Episode 2: “SA: Runaway Evidence — TESTATION”

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The first two episodes here might correlate to the two starts of the troubled show Firefly, “Serenity,” and “The Train Job.” The first episode, unaired in the initial broadcast, was another one perfectly microcosmic of its series. Executives at Fox decided it was too anti-TV: the heroes were depicted as losing, the relationships were strange, whatever. So Whedon and the team were tasked with trying again, and they came up with “The Train Job,” a lighter and more adventurous episode with a key image.

The second episode of Stand Alone Complex could be seen as similarly simplified, as if by fear of alienating the typical scifi audience. Oh, you don’t like the sound of words like diplomacy and Foreign Minister? Here’s a spider-tank. One that offers a cold open that has a very monster-movie opening-reel vibe.

A spider-tank is sufficiently Ghost in the Shell, but also like classic Ghost in the Shell, this episode hardly slows down. It may not be as complex as the first, but its preference for a straightforward plot makes for a satisfying ticking bomb scenario, making “TESTATION” more 24 than “Train Job.”

We’ve established the main players, so now it’s time to explore some of these characters in stand alone capsules. Who’s up first — the Major? Batou? Will Saito ever get his due? No, no — here we take a look at the Tachikomas. The same corporation that manufactured them, Harima Research Academy, is having trouble with its runaway tank, and we also see how Batou spoils his Tachikoma with natural oil. Togusa raises concern about it, and all involved don’t want the Major to find out. But the robots seem to enjoy it…

In this way it’s a rounded episode that has ramifications stretching into the future. What better place to first start talking about the Tachikoma proper than in the episode about the tank? This episode also showcases their abilities, including shooting wires and surviving being shot to death (as seen in the CG opening). The interplay between the roving robots is funny because of, not despite of, its one degree left of humanity: when that one gets shot up, the others skid by and say hope that they’ll do a structural analysis on it.

Perhaps the greatest applications of Tachikoma happen here as well; it’s a tie between Gopher Motoko Kusanagi:

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And the most legendary booty ever experienced… Behold its glory and despair:

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The fisheye lens is implemented in other strange places, but never so hilariously as here. There is rarely nudity in this show, and while the Major’s sexuality is hinted at being… titillatingly alternative, let’s say, it’s not depicted, so this sort of thing may just be the true “Train Job,” to get those viewers coming back. I think vintage Fast Karate for the Gentleman so perfectly captured just how absurd this one shot is. Have a listen for yourself.

They also bring up another great point, about Saito, who may not get his ‘due’ until 2nd Gig, but is offered a pretty jazzy tune, and demonstration of his sniping abilities. The tank makes its way toward Nihama on the freeway, so Section 9 steps in to take over for the police (the logistics of stopping a rampaging spider-tank are very Shirow, almost Appleseed-esque). The squad gets into position, and Saito mans his extraordinarily large rifle.

The technology and the tactics again meld together really well in the instance where they attempt to shoot the tank down. The Major follows with her Tachikomas, and waits till the last minute so not to spook him, and then Saito links with a satellite to assist in such long-range sniping. We see how his profession is built into his body — underneath that signature eye-patch is a Hawkeye uplink.

However, the tank also links with the satellite and is able to dodge Saito’s shots, so he has to shoot manually despite flares deployed by the tank. Again, the action is so much more about strategy than rushing headlong into something, and this recalls not only the hostage scene in the first episode, but the description of an action scene in the book Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence — After the Long Good-bye, which details simulations running through Batou’s head as he dodges a shotgun blast. A lot of it happens in the characters’ heads, but because we of course need to see something happening, the show deftly balances putting pieces into place and knocking them down.

Later, Section 9 gets the specs on the tank and learns that it has anti-anti-tank weapons, and could blow Saito out of the air if he tried to fire a missile out of it. They want to use a laser-guided missile, but it might go back at him after some hacking puts the fix on it. He eases up on the trigger. There’s another complication with using a missile, that it would bring down the bridge, and once the tank crosses into the residential area, the missile is out. This is the ticking clock (or bomb) conundrum.

