Johnny specified that he was looking for me to review anime/manga which either had existing English dubs or translations. If enough folks want me to translate Japanese stuff, maybe I can do that in a separate thread. Without further ado ...
GHOST IN THE SHELL
If you're into anime and you like cyberpunk, you more than likely know Ghost in the Shell. It's a giant in the genre, truly quality work. For those of you who are newcomers, this series offers a fantastic window into what many elements of Sindome would be like if given visual form.
Those of you who know GitS probably have an obvious question: which one are you reviewing? Indeed, the series was so successful as to produce two seasons of TV episodes plus numerous movies. I'll try to examine a little about each. What we can start with is the idea that the series follows Public Security Section 9, a special operations unit similar to Judges but more secretive in nature. They primarily pursue cyberterrorists, but as you'll see, they get into trouble with plenty of other sorts.
_GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)_
GitS originally started out in 1989 as a manga produced by the vast imagination of Masamune Shirow, who was previously better known for his erotic works (an oddly large leap). The very first movie made its debut in 1995 and was considered to be a critical success, so much that it even made its way to American theaters in a time when most Americans had never heard of animation for adults.
The year is 2029, and although mankind has greatly advanced in some ways, it remains familiar and cyberpunk to us in its dark alleys and slums overshadowed by towering skyscrapers. Even the futuristic technology has that cyberpunk feel, thanks in large part to the attention paid to the small details. When we see a machine with an arm tightening its grasp, we see its individual components turning and working in order to drive that motion. This isn't Star Trek technology, but chunky, practical stuff.
Do you like Sindome's cyberware? If so, you're gonna love Ghost in the Shell. By the year of the movie, most people have a cybernetic brain at the very least, partially replacing their actual brains and permitting them to interface with a worldwide network similar to the Matrix. People can communicate mentally as with a SIC chip. One character, a sniper, has a telescopic eye to assist with his arm. Most importantly, we have our main character.
Major Motoko Kusanagi (often referred to just as the Major) is said to be a full prosthetic, which means that she has had all but her brain and a few other bits replaced by cybernetics. This is a central element in the film, as it raises the philosophical question - even for Kusanagi herself - of whether she is still truly a human being. This continues throughout the broader series, but in this particular film, we're treated to a detailed view of the process involved in creating Major Kusanagi's body. It's really fascinating, supremely detailed stuff, yet none of it looks like it would be wildly beyond our own possible future.
The Major is a strong female character in a time when they were rather uncommon in anime, and she essentially commands the members of Section 9 under the cunning and wise Chief Aramaki. On the surface, the movie details Section 9's pursuit of a mysterious figure in cyberspace known as the Puppetmaster. To say more about them would be spoiling too much of the plot, but suffice to say, their existence turns out to be just as cyberpunk everything else.
Ghost in the Shell is rife with imagery and references questioning whether, to borrow a line from the Matrix, we are plugged into the machines or they are plugged into us. How far can you take it before you're no longer a human being? Are the superhuman abilities worth the loss of self? Do we still have a soul if we replace the rest of our body with the synthetic? In a world where AI exists, could they have souls? The 'ghost' in Ghost in the Shell is a reference to a sentience, to a soul.
One of the great visuals in the movie is when Major Kusanagi is trying to take on a massive, AI-driven tank by herself. She back flips her way up a staircase and lands laying down just as the tank begins firing bullets at her, instead striking a carving on a wall depicting a tree of species. The bullets streak all the way up the tree, only for the tank to cease firing just short of striking humanity. It's but one example of the symbolism telling us that humanity has not yet been surpassed, and that even with technology, it can life on - perhaps even with the soul the Major wonders whether she still has.
One should not expect much comedy in this movie, because it takes itself very seriously. The dialogue is as detailed as the world, and the characters often have melancholy or serious attitudes about them. One gets the sense that people are either downtrodden and on the littered bottom, or wealthy and scheming high above. Just as in Sindome, the financial divide and the impact it has on different people stares us in the face and influences the society of 2029.
This is a truly superb movie with an excellent eye for detail. It also shows us some of the earliest uses of CGI in anime, without it ever coming off as intrusively obvious. This is a film from which the Wachowski brothers drew inspiration when they created The Matrix, among many other inspired parties. If any anime were to be reviewed as recommended viewing by me as the first entry in this series, it'd be this one.
_GHOST IN THE SHELL - STAND ALONE COMPLEX_
For the sake of brevity, I'm going to condense this into examining Stand Alone Complex and its second season, aptly named 2nd Gig. The TV series continues to follow the cases of Major Kusanagi and Section 9 in protecting Japan from terrorism. In the first series, Section 9 is once again in pursuit of a super-hacker named the Laughing Man, whose relationship with them ends up being far more interactive than one would expect for a wanted criminal.
Stand Alone Complex continues to examine those deep philosophical ideals mentioned above, but in a slightly less serious way than the original film did. Major Kusanagi is more sexualized, but she otherwise remains the same kickass cyborg commander - albeit while conducting herself more comfortably in her "own" body. Jokes are cracked, and less serious characters like the think-tank Tachikoma are regularly featured. In this sense, one could think of Stand Alone Complex as being divergent from the original film and closer to the manga.
Throughout the series, we are treated to a much broader depiction of the virtual world, as well as the varied technologies of the cyberpunk future. However, people still ride in cars or fly in helicopters. They still eat, they still struggle to make a living, and they still have those deep questions about life and death. Figures within the government continue to conspire, while the Laughing Man acts from behind the scenes to mysterious ends. Major Kusanagi is fascinated by him, and her pursuit is dogged.
If Stand Alone Complex tells us a story of intrigue, then 2nd Gig takes that up to eleven. The Individual Eleven, to be exact! Refugees have taken residence in Japan as an extended result of the two world wars which took place prior to the TV series, and a shady group of cyberterrorists known as the Individual Eleven are working to stir up a hostage crisis among these generally "invited" but unwanted refugees. The story involves a great deal of governmental conspiracy stirred into the action and depiction of the fading past/approaching future world, and we're welcomed to explore even more of that delightful material in 2nd Gig. In one episode, the Major even visits a 'chat room' made up of peoples' avatars seated around a table, where they engage in debate.
2nd Gig goes into greater detail about who Major Kusanagi really is, how she became a full prosthetic cyborg, and her personal beliefs and fears. We meet figures from her past and explore her attempts at life in the present, up to and including the romantic. We're also treated to a central villain (though we don't realize it at first) whose motives give us something very deep and murky to think about. That said, you action and cyberpunk tech fans will not want for material. Bullets fly in almost every episode, and we even see mobile suits similar to Ingrams in Sindome.
Last but certainly not least, the music in Stand Alone Complex and 2nd Gig is extraordinary, much like the quality of its English dub. The composer, Yoko Kanno, is famed in anime for her works. Here, she uses her diverse preferences in musical styles to really bring the TV series to life. Even when she's producing soft rock or a jazz piece, it just fits. I would even go so far as to encourage you to look up songs from the original soundtracks on YouTube, as they in themselves will give you an idea of the feel cyberpunk should have.