One of the more memorable stand alone episodes from the early goings, although, in retrospect, I think the overall package suffers from the show’s broader commitment (or lack of commitment) to character. They are these mysterious, near mythological beings with dark or absent pasts, and so ‘drama’ as we traditionally know it, is not highly prioritized. Pushed aside not only by the odd roboticization of its cyborg heroes, but also its very procedural and very technical storyline. The overall ‘complex’ arc in the first gig doesn’t have 2nd Gig’s emotional impact, nor the same stakes. It’s much more like another long-term investigation for Section 9, rather than something that ends up shaking the Major in a profound way.
Or as shaken as her subdued self can display. So for an episode like this, where Batou has to relive the horrors of a war he’s since moved on from, the depths of his character we might plumb are left untouched in respect to the series’ thesis and approach. It is not, say, quite as effective as Batou’s later episode with the boxer, “SA: Chinks in the Armor of the Heart — Ag2O,” where the guest character was much more developed, or “Poker Face” from 2nd Gig. Even still, one Marco Amoretti, a former American Imperial Navy Petty Officer, is a serial killer in Japan with a particularly gruesome and sadistic method, whose particularities set Batou off on a singular mission of vengeance.
Again, this is Stand Alone Complex, so even within the stand alone, you need the complex. It’s not just Batou’s episode, any more than Saito’s episode gives world-building details — there’s this subplot of reps from the American Empire on a mission to orchestrate the murder of Amoretti by Batou, effectively covering up their scandal, keeping warfare in the past by not processing it through a, perhaps, modern system of justice and international affairs.
The character study that exists is subtle, underplayed, in the cunning manner of the show. It is arguably not lesser than a more traditional drama (because it’s just as fulfilling with other aspects), merely explored in a way that feels distinctly itself. Roving through the sewers is intercut with running through the jungle, in hallucinatory equation, and these both compose territory in which Boma and the Tachikoma simply cannot keep up.
Theme-wise, this episode plays very cleverly with genre. Because of the nature of their work, Section 9’s exploits often alternate as paramilitary or detective, with different characters taking on certain roles for each — Batou and Togusa work well together knocking down doors (and the killer Saito rarely applies), but on the squad missions, are second to the Major, while Boma and Ishikawa do as they always do, and sit in that green room. This episode is decidedly the detective, and the image at the top of this review, as well as the grisly nature of the crimes, gives it a darker, almost Seven feel.
Dedicated fans will also note another film reference, that to Strange Days, the brilliant Kathryn Bigelow scifi thriller where a serial rapist/killer was able to send, through a creepy technology, the sensations he felt as he was deriving sexual pleasure from his victims, into his victims. Strange Days is a classic entry in cyberpunk, assuredly in a league with Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner — it’s brutal, philosophical, and socially investigative, its story by James Cameron having been inspired by the LA riots.
So what begins as a detective story, where Batou and Togusa tour crime scenes with an American hangers-on in tow, discussing how there used to be canaries here, but now there are only crows, develops soon in tandem with the more typical Ghost in the Shell formula of hacking and espionage, and then becomes more personalized and focused, a thrilling climax of catharsis, violence, chase, and wandering through nightmares.
For all the darkness in this episode, and before we get to that darkness, the show doesn’t break us with solemnity (choosing other methods), and provides levity with the ever-cute Tachikomas. Those big blue robots I always imagine are a sticking point for the fan-base, but I honestly don’t know much about the fan-base, because it seems like it’s pretty much everyone. There’s a moment where the Tachikomas get excited at the prospect of wheeling through a market (as they’re wont to do), and the Major yells at them for goofing off — she’s been spying on them through a nearby surveillance cam. Cut to the Major watching in that green room, with the Tachikomas now minimized on a screen, waving — so adorable.
In the flashbacks, which are artfully done despite subject matter, and have a satisfyingly narrative progression, see Batou in a haircut that makes me long for his 1995 character model (the ponytail just doesn’t do it for me). In the present, the nerdier-looking (bespectacled) American Empire guy is arrested, but threatens that it was unlawful for Section 9 to hack into CIA files. He denies the American agenda to cut itself free from Project Sunset, and says that it doesn’t matter anyway. Batou will kill Amoretti because they’re still on their jungle cruise. Some things just can’t be forgotten.
