Review: Ghost in the Shell: Arise (2013)

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Here at Heroic Cinema, we’ve got a lot of love for the evergreen Ghost in the Shell universe. It seems to sprout a new variation every few years, and they’re always worth watching.

Akira and the original Ghost in the Shell film were my personal introduction to anime, many years ago, and I remember how refreshing it was to find cinematic visions of cyberpunk science fiction that just dumped you headlong into the mirrorshades-and-AI future, posing the sort of questions you’re more likely to find in novels than in film. They also had style in spades, particularly visually — their art design has influenced both animation and live-action film (most notably The Matrix, of course) ever since.

Oshii’s hugely influential first film led to the creation of a series set in the same world, but in an alternate, unconnected timeline: Stand Alone Complex, where the writers developed a couple of long, densely-plotted story arcs that were remarkable for television.

The first series’ Laughing Man arc in particular is as complex and satisfying as anything in the films, but given room to breathe and develop over an entire series. A stand-alone OVA (Solid State Society, 2006) was made afterwards, too, for those who were jonesing for more.

And now they’re back, jumping us back in time to before the settings of everything we’ve seen before for a new four-part prequel series. I’ll just pause here to say that if you’ve had no contact with the original manga, films or series, the rest of this review probably isn’t going to make much sense. Go ahead and get the DVDs, queue them up on iTunes, whatever. If you like your sci-fi, they’re worth it. We’ll wait.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s move on!

The first scene in Ghost int the Shell: Arise pulls us right into familiar neon-soaked Tokyo, where some familiar figures led by Chief Aramaki are in a military cemetery. They’re busy exhuming the full-cyborg body of a recently-deceased gentleman, someone who may or may not be a criminal. Just before they crack the coffin lid, they’re interrupted by a young woman pointing a gun — it’s a much younger Major Motoko Kusanagi, protective of her former Lieutenant Colonel, the coffin’s occupant.

In this series, Kusanagi works for the Army 501 Organisation, fiercely loyal to the group (or at least to the individuals) who first converted her to a full cyborg, and she’s willing to break a few rules to look after her own.

Still from Ghost in the Shell: Arise; © Madman Entertainment

Still from Ghost in the Shell: Arise; © Madman Entertainment

That’s all the plot I’m willing to cover right now, so’s not to spoil things for anyone. Suffice it to say that Ghost in the Shell: Arise is, as its title suggests, an origin story. Many of the central characters from later timelines show up as Aramaki gathers his team together, from Batou through to the predecessor of the girlishly-voiced Tachikoma “think tanks” in the other series.

Fans of the series like me will lap this right up: the sharp-yet-soft cityscape is the same familiar animated world we remember from earlier visits, and the GITS thematic landscape and densely-plotted storyline are present and correct as well. Like its precursors, Arise raises questions about consciousness, the perception of reality, and the human condition (or, perhaps, the cyborg condition).

All of that is sandwiched in between a set of action sequences that come along like cybernetically-enhanced clockwork. Perhaps a little too often, almost as if Kusanagi has a quota to fill, and the shift from haunting score to action sequence guitar is a touch jarring at times. Some of these introduce some new characters, and a couple involve the most memorable creation of this new series: the more than mildly creepy “mobile land mines”. These look like young girls in gymnasts’ gear — until they grab you and explode — and something about them reminds me of Pris from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

There are a few changes: the character designs have all been reworked and there’s a new voice cast, so everyone’s got a new look and sound. Motoko Kusanagi is voiced by Maaya Sakamoto, who’s done a lot of anime voice work and previously played Kusanagi as a child in Stand Alone Complex. Character tweaks aside, the look and feel of this is much the same as the previous series. This isn’t a flaw at all — SAC had excellent production values, and it’s great to that they’ve kept to the same exacting standards.

If you’re comfortable traipsing through Tokyo with Section 9, then Ghost in the Shell: Arise is a solid addition to the franchise, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next three episodes. If you’ve not seen any Ghost in the Shell before, though, I’d recommend getting your bearings with (and thoroughly enjoying) the earlier series first.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise is screening in cinemas around Australia right now as part of the REEL ANIME 2013 festival: see the official site for details!

9 leotard-clad exploding robots out of 10.
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