Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is a dead end of an adaptation

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is a continuation of the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but it is also, itself, an adaptation. Picking up a decade or so after the events of the series and its 2006 film Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society, it offers familiar motifs, the same essential status quo, largely the same tone, and all the same vital characters. SAC_2045 claims a new title that reduces “Stand Alone Complex” to initialism. In this separation is the invitation to view SAC_2045 as an adaptation of an adaptation. It isn’t just “season 3” of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex; it’s a new life-form. This creates its essential problems: it is a lesser life-form, and it is starving to death for lack of inspiration and enough resources for its own production. SAC_2045 is too focused on its reproduction of Ghost in the Shell. It is critical only of Ghost in the Shell.

In making 2002’s Stand Alone Complex, director Kenji Kamiyama looked not only to Masamune Shirow’s original manga and Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime film, but to the inspirations and wider work of Shirow’s career. Watching Stand Alone Complex, one can feel the influence of The Professionals (known elsewhere as CI5), the 1977 British procedural referenced as a specific visual influence in the end notes of the manga. In the second season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, titled S.A.C. 2nd GIG, the antagonist Kuze is a deeper, softer, more textured version of Jean-Luc (called Ian Ruck in some versions), an antagonist of the 1999 anime Gundress, for which Shirow provided character and production designs. This approach gave Stand Alone Complex two things, seemingly contradictory: focus and breadth. But it’s not contradictory at all. Defining your range of resources is a vital part of the organized creative process.

The disappointment of Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is the choice on the part of its creators, by all appearances, to primarily respond to Stand Alone Complex and nothing else. In that choice is another: the choice not to continue Stand Alone Complex. The stories we left behind in that series stay left behind. Instead of continuing to complicate or prioritize this nicely prepared ground, SAC_2045 chooses to address Stand Alone Complex by retreading the familiar ground of a sad-boy ultra-hacker with a specific book fixation and an orphan cybergirl looking for the boy who saved her even though their politics don’t match, to diminishing effect. As a result of these choices, SAC_2045 is less compelling and complicated than the original Stand Alone Complex anime. SAC_2045 may be a separate work from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but it doesn’t “stand alone.” On top of this, SAC_2045 adds a misogynistic element that’s uncomfortably unexamined. It’s a strange series.

Takashi standing beside a Tachikoma tank robot in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. Image: Production I.G, Sola Digital Arts/Netflix

One interesting theme posed in the first season of SAC_2045 is the radicalization of men through ideas of “manhood” and masculine aesthetics. It’s a genuine crisis in our world and a fascinating subject of consideration. This is especially true in the case of Togusa, the character around which this theme is centered.

In every iteration of Ghost in the Shell, Togusa is “the normie,” and he is “the dad.” In the continuity of Stand Alone Complex, he is a member of cybercrime team Section 9, where the freaks and protagonists and specialists hang out, because his normativity by comparison functions as diversity within that context. Unlike Togusa, none of his team members are ever implied to be married or in committed relationships; none are ever implied to have offspring. Several definitively cannot produce offspring from their own bodies, because their bodies are prosthetics. He is the youngest (the nearest to the age of the series’ core demographic), and he is the most socially successful in a way that is recognizable and familiar to the viewing audience. He is also kind, has no problem being bossed by a woman, treats his wife and daughters nicely, and is shown to be innocent when accused of heavy-handed policing. Togusa exists almost exclusively to be a non-problematic man, succeeding at the gendered acts of marriage and reproduction. He represents the idea that “organic nature,” aka heteronormative traditionalism, can be as viable in individual cases as technological modification or, approximately, progressivism. He is “the man of the house” in his house … but in an OK way! This is philosophical, can be nice to watch, and provides plot fodder. It also primes him for the kind of story that SAC_2045 implied it would explore in its second season.

