When I first heard that some new Ghost in the Shell was being announced, I threw my hands up in the air in celebration. Ghost in the Shell is one of my favorite anime helmed by two of my favorite directors (Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kamiyama). A new director's spin on things is going to be awesome! As I heard more coming down the pipeline, like that it was a completely separate timeline from either Oshii's or Kamiyama's, I got a little more excited and when I heard that it was going to be a prequel, I got a little less excited. But all that aside, Ghost in the Shell Arise certainly delivers on every level I'd have wanted it to out of a first episode.
Ghost in the Shell Arise is a prequel to Shirow Masamune's original Ghost in the Shell comics. However, I don't believe that it is stand alone. Everything would feel so distant without any introduction to the series (whether that be Masamune's comics, Oshii's films, or Kamiyama's series). But don't let that be a detraction from an otherwise great work.
Production I.G puts in their A-game in terms of animation here. It blends a modern-style of character designs (done by Kazuchika Kise, who worked on xxxHolic and Legend of the Galactic Heroes of all things) with Oshii's original feel of the films (a bleaker, dirtier cyberpunk vision compared with Kamiyama's sleeker look). Kise's also directing these OAVs and he certainly proves that he can do it. He's previously worked extensively as a key animator and an animation director, but this is his first time in charge. The direction isn't bad, but it's nothing outstanding either. The action scenes were really cool, but they weren't nearly as dynamic as Oshii's films.
The scripts are helmed by Tow Ubukata, a longtime contributor for Production I.G (he worked on Le Chevalier D'Eon, Heroic Age, and Mardock Scramble). The scripts are much better than Kamiyama's as they feature much less stilted dialogue and everything flows much nicer. I'm not sure what Kamiyama was doing in Ghost in the Shell, because his Moribito and Eden of the East scripts were fine.
The music was pretty cool in here too. It's hard to follow after Kenji Kawai and Yoko Kanno, but Cornelius does a stunning job. It's nothing I'd listen to recreationally (and I'd listen to Kawai and Kanno's stuff ad infinitum), but it really fits the mood of the series. The opening in particular provides a great door to the rest of the series. This is the PV, but the opening plays in it.
Arise begins with the familiar Major, now noticeably younger, returning to Japan after a stint somewhere (it's not brought up, nor is it of particular importance). Still a little wet behind the ears compared to what Oshii or Kamiyama's versions portrayed, she's in Unit 501 and her commanding officer has just died.
The things she fights in the first scene we see her in are reminiscent of the dolls from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but they're anything but. They're actually walking mines that'll explode upon a good gunshot to the anywhere. The doll thing is actually inside of the coffin that's supposedly holding Kusanagi's commanding officer's body (and intact cyberbrain).
What the show fails to do immediately is inundate us with a familiarity with the characters, which is why I wouldn't suggest these OAVs to a Ghost in the Shell newcomer. I've seen Oshii's films and Kamiyama's series (but not Masamune's original comics), so I'm quite familiar with the Major and her typical antics. In Arise, she's noticeably different. She acts a little more rashly and she's a little shorter tempered (and she wears more clothes).
What the show succeeds in is what Ghost in the Shell has always succeeded in: Creating an interesting world with an interesting story involving political intrigue. These OAVs are revolving around the aftermath of the last World War, in which Japan threw seemingly all their money into cybernetics research. Now that the war is over, they have to find a new purpose for people like Kusanagi, who are fully cybernetic. It also poses a problem that never existed in the previous anime adaptations: Kusanagi's body is technically the property of the army, not her own. In addition, the army is considering implementing a rule for people with full cybernetic bodies similar to a labeling system. They would have to register their body and get approval for basically any action they take. Kusanagi, of course, is against it.
But that's a very interesting concept that hasn't really been brought up prior. There's been a blur between what's human and what's cyborg--the first Ghost in the Shell film was about that. But there's never been anything dealing with prejudice against fully cybernetic bodies or any desire to control those with them. Since Ghost in the Shell's concepts and stories have been so intriguing, I haven't considered it, but now that it's brought up, there's been a missed opportunity until now.
The bulk of the story, though, is trying to find out how and why Kusanagi's superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mamuro died. In this process, Kusanagi finds something happens to her that happened to a random garbage man in the first film: Her memory is altered. Kusanagi's memory is, mercifully, fixed. But until then, she's seeing things she shouldn't be and not seeing things she should be. It's not until the third act when she syncs her vision with the Logicoma that she sees things as they truly are.
From beginning to end, we get drops of people from the franchise, most prominently thus far is just Aramaki. Batou (still a Ranger at this point), Pazu, and Togusa (still a police officer) make their small appearances. While they're important to the plot, they don't serve much purpose as characters. Its obvious Ubukata is working in their pasts into Kusanagi's just so they can meet up, but with a prequel story, it's bound to happen. It isn't done awkwardly and everyone gets their fair amount of screen time. However, these OAVs are about Kusanagi and not much spotlight should be placed on anyone else.
The cast is completely replaced on the Japanese side of things. Maaya Sakamoto (the only "returning" cast member) plays Kusanagi, a role she once did in Oshii's film and the Laughing Man OAV as a young Motoko. Kenichirou Matsuda, Batou's actor, hasn't done much, but he's tackling this big character well enough. In comparison, Tarusuke Shingaki as Togusa has much more under his belt, most notably Kariya Mato in Fate/Zero. One of the stand outs is Ikkyuu Juku as Shinji Aramaki who, again, hasn't done much else. But THE stand out is Miyuki Sawashiro as the Logicoma and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. She brings her usual charm into a mix of veterans and newcomers and fits the Logicoma perfectly to the Tachikoma.
The OAVs promise more than they give thus far, and the ending is of course going to be the formation of Section 9 as we know it in other anime media. It looks like the mystery behind Lieutenant Colonel Mamuro isn't fully solved yet and Kusanagi is still on the fence about joining up with Aramaki. Or at least, that's what she wants Aramaki to think. Internally, she sounds excited for the opportunity, and so am I.