Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045 is a sequel to one of the most influential and beloved anime series of all time, Ghost In The Shell: Standalone Complex. Kenji Kamiyama’s alternate take on Mamoru Oshii’s seminal 1995 film is, after Serial Experiments Lain, simply one of the most ambitious anime projects ever. Building upon Oshii’s setting of a near-future Japan which has seen technological advances such as cybernetic brains and The Net – an augmentation of the Internet pretty much identical to what Mark Zuckerberg plans to do with the Metaverse – Standalone Complex revealed the constant invisible battle being fought between individuality and an all-consuming, all-diverting society. Filled with references to literature, philosophy and sociology, Standalone Complex was about the actions of Section 9 – a secret unit of Japan’s elite soldiers and mercenaries who worked together in order to deal with situations that were outside of the standard political area of expertise – but also about the actions of strong-willed individuals that, when taken as a whole, seemed like a concentrated effort at making an impact on society, for better or worse
A Recap of the Original Series
Section 9, led by Makoto Kusanagi, routinely battled brain hackers (and performed “Ghost” hacks of their own by using interfaces which would make William Gibson proud), unethical corporations, and robot uprisings. In the franchise, the word “ghost” essentially refers to a mix of mind and soul. GITS: SAC had entire episodes that functioned as homages to the French New Wave and to the original movie, and benefited from a soundtrack composed by Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop), with some of the songs featuring vocals from Scott Matthew. The season two opening song was Origa’s Rise, which, over the years, has became one of the most beloved OPs in anime history.
Never restricting itself to a single culture or ideology and taking a neutral political stance, the series doubled down on the action scenes while keeping some of the movie’s unique brand of techno-spirituality intact. As for Kanno’s soundtrack, it was both modern and organic, with Cyberbird becoming one of those songs I could never ever get out of my head.
Standalone Complex featured both “individual” and “complex” episodes – the former were one-off episodes which were mostly about world-building, while the latter developed the ongoing story-arc. In season one, which owed a lot to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Section 9 battled a super-hacker, The Laughing Man, who could mask his face in real-time behind an ironic logo using a quote from Salinger’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield (“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes“), and was undetectable and untraceable. The high-point was a conversation between the Major and the Laughing Man which was so complex and challenging that it showcased the brain augmentation technology in a thoroughly brilliant manner. What makes that particular conversation and its blinding speed possible is most likely the fact that both participants have their memory (think hard-drive space) and indexing capabilities enhanced, so they can (just like an AI) process, understand and use advanced concepts in speech as if they had spent the proverbial 10000 hours perfecting this use. Kamiyama’s series was essentially about the conflicts that would occur a world in which “thinking” had become ubiquitous and the level of discourse was elevated to such a degree that a new Enlightenment era was immediately possible.
Season two’s main antagonist was Hideo Kuze (by this point, we should say that Hollywood’s divisive 2016 take on Ghost in the Shell had a villain which was a combination of the Laughing Man and Kuze), a revolutionary who aimed to give the disenfranchised (the exploited “base” of the futuristic society) a “superstructure” of their own (base and superstructure are terms borrowed from Marxist theory, and the Net in the show could be viewed as a superstructure). Standalone Complex’s antagonists were never villains, although they clashed with both nationalist and global power structures, and the ending to the second season is harrowing and extremely cynical.
Kenji Kamiyama also created a movie sequel, Solid State Society, which shifted its focus from the cast-offs of society to its aging members, imagining a futuristic welfare and pension system, and a plot which borrowed from postmodern and post-structuralist theory – especially Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and their rhizome concept. To see how the series achieved a perfect balance of great action scenes and intellectually challenging debates and monologues, we have included one of the show’s pivotal scenes, followed by a 3-minute explanation of the rhizome.
