The term Stand Alone Complex can be loosely defined as a social phenomenon where unconnected actions combine to create a group effort, though it isn't maintained by a ringleader or ruling body. It propagates without instruction or leadership, with random humans moving toward a collective goal without conscious intent, eventually becoming a coherent whole. Essentially, in the words of the Stand Alone Complex fandom wiki, One could say that the Stand Alone Complex is mass hysteriawith purpose.
While we have all been swept up in mass hysteria at one point or another, for a galaxy of different reasons, what can be said is that when the momentum gets going, there's fairly little anyone can do to stem the tide. We can easily equate this to a stampede. When enough participants get spooked and start charging, even if there is a sizable amount of protest from within their ranks, the whole mob will run clear off a cliff without hesitation.
But what makes mass hysteria unique, is the many forms in which it can appear. My favorite example of this is the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518, where anywhere from 50 to 400 people inexplicably danced in the street for the better part of two straight months (though there is considerable debate over who actually kicked off this flash mob, and if the rumors of a dozen or more people dying each day were simply made up). While intense speculation has persisted in the centuries since, based on the collected records from documentarians, there has never been a definitive explanation for what happened.
Another well-known example of mass hysteria came packaged as the infamous Satanic Panic (which took root in the 1980s and has never really gone away). This mass reporting of unsubstantiated cases of ritualistic abuse, trafficking and sacrifice has come to include tens of thousands of investigations throughout the world over the decades. Not a single one has confirmed the existence of these ritualistic cults engaging in satanic sadism. Yet, the panic remains entrenched in international culture and rhetoric, with little sign of ever fully dissipating.
However, when we recognize a Stand Alone Complex, the results can get fairly more complicated. Probably the best modern example which could be classified as this phenomenon is the decentralized hacktivist movement, Anonymous. The emergence of these self-identified vigilantes utilizing the ambiguous moniker became news in 2007. The one-two punch of online predator Chris Forcand's arrest in Canada, and the 2008 launch of Project Chanology against the Church of Scientology threw this movement onto the world stage. In the succeeding years, in the wake of continued activity and notoriety, investigations from journalists, and international law enforcement and intelligence bureaus continually prove that Anonymous members can operate entirely exclusive of one another if they desire it. And fun fact, when I was 18, I actually attended a few protests supposedly organized by Anonymous. But to the actuality of that, I only have assumptions since the organizers were faceless online, and masked in person.
It is quite difficult to prove that these actions were the work of a loose collective, or whether random people are throwing a label on their movements as a means of brand recognition in order to legitimize their actions in the eyes of some, and to possibly cover their actual tracks. Anonymous has come to be used in music, television, and merchandise to a degree that it is now an indelible part of our collective culture, for better and for worse (depending on your stance towards them).
But the main point that I am driving at is that Anonymous now exists as an entity which is self-sustaining, fueled by our contrasting idealism and hysteria, and continues to survive merely by the weight of its cultural impact. Whether or not those who claimed allegiance to their collective are still active, or ever were, many see the publized actions of the group as all the evidence they need in order to believe in their existence and efficacy. While others will maintain stark skepticism for the very same reasons, maintaining that private organizations, government branches, or individual power players are using the zeitgeist in order to manipulate and misdirect public opinion and information.
This uncertainty towards a shadowy entity on the periphery of our society, manipulating its many tiers, is exactly the framework which is utilized within the classic anime series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Based on the 1989 manga by Masamune Shirow, as well as the 1995 Mamoru Oshii feature film, Stand Alone Complex is an original adaptation by Kenji Kamiyama which is set in an alternative storyline to that of its source material. While it still utilizes many of the same characters, settings, and designs, it manages to inject a considerable amount of original material into the existing ethos of the Ghost in the Shell universe.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex mostly takes place in Japan during the years 2030 and 2032. After humanity develops the ability to cyberize themselves, utilizing prosthetic body parts and cybernetic brains, the boundaries between what is human and machine is ever more blurred. The proof of humanity against artificial constructs usually boils down to someone's possession of a ghost, or essentially the concept of the human soul. In the wake of society evolving and restructuring around this massive singularity event, we follow Public Security Section 9, a clandestine counter-cyberterrorism squad of former military and police personnel, who are responsible for mitigating threats which cannot be handled by mundane security efforts. Through their normal activities, they uncover widespread and amorphous conspiracies which pose threats on an international scale. Though paradoxically, the closer they get to the truth, the more dangerous and untenable their situation becomes.