When the Gopher and her Tachikomas pass the blockade, one police officer notes that he didn’t know Section 9 even existed. The sort of whispers about Section 9 you occasionally hear from other police or government agents, like in the beginning of Innocence, are fun world-building, and go a length to characterizing the unit, as well as its members.

Section 9 itself splits up again, with the Major and Batou taking Tachikomas out, Saito and Boma manning the gun, Pazu at the computers (in an unusual move), Togusa and Ishikawa interrogating Ooba, a Harima head of developing, and Aramaki meeting with the heads of the company. All of these interact, with Aramaki’s being the most immediately critical to the Major and Batou’s field operation, and Togusa and Ishikawa playing toward the character element of the episode.

Through Aramaki’s plotline we get the corporate aspect, and with the Jigabachi helicopter surveying from overhead we also bring the military aspect into the fold. Jigabachis will return for more action in 2nd Gig. For now, we see how different bodies have competing interests. The military won’t involve itself unless there’s terrorism — Togusa doesn’t like that. The corporation doesn’t want to give Section 9 the specs to the tank, because that would compromise the product’s marketability. Unlike in the manga, where Aramaki might pull a gun to get his way, he uses his rational reasoning and cool but authoritative demeanor. He says that this crisis is the worst product display or press event in history.

The tank rolls into a densely populated residential zone, and this is the application of a military killing machine into the homeland, something that might be used as a criticism of warfare — but here provides a literal expression to the corporation’s struggle with morality in the military-industrial complex. The company man hands over his data and puts his business at risk, but decides to save lives.

The Major and Batou attempt to stop the tank as it gets closer to the pilot’s parents’ home. They’re assisted by Ishikawa, who’s got a standard issue big gun, the second nod to the original film. This is a weapon designed specifically to stop giant tanks, which is interesting — defensive weapons, like an anti-gun gun.

Togusa and Ishikawa had gotten Ooba to confess that he helped the late Kago to transplant his cyberbrain into the tank, so the pilot is a literal ghost. He’s headed home, and the Major actually manages to ask a dumb question, which I would harp on, but she would break me — something to the effect of ‘why is Kago so vindictive?’

This leads us to another bit of world-building, of how religion works in this universe. Ghost in the Shell was always a world in transition, in between ours and the more fantastical future of something like Appleseed. So people have outdated religious beliefs, often involving the outright denial of miraculous medical advancements like cyberbodies — the type that would’ve saved Kago from a premature death at 28. The team assumes he’s after revenge, so they have to stop him.

We discover it’s a human inside that tank and so “Beauty is Within Us” swells up, which may be a case of the subtlety hammer for the reveal later on. Knowing the twist in advance give this episode a more tragic dimension, but he is still a deadly tank, and willing to kill the Section 9 members who are trying to get in the way of his last request. He fires a cannon, and the shell ejects and bounces off his leg in a really neat moment.

The Major jumps out of the Tachikoma and lands on top of the tank, and proceeds to do her favorite activity in the second nod to the original film, where she strains her mechanical body to open a sealed hatch. This time, it doesn’t twist her body apart in the grossest cinematic image of all time, but together, the team puts the halt on the tank for the time being.

Despite being immobile, there’s always that final level of defense, of future warfare the tank is packing, the defense barrier that has to be dealt with before the Major can dive Kago’s brain. When the tank begins to move again, and the parents come waddling out of the house, holding a toy version of the tank, the Major shuts it down before sliding off, and gets a glimpse of what Kago was all about. This rounds out the plot, and structurally works out to be akin to any other episodic crime drama, where the case is solved but there’s that lingering human element. Of course, this is a much different kind of game than SVU.

After all the complexity of the episode, this is a dead man, and his motives will never be certain. It’s ominous, as this is precisely what must not be forgotten and lost in the haze that arises out of the intersection of corporate, military, and police interests. This is a classic cyberpunk trope, of the dichotomy between humans and the machine culture they’ve built for themselves, but it’s rendered here sans the mirrorshades and noir predilections.

Once the tank is stopped, Batou makes a characteristic quip, and so this episode is definitely low stakes, compared to what’s ahead. It’s a small matter, but even a small matter in the world of Ghost in the Shell, a “Train Job” maybe, involves a number of decision-makers squabbling and satellite-guided sniping.

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