A Quick Look at GITS: SAC_2045’s First Season
When Netflix announced a sequel to Standalone Complex, dubbed SAC_2045, fans were apprehensive because of the shift from 2D to full-3D animation. Still developed by animation studio Production I.G. – a studio with a flawless reputation – and featuring most of the original Japanese voice actors reprising their roles, the series, which came out in 2020, nonetheless ended up disappointing with its unfinished visuals and its focus on action over philosophy. The pacing was different, the Major was different, the art from Ilya Kuvshinov was a radical departure, the new characters felt unnecessary, the music was not distinctive enough (even more than Cornelius’s divisive work on the earlier reboot, Ghost In The Shell: Arise) and the plot, which initially saw Section 9 disbanded and operating as a mercenary team on American soil, dealt with an uprising from individuals calling themselves Posthumans. SAC_2045 almost felt like a “soft reboot,” with the architecture and designs being less futuristic and digs at both the Trump administration and “cancel culture” appearing strangely contemporary for a series which featured cyber-brains and a highly-intelligent populace. The cars were replaced with self-driving cars, the settings were often desolate ones and the technology seemed a bit like “Silicon Valley right now” rather than a careful sci-fi exercise.
The pacing and rhythm of the 2045 series was a lot more slowed down when compared to the original. Even in the second season, a standard episode of SAC_2045 packed about a third of the information and “story” of an average “old SAC” episode, even compared to the “standalone” ones that had nothing to do with the major story arc. However, 2045 only has “complex” episodes, so that’s a blessing, really, although I did sometimes feel the need for one-off episodes to better explore the future present.
The OP, milennium parade’s Fly With Me, while being a great song and subsequently accompanied by a mind-blowing video, felt ill-suited for the franchise. The first season wasn’t all bad, though: one “all hell breaks loose” episode near the middle showed immense promise, and the final three episodes actually introduced the major literary influence of the show – this time around, it was George Orwell’s 1984– as well as the main antagonist, Takashi Shimamura, a child with a traumatic past, while ending on a maddening cliffhanger around the most relatable character, Togusa, who managed to track down Takashi but ended up lost in an digital mirage.
A Deep Dive into SAC_2045’s second season
SAC_2045 returned in 2022 with a tighter focus, revamped music and visuals and, in our opinion, has ultimately managed to redeem itself and stand as a must-see addition to the Standalone Complex universe. The OP, featuring millennium parade’s Secret Ceremony, was immediately dazzling, and the ED, No Time to Cast Anchor, was incredibly catchy and felt like it was foreshadowing two of the major themes of the season: freedom and shared digital fantasy.
For a modern anime, it’s perhaps worrying that SAC_2045 is so anti-American, but given the way that 2nd Gig ended, and especially what happened to Hideo Kuze, there was no better place to take the story in other than “America is the great evil” (some nationalist and anti-American feelings have been spotted by the good people at Anime News Network as well). And while Ilya Kuvshinov’s involvement with SAC_2045’s art is problematic – he always excelled at concept art, but his designs fetishize instead of just paying homage – the first four episodes of season 2 of 2045 are so good that you’ll quickly forget the almost abysmal first run. There is a dazzling action scene in episode two that is 3D animation at its best (Production IG has progressed a lot since 2020 at post-processing, and the world feels much more alive now; at the same time, directors Kamiyama and Aramaki have learned from their initial mistakes during Blade Runner: Black Lotus and no longer shoot episodes like videogame cutscenes).
In other words, it’s the good old Standalone Complex with a modern 3D face… for most of the time, anyway. Some things are still jarring – like Suzuka Mizukane, a major posthuman antagonist being viewed as a sex object in that very action scene (female side-characters presented as fetish-fuel is a harsh reminder of how most anime series are able to exist these days – through fanservice and product placement), or why the streets still look decidedly less futuristic than they did back in 2nd Gig, but perhaps that is because the in-universe Japan seems to have profited from the “Sustainable War” of the first season and had the funds for a major rebuilding. This season hits peak emotional level fast, with a Tachikoma episode that’s just as good as the original such episode, and by eventually resolving that maddening Togusa cliffhanger.
