Stand Alone Complex is a series that has always retained effortlessly high standards and this fourth volume, despite not being nearly as remarkable as the previous three, proves that this series is a keeper and that even when off-form, can still deliver several enthralling moments of cyber-punk bliss.
I suppose certain aspects will always elevate Stand Alone Complex above its peers, whether it’s the fluid and attractive animation, the richly intertwined personalities of Public Peace Section 9 (who will often match their philosophical techno-babble with a brutal knuckle-sandwich) or even Yoko Kanno’s action packed industrial soundtrack.
This fourth volume begins weakly with “Not Equal”, a confusing and fast paced episode full of mind bending twists and an extended fire-fight that sees almost all of Public Peace Section 9 whipping out their favourite guns and downing wave after wave of “anti cyber-brain” 100% human terrorists. The conclusion of this episode had me, for the first time, labelling an episode of Stand Alone Complex formulaic. It’s an episode that smacks of the writers going through the motions, right down to how Kusanagi, Batou and Togusa hang around at the end to explain to us the meaning of what just went down. By then, I had stopped caring.
Standards are quickly raised however with the following episode, “Â¥£$”, a chilling look at capitalism and how it can often effect both those who desperately seek its wealthy benefits and the extremists who despise its very existence.
“Â¥£$” also hints at what is to come in “Machines Desperantes”; an extended and telling look at the hulking Tachikoma tanks who are fast evolving and becoming too smart to be effective as clinical weapons. While Major Kusanagi considers what will amount to the mass “slaughter” of the Tachikoma tanks, the high-pitched weapons amble about en-mass; happily debating the value of individuality and even touching on such philosophical black-holes as the meaning of life.
Batou has a favourite Tachikoma and so naturally doesn’t take well to this foreboding news, but he doesn’t have too long to worry though as he is soon dispatched in “Ag20” to investigate an ex-professional boxer who is suspected of leaking government secrets to shady unsocial characters.
Whether or not it’s a case of me now expecting to be blown away every time I watch an episode of Stand Alone Complex, I’m somewhat unsettled to report that this fourth volume was an underwhelming and almost forgettable experience; much of the action lacking the tension, and hence kinetic excitement seen in previous volumes.
The Tachikoma Tanks have an entire episode devoted to their fast evolving conversations about life and death and while their collectively innocent sense of humour never fails to make me smile, there’s no denying that their endless debating soon becomes tedious and rather drawn out.
However, as soon as the 16th episode “Ag20” kicks in and Batou takes centre stage, I was instantly back in my comfort zone with Stand Alone Complex. Set to the backdrop of a beautifully animated neon-lit metropolis, Batou is ordered to investigate an old hero who is accused of being an anti-government spy. What follows are several excellent extended scenes of fist-to-fist combat but also a fine portrayal of Batou’s personality, a lonely yet strong and honourable man who covers up the cracks in his life with time-consuming hobbies (extreme fitness and body building) and bizarre pets (he has and often feeds his favourite Tachikoma!).
As I have come to expect from this series, Production I.G. have again produced some superlative art and animation. The cyborg and robot designs continue to be very interesting, especially the house maids and female-assassin seen in “Â¥£$” who at the click of a finger, can transform sections of their bodies into deadly cannons!
The gritty and atmospheric background art is also fantastic, lending this show a very authentic (but attractive) vision of the future. The colourful, intoxicating “neon night lights” of Japan seen in “Ag20” add another dimension to Batou’s lone wolf persona.
Musically, this volume was not particularly outstanding. Despite boasting an endlessly moving score from Yoko Kanno, several of the tunes are either becoming over-used or more probably, miss-placed. Songs often climax at strange moments in the action and I can only hope that this sloppiness doesn’t carry over into future volumes.
This is a mixed, slightly above mediocre volume of Stand Alone Complex. While Batou’s multi-layered and affecting episode alone makes this fourth volume worth watching, the previously exciting narrative standards seem to have taken a slight dip here and I’m already craving a return to the unpredictable “Laughing Man” case and slightly more emphasis back on the personalities of Kusanagi, Batou and Togusa. I suspect this is the “calm before the storm” and all I can say is bring it on!