A woman with purple hair stands on the edge of a skyscraper's roof, watching the green-lit cityscape beneath her. She jumps -- not quite flying, not quite falling -- while coolly preparing her equipment for a political assassination.
Sound familiar? It's the opening scene of the animated Japanese film Ghost in the Shell (1995), but you don't have to know the movie to recognize it. It's been recycled everywhere from music videos to The Matrix.
Ghost in the Shell was based on Masamune Shirow's comic book by the same name. The film, in turn, has spawned the TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which debuted in Japan in 2003 and may soon be available to Americans on the Cartoon Network. Between its dystopian politics and its postmodern take on identity, the cartoon engages issues far more interesting than those you'll find on most live-action shows.
A futuristic police procedural, Stand Alone Complex centers around Section 9, a secretive intelligence agency dealing with high-tech crime. The main character is Major Kusanagi, an elite ex-soldier whose body has been entirely replaced by robotics. Only her brain is natural, and sometimes she wonders about that too.
The criminal stories are often simple, but that's almost beside the point. The real question isn't who the culprit is but why the culprit did it: The series depicts intricate infighting within the government, with the intelligence agencies jockeying with the police and the military while the Department of Health uses other departments as tools for its own schemes.
In the cyberpunk novels and films of the 1980s, the future was usually run by megacorporations that had taken over all the functions of government. Ghost in the Shell takes a slightly different road. Rather than vanishing, the government becomes symbiotic with the corporations: a corporate state.
Such corporatism, of course, is hardly alien to Japan -- or to Europe and America, for that matter. The show merely pushes the idea further. Corruption in a company spills over to the government and vice versa; trade secrecy and national security combine to eliminate transparency. Unlike many science fiction dystopias, this one seems uncomfortably realistic.
The show's other projections may feel more surreal. One of Shirow's favorite themes is advanced technology's effect on individuality. In his future world, the handheld wireless has given way to an implanted wireless that eventually encompasses the whole brain. With that come security problems: Given that most people have unsecured computers today, it is not unreasonable to believe that people will also have unsecured brains. Memories can be edited or reprogrammed, and bodies can be switched with a quick visit to the hospital; stories revolve around mind-bending manipulations of identity. In such a world, the show asks, what defines us?
Depictions of shapely, scantily clad women are standard in Japanese comics and animations, and this series gladly provides them. But the message is subtly subversive: These bodies are literal commodities, shells their inhabitants can exchange if they feel like it. Kusanagi is female only in the sense that she wears female bodies, apparently to complement her favorite watch. No longer the key to identity, gender becomes a convention.
Familiar notions of identity suffer still more blows with the "Tachikoma smart tank," a vehicle crossed with a robot. The tanks are modeled after spiders, but they can also skate on wheels set in their legs. After each mission the Tachikomas are connected and their experiences synchronized, making them identical beings the next morning. If one is destroyed, that only means the loss of a chassis and the experiences leading up to its destruction. And the Tachikomas have the personality of cheerful preschool children.
But the most bizarre entity is the Laughing Man. The Laughing Man hacks the media, entering the cybereyes and cyberminds of the audience. Nobody knows what he looks like: His face is digitally obscured by a signature logotype. The Puppet Master, the antagonist in the movie, was still someone, but the Laughing Man may not be any particular individual; he could be a she, or a group, or independent people acting under the same nom de plume and logo. Or the Laughing Man might not exist at all, except as a media phenomenon. Section 9 can deal with terrorists, hackers, and other outlaws, thanks to its technological superiority. But it might not be able to defeat a spontaneous order.
Refreshingly, Shirow does not try to offer neat answers to the issues his show raises. He's content to speculate about the ways technology and politics will intersect, allowing his audience to consider the questions he raises -- or just to sit back and enjoy the show.