The series is largely set in the fictional Japanese city of Niihama, and follows Section 9 through two major cases which threaten to unsettle Japan's balance between its population and its government: The Laughing Man and the Individual Eleven. While there exists considerable overlap, as well as wide divides between these cases, for this video, we're going to focus on the former case.
The Laughing Man is an enigmatic hacktivist reportedly responsible for the largest acts of cyberterrorism in modern Japan, where numerous corporations were hacked and blackmailed. Unaware whether The Laughing Man is a domestic or foreign terrorist, or even if it's a solo hacker or a team, the police have chased this ghost for six years with little to show for it. Togusa, the rookie of Section 9, is contacted by an old friend still investigating the case. In the wake of his friend's mysterious car accident, Togusa discovers police corruption involving illegal internal surveillance of its officers. When the scandal breaks, a police press conference publicly denying responsibility is called, blaming the head of The Laughing Man task force. But before reporters can press the personal ties to the nanomachine company responsible for the surveillance equipment at the heart of the scandal, The Laughing Man hijacks a police official's cyberbrain, denouncing the police response as a farce, and threatening the Superintendent-General's life.
The following night, an attempt is made on the life of the Superintendent-General when a security chief is brain-hacked, followed by a close series of apparent accomplices attempting to finish what the hacked goon could not. While a virus is blamed for the initial attempt, it is soon apparent that all of the succeeding individuals operated entirely on their own volition, with no link to one another or the previous crimes. While the public is quick to be swept up in the fervor when a fall guy is named posthumously as The Laughing Man, Section 9 unravels a sizable conspiracy that the government was doctoring evidence and using The Laughing Man as a means to control public opinion while they work with private corporations to profit off of human misery.
The Laughing Man is seen as both a vigilante hero and a public menace throughout nearly every echelon of society who look from the outside-in. His iconic logo is utilized in art, and on merchandise. His name is evoked in the fiery rhetoric of those wielding public platforms and open forums. While the perpetrator of the more televised actions which fast-tracked the whole Laughing Man frenzy is revealed to be a man named Aoi, whether this persona was born from a real activist attempting to change society, or was always a farce created to manipulate the masses, in the world of Stand Alone Complex, it's rather a moot point. His place in the culture, and as a means for motivation to pursue similar courses of action, is set deep within Japan's social landscape. This makes the public reactions to his supposed rhetoric and acts of terrorism even more dangerous, because there is nothing to precipitate what people will do, when they will do it, and for what purpose. This uncertainty provides a perfect opportunity for powers in a position to manipulate the image of The Laughing Man. The rest of us will believe what we will, and will act accordingly. As a result, hysteria spreads, the truth is buried, and the world keeps on turning.
Now, the metatextual origin of The Laughing Man initially came from the short story of the same name, written by American author J. D. Salinger. And even if you haven't read the story, or any of Salinger's works, on top of multiple references to his writing through casual conversations, the character Aoi is highly influenced by Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. Now, I am certainly not a fan of Salinger, and I have mentioned this a few times in other videos, and there are a lot of reasons why I keep anything he wrote at arm's length. But the surprising thing with Holden's motivations and qualms with the world around him, a facet of his character that has caused immense irritation, is that when Aoi takes hold of the same principles, there are two key differenceshe is proactive, and he manages to mature.
Holden is a passive character, and a perpetually immature one. He is a teenager, cursing the adult world for its harshness, monotony, and greed, which influences his views on what is important in life. But Aoi tries his damnedest to do the right thing in the wake of such inhumanity; he wants to change the world for the better. He wants to embrace the idea that innocence and solidarity are innate concepts within human society, which need to be fostered and protected. As he aged, with his moniker hijacked by those seeking to exploit others, and those he sought to bring down still operating behind the scenes, he sees the work of Section 9 as a fastlane to finally accomplish what he set out to do all those years ago. And get used to a lot of literary references, because the whole cast of Stand Alone Complex is extremely well read (as if they all were going for a graduate degree in literature).
