The series is set in a continuity different from Shirow's manga and Mamoru Oshii's 1995 Ghost in the Shell feature film. The events take place in the year 2030, six years after the "Laughing Man Incident". The series is divided in "stand alone" and "complex" episodes, where the latter are related to the underlying story arc of the Laughing Man. A compilation movie based on the Laughing Man episodes was released direct-to-DVD on In 23 September, 2005.
Stand Alone Complex aired on Animax from 1 October 2002 to 25 March 2003, totaling 26 episodes. A second Stand Alone Complex series, subtitled "2nd GIG", ran in Animax from 1 January 2004 to 8 January 2005.
Stand Alone Complex takes place in the year 2030, in the fictional Japanese city of New Port. The series follows the exploits of Public Security Section 9, a special operations task-force made up of former military officers and police detectives.
The series is a "police action drama" comprised of individual cases and the underlying mystery of the Laughing Man.
The series is licensed for North American distribution by Bandai Entertainment, with the English dub produced by Animaze, which airs on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block in the United States, YTV's Bionix block in Canada and AnimeCentral in the United Kingdom. The series is also licensed for distribution in the United Kingdom region by Manga Entertainment, and for distribution in Australia by Madman Entertainment.
The original soundtrack for the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, composed by Yoko Kanno, has been released over six albums and one single:
Also released was a Limited Edition box set containing all soundtracks (except for the GET9 single) and a fourth previously unreleased soundtrack called O.S.T 4 – Smooth in the Shell. Included with this Limited Edition box set was a USB flash memory stick in a tachikoma design.
A trilogy of Stand Alone Complex novels written by Junichi Fujisaku were released in Japan in 2006.
Of the many futuristic technologies, the cyberbrain or neural computer augmentation technology is discussed and convincingly portrayed. This is the implantation of powerful computers directly into the brain, greatly increasing certain mental capacities such as memory. Coupled with ubiquitous access to the informational net, this is shown as a fundamental technology integral to the future Japanese society. Applications include wