Saturday, October 15, 2005

Anime (Science Fiction): Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

One of the frustrating thing about collecting anime is the habit publishers have of releasing the first volume or two on DVD, then re-releasing the first volume with a fancy box (and maybe a soundtrack CD) to hold the set. I already have the first volume -- I can't justify re-buying it just to have a box! For not-quite-entirely compulsive collectors, it's a pain.

Manga Video did something smarter with the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: they released the box with the last volume of the set. Much nicer! And it's a lovely metal box with a t-shirt and everything. Great geek value.

Ghost in the Shell is best known in North America as a 1995 film by Oshii Mamoru, though it started as a manga (comic book) by Shirow Masamune. The film has a lot in common with Ridley Scott's Blad Runner, dealing with the question of just what makes an individual human, and whether artificial life forms qualify. The "ghost" in the title is essence of sentience that makes a human human -- more "mind" than "soul". The term was taken from Arthur Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine. The main character in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg, Major Kusanagi, is a cyborg, a human mind transplanted into a prosthetic body (the shell, of course).

A couple of years ago a sequel movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence came out (which I haven't watched yet) as well as a new TV series, Stand Alone Complex.

I'd only collected volumes 1 & 3 of Stand Alone Complex up to now, and hadn't watched any of them, but with the release of the final volume box, I figured I'd start filling in the set. And since I was home sick, I figured I'd catch up a little. Yesterday I got through volume 1 (the first four episodes).

Ghost in the Shell pits Major Kusanagi and her security organization, Section 9, against a hacker named "The Puppet Master", who provides many opportunities for Kusanagi to ponder the meaning of sentience and so on. Translated to TV, Stand Alone Complex adopts a form that has been seen several times before, in shows like Dominion Tank Police or Patlabor: a casebook from a special police force that deals with out-of-control robots. (Again, very Blade Runner). So far, though, it has not lost its philosophical bent, and has added in some nice speculation about how the existence of things like prosthetic bodies and swapable brains could affect society, religion, and so on.

My favourite example -- or, at least, the most amusing example -- of how they work philosophy into the show comes after the credits. Section 9 uses spider-like AI tanks called Tachikoma. In order to make the Tachikoma more flexible and adaptable, Section 9 has removed a number of the controls and contraints on the AIs; as a result, the Tachikoma have very child-like personalities which (I'm guessing) are going to develop and differentiate over the course of the show.

At the end of every show there is a short whimsical cartoon called "Tachikoma Day", in which the Tachikoma argue about things and stuff. This isn't that uncommon in anime -- little slapstick toons featuring chibi ("cute") versions of the main characters are often attached to TV episodes. What struck me about the "Tachikoma Day" toons was how, in the first two, the little tanks spent the cartoons arguing about the function of language as a means of communication in a culture which allows the direct exchange of data from mind to mind. In the second cartoon, the lead Tachikoma argues that the benefit of language and wo5rds over direct data exchange is not in mere communication, but the self-programming nature of language which allows it to adapt to situations beyond the communication protocols it was established for.

I love that sort of stuff.

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