TRIVIA: The third episode of Arise is subtitled "Ghost Tears" because the franchise is presently balled in a corner weeping from the garbage juice squirted into its eyes.
Preface: I usually don't bother to write reviews unless I find myself auto-forming a review in my head as I watch. This occurred during the third episode of Arise because the flaws are so glaring they jump out at you neatly wrapped; it almost feels like this review has been written for me and I'm merely transcribing. Easy as transcribing is I still wouldn't post, unless what I saw which seemed so obviously godawful to me had yet to be slandered as much as it deserved. So with 2 reviews on here ranging from mediocre to absolute perfection, here I am to commit abortion.
Central Flaw: Motoko the pussy.
The main draw of GITS, for me, has always been the Major. She's one of the best female characters in the medium, in any medium, and on her own merits. She can't be pigeonholed into any one trope, because she's a complex character dealing with massive global, political, and philosophical issues - but always tempers them with her own individual existential concerns. The diffracted nature of her personality is greatly needed to sell the concepts of the series, ie, how augmentation can change the self-hood we experience in relation to our bodies and consciousness. The Major is subversive in appearance and proclivities (scantily clad, domineering, bisexual in the manga and SAC) to the point of being intimidating in modern contexts, and this quickly sells us on the reality of the universe she inhabits with its changing values, moral codes, and opportunities. She's a fluid character in a fluid environment; in every iteration she's shown to fluctuate between loyalty to external forces and roguish self-actualization at the expense of others. In short, she's a great example of a strong female character precisely because she's so much more than just a strong female: she's unpredictable.
And so it's a great pain to see her reduced to a hetero-normative cliche romance where she defers completely to a one-note, flat-out Bishounen who predictably betrays her. It's conceptually flawed, but the script is even worse: imagine if Ripley from Alien(s) was inserted into Bella's place in any given Twilight scene, and you'd essentially have every romance scene in Ghost Tears.
I understand that a prequel requires showing us characters when they weren't yet themselves, when they were foolish and idealistic and more vulnerable than we're used to seeing them. But the problem is we've already seen this delicate spin on the Major in 2nd Gig, and the Kuze romance had substance, mostly because the related plot-line developed the Major in a significant way; the Ghost Tears romance develops young Motoko insomuch as she has a teen girl epiphany that love can be specious. The only signs of the old Major come in short bursts whenever someone pushes her over the edge, and in these misjudged scenes the Major is simplified to another extreme and becomes merely histrionic.
Hurting the integrity of an iconic character is enough to make Arise a botched effort but its other sins seem almost endless:
Flaw #2: The supporting cast becomes the ancillary cast.
I understand there's only so much you can do in 60 minutes, but aside from seeing Motoko become Motoko, the novelty of Arise is that you get to see Section 9's recruitment. Or at least that used to be the marketing ploy of the OVAs, now I'm not so sure. Each episode has just been a barrage of things happening which so happen to involve a future member of Section 9, so that after the climax we're treated to:
Motoko: Hey, want to be on my team?
Future member: Okay.
There's no grandeur to them joining, they don't even seem to play major roles in the proceedings deserving of their recruitment. Togusa was the addition to the team this time around but if you asked me what he did that so demanded his involvement I couldn't tell you, because I can't remember anything he did.
The characters being put into the periphery is more glaring in Ghost Tears because they're sidelined for the dull romance. But what really sets their writing apart as poor this time around is their reduction: the full extent of their presence in most scenes is the delivery of a signature character trait (e.g., Batou delivers sarcastic one-liners, Togusa mentions his Mateba, Paz talks about his relationship troubles). We've seen all this before, across two different installments of the franchise, and by this point the characters are just self-referents winking at the audience.
And the Logikoma got about one line. Why even add a moe-relief device to something with such a short run-time in the first place if you won't let them deliver?
Flaw #3: Production integrity.
The Oshii GITS films are some of the most beautiful traditional and digital animation, respectively, that you can ever hope to see. And although SAC had its problems (especially in the first season) with characters going off-model at inopportune times, the production integrity on an episode by episode basis was absolutely amazing for a 52-episode series. We don't get nearly the same level of craft in even 60 minutes of Arise, where characters go off-model so severely their heads seem to glide up and down on their necks like moeblob thermostats.
