Masamune Shirow's iconic Ghost in the Shell has gone through several TV iterations through the years. Only one TV version, however, has garnered overwhelmingly favorable fan reactions. And it's not the newest one, Netflix's SAC_2045. That title should go to the second season of Stand Alone Complex, aptly named 2nd GIG, which easily reigns supreme over it, and the season the came before. Here's what sets the two seasons apart from each other where quality is concerned.
Number of Episodes
Typical of early anime series released in the 1990s/2000s, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex's Seasons 1 and 2 had 26 episodes each. 2nd GIG used this length well to fix the flaws of the first one and had enough time to flesh out the story and characters. It further developed existing ideas and smoothly connected new ones to focus on the anime's philosophical aspect without rushing things.
Unfortunately, due to only having 12 episodes, the 2020 version arguably did not have the same luxury of time as its predecessors. Despite the technological advancements given better illustrations and effects, SAC_2045 couldn't expand the story as much.
Some of its dialogue came off as too generic, and parts of the story even felt incomplete at times. With half of the entire season focused on the war and the regrouped Section 9 (turned GHOST), the recurring theme of humanity drowning amidst a cybernetic reality did not feel as well-thought-out.
Without a doubt, the 2020 version's 3D animation is better than other anime rendered in a similar way -- titles like AJIN: Demi-human and Berserk (2016). But in doing so, SAC_2045 also lost the gritty, neo-noir vibe that is integral to Ghost in the Shell's charm. SAC 2nd GIG somehow retained this feel even with a difference in art style to what had been previously used.
Although 2nd GIG's style is more generic, it is faithful to what the characters represent. The personalities of the characters and their purpose are immediately visible at a glance. In contrast, everything is far too smooth and vibrant in SAC_2045, especially compared to the older versions. At times, it feels more like an action-packed video-game than an anime series.
The character design of the SAC_2045's Major is aesthetically pleasing but it's also one of the most distracting parts of the anime. As the main character, Motoko is supposed to stand out, but not take the viewer's attention away from the story.
Her face dramatically differs from the rest and at times, can't blend in, being far too cartoonishly beautiful. There are other female characters that appear in the series, Purin Esaki, for example, but no one unnaturally radiates as much as Major Motoko.
In 2nd GIG, the Major is still beautiful, but there is no undue emphasis on it. Her appearance is more modern and striking than in the two films, but the highlight is not on her facial features but her expression and movements.
Balancing Philosophy & Action
One thing fans will quickly notice is that the philosophical approach of the 2020 version is more watered down than the previous ones. The first six episodes of SAC_2045 heavily focus on the action sequences and political intrigue because of the sustainable war plot. In the first episode, Motoko meets up with some of her Section 9 crew in wartorn California, so it's only natural for the story to head in the 'war-zone' direction. This concentration might be seen as a refreshing take for the anime and a good display of the advantages of using CG.
On the other hand, long-time fans who enjoy the in-depth tackling of the graying border between humanity and machine may find this dragging since Ghost in the Shell's focal point has always been about the soul -- the titular ghost in the machine, in other words. 2nd GIG explored this aspect more deeply and explained more details while also handling the political side.
SAC_2045 is set 15 years after 2nd GIG, a future in which Section 9 no longer exists. Of the original eight members, Motoko, Batou, Saito and Ishikawa are still together. However, they are no longer the elite Public Security Section 9 and are now a mercenaries group.
Completely detached from the Japanese government, their mission, in the beginning, is a righteous one. It isn't until the story gets to the latter half, by Episode 8, that we see them perform as a special hidden government team again.
While Motoko is the face of the series, she is not a lone wolf. In 2nd GIG, Section 9 conducted most investigations as a group. They supported one another, developing their camaraderie while inching closer to the truth. Viewers got to see what each character brought to the table and how important they are to the unit.
2nd GIG Is the Better Version
For some anime, the CG route may be a welcome change in style, as was the case with another Netflix title, Beastars. For those that already set the standard high, it's better to stick to what works.
Overall, the differences between the SAC_2045 and 2nd GIG are significant. The hurdle to overcome a classic isn't that easy, even if it's a continuation. It's best to dive into the newer version with no expectations and appreciate it for what it adds to the story. But for those with pre-existing familiarity with the franchise, simply revisiting 2nd GIG is advisable.