Manga Entertainment has always been the spiritual home of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. They part-funded the original film after all, so when a new iteration of the cyberpunk franchise was announced it was probably only a matter of time until they picked it up.
Ghost in the Shell: Arise takes us
back in time to the period before Section 9 was formed. The fourth
non-nuclear World War has ended and cyborg soldier Motoko Kusanagi has returned
to Japan and an uncertain future. As a full cyborg Motoko's body belongs
to the military, and as such her freedom is severely curtailed to the point
where she is not even allowed to control her own finances. She is part of
the secretive 510 Organisation, a mysterious part of the military made up almost
entirely of heavily cybernetic soldiers, and she would be largely confined to
base if not for some unforeseen circumstances, namely the disgrace and murder of
her commanding officer Mamuro. Mamuro was killed in a downtown back alley
and Kusanagi is desperate to find out what happened, but she is not the only one
looking. Public Security Section 9 chief Daisuke Aramaki is investigating
links between Mamuro and arms dealers, and offers to make Kusanagi part of the
investigation, effectively giving her a degree of autonomy away from her unit.
However, former army ranger 'sleepless eye' Batou has also been hired, and he
believes that Kusanagi may be involved with Mamuro's death. A clash
between the two seems inevitable, but where does the truth lie? The
fallout from the war has caused many issues, and Mamuro's alleged arms dealing
is just one of them. Another revolves around a soldier on death row
following a massacre of refugees, he has always protested his innocence and now
it seems that someone else wants him free. A cyber terrorist has taken
control of the city's automated transport infrastructure, effectively putting
the lives of millions of commuters in danger, and their demands are the release
of classified wartime files that would potentially exonerate the soldier.
However, there is far more to the case than meets the eye...
So, Ghost in the Shell is back, and in line with most franchises nowadays it is back in the form of a prequel. Public Security Section 9 is a very different organisation, acting very much as an intelligence agency but lacking field agents or tactical capability. Aramaki is shrewd enough to know that fighting cyber crime following the war will require a team of combat-trained agents, and Ghost in the Shell: Arise promises to show us the formation of the Section 9 we know from the films and series. These first two episodes (or 'borders' as the series calls them)
slowly work towards this, introducing the various members of the future team and frequently pitching them against one another. One of the only real criticisms I had of the two Stand Alone Complex series was that they didn't really do a lot to flesh out the supporting members of Section 9, we got an episode showing how Saito and Kusanagi originally met and a bit about Aramaki's family but mainly the series focused on Kusanagi and, to a lesser extent, Batou and Togusa. Arise shows signs that it may address that, giving the likes of Paz and Ishikawa more prominent roles as the story progresses. The characters are leading disparate lives, whether as mercenaries like Batou, undercover agents like Paz or assassins for hire like Saito, and Kusanagi has to earn their respect well before their loyalty.
Putting these characters on opposing
sides, either ideologically or financially is a clever idea and it's the
dynamic between Kusanagi and Batou that drives most of the action.
However, these two episodes are not just excuses to throw the old gang
together, they are solid stories in their own right that slot perfectly
into the Ghost in the Shell world. As before the plot
delves into the implications of the interconnection and the integration
of technology and humanity, asking questions about the nature of
perception and memory in a world where someone can hack you mind,
control your actions, change what you see and hear or even rewrite your
past. Hacking is no longer just about stealing money or data, it
can be about murder or terrorism, it can be about controlling someone's
life or actions and it can be used to hide any sign of a crime ever
taking place. Ghost in the Shell has always been at its
best when it delves into these complex ideas, blending police procedural
drama with blockbuster action and thought-provoking sci-fi, and the best
thing about Arise is that it does just that. The story is
intriguing and manages to avoid re-treading too much old ground, and the
episodes as a whole blend complex plotting with some fantastic action
and chase scenes. Batou and Kusanagi's rivalry is central to the
story in both episodes as the two try and outwit each other, and behind
it all is the spectre of a war that has taken its toll on both society
and the world.
The fallout from the war drives the story in both episodes, and, with Japan's post-war prosperity seemingly built on some dodgy foundations, it looks likely to form the basis of the remainder of the series too. For the most part the war itself is kept out of the spotlight, but there are chilling signs of the use of technology in it from Batou's cybernetic eyes to the powered suits used by some members of 501 Organisation. The most disturbing is probably the 'mobile land mines' that appear in the first episode, these high explosive robots
are disguised as little girls, showing their true nature only when they lock onto a target and transform into scuttling arachnid nightmare machines before exploding with sufficient force to level a building. Any war that includes things like this is going to have some even worse horrors to show, and I hope that we learn more about the conflict as the story progresses. It's a shame in a way that so far the war is only a distant background to the series, there are few signs of the conflict in Japan apart from the occasional piece of military hardware and a surfeit of soldiers. Few of the characters show any signs of trauma, and some of the more interesting story aspects - such as Kusanagi's uncertain legal status as an individual - is used more as a plot device to drive her towards Section 9 than an issue that's going to be explored in any depth.
Every time there is a new iteration of Ghost in the Shell I get a little worried that it's going to be a pale shadow of the previous ones, and whilst Ghost in the Shell: Arise is not yet as strong as Stand Alone Complex it is most certainly approaching the same calibre. Boasting great animation, a superb soundtrack from electronic artist Cornelius and a strong, if occasionally challenging, storyline, these first two 'Borders' work within the gaps of the Ghost in the Shell universe, fleshing out the characters and world the franchise is set in. As always it makes for engrossing viewing, but its story requires concentration as it is easy to lose track as it gathers pace. As a prequel it works well, avoiding dumbing down its cast and retaining the sense of tension and drama despite you technically knowing what's going to happen to everyone. There are a few flaws, some repeated nods to the original film - such as Kusanagi losing an arm - get old quite quickly, some interesting potential ideas are relegated to the sidelines and some characters (such as Borma) still have yet to be explored but overall Ghost in the Shell: Arise Borders 1 & 2 is an excellent addition to an already excellent franchise.
Quite a bit, as well as the usual TV spots and trailers there are also fully animated adverts for the Microsoft Surface tablets featuring the Ghost in the Shell: Arise cast, which are pretty cool, and two new CG shorts featuring the series' new thinking tanks the Logicomas. These are similar in style to the Tachikomatic Days shorts on the Stand Alone Complex DVDs and are great, if bizarre, fun. Also included are the clean opening sequence, 'Newsflash' featurettes telling you a bit about series aspects such as the 501 Organisation, a featurette focusing on the anime being promoted at Anime Expo 2013 and two on-stage interview sessions with the Japanese cast and crew. These were all on the DVD version and I can only assume that the same extras are on the Blu-Ray, so all in all it's a great haul!