Every installment in the Ghost in the Shell franchise is buried under an avalanche of overarching themes and visual motifs, wearing many of its influences right on its sleeve. While mostly this comes around as more debates over life when artificial intelligence is nearly identical to organic intelligence, the focus on a Stand Alone Complex and its implications for a society is thoroughly unique. And even though SAC just passed its 19th birthday, its relevance is more prevalent now than ever before. We exist in a world of hyper-charged ideological battlefields and cultural friction, with hysteria continuing to pressure public policy and mob mentality. We live in an age where stand alone complexes such as Anonymous are bound to increase exponentially, regardless of who may be seen at the helm. When we eventually reach our next singularity point, these complexes will only compound the considerable change our worldwide civilization will undergo and settle into in the coming generations. Nothing truly occurs within a vacuum, and all actions have consequences.
While Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is laden down with weighty themes and conflicts, seasoned heavily over a multi-faceted thriller, does the series hold up as an anime, and as a consistently coherent story? Well, starting from a technical perspective, you won't hear me debating whether or not early 2000s 3DCG is always effective. Sure, it isn't Hand Shakers (2017) bad, and this was when 3D was really being ramped up throughout worldwide animation production for the first time. But in the first season, its limits ultimately inhibit immersion far more than it augments the series; and though the second season does improve significantly, the 2D and 3D content maintains a disjointed relationship. This is made even more prominent in scenes where settings are largely rendered in CG, because it takes away one of the key aspects which make the Japan in Ghost in the Shell feel so amazingtactility.
To make my point, let's go back to Oshii's 1995 feature film. As we follow the Major throughout Niihama, we are given a parade of locations which always play with two essential elements of this universeadvancement and decay. We see the mechanized limbs and bodies of cyberized humans meshing against a backdrop of a decrepit and overcrowded city. It is an amalgamation of cultures and historical eras conflicting with technological singularity, and the result is a sizable divide between haves and have-nots, which extends to the very buildings and streets we inhabit.
The lush color scheme of the original film gives an ethereal vibrancy to its world and characters, yet we also feel the weight. We get to see the rings of the tree, so to speak. In the colorized pages of the manga, you can also see its use of a fairly vivid and striking color palette. Both of these approaches were replaced in SAC with earthy colors, which can sometimes blend into a mess of murky hues. Gone are the overused waterways, the ever-constant infrastructure improvements, the ever-present blend of the chic and the decrepit. When we do get similar aesthetic combinations to these in SAC, we're usually venturing into more unsavory parts of town. As a result, this dichotomy becomes less reflective of the society as a whole, and more specifically tied to Japan's criminal elements and underclass, inadvertently reducing its overall effectiveness. Yes, adaptations are free to make of what they will with the material, especially when you have to make a lot of decisions as to where the limited resources are best directed, but when such an intrinsic element of the world is neglected, we lose a potent aspect which makes Ghost in the Shell so unique.
But opposite this, Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG is a massive improvement, both in artistic direction, and in production design. It manages to recapture those original atmospheres while still keeping a lot of visual motifs established in the beginning, which I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate. Because buttressing your existing strengths, and changing those artistic decisions which fell flat, without sacrificing the integrity of your story or your visual identity to which your fans are already attracted, is extremely hard to do. Though it seems that Kamiyama may have forgotten to import his last save over to Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045.
Having said that, Stand Alone Complex understands Shirow's sense of humor considerably better than Oshii. The manga's dark, yet playful sense of humor is one of the key features which were somewhat dismissed in the feature films, being the more serious take on the subject, to be sure. But Stand Alone Complex is constantly riffing, and most of the scenes featuring the Tachikomas find ways to throw in a fair few jokes even when the scene is deathly serious. And when we look at the Tachikomas in the manga, the snappy dialogue and pacing is almost an exact match. So while there were a few creative paths taken that I certainly have issues with, there also is enough beholden to what came before it, that Stand Alone Complex still manages to feel right despite the liberties taken.
