to buy Scarlett Johansen as a Japanese cyborg. GitS fans expected little but somehow got even less.

Even so, hopes were high when Funimation announced the development of more ghosts in shells. This one would be a continuation of the “Stand Alone Complex” television series, with original director Kamiyama and the voice cast returning. At last, fandom thought, another season of characters floating around in ’90s-era cyberspace arguing about politics and shooting robots in the head.

Then some footage dropped and the reaction was… not good. The 3-D animation style looked unfinished, and the latest version of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the badass cyborg at the heart of GitS, was even more doll-like than her character design in Arise.

The animation style is probably the most difficult part of the new GitS experience. The opening episode, set in the Californian desert, looks like abandoned PlayStation 1 game. Facial animations are inconsistent, with some characters relatively realistic and others looking like cartoon cutouts.

Cyber-Wars Of The Football Radicals

The real problem with GitS is its truncated 12-episode run, which ends in a cliffhanger but somehow fails to develop its themes (the second half is set to drop at a future date). The story goes smoothly for about six episodes, then grinds to a halt as it switches to a villain-of-the-week structure. The choice to disorient the viewer seems deliberate, but in the midst of a pandemic lockdown I prefer satisfaction.

Nevertheless, Kamiyama has some bonkers ideas and visuals to share. A group of former college football players show up as militant leftist terrorists, still wearing their team uniforms as they pilot high-tech tanks and launch rockets at plutocrats’ homes. A standout episode involves a group of senior citizens robbing a bank in the wake of a global financial crash. And of course, there are the tachikomas — a group of insectile tanks with the voices of insistent children.

Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 is streaming on Netflix.