Togusa was always the most relatable character in the GITS series to me. Between the Major’s invisibility and “leet” hacking skills, Batou’s superhuman strength, Saito’s sharpshooting and Aramaki’s twisty decision-making, Togusa was just the everyman, the most human character of them all. If in the first season you feel that Takashi, the main antagonist, might have misunderstood Orwell’s 1984, seen it through the lens of childhood trauma, episode five is definitely setting him up as a new Laughing Man (SAC’s original antagonist was battling Big Pharma, and Takashi seems to have created a “rogue nation” which takes Hideo Kuze’s revolution and mixes it with elements of 1984’s Ingsoc (in the tradition of the book, the Ministry of Love, Minilove is mentioned). Hideo Kuze would probably not approve if he saw this…but is it all really what it seems to be? And what is Takashi fighting, exactly?)
Most impressive of all is a great music moment, courtesy of Scott Matthew, who returns to grace fans with a stunning addition to the OST, Don’t Break Me Down. It’s an powerful song, and it comes with a reveal which possibly foreshadows a tragic loss that is yet to come.
millennium parade‘s music is a great discovery by itself, with all of their videos being true works of art. Trepanation (a title that recalls the procedure attempted in another Netflix adaptation of a manga, the controversial Homunculus) in particular is haunting, featuring incredibly trippy animation reminiscent of the best Adult Swim videos. The band’s style ranges from synth-heavy to orchestral, their sense of rhythm feels impeccable and the structure and production of the songs mixes minimalist and “epic” electronica. In addition, the vocals have a “future R&B” quality to them which definitely brings something new to the Ghost In The Shell universe.
Some Criticism Before Tackling That Amazing SAC_2045 Finale
I previously wrote that the look and feel of 2045 is more contemporary and decidedly less futuristic than that of the 2003 SAC, perhaps due to 3D modeling limitations, perhaps due to a different design team, but surely in an attempt to tackle contemporary issues and appeal to fans who haven’t seen the previous series. However, what surprises me is the conservative politics of this entry, in stark contrast to the more “centrist” rest of the series. The Motoko Kusanagi of SAC_2045 is virtually nonexistent, a leader in name alone, her contribution to the plot up until right before the very end being null and void. This is perhaps “by design” – since SAC_2045 is basically about the possible victory of pacifism over trigger-happy power structures – but it’s still a far cry from the Major of the first two seasons. The Major has “left the building”, and the protagonist of SAC_2045 is, without a doubt, Batou. There’s a scene in episode nine where the Major attempts a dangerous hack and Batou tells her that it’s, indeed, too dangerous. The Major of the previous series would have shrugged it off, hacked the Ghost of the respective character and saved the day. This Major obeys Batou and doesn’t even attempt the hack.
SAC_2045 is basically a major downgrade when it comes to both futurist aesthetics and the Major’s badass abilities. Instead of Kusanagi, we now have Purin, a new character who basically fills her role, but is much more childlike and “kawaii” – the creators attempted this with the Major in the first season, also helped by Ilya Kuvshinov’s designs in which the she looks even younger than her Arise alter-ego, but when they were met with fan backlash, they left her alone. So season two instead has an evil version of the Major – Mizukane, who is fetish fuel that the creators can use as they like. Not that there’s anything wrong with being that – fetish fuel – but Mizukane is just presented as a purely physical opponent and the creators don’t dwell on her philosophy the way that they do with Takashi. They simply don’t allow the viewers any sympathy for her, just like they somehow manage to silence the Major’s voice.
