Episode 15: “SA: Time of the Machines — MACHINES DESIRANTES”


Unusual for an episode of this type, where Tachikoma are the focus, in all their non-sequitor journeys or recaps of the show, this is a great, great entry in the first season. Emotional, funny, and a unique angle on the universe of Ghost in the Shell. In this far-reaching exploration of artificial intelligence, the Tachikoma sub-arc comes to a somber close.

In the opening, Saito is touring that old post-apocalypse part of the city (a bad neighborhood, no doubt), testing a new automated sniping machine. This technology makes for a great image, reminiscent of the ending of the original film (as well as the ending of this first season). Cutting edge technology, even in this future world, is bound to be visually stimulating. Unfortunately, Saito reports some kind of interference from the system, so it’s unlikely we’ll see it again in his hands/neck ports.

Also disappointed are the Tachikoma, but more so are they eternally curious. They chatter-narrate, and this may be the first instance where we rank cyborgs in Section 9 (though always excluding Ishikawa), where the Tachikoma note that next to Togusa, Saito has the least cyborg parts. Before going on to squeak about how ‘cyborg’ is a pejorative term, used as such by Luddites and naturalists, they discuss how the sniping machine will be discarded because of Saito’s limited cyberization.

To get to the bottom of this closed case, the Tachikoma steal the machine by confusing one of the operator androids with a zero divide. Thankfully this doesn’t blow her head up like in Futurama or something (hey, what kinda pizza you guys want), although indeed she isn’t so much a ‘she’; less ‘human’ than even the Tachikoma. It’s interesting how such a thing can work, where this computer system is being broken, but because it’s taken the shape of a human being, what we see is a person going crazy.

This sort of activity is not the best to be doing at this juncture, under the suspicious eye of the Major, but this doesn’t deter the big blue robots. It does bother them however, as learning that the sniping machine was ‘stressed out’ by Saito’s input, they gather in the bay and talk about the way the Major looks at them — it’s alarming. They rally together, in gradual revolution, talk about like this sniping device, they too could be tossed aside like garbage.

Is being tossed aside the same as dying, they wonder? As ghostless AI, they aren’t alive, so they can’t die. Just like they told Miki, the little girl whose dog had died. One of the Tachikoma is opinionated on the matter, and says that being scrapped doesn’t mean dying. He is reading Flowers for Algernon, in paper book form. He’s asked what ‘alive’ is, and his response, of course, is something like life is variable as a definition. Human understanding is changing with more robot interaction, even on a subconscious level.

They worry that if they get scrapped, they’ll lose Miki. At the same time, they can’t decide which of them actually met her. Now that I think of it — I can’t decide either! From Miki, they also talk about sensing the Major. See, all their data is synchronized, so all experiences are shared, like the geth, or other hivemind androids (though the Tachikoma are significantly less evil). Batou comes in and asks for one specific Tachikoma for help with the trainees — maybe Azuma and Yano are among them. This Tachikoma is elated, concludes that it must’ve been her that escaped from with Miki.

The remaining Tachikoma wonder if memories made with Batou are different, because he always pilots the same unit, and babies it with natural oil. Perhaps then, mind and body are inseparable? They decide that if they’re being scrapped, they won’t forget about Mr. Batou!

As Batou yells at the trainees, the Tachikoma asks about the sniper test, and is now carrying a wrench. Batou says it’s just like these trainees. If they don’t work out, they get discarded. She wonders if they’ll be discarded too. The Major is scary. Batou laughs — she’s always like that. But the Tachikoma thinks she’s worried about something they’ve acquired recently: individuality. The Tachikoma states that they’ll never have a ghost, but humans will always have a ghost no matter how much cyberization.

Batou tells the Tachikoma to just focus on the job. He’s not a big issues kind of guy. The Tachikoma returns to the bay, and upon inquiry, calls the wrench an antenna, compares it to the photos Togusa keeps, of his kids. The photo of Togusa that the Tachikoma has is hilarious — candid blue camera. They think Togusa doesn’t care for Tachikomas because he has kids. The Tachikoma are too close to human, but aren’t humanoid — that must be it. Like the operator, they’re designed for their function. She does human work (still zero dividing in the corner), while they’re more like vehicles.

The conclusion they draw is to act more robotic. Then they’ll be more acceptable to the Major. But three seconds after attempting it in a test run, chanting: WE ARE ROBOTS, they can’t handle it. But the Major appears, asking for Batou. They try their robot routine, even though the one is still holding the wrench. So adorable.

However, it seems that the Major had been listening in the whole time, even as they chatter once she’s gone: I think she bought it! She looks pretty pissed. Can you blame her? If she’s spying on Tachikoma all day, it must be her day off.

Then they discuss what she wanted to talk to Batou about, in that room, the only room in the building that’s electromagnetically shielded for maximum privacy (despite the window). Like their space-faring cousin, they can still read lips, but the Major anticipated this move — she tells Batou to only speak through comm., and read these reports. She’d spotted a camouflaged Tachikoma hanging from the ceiling — spying. No malicious intent there, just that curiosity again. But there’s no real difference at this point.

As directed by the Major, they have a conversation about something else, though related, while she talks about the Tachikoma. On their lips, the conversation is about the trainees, so it kind of matches with the real discussion. If only that Tachikoma was the one with Batou earlier, and knew the metaphorical link between them and trainee. The Major says that he’s failing at being a trainer. What he’s really failing at is seeing the Tachikoma for what they are. She suspends Tachikoma use, and says they’ll be disarmed and sent to the lab. Batou is clearly upset, but has to comply — order from direct superior.

The Tachikoma, seeing that it’s not about them, celebrate. In their joy, they decide to cheer up Batou for being punished by the Major. Meanwhile, he looks out over the lively Tachikoma bay — and we roll credits.

Capping off the tech and philosophy-heavy episode is an emotional gut punch. Even you didn’t realize you enjoyed the Tachikoma until then, you’ll certainly miss them (and hail their bittersweet return, both returns, I guess). And making Batou the human center for this sadness is smart but maybe obvious, though this episode aired before Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was released, where we also see his attachment to non-human things.

This is it for the Tachikoma for many episodes, but after all the question-asking, what are the important things to keep in mind?

Ultimately, they ask if they’re human, and it might be confusing, because they’re so complex as androids — a hivemind preoccupied by data-sharing. So what we have here is a group of beings who struggle with this, unable to be conclusive, and not knowing that it’s the struggle, the asking, that makes them human.

Just as the operator is a computer manifest in human form, the Tachikoma make palpable the apocalyptic existentialism of technology outliving its use. Ghost in the Shell is rarely about killer robots on the loose, so the Tachikoma are filling this role, now reframed as tragic. Only, before they do anything dangerous, it’s human fear that has them put away.

It’s the classic science-fiction situation, which we also see in The Animatrix and Mass Effect 2, to use contemporary examples. And like in Mass Effect, this Tachikoma drama plays out in the context of a greater arc. It will then color that arc, but in the meantime, speaks to the human heart in all this robot stuff: clearly we know where the writers fall on the question of whether the Tachikoma have ghosts. Unfortunately, the Major doesn’t agree.

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