It's 2030. War has left its mark on the world, with newly powerful nations rising in the place of the old guard, but terrorism is still a threat and governments can still be corrupt. In the midst of this is Public Security Section 9, Japan's elite group of crime solvers now set with the task of tracking down elusive hacker The Laughing Man with cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi and police officer Batou taking the lead. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the anime television series derived from the popular manga and film Ghost in the Shell, presents a future troubled by many of the same ethical dilemmas our world has faced in recent years.
In the decade that has passed since its initial release, GITS: SAC has become one of the touchstones of the 21st century anime fandom. Like its feature-length predecessor and the manga upon which it is based, Stand Alone Complex is a frequently referenced, heavily influential work, not simply because of its art, plot or fantastic score, but because of the ideologies that inform the story. There's even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to “Philosophy of Ghost in the Shell”.
Anime Los Angeles celebrated the 10th anniversary of this landmark science fiction series with a panel Saturday afternoon featuring stars of the U.S. dub (the version that has aired on Adult Swim repeatedly over the years), Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (Major Kusanagi) and Richard Epcar (Batou). Moderated by Otaku USA writer Matt Schley, the panel focused not just on the behind-the-scenes antics, but on why GITS: SAC is important. It's not just the technology available in this fictional world that's important, Epcar notes, but, “the questions they pose about technology.”
“They got into the morality of this stuff,” he adds.
As an example, check out the tenth episode of the series “A Perfect Day for a Jungle Cruise,” which McGlynn cited as her favorite episode of the series. There's a serial killer on the loose, skinning t-shirt-shaped flesh off his victims. That's certainly a gruesome crime, but it's made even more horrific by the technology the killer has on hand. Add to that a dose of political intrigue involving the American Empire (a portion of the United States that rose to power post-war) and events that have to be considered war crimes and you have an episode so brutal that its memory will haunt you long after the viewing.
When I first saw Stand Alone Complex, sometime in the middle of the last decade, I couldn't help but see parallels between this fictional, futuristic world and our own. In the midst of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it wasn't hard to fathom another World War. The American Empire in the series had taken on so many of the traits that were making the U.S. increasingly unpopular throughout the real world. On top of that, the portrayal of corporate powers throughout the series often mirrored criticisms that peppered recent discourse. As complicated as the story within Stand Alone Complex is, it's still easy to see the origins of the story in daily news reports.
After the panel, I caught up with Epcar and asked him if he thought that Stand Alone Complex was a product of the time in which it was produced. “I think it is a product of the time, but I think we're still experiencing that stuff now,” he answered, mentioning recent “corporations are people” discussions. “I don't think we're going to see the end of that, unfortunately.”
Technology is at the crux of Stand Alone Complex, as it is with the rest of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. The story takes place in a time when prosthetic technology is so advanced that a person can essentially have one's entire physical body replaced. One commenter mentioned the exploration of singularity and transhumanism — ideas you're more likely to hear about at something like Extreme Futurist Festival, rather than an anime convention — within the Ghost in the Shell universe. In the series, it's not necessarily the notion that your body can be replaced that's central to the story. Instead, the focus is on the implications of such advances. How are lives affected when religion doesn't concur with science? Does your identity change when you acquire new body parts? More importantly, how can society protect technology from falling into the hands of those who will only use it to hurt communities? For Epcar, that final question is the legacy of Stand Alone Complex. This isn't a show about the future. It's a show about how we can move towards the future without completely ruining it.