There’s a decided anti-feminist vibe in episodes six to ten, a bunch of episodes which just move the action along nicely, and it’s like the creators backpedal from their 2003-2005 selves (although Shinji Aramaki is new to the series and it might all be down to his contribution) and partly put the blame on feminism for the “evil America” plot, even hinting that internal strife will lead the US to elect future Trumps in more attempts to “make America great again”. And yes, America keeps on being evil in those episodes, with bulked-up soldiers similar to the ones from the famous “angry Motoko” scene from season one of SAC. There’s also virtually no banter and advice going on between the Major and her boss, the awesome Daisuke Aramaki, like there was in the first two series. Aramaki just converses with Togusa and the prime-minister now, because politics is a man’s job, obviously. It’s not pretty, and this is the point where I began to see why critics still called season 2 of 2045 “a poor copy” despite it being a major improvement over the first one. The middle episodes in season two feel like they’re wasting a great antagonist (Mizukane) and they’re in danger of even wasting the main villain. They undo a major death which was a turning point for the series. And they even made fun of male otakus via a character who keeps a cosplay outfit in his truck for his future girlfriend – talk about biting the hand that feeds you. However, these episodes do have a redeeming point: they manage to feel like one continuous “nighttime urban sci-fi war-movie scene”.
All that being said, SAC_2045 manages to pull off an incredible ending which puts this season up there with – at least – the 1st season of the original anime, a magic act which also feels like the best homage to the Puppet Master storyline from the 1995 Oshii film. The lyrics to the ED, No Time To Cast Anchor, were indeed foreshadowing this unique resolution with lyrics such as “the end of the fantasy” and “without using your brain, you’ll never be unchained“, and this is in the best GITS tradition possible.
SAC_2045’s Ending Explained (Warning: Spoilers)
It turns out that Takashi Shimamura was just stalling for time, and by turning the doublethink concept from 1984 on its head – holding two contradictory concepts into one’s mind – he achieves an ideological victory over a smug US and a powerless Section 9, the only victory possible in a mad world – let every individual live out their decisions and consequences in a separate reality while still existing in the real world (albeit, for some, to a reduced degree). In other words, for those who have seen Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon, it’s a sort of “distributed virtual reality game” that users are far too busy exploring in order to “fully” care about what happens in reality. Users are still engaging with the real world – unlike in Avalon – and they get to “vote” over important matters (like whether to push the nuclear button or not), but their vote turns out, ironically, to be effectively meaningless, as it only affects their own sub-reality (which could be a shared one, between multiple users who hold the same beliefs; it’s not specifically stated whether this is the case, but I’m imagining that Shimamura, together with the 1A84 AI, are good enough coders in order to facilitate this particular bit of happiness for its users).
Of course, it has to be considered that some minds are quite capable of holding two contradictory realities in their head, at least for a short while, while others aren’t. But it also has to be said that the populace of GITS: SAC_2045 is extremely intelligent, and the cyberbrains are probably capable of integrating this new “feature” with very few flaws (and where there are flaws, there will always be the Major). But it still feels like brainwashing, albeit necessary brainwashing.
Because some minds are stronger than others, the ending could be seen as either a “happy” or an extremely bleak one, and this is where the writers truly shine, because they tell us very little about the actual mechanics of this brainwashing. If the stronger minds will eventually dominate Shimamura’s programming, then the Posthuman revolution was still for nothing, as it will result in “the tyranny of the strong-willed” or the most educated, or the most intuitive (but isn’t actual democracy just that anyway?) Shimamura’s thinking seems to be based on the image of the uber-hacker: a character who is able to “play” while also complete their work in no time because they’re highly adept at multitasking (and always drink tons of coffee and eat pizza).
So at the end of SAC_2045, humanity evolves by gaining this capacity (or not, if you think that the Major has pulled the cables and stopped the evolution). This is a great philosophical concept, especially since Ghost in the Shell was always interested in Cartesian dualism: this time it’s less a mind-body dualism than a “mind dualism” – fragmenting the mind in order to accommodate both its need for conflict and the world’s need for peace. Seemingly a response to the endless “does video-game violence cause real-world violence?” debate, it’s sort of like voluntarily living in the Matrix while still being able to leave it once you get “sane” enough to function in the real world. Because Shimamura is a pacifist, I think the sub-reality is meant as a temporary refuge for weakened and weary minds, and nothing is holding them back once they decide to reenter the real world. Remember, the original SAC had an episode where autistic children were forced to navigated the Net 24/7 in order to mine information faster than any computer could, and with better pattern recognition. Those kids were prisoners – the Ns are not. They voluntarily accept Shimamura’s “code”, which might be a corpus of ideas and arguments so sound that it makes one pause in ideological surrender and accept his proposal of a peaceful world to its extremes.
