First off let me say, I am heavy into anime. These reviews are going to pretty in depth, or as far in depth as I can go until I start majorly spoiling. That being said, I will make my best attempts at keeping them minor or absent all together.

""I thought what I'd do was, pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes""

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (henceforth GitS:SAC), a TV series based on the original Ghost in the Shell movie (which was, in turn, based on Shirow Masamune's original manga series). The action in the film takes place either previous to, or independent of (think of all the different versions of Batman), the events of the first film. At its best, GitS:SAC is the most interesting, sustained postcyberpunk media work in existence, intellectually (if not visually) superior to the original movie, and almost worthy of direct comparison to the post/cyberpunk works which inspired it.

Set in the densely-realized postcyberpunk setting of "New Port City" (think Japan's Gotham City), GitS:SAC follows the investigations of Section 9, an ultra-elite police cybercrime and "special problems" team, a job especially important in a society where much of the populace has various cybernetic implants, including partial or completely cybernetic brains.

The story centers around Motoko Kusanagi, a major in Section 9. As the title suggests, there are two kinds of episodes in here; "Stand Alone" and "Complex". The overall series plot and title stem from the Laughing Man case, though there are plenty of individual one-episode stories.

Stand Alone episodes have no connection to the season's overarching storyline, but Complex episodes on the other hand, reveal the storyline. The Stand Alone Episodes are a mixed bag, with Section 9 tackling a variety of cybercriminals, terrorists, potential assassins, and government corruption, and include some of the worst episodes. Each Stand Alone episode is like a bite size of CSI (but with tanks, stealth suits and bigger guns); conflict clashes between the human and the technological, and Section 9 becomes involved. The result is a mix of high-concept sci-fi, detective and military genres.

The Complex episodes are far more interesting, following Section 9's attempts to get to the bottom of the "Laughing Man" case. Six years before the show opens, a cyber-criminal held an executive of a micromachine company at gunpoint, then blackmailed several large corporations before disappearing. (Due to the animated logo he superimposed over his face during the broadcast, a smiling figure in a sideways baseball cap with an animated quote from Salinger's Catcher in the Rye ("I thought what I'd do was, pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes") running around outside it, the media dubbed the mysterious figure "Laughing Man".) As the plot unfolds, Laughing Man proves to be the ultimate hacker, capable of such feats as hijacking multiple video streams simultaneously, taking over someones cybernetic brain entirely, or even editing his own images out of someones cybernetic eyes, and all in real time. The deeper Section 9 looks into the case, the more tangled and dangerous it gets, revealing a dense web of decoys, copycats, corporate scandals, an experimental drug, and government corruption which runs all the way up to the top. As the show goes on, the plot gets stranger, and bloodier.

(You don't have to have read Salinger's "The Laughing Man" to appreciate the story, but you will probably twig to a clue or two early if you have)

The Japanese origin means that GitS:SAC can get away with risky narrative gambits American shows would never touch. For example, episode 9 takes place entirely within the confines of a virtual reality chatroom for Laughing Man "fans." Either you'll think it's utterly brilliant, or utterly dull (I tend toward the former). In either case, it's the most fully realized consensual cyberspace environment since those two minutes of Johnny Mnemonic that didn't suck. In another intriguing episode, Togusa goes undercover at a facility for disturbed children which happens to be the point of attack for a massive case of data intrusion. There children exhibiting "cyberbrain closed-shell syndrome," a sort of computer autism, are employed creating and breaching unique firewalls (or "attack barriers"). The children there are also waiting on the reappearance of the mysterious "Chief," who may be the Laughing Man himself.

It's rewarding to compare Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex to the only other great science fiction show on TV right now, Battlestar Galactica, as both have the same overriding theme: What does it mean to be human, and where is the line between man and machine?. By almost every measure (plot, character, tension, conflict, acting, writing consistency, wit), Galactica is the superior show, and one much more deeply tangled in the thorny thicket of human relationships. However, GitS:SAC has one clear advantage over Galactica, and one that stands at the very heart of skiffy virtue: formal novelty.

Galatica excels at making full use of several of science fiction's vast array of used furniture: Hornblower in space, FTL drives, plucky fighter pilots, killer robots, evil Dopplegangers, etc. Though GitS:SAC does use a few standard elements of the Japanese anime Sci-fi tradition (sub-AI androids and, later, power armor), no other TV show (and comparatively little fiction) has gone to such depths exploring the downside of the increasing cybernization of the human body. Cyberbrains may allow perfect recall, voiceless communication and constant immersion in the datasphere, but they also let anyone with the right skills and/or toolset hack your mind. It's bad enough to have script kiddies "pwn" your PC; it's infinitely worse when a script kiddy can "pwn" you.

The world of GitS:SAC is recognizably our own, or rather, one recognizably extrapolated from modern Japan. While parts of the technology seem unlikely in the timeframe allotted, none seems impossible. Departing from the modern Star Trek paradigm of "technobabble technobabble problem, technobabble technobabble solution," GitS:SAC deals with real, cutting-edge computer security and biotechnology topics updated for the cyberbrain era. Firewalls, modular delay viruses, cyber-autism, and cyberbrain sclerosis are all among the issues Section 9 faces.

But the postcyberpunk elements of GitS:SAC are only half the story, the other half featuring police procedural drama heavily spliced with amped-up action. (Making allowances for the power and durability of cyborg bodies, the action is fairly realistic.) You would be hard-pressed to find an American cop show where such a large percentage of cases ended up in climatic gun battles. And to the best of my knowledge, none of the three CSI teams have a squad of tanks at its disposal.

Now while the animation is a lot simpler and obviously cheaper than both movies, thatís not to say it doesnít deserve merit, and this is mainly again in the use of combining traditional animation with CGI. Brilliantly realized in the first movie but perhaps overdone in the second, SAC gets the balance spot on. With less detailed drawings (letís be fair) it appears that the artists had much less problems blurring the line between drawn and CG animation. If you stick to a certain style and cell shade just about everything, CG blends very easily and very cheaply, making what looks on paper like a cost cutting exercise turn into a bonus when it comes to animating action.

Leaving a number of thought-provoking questions lingering in the viewers mind is refreshing change from the usual gamut of mediocre anime's however, and though I was a somewhat disappointed with the ending, it still delivers the goods. If you want gun fights complete with blood spatter, high-tech espionage, martial arts duels, thermo-optical camouflage stealth suits and car chases you'll get your fill here.

Ghost in The Shell: Stand Alone Complex raised the bar and set the gold standard for what an animated series can and should be. Breathtakingly beautiful artwork combined with intelligently written storyline and incredibly brilliant acting creates a world that is as believable as it is fantastical.