Amoretti is continuing his mission of destroying the enemy’s will to fight — Project Sunset involved CIA teams’ guerilla infiltration of villages, their befriending the locals, and butchering them. Amoretti has taken to skinning women alive in the pattern of a T-shirt, and resumes his work in an urban setting. His sending of his senses into the victims to cause some kind of twisted mental overload is a sinister touch, identical to Strange Days, sure, but here might speak to the machine logic endemic to cruel manifestations of imperialism. If it’s about ideological conversion, whether by scare tactics or other psychological warfare, it’s brute force, and artificial. Amoretti’s victims are being forced to feel a certain way, but it’s not genuine. It is however, awful and intense.
Boma and a Tachikoma engage Amoretti in the sewer, the latter armed with a machine-gun. Combat here is well illustrated, unique to the show’s world specs and so logical it barely registers. But Boma fires his pistol and Amoretti returns fire, so the Tachikoma rolls in front of Boma as mobile cover, also exchanging machine-gun fire — Amoretti, being cyborg and essentially superhuman, jumps a great height away. Like the Major, this larger-than-life action scene is underplayed, its elements so well defined they don’t seem out of the ordinary as most action scenes would have to be in order to excite. This scene is set to the song “Silent Cruise,” which may begin over-the-top in its operatic vocals, but evens out and remains the most haunting track on all of the Stand Alone Complex OSTs.
The final reveal is that Batou chooses law enforcement over warfare, and this makes sense, but robs us not only of the why — the backstory of how he overcame the trauma so evidenced prior, and of any pushing of that why further in the future. Batou’s history with the Rangers is rarely brought up past this point, and never to the relevant or emotional degree as seen here. He never struggles with PTSD, never wonders what it means for a soldier to be a policeman — he’s already got it figured out.
The question is explored to its limits in this episode, but the show has imposed those limits by being the show it is. There’s a lot of inference on the part of the audience, a lot of dreaming about what these characters are like behind the scenes, or worse, in more probing incarnations. Sometimes the seeds just aren’t enough, particularly when these are the themes and ideas being explored.
Amoretti can be, although he isn’t necessarily by the show, read as Batou’s foil. Two soldiers emerge from the jungle, and one becomes a killer, the other a cop. They might be on opposite sides of justice, and in the past, they were on opposite sides of the war, but they share something intrinsic, and so our suspicion is pointed to the lawman. Section 9 is already a terrifying black-ops team, though depicted here so biasedly as pure-heroes, whose implications are dystopic on the macro, and potentially sociopathic on the individual level.
It’s fascinating just how different the episode would’ve been had Batou actually killed Amoretti. It would’ve proven those dirty Americans’ point, and maintained that something in Batou never went away. It also would’ve let the villains win, and the truth be lost. It would’ve been a somber, more tonally appropriate ending to a story about the psychopathy in well-oiled war machines: cyborg or system.
For a more in-depth exploration of Batou, always interesting but frustratingly, never explored in that western, familiar way afforded to Don Draper, Jesse Pinkman, Stringer Bell, etc., we might look to Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. But of course, we’ll find something even colder. Kamiyama, as extension of Oshii here, is trying to bring Ghost in the Shell’s history of hot-for-tech(er) perviness and existential robot cinema to a more palatable form. He wouldn’t quite get it here, but in 2nd Gig, it’s not only palatable, but heartbreaking. And those seeds, while not substantive in the moment, were laid here.
Any snickering we may have about a Japanese TV show’s hypocritical labeling of us, of our future selves, as the American Empire might be quickly dispelled by the fact that we are the modern empire, and that our history with covert military operations in South America are not so distant from this episode’s portrayal. That’s what imperialism is on a philosophical level, too — at the fringe of the empire, uncontested power can manifest to the spirit if not the letter of the law, so to speak, upholding world dominion or policing but in unsanctioned ways. Certainly the guy who beat up Gandhi that first time wouldn’t have been precisely smiled upon by the higher-ups who run the empire, but it still happened.
Wikipedia makes the point of noting that this episode wasn’t initially aired in Canada, and even Adult Swim (of all people, golly) prefaced the broadcast with a disclaimer about the graphic content. I certainly don’t recall an image more brutal than Ghost in the Shell’s ultimate grossout claim-to-fame in the musclebound and body-twisting climax of the 1995 film, but the idea is enough — and certainly enough for the Section 9 crew. One of the minor joys in listening to the English dub is the script for this episode, in which the cast refers to Amoretti as all manner of things, my favorite being “inhuman beast,” by the Major, upon reviewing a crime scene video. It’s just English enough to get by, but hardly colloquial.
Distant, you might say, even when it’s supposed to be dramatic and intimate, or… human.