And it's not even a budgetary concern because you can tell the budget was enormous, it's the fact the designs aren't sustainable for anything other than static close-ups. Coming off the heels of SAC, which had some of the best character designs in the franchise (and the industry as a whole), this is BS.
Flaw #4: Convoluted garbage.
It's a testament to what little I have to say about the plot when it's almost the last thing I address. I can't begin to tell you the specifics of anything that happened except for the various lazy twists slinged out toward the end that render your attention up to that point a wasted effort, because none of the specifics really amount to anything. So it's a good thing I barely paid attention. And this is not for lack of trying: the script is at ends with itself. It has no clue how to communicate to an audience visually or textually.
The majority of scenes are people sitting around and talking - and this is somewhat of a staple in the franchise. GITS involves heavy exposition that mixes a lot of lingo and jargon together: corporate, philosophical, bureaucratic, political, technological, legal. The structure of SAC is usually a dense briefing followed by the actual meat of the episode, so if you phase out during these expository sequences you're screwed. But SAC and the films isolate these expository sequences between actual plot development, and they employ a lot of visual staging to guide your attention throughout. Ghost Tears is almost entirely exposition. There is no pacing, there are no deftly wrought symbols, there are no beautifully rendered settings, there is little to no actual directing involved. People talk, and they talk a lot, and they talk about things yet to be given a visual referent.
Nothing that occurs outside of talking adds emphasis to the plot threads, because anything that isn't talking is mindless and random action sequences so wholly removed from relevance that they don't even feature human characterization. In one scene an innocent worker discovers he has a sort of explosive inside his prosthetic arms, and so to save everyone else from the impact Sec. 9 throws this dude's entire body down an elevator shaft with no remorse, no comment, no beat at all aside from complaining about the smoke. This could be intentional, but I can't imagine what the writers thought they were accomplishing: if the characters aren't involved in their surroundings to the point of having logical thoughts or feelings of accountability, why should I care about what's going on? It becomes a mere series of events. SAC and the films have characters doing what they do because of grounded motivations, and if they ever come to the point of allowing casualties for the greater good they have internal and external conflicts. So there's mindless violence on one end and needlessly dense exposition on the other end with no balance involved. I'm left feeling like no single scene has impact on the other.
There's nothing cohesive about the nuts and bolts of the script but there's also nothing cohesive about the themes underneath. Motoko yearns to feel human so she has romantic relations. Cool, but we've seen this before and it's unrealistic to believe that anyone (but especially Motoko) would feel more human when engaging a partner so inhuman and boring. Other themes involve the difference between bodies and objects, losing track of identity when your body is switchable, etc., all cool, all done before in the franchise, all irrelevant to the actual plot of the OVA.
I haven't even mentioned what the plot is. So what is the main plot? Something about water corporations. Riveting. Granted, the seedy underbelly of ostensibly benign corporations is an interesting concept, but the script doesn't allow you to consider this because it's handled with no mystery - a character appears on-screen and says I Work for Water. It's a shame the writing team didn't think to utilize this aspect of their script, just as they didn't think to utilize any other aspect of their script.
Final flaw: the Kaworu dynamic.
And we come full circle with the romantic interest. I can't remember what his name was so I'll refer to him as Kaworu, because that's essentially who he is, and his dynamic makes much less sense when not paired with a weak-willed character like Shinji, and instead with the diametrically hyper-willed Motoko. The chemistry with Kaworu makes no sense, and this is most evident in how Motoko is written as a completely different character in all of their Attack of the Clones-esque gallivanting.
The conflict between the Major's sense of duty and sense of self can be easily grafted onto a romantic situation and, as I've said before, already was in 2nd Gig to much greater effects precisely because it involved tragedy and schism. In Ghost Tears there is no conflict: the Major becomes weak willed and seems comfortable staying there until the story pulls her back out.
Bonus flaw: the soundtrack.
It sounded like Playstation-era shovelware techno BG music and the ending song with Sean Lennon (???) was the aural equivalent of dumping a tanker-truck of sand onto a gaping flesh wound.
It's ironic that a major visual theme (pretty much just an aesthetic choice with no depth at all) is water and water-related things, because this is essentially a watered down and pointless version of the franchise. Absolutely avoid it at all costs unless you enjoy watching stillbirths.