This Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 review contains no spoilers.
Many old anime series have developed strong reputations over the years, but Ghost in the Shell has an especially influential legacy and it helped redefine anime’s relationship with the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. However, in a time where there are exceptional science fiction series like Westworld and Devs that tackle similar themes of artificial intelligence, independence, and free will, it’s no longer just enough to tell an exciting sci-fi narrative with cool visuals.
The whole genre has evolved and even though Ghost in the Shell is a formative text on the subject, it’s pushed into a position where it has to work much harder than it has in the past due to the growing sophistication of science fiction. Does the return of Ghost in the Shell rise to the occasion and update its firmware to an impressive new build, or does it fall into obsolescence and prove that the magic is gone? SAC_2045 fits somewhere in between and while it may not be the Ghost in the Shell revival that everyone wants, it still gets a lot right.
SAC_2045 is directed by Shinji Aramaki and Ghost in the Shell veteran, Kenji Kamiyama. They approach this cyberpunk crime fantasy with intelligence and respect by finding a worthy story for this follow-up series that isn’t just a retread of the territory that the franchise has previously explored. Set 15 years after the events of the Stand Alone Complex series, SAC_2045 looks at the danger of Global Simultaneous Default, a drastic push in the development of artificial intelligence that has been viewed as a “post-human” threat on society. The general public remains in the dark regarding these unnerving AI advancements, but the threat of singularity makes itself known to Major Motoko Kusanagi.
SAC_2045 spends a bit of time playing catch-up between Ghost in the Shell projects, not that a pre-existing knowledge of Ghost in the Shell is fundamental to understand or enjoy this series. Motoko, Batou, and the rest of the former Section 9 crew have taken up a life as mercenaries as they roam the world looking for gigs and taking advantage of their advanced skills. It’s only when Kusanagi and company become aware of the Global Simultaneous Default and their powerful, enhanced “post-humans” that the gang gets back together with Section 9 to prevent this disaster from spreading over the entire world. The season falls into a very comfortable balance between serialized storytelling and police procedurals as it examines this new sci-fi menace.
It’s very satisfying for Ghost in the Shell to return to all of the classic characters from the series like Motoko, Batou, Togusa, and Saito, but SAC_2045 also adds some new members to the Section 9 squad. Sean and Purin are the newest recruits to the team and occasionally operate as an audience surrogate. The series also excels when Section 9 gets to work together as a team. All of these agents are experts, but there’s a real sense of satisfaction when they pool their skills and effectively take down the enemy. The series never falls apart when everyone is off on their own, but these group scenes definitely work the best.
The team scenes are a success, but the series struggles with how Motoko Kusanagi has a tendency to get lost amidst all of the action. Even though she’s present in most scenes, SAC_2045 could do a better job at expressing her character. Part of the point of Kusanagi is that she sometimes operates as a cipher, but she’s also someone who’s experienced incredible change, which often gets overlooked here.
It’s also important that SAC_2045 shows Motoko and her team make plenty of mistakes. They’re not infallible here and they figure this out the hard way. In a similar sense, Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 also keeps the characters and audience in doubt over just who can be trusted and where their support lies.
The visual aesthetic for SAC_2045 is likely going to be a major sticking point for many audiences. The series’ polished CG look will either work for people or it won’t, but it at least feels somewhat justified in a series that’s full of synthetic humans and individuals that should embody some aspects of the Uncanny Valley. That being said, it’s hard to not think of the cutscenes from out of a PSP game during the show. This isn’t the first time that Ghost in the Shell has embraced the CG look and even though it doesn’t look terrible and is able to accentuate the kinetic action, there’s still no denying that the series’ original traditionally animated approach looks so much better. It almost feels like a cruel joke when the anime’s ending theme does utilize hand-drawn animation.
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 delivers tons of action, but a lot of it has a tendency to feel hollow and artificial due to the series’ art style. Incredible acts take place as Section 9 wages in war, but as busy as the scenes get they still lack the impact and elegance of Ghost in the Shell’s older, more traditional look. It’s appreciated that sometimes more than half of an episode will be comprised of a bombastic heist or chase scene.
The “post-humans” that begin to pose a threat to Section 9 also lead to some especially crazy fight scenes. These juggernauts are genuinely frightening at times, which is a nice change of pace for Ghost in the Shell. They’re one of the more interesting obstacles that Section 9 has gone up against and once they enter the picture the season really hits its stride. At a certain point the season turns into a hunt to locate and take out the post-humans who have indoctrinated society.
In fact, a lot of the most effective action set pieces in the series involve ridiculously advanced robots. The series cares more about the headier themes that it introduces and their greater repercussions, but scenes where Section 9 take down robot dogs in stealth camouflage have a way of connecting just as much. These sequences perfectly reflect Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 obsession with the dangerous evolution of technology as well as the bonkers ways in which Section 9 adapts. There’s also plenty of Tachikoma wackiness that ensues and the series’ lovable “pet” robots are in fine form in SAC_2045.
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 far from perfect, but it’s still better than the past series, Ghost in the Shell: Arise and the live-action film. This doesn’t tarnish Ghost in the Shell’s legacy and the questions that it poses feel very authentic to this universe. Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 may not turn those that are complete strangers to the franchise into devoted fans, but it’s a considerate extension that weaves an addictive mystery if you can get past certain hang-ups. SAC_2045 goes out on a major cliffhanger that raises more questions than answers and the post-human epidemic remains in full swing. Thankfully, a second 12-episode season is already on the way and hopefully those installments will iron out the series’ rougher edges and finish off this story in a way that is worthy of the Ghost in the Shell name.