Ghost in the Shell is one of the most prolific and popular anime franchises of recent years.
Following the trajectory of each installment can be a bit confounding, mostly because there are so many different versions of the same stories, each with a vastly different tone and style than the others. On top of that, the franchise also has its fair share of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs to keep track of. Most surprisingly, hardly any of them follow the manga source material.
There are a few constants that remain relatively the same throughout each adaptation, though. The story takes place roughly around the year 2029, depending on the adaptation, and follows a special task force known as Section 9. Directed by their chief, Daisuke Aramaki, and led in the field by the indomitable Makoto Kusanagi (aka The Major), the members of the task force set out on anti-terrorism and cyber crime missions.
The original manga was written between 1989 and 1991 by Masamune Shirow, already made popular by his other works such as Appleseed and Dominion Tank Police.
Its original run lasted only 11 chapters before splitting off into two sequels stories, with seven chapter of Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-Error Processor, and six chapters of Ghost in the Shell 2: Manmachine Interface.
This original incarnation of the Ghost in the Shell story is quite different from its later anime adaptations, with a bizarre combination of vibrant, often boisterous characters and dense, intricate delves into fictional technologies, all laid over plot lines that are often very political in nature.
In this original incarnation, the main crux of Shirow’s writing seems to rely mostly on presenting interesting sci-fi concepts in as much depth and detail as possible, often to extreme degrees.
However, this version of GitS seems largely unknown to the general public in the West, as the manga’s run was so brief. It wouldn’t be until 1995 that the franchise would explode onto the popular scene with the Ghost in the Shell movie animated by Production I.G. and directed by Mamoru Oshii of Jin-roh and Mobile Police Patlabor fame. Along with Dragon Ball Z and several of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, this film can be partially credited with the Western anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. The Wachowski brothers are also quoted on using this film as an inspiration for their mega hit Matrix franchise. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert described it as “unusually intelligent and challenging science fiction, aimed at smart audiences.”
While it did technically adapt one of the storylines from the manga, the tone and style of the film are as far removed from its source material as you could get. Whereas the manga is an action/sci-fi series with fun characters, the film is a very dark, borderline frightening trip into a future of hyper-advanced technology, filled to excess with dark and muted colors.
Nevertheless, Ghost in the Shell is an animation and directorial marvel, not only for its time period, but even when compared against the great anime films of today.
The hyper-detailed, fluid animation and impressive fight direction are a wonder to the eye, and the heavy, metaphysical dives into topics on human consciousness and the nature of the soul are very gripping. On top of that, Kenji Kawai’s ambient and unsettling score can be nothing short of haunting at times, especially when paired with the intense imagery of the story.
For a while, this would be the definitive version of Ghost in the Shell, as its popularity was undoubtedly massive.
However, the franchise went dormant for a while after the film’s release, and it wouldn’t be until seven years later that the series would get another reboot. This time, it would be in TV form with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a 26-episode series from 2002 that many now see as the truest realization of the conceptual basis the original manga was written with. The series has also been a favorite of the Toonami anime block and stayed in its rotation for several years.
The series is fairly episodic in nature, but also has an overarching plot line to sew everything together. In this iteration, the Major and the rest of Section 9 explore cases that may or may not be part of a phenomenon known as a Stand Alone Complex, in which a collection of similar, but unrelated behaviors of unconnected individuals create a perceived, united effort towards a common goal.
Additionally, the series goes even further into detail on its deep, metaphysical ramblings about human consciousness, AI intelligence, body modification, and so much more. It also has a much more structured and dramatic narrative than the manga, and the characters themselves are much more fleshed out. The animation, once again by Production I.G., is some of the best animation ever put into a TV series, and Yoko Kanno’s hodgepodge soundtrack of contrasting musical genres adds its own flavor to every scene.
What’s most surprising is that Stand Alone Complex barely adapts anything from its manga source material, instead choosing to use the manga as a framework to create new storylines. The series also received a second season called 2nd Gig focusing more on the societal outcomes that result from these metaphysical discussions, and was later given another movie, several manga adaptations, and even a few video game tie-ins.
There are several other members of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, though none of them seem to have been able to match the brilliance of either the 1995 film or Stand Alone Complex.
In 2004, a sequel to the ‘95 film titled Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was released in theaters. While it is massively impressive in terms of animation, the message it tries to deliver is so obscured by its trippy and esoteric presentation that it makes the film rather strenuous to watch.
The latest incarnation of the franchise takes the form of several prequel OVAs from 2013 known as Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, as well as a movie from 2015, which show how Section 9 came to be.
While it is technically proficient in comparison to most of what’s coming out of the anime industry lately, it lacks the same punch as its predecessors in terms of its technological and philosophical underpinnings, and the more straightforward tone and presentation are far removed from both the hauntingly captivating ‘95 film and the intellectually thrilling Stand Alone Complex. On its own, it’s still a solid series, but as a member of such an illustrious franchise, it feels like the runt of the litter.
And with that, we come to the present day with one of the most popular and well-respected anime franchises of all time. The future of the series is unclear at the moment, especially with the controversy over the live-action Hollywood adaption set for release, but for now, new and old fans alike have more than enough to gorge themselves on in their need to satisfy a craving for cyberpunk greatness.