A very frank cold open sets the tone for an undercover episode in which Togusa infiltrates one “Vocational Aid Center” following the sourcing of a hack into the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare database from within this location. Classified material has been stolen, so the op must be covert in order to avoid a messy situation. In this business, that’s the constant consequence, whether public scandal or ripple effect through other justice departments, with their many Sections. The Aid Center gives training to people with ‘closed shell syndrome,’ and comes off very much like a mental institution, all white and sterile. This facility would probably exist alongside modern day mental hospitals, but this is its futuristic equivalent, catered to a specific clientele.
The opening is frank because it is the Chief and the Major delivering the above exposition to Togusa, before sending him undercover. No scene-setting otherwise in establishing shots or scenes. We know where we are in the Section 9 building, who these people are, what they do. Know so well in fact that we don’t need a check-in with Batou, off the last episode. That’s the assumption anyway, but who really knows where his headspace is at?
Togusa’s approach and tour through the facility is the scene-setting missing from the beginning, and following a very Japanese convention. Manga panels are frequently devoted to not establishing shots, but details of the environment that form that greater picture, giving a sense of setting by characterizing it, rather than measuring space. The Center here is eerie — he passes a swing on an empty playground that’s swinging by itself, and the interiors of the building are looming and empty, too shiny and blank, these surfaces that reflect flooding, nondescript light.
The eeriness peaks with Togusa’s discovery of a shivering child huddled under a computer desk, talking about how it’s his day to go online. He seems defensive about it. Also schizophrenic. Two orderlies appear, led by Marta, the Center’s director. They gather the boy but he hacks them and explodes some device on their heads. Togusa is ordered to give chase, but the boy is caught just outside by a hulking cyborg, who tells Togusa to never let his guard down. I do enjoy this very minor character, not just because he’s a big robot guy, but because he actually has some character for a guest villain. He’s cocky to the point of near friendliness, because why be an asshole when you’re this powerful? Nothing is of consequence, despite the job.
Marta gives Togusa a more formal tour of the building, offers visual examples of what she’s talking about while expositing on Closed Shell Syndrome: these kids wanted to stay trapped in the net forever, they sometimes seal themselves off behind a barrier, never to return. They have to be quarantined from the Internet for their own protection. Closed Shell Syndrome exists in our time as well, with MMO addiction and living life through message boards and Facebook. Only here, it’s an extrapolated version, illustrating one’s over-connection with technology as a psychological disconnect with reality. But who’s to define such a thing?
They come upon a room that’s a narrow throughway lined with computer terminals — the patients are being used to program barrier mazes, for use by government agencies. That sounds illegal, like a human rights violation. Togusa takes this in and teleports to another location. Again, that reality thing. But he’s snapped back to it by Marta, who puts him in charge of a relatively manageable stable of patients. He’s introduced to one Aoi, a wheelchair-bound child who doesn’t speak.
There are three other people under Togusa’s supervision, a gruff kid, a girl with the thousand yard stare, and an older looking guy who’s also got shock in his eyes. Togusa offers to play catch with Aoi’s baseball glove, but the gruff kid tells him that Aoi’s panicking without it. There’s the detective’s sense that the children here are being mistreated, for they’re unwilling to go outside. There’s also some mention of a mysterious “Chief,” not Aramaki, but a secret among the kids.
The Major and Batou are standing by in a truck, revealed halfway through the episode. Batou calls Togusa a loser for not checking in on time, but the Major takes it more seriously, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s yelling at Togusa even scared me. Batou’s appearance here is consistent with almost all of his appearances, save the last episode’s. Clearly he’s recovered, and has put his stand alone issues aside in favor of the team’s group concerns. Professionalism.
Togusa hangs up the cord, and discovers someone’s written in oil paint the Laughing Man phrase from the Salinger short story, but “Or should I?” is appended to the end. So Togusa, noticing the wide-eyed girl is an impressive sketch artist, asks if she ever paints, picking up a paint-scraper knife to demonstrate what he means.
He discovers that where he can’t, the patients can read virtual visualization programming, though it’s all blonde, brunette, redhead. The gruff kid tells Togusa that he can patch in to the guy online, but one of the staffers did that once and his ghost got mixed up in his head, and he’s been trapped there ever since. After a hallucination, Togusa proves his family man self a square, and opts out. What a horrifying concept, being disembodied and trapped in another person’s head, an already mentally unstable place. It’s like the cop who ends up in prison. When that staffer started the job, he never imagined it’d end in such a reversal of fate.
Moving the plot right along, Togusa waves Marta off, as she’s headed to some convention, and breaks into her office with that dull knife. He appreciates the oil paintings of sunflowers, and begins to log on before Marta wheels Aoi in. She taunts him about being a bad employee, and how he won’t find anything about the Chief in here. She tells the big cyborg guy to hurt, not kill. Togusa, ever charming, throws a few jokes out and threatens with that knife. The cyborg asks if he’s really gonna fight with that, and roughs Togusa up before being shot to death. But he’s taken off guard by Marta, who knocks him out. She makes the mistake though of trying to dive his brain, and discovers too late he’s Section 9 — she gets fried.
One of the hacker androids also gets fried as the facility goes online. The Major and Batou hop the wall and go in to retrieve Togusa. The gruff kid and the other patients are visited by the Chief, who takes Aoi’s form. Later, we’ll see that this Aoi is the same image as the Laughing Man. He says that he’ll have to leave, to the dismay of the kid, who laments that this means their memories will be wiped. They won’t be cheering him on in Virtual City Alpha. But he’ll leave something to remember him by.
The Major and Batou find Togusa, but the scene is different than we remember: no Marta, and no cyborg either. In its place is a statue that’s been shot to death. Later, Togusa’s back up, and Section 9 wonders if Aoi was even real, as he’d disappeared, and no record of him exists. Togusa promises a sketch of the boy, but what he’s produced is the Laughing Man logo. Chilly.
So this is a much less explicit mind-trip than Batou and Togusa’s cycling journey in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. There are only hints that Togusa’s perception of reality is being warped, and in this world where everybody’s eyes give computerized readouts, nothing can be trusted. But what’s more interesting to me in this episode is how it illustrates series that balance the episodic and the serial.
Following “Jungle Cruise,” Batou has been reset, and we move on. The show’s structure and formula create a quiet stoicism as byproduct of simply going forward, never dwelling on things. This makes those stand alone moments feel precious, and contributes to the top priority of characterization, which is professionalism. This exists in other shows as well, where it isn’t professionalism necessarily. There’s that weird, almost metatextual level of storytelling in between episodes, because the credits will roll and leave you with a certain feeling, but the next episode might not resume that feeling.
We glimpsed into Batou’s soul last episode, but he’s since closed up, and in quite the turnaround. This is a Togusa-focused episode, who’s better at caretaking than the other members, and so is perfect for this undercover operation — he’s also more vulnerable. But this isn’t a character study, and in fact this is a C episode, giving us our first sight of the human side of the crime. In this facility of hallucinations and dreams, a wizard hacker has come and gone, inspiring those whom everyone else has given up on.