In SAC_2045, Togusa is divorced. Changing such a critical part of a character’s identity is a bold choice, and one that invites questions from the audience. If Togusa is divorced, we want to know that it’s for some purpose. Why change an element without purpose, even in adaptation? In practice the answer could be that it removed the necessity for any scenes in which Section 9 has to contact Togusa’s wife while he is missing for several months. But what narrative potential could exist in this creative choice? Could this be an opportunity to examine Togusa’s performance of masculinity, both in his personal and professional lives, and the role of masculinity in the Ghost in the Shell universe more broadly?

Togusa holding a telephone in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045. Image: Production I.G, Sola Digital Arts/Netflix

In practice however, the second season of SAC_2045 removes every drop of the masculine idealism from its altered-reality radicals. Togusa’s story goes nowhere; girls are foregrounded as agents or puppets of the mysterious collective force “N” amongst a mixed-gender background. In execution, it doesn’t offer much to think about, despite the critical potential of its premise. And in the absence of an examination of masculine toxicity, there’s nothing to balance out the eerie, low-calorie misogyny the show’s creators chose to include instead.

Major Kusanagi is the most iconic character from the Ghost in the Shell franchise. But SAC_2045’s interest in her is as minimal as the series’ interest in any of the other members of Section 9, giving her no personal arc, minimal interiority, and barely any episodic relevance. Her presence is felt the most at the end of every episode, where you can look at her being cute instead of the credits, and at the end of the season, where responsibility for the developmental direction of the human race (the entire human race) and its future falls to her. Every time an ethical ultimatum falls on her, Ghost in the Shell gets a little more domestic.

The Major is replaced, figuratively and literally, by a 22-year-old “moe” girl named Purin with an almost identical and highly condensed boring character arc, whose compromised nudity is introduced in service of tired brand motifs and nothing else. There’s a “funny” thread about her adoring Batou to the point of sexually harassing him that develops into an empty revelation that he rescued her as a child after her family was murdered, and a moment where he touches her arm and comments how her body, now fully prosthetic, is “just like” the Major’s. Stand Alone Complex already established that Batou desires the Major. So, what, now he’s got a “new” Major he can sleep with? Why have him touch her? Why have a conflict over her earlier comments being workplace sexual harassment, if this is where they wanted this to go? These creative choices might sound innocuous to you. They do not sound innocuous to me.

Purin in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 Image: Production I.G, Sola Digital Arts/Netflix

Purin’s — named for a bouncy, cutesy, commercial food — people-pleasing excess is framed as a consequence remover, a trait common to the moe anime trope and to certain styles of comic relief in anime, both of which she inhabits. But this does not excuse the repulsiveness of its result. Likewise, is it less racist that the new Black member of Section 9 is called names and left behind in danger just because he’s the designated comic relief? Is it “comic” when the humor is dependent on these things being presented as inconsequential? Ghost in the Shell is supposed to reassure us that dehumanization is not inevitable. The result of SAC_2045 instead is a cold feeling of removal that reinforces dehumanization. Again, it’s a strange series.

In the final episode of SAC_2045 the Major, the series’ erstwhile heroine, is asked to decide whether or not the human race is worth any faith at all, or if the Matrix would be better for us. That choice is then made off screen. What do you want to have happened? It’s as if Kamiyama is tired — not only of Ghost in the Shell, but of its audience. In its last moments, SAC_2045 is not a failure, but its truest self: a pop-up telling us to log off. It is a criticism not only of the audience, but of a content system that demands replication at the cost of ever-diminishing returns.

Adaptation, as argued so well by Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman in their movie Adaptation, is a process both procreational and critical: It consists of taking what one values or “can work with” in an existing story and filling out the spaces left by that extraction with what oneself can offer. Commentary on the original is created by the transformation process; difference and similarity are both magnified, and the audience can consider what that “says” or “means” about the original work, the new work, and the creators of each. An adaptation is not only a production but a reproduction — of the original and of the self. Aspects are lost, gained, and created. The new being is an adaptation that sheds light, in retrospect, on both prior halves. In the case of Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, it would have perhaps been best if that light was kept off.