Netflix’s new Ghost in the Machine anime series comes in high on visuals, low on story

Review by C.J. Bunce

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is the latest Netflix-produced series, a fully-CGI-animated anime series based on the 1989 Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow.  Directors Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) and Kenji Kamiyama (Stand Alone Complex) return fans to the “Stand Alone Complex” continuity, not tapped by the franchise since 2006.  Familiar badass Major Motoko Kusanagi returns as the star of the series, but this time she takes a backseat to an incredible vision of dystopian Los Angeles and some quirky and more successful robot characters called the tachikoma.

If you really want to know what is happening in the series you need to go back and get caught up on the earlier movies and series.  In part what viewers bring to the series will help to understand the nuances of the societal drama and cultural touchpoints, because without that background they are lost.  The 2017 Scarlett Johansson movie adaptation won’t be of much help, other than learning why Major is a cyborg.  But the series may still appeal to fans of recent video game technology–the characters look far closer to video game characters than animated creations, to the extent that a long sequences feel very much like you’re watching your nephew play a video game.  In short, in what begins like a bombed and emptied Los Angeles in the bleak, futuristic era of Mad Max and Road Warrior, the cybernetic Major and a small team from Japan’s Section 9 squad are dragged into performing mercenary projects as they try to stave off a world spiraling toward complete control by a singular artificial intelligence.

Unfortunately, the jerkiness of the camera movements and creepy nature of the characters in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 are in stark contrast to the stunning, lifelike backdrops of ravaged L.A.  It’s the kind of jarring stuff you might expect to result in queasy stomachs or even seizures.  For starters, being the first completely CGI animation in the Ghost in the Shell world, the different handling of the source material is likely going to be off-putting to some long-time fans.  Major’s look is probably the strangest feature–she appears surprisingly not striking, like any background manga female character, where the minor character Ada has more lifelike features that blend with the series aesthetic much better.  Sure, Major is this cyberpunk creation, but as the series star she doesn’t take center stage as she should.

Usually characters like the tachikoma would be distracting and the off-putting bit of a series like this.  Robotic and speaking like squeaky children, they take the place of the bickering peasants in Seven Samurai, like R2-D2 and BB-8 from Star Wars in their small stature and affability, filling that place you usually find small talking animals running alongside the heroes in Disney movies.  Yet here they are in refreshing contrast to the quiet talking head sequences, or the Fast & Furious-inspired action sequences.

If not for the contrasting character movements, it would be easy to marvel at the futurism in the street scene backgrounds, the interior rooms, and the ornate features like carved door handles.  The previously reviewed Netflix anime Altered Carbon: Resleeved (see my review here) handles similar content and characters in a more exciting and cohesive manner.

This trailer will give you a peek at the overall look of Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045:

A warning: the storyline in the 12 approximately 22-minute episodes simply ends in the first season finale as if it was not intended to be a season finale.  But the second season of 12 episodes are already completed and expected to be released on Netflix soon.

In Japanese with English subtitles and more for teens and adults because of subject matter, it’s a mixed bag of good visuals and less-effective storytelling.  Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is streaming now on Netflix.

Leave a Reply