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Ghost in the Shell: Philosophical Nonsense or Intelligent Genius?

The date flashed menacingly on my screen. The deadline loomed. The time had finally come.

Yes, Netflix was informing me that Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Season 2 was about to disappear from its instant streaming service, so if I wanted to watch it, I’d have to act fast. 

Perhaps not the most important of deadlines I’d ever faced, but I often find it so difficult to focus my attention on the sprawling expanses of a full TV series unless there’s something like its imminent disappearance to motivate me.

I recall enjoying the first season of the show, but only in that foggy way that defines the brain’s attempt to make sense of a memory that it labels as distant and no longer important. Such things as specific plot details have escaped me. It hasn’t actually been that long since I finished it, but the very nature of the show insured I was bound to remember little of it. Simple plots can stick with you for a while. The complicated meanderings of Ghost in the Shell, where the tiniest detail is vital to making sense of anything, are doomed to disappear from my consciousness long before they reach that walled-off section of my brain labeled “long-term memory”. 

As such, one might say my time with the second season was defined primarily by repeated attempts to try and figure out what was actually going on and my subsequent inevitable failure to do so. This is a show designed either for those with freakishly detail-oriented minds or those not afraid to keep a wiki open on their laptop whilst pausing the action every couple of seconds to pull up another obscure reference. 

Or perhaps the third option is actually most relevant. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is an anime, like so many others, that requires you to view it at least twice to know what’s actually going on.

This is something that has long annoyed me about anime. Asking a viewer to watch an entire TV series multiple times in today’s chaotic world just to be granted the privilege of understanding it is asking a lot indeed, especially for someone like myself who has trouble finishing shows even a first time. There is also a fine line between creating a densely packed, fulfilling narrative worthy of spending time to unravel and creating something that is simply dense for the sake of it, made hard to understand so as to veil the show with a thin illusion of depth to make it appear more interesting than it actually is. 

Far too many animated shows from that wacky island in the Pacific fall on the wrong side of that fence. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Perhaps the Japanese people care not for such things as comprehensible plots and satisfying resolution to a story arc. That is beyond my realm of expertise. All I know is that I’m reaching the limits of my patience for such things.

I still haven’t decided where on the spectrum Ghost in the Shell: SAC lies. Season 2 in particular seemed laughably lost in its own philosophical ramblings to the point where the plot was secondary to seemingly meaningless pondering between characters at often inopportune moments. Indeed, the ending of the series confirmed as much, as the “resolution” offered was little more than some self-absorbed philosophical nonsense and a completion of the story arc that seemed to strain to turn that arc into a circle and leave things exactly where they started. 

Whatever the intention of the ending was, it was lost on me. I was just left feeling confused; both about the story and about whether I had just wasted nine hours watching a show that I didn’t like. 

I’m still not sure. I wouldn’t have stuck with the program if I outright hated it. Clearly something kept drawing me back. It certainly wasn’t the largely one-dimensional cast or the incomprehensible backstory. The action was good, but not enough so (or enough of it) to be the primary draw.

I think I liked the premise of the whole ordeal. Playing around with the definitions of humanity, with philosophy, networking, and social phenomenon all within the confines of an anime is a fascinating idea. The combination of intelligent academic discussion and badass action isn’t one you see very often.

Having finished it, I might see why that is. The combination of the two seems to encourage an end product too busy with trying to be smart to worry about being fulfilling or comprehensible. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I’ve yet to see an anime that proves otherwise. 

And don’t you even try to throw Evangelion at me as an example. That impenetrable mess is the grandfather of this very problem, so concerned with drowning itself in allusions, metaphors, and thought exercises that it forget to make any goddamn sense along the way.

 I don’t remember having this dilemma with the first season of the show. The problem is, I don’t remember whether this was because it genuinely made more sense or whether I was more tolerant of it when I first watched it. The overwhelming focus on backstory and political goings-on in the second season does suggest a higher mental barrier of entry than the comparatively simpler first season, so maybe they just went overboard with the academia. 

In any event, I can feel my patience with the entire medium of anime slowly waning. The more I watch of it, the more I find its storytelling style just doesn’t fit with what I find entertaining. I still have an attachment to it, so I don’t want this to be the case, but the conclusion seems to be inevitable. I fear it’s only a matter of time before I admit it and move on entirely. 

Until then, I shall continue to search, perhaps in vain, for the show that shall prove me wrong. I can deal with being picky about anime, but I don’t want to write it off entirely. That would be far too easy.

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