Ghost in the Shell: 2nd Gig
Those who have been friends of The Anime Review know my rather convoluted history with the world of Ghost in the Shell. I'm one of the few reviewers who gave the original motion picture a reasonably harsh review, and while my view of it has softened, I still find it a stiff film with too many plot holes. The second film, Innocence, stunned me with its visuals, but it still never roamed in A-level territory because the philosophical dialogue still overwhelmed it. Then came Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which is by far the most compelling version of this material I've seen. Major Kusanagi and her Section 9 team finally came alive in this first television incarnation. While the ongoing Laughing Man storyline kept things at a high level of complexity, the personal stories of the team told throughout the 26 episodes made it a near-perfect blend of action, storytelling, and character development. It wasn't long before another season of Ghost in the Shell arrived, this time under the moniker Second Gig. A direct continuation of Stand Alone Complex, Second Gig attempts to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and on certain levels it succeeds. However, despite its more engaging central plot, there's a certain distance this time out between the audience and the characters that is never really resolved. I certainly found this series interesting and even captivating at times, but never on an emotional level.
In a plotline that seems strangely prescient considering the immigation debate currently going on in the United States, Japan has been taking in refugees from Asia in droves. Living in often-miserable conditions, the immigrants are a little-seen problem mostly ignored by the populace. However, a string of bizarre events ranging from a hostage situation at a bank to a mass beheading on the top of a building signal trouble brewing in the refugee ranks. All of these occurrences have a tie to a murky group known as the Individual Eleven. As Section 9 gets involved, they learn that the refugee situation is far more complicated than they thought, particularly due to the involvement of a charismatic leader known as Kuze. But as with all complex situations, there's often more to fear from the "good guys" than the "bad guys." Here, it's Gohda, a shadowy man with a disfigured face who has his own designs taking place inside the halls of power (and the military in particular). As they investigate, Kusanagi and company learn that the final solution being planned for the refugees may lead to an atomic firestorm once again within Japan's borders.
If you've never seen the original Stand Alone Complex, then this review really isn't necessary for you, since this is in all ways a sequel to it. For those who have seen it, then I probably have no need to sell you on seeing Second Gig. The show is as lovingly created as the first, and with many of the same minds behind it. In many ways, it does improve on its predecessor. No longer does Major Kusanagi dress like a cybernetic tart; she finally looks the part of a special forces team leader. The characters are now quite comfortable to watch, and I remembered while watching this show how much I liked this unique unit of folks. And perhaps in its best move, all the episodes in some way intertwine with the Individual Eleven storyline. There's never a time when an episode steps out of the holistic narrative. While some of Stand Alone Complex's best episodes were ones that never touched on the Laughing Man plot, they could be seen as distractions from the central story.
There really is a whole lot to like in Second Gig -- it's not for nothing that it's one of the best reviewed anime ever released in America. While the Individual Eleven storyline takes some mental energy to sort through, it's still far easier to follow and more real-world-important than the Laughing Man scenario. Both Kuze and Gohda are worthy antagonists for Section 9 to face. By the time the series' last few episodes roll out, the stakes and the action have headed into the stratosphere. For most viewers who love serialized anime, this is going to be an absolute blast.
So why is my recommendation cautious? It's because Second Gig never moved me. Yes, I enjoyed the homage to Taxi Driver and appreciated the subtle references to Oshii's films...it's not that the world isn't interesting or well-written. It's that, this time around, I really didn't ever feel a personal stake in any of the characters. I know Kusanagi, I know Batou, I know the others, sure. But I don't know anything new about them from this series. Ghost in the Shell has always been a bit cold, focused more on technology and plot and philosophy than human emotion or deep personal connections. However, Stand Alone Complex really went a long ways to correcting those faults from the past. Sadly, Second Gig doesn't do that. While I enjoyed the whole, I felt it was all strangely empty by the end. And frankly, the emptiness does affect the plot. We see the mechanations at a political level, but I never really felt what it would be like to be a foreign refugee in a country that wanted to be done with you. Nor did I ever get any opinions on the situation from our Section 9 characters.
If I were to point out a similar show that did a better job with similarly complex plotlines, I'd point to the Jennifer Garner series Alias. Yes, the storylines got outrageous at times and weren't all that dissimilar from the issues we see in Ghost in the Shell stories, but there was always a beating heart in the center named Sydney Bristow. No matter what craziness would ensue, we as viewers rooted for Sydney because we ultimately cared for her happiness and welfare. There's no such connection with anyone in Second Gig, and it is lesser for it. Just because they have cybernetic bodies doesn't mean that the Section 9 folks don't have souls -- obviously, with all the talk of "ghosts," it's an important concept for the series -- but by golly, I wish we knew who those souls were. It kept me from really getting into Second Gig completely.
The vast majority of viewers won't care one iota about what I've just discussed, and they will find Second Gig to be an awesome, freewheeling continuation of the Ghost in the Shell world. I know I liked it too. But I didn't love it, and I think it breaks down right at the core issue of the humanity (or lack thereof) of the characters. After years of watching shows in this universe, the main characters should feel like old friends. Instead, they are more like acquaintances you see at a party once in a while that you feel badly you don't know better. If you've enjoyed Stand Alone Complex, you should watch this show...but be prepared that it doesn't have the first season's heart.
Ghost in the Shell: Second Gig-- violence (occasionally graphic), profanity -- B+