As such, SAC_2045 proposes the concept of a benevolent Big Brother, one who protects each side from stupidly blowing themselves into oblivion by offering them some virtual “time-off”. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if the world leaders actually believed they pushed the nuke button and were then left on their own to face the bleak consequences, so when they woke up, they’d be much wiser, essentially gaining a “redo”? I could write more on how glad I am that it’s the Major who interacts with Shimamura in the final episode and how this is a tradition of the series, but right now I’m just realizing that it’s not important whether the Major pulled the cable or not (for what it’s worth, I think she didn’t, and her decision at the end just echoes the first film and Solid State Society, when she is forced to leave and explore a reality that has gotten a few shades more interesting. She says “the Net is big”, and it’s the truth: the Net has gotten larger in order to accommodate the sub-realities). She also gives Batou a safe word for when he feels ready to leave his sub-reality and meet again. The final episode is very vague on explaining the details and logistics, and the above is just what I’ve been able to deduce. Most websites simply state that at the end of SAC_2045, “The N or the Net are persons who can reside in two universes without causing conflict”, but don’t discuss the implications.
Nonetheless, this ending leaves viewers with a host of burning questions: how will the world (a truly post-postmodern world) be governed after this event? A third season would be much welcomed, in that it could slip into Psycho-Pass territory with Section 9 trying to hunt down smaller Shimamuras who are perverting his ideas just for the sake of fun. This is more or less what the Cinemaholic website states. But I don’t think that will happen – this season might be the end for the SAC universe altogether. If that’s the case, I will forever cherish it, even with a lot that was wrong about it. A great ending can save a show that was walking the line between good and bad, and SAC_2045 has managed to once again see a middle-ground in our current political climate through the medium of sci-fi storytelling. With the coming of the Metaverse, one side of the GITS reality might be finally closer than we think. It remains to be seen how us unevolved humans will deal with it.
[Spoilers end here]
I’ve missed some Ghost in the Shell and it just feels so good to have it back in 2022 – an artistic work about seeing the “bigger picture” in politics and once again juxtaposing the nationalist, “putting your own country, and your friends first” with the superior philosophy of an antagonist who is much more than meets the eye, SAC_2045‘s second season seems logical to me in this crazy political landscape, even with the fanservice (let’s not forget that the first season of the old SAC had worse fanservice). Wherever this series goes in the future, surviving for others’ sake, the past rising up to fight a ruinous future and holding contradictory thoughts in your head are amazing sci-fi themes, and if you’re willing to forgive this entry’s weak points, it will leave you with a lot to think about.
Featured Image is Singularity #573 by AIIV
About The Singularity by AIIV (source: opensea.io)
The Singularity Collection is the second release by AIIV, an AI art collaboration by Ravi Vora and Phil Bosua.1000 AI generated unique artworks exploring the AI singularity through art.
When we all inevitably experience singularity, what will it feel like? Could we all be constructing a subjective perspective of our current reality that constrains the true vision of the future?
The thin veil between reality and our imagination disappears, and our experience of this world transforms from what it is – into what we want it to be. We free ourselves from the constraints of a world that is less than we hoped and step into a world that can be more than we imagine.
Visions that feel familiar but also not of this world. Maybe the AI is telling us it is already here – if we only decide to see it.
AIIV is part of the AIM Collective
Other works by AIIV
Reading Material: The Philosophy and Concepts of Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex
Viewing Material: AIIV Gallery seen through the eyes of a fan on supernifty.fan
Bonus Viewing Material: The AIM Collective