Kamiyama manages to make expert use of his assets, making budget and production limitations almost negligible, and allowing the series to save the majority of its complex work for moments of higher octane action. There is little that I would describe as fluff or fat, with each sequence meticulously crafted around a succession of angles which always add further emphasis to each pivotal scene's tone and importance.
Similar anime series which share the same economical direction include Noboru Ishiguro's 1988 adaptation of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Hideaki Anno's 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Naohito Takahashi's 1997 anime adaptation of Berserk. Not much may be happening during these moments, but the lack of motion rarely makes me feel bored or impatient, because of what else is occurring and how it is delivered and paced. But on the flip side of that, these moments are often veritable shiploads of exposition, and if you aren't a fan of anime where they sit around and talk all day, this one probably won't be for you. Massive info dumps occur every couple of episodes, and there is little left to the imagination by the end of the series.
This conflicts with the natural ambiguity and uncertainty which hallmark the original work and the films, especially when The Major incorporates the Puppet Master into her cyberbrain, erasing the original Major (as the rest of Section 9 knew her) from existence. Now, as SAC is set on a different timeline, this never occurs, but it doesn't doesn't fill that void with an equitable conflict. That isn't to say you won't have a significant emotional response to the dour events which plague the Major and her colleagues, but the focus is considerably more drawn to the overarching story rather than personal introspection. Having said that, Stand Alone Complex benefits from its expanded runtime and scope, allowing episodes to focus on individual members of Section 9 in order to provide their stories to the audience, and to better understand their motivations, rather than keeping a microscope mostly fixed on Major Kusanagi. This creates a bit of a disparity between the tone of the manga and Oshii animated films, and that of Stand Alone Complex, the former two being considerably more ambiguous and emotional, where SAC is more cerebral and action-oriented. One isn't better than the other, as it comes down to a matter of preference. But I never had a reaction to Stand Alone Complex like I had with the manga or with the original films.
So, when I started making video essays for Anime News Network last year, my very first topic was on Serial Experiments Lain, in which I said the following: That isn't to say Lain's story is the pinnacle of cyberpunk, because Ghost in the Shell will always hold that spot in my world. While this was directed mostly at the manga and Oshii films, this declaration absolutely includes Stand Alone Complex. Its healthy balance of action, masterful direction, compelling intrigue, and the possibilities of technology. It makes for a prophetic thriller which may hit a little too close to home for some of you, and while the production elements can be hit-and-miss more times than some would allow, these same aspects can occasionally be outright brilliant.
While there's so much more I wanted to talk about, and stressed about it long enough that I had to delay putting this essay out for another month, I will end with saying that the second season surrounding the Individual Eleven, subtitled 2nd GIG, is far better at interweaving storylines and themes than the first, as well as providing minor characters with a lot more characterization and opportunities to influence the larger world. On the flip side, the first season is much more exploratory with its titular concept of a Stand Alone Complex, making for a more engaging thriller. Either way you cannot go wrong with the whole 52-episode series, because it continues to hold up extremely well, both as a stand alone project and as part of the greater Ghost in the Shell multimedia franchise. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex remains one of those anime series that may not appeal to everyone, but everyone should give it at least one go. You get something new out of the series (and out of yourself) through each rewatch of the show, examining your own understanding and observations of how our world operates around us.
Thank you to everyone who've made it all the way to the end of this video essay. I know it couldn't have been easyyou're awesome. If you enjoyed (or have taken issue) with my interpretation and examination of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, leave a comment down below to let me know what you think. If you have an idea for an anime which you'd like me to cover, also let me know in the comments. If you haven't done so, subscribe to the Anime News Network. We release new content every week, so be sure to ring the bell. Be sure to mosey on over to my personal channel Criticlysm for similar content, and follow my utter misunderstanding of social media over on Twitter. I deeply appreciate your continued support and feedback. Until next time.
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