The Ghost in the Shell franchise is often referred to as a gateway anime. Its distinctive visual style combined with its philosophical themes go a long way to convince those on the fence regarding anime. However, between all the various movies, TV series, and OVAs, Ghost in the Shell can be a little overwhelming to keep track of. If you’ve got a friend who’s curious, you may not even be able to give them a good answer for where to start.
That’s why we’re here today. We’re going to break down each title in order of release and discuss where they take place, as there are in fact 3 separate timelines to consider here!
Ghost in the Shell (1995 film)
While Ghost in the Shell started as a manga, this movie is really what kicked everything off. Even if you were an anime fan at the time, Ghost in the Shell was just so different from what anyone had ever seen before. There were more adult anime like Akira that were at least known of, but even those leaned into cartoon-y levels of hyper-violence. Ghost in the Shell was different. The grotesque imagery never came off as exploitative, but evocative instead. If you watched it dubbed you may not have even realized it was an anime.
This is why Ghost in the Shell ‘95 is a great introduction for exactly two kinds of people. First, it’s a good choice for animation snobs who look down on anime as a medium for cartoons. Even if they’re not big on all of GitS ‘95’s philosophical musings, it’s also hard to deny its incredible visual direction and gorgeous animation. Otherwise, people who just don’t have any idea what anime is will probably just enjoy the ride.
For people who are already sold on anime, it’s a good watch as a history lesson to see what spurred on the Western anime boom in the late 90s. In terms of entertainment, though… look, it’s a very dry movie. If you didn’t watch it at the time of its release, it may not have the same impact on your imagination as it did on people back in the day. You’d be better off starting elsewhere.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex
Try not to think of Stand-Alone Complex as a traditional anime. Granted, the art direction gears toward a more traditional anime-style with rounder eyes and brighter colorwork. However, the structure shifts from being a complete, continuous story and mixes in story-focused episodes in between “stand-alone” episodes (show’s pun, not ours). This release strategy turns it more into a police procedural where you can catch just a random episode here and there and get sucked into the world of the show before you start seeking out the plot-centric episodes. The USA Network could have run Stand-Alone Complex in the middle of Monk and Burn Notice reruns and you probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. While it could technically be on the same timeline as the movie, there are no story connections between the two. You could jump into it without ever knowing there’s a movie and not miss a beat.
However, it is no longer 2003 and no one watches network TV outside of senior citizens and people tricking their dogs into thinking there are still people around. It’s really tough to tell someone to just catch an episode here and there. However, as luck would have it, Stand-Alone Complex also happens to be really, really good. This is a fantastic pick for someone who is very anime curious and wants to see the best of what it has to offer, as you can still just show them your favorite stand-alone episodes and see how they respond. Die-hard anime fans who have never seen SAC should start here too, as it’s a great watch.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex 2nd GiG
Prerequisite: Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex
Debuting just a couple of years after the original, 2nd GiG sought to capture the white-hot popularity of the Ghost in the Shell franchise with a second season of SAC. It follows the same formula as the first, mixing in stand-alone episodes with the main story. There’s no more Laughing Man this time either, instead focusing on a story about immigration reform and the struggles of Japanese globalization. You really could watch 2nd GiG without having seen SAC and not lose anything from it, outside of some occasional mentions of The Laughing Man (the villain of SAC).
Anime fans who are interested in the Ghost in the Shell franchise but want to avoid confusing technobabble are the ones who should start here and those alone. That’s not to say 2nd GiG is bad; far from it. Many even consider it superior to the first, and people who loved the formula of SAC should absolutely continue with 2nd GiG. However, a lot of the appeal of Ghost in the Shell comes from its commentary on humanity’s place in a cyberized world. 2nd GiG does deal with these themes, but they’re more in the background than they are like in the original movie. It lacks that special hook to draw in new viewers that those had.
So, to recap:
Ghost in the Shell ‘95: Good for non-animes fans, but skip it unless you want to see the history.
Stand Alone Complex: Best starting point for people wanting to get into Ghost in the Shell.
Stand Alone Complex 2nd GiG: Anyone can start here, but best after SAC. Good for those wanting a more sci-fi-lite version of Ghost in the Shell.
We’ve got a 2nd article on the way, covering some more projects related both the ‘95 movie and SAC, along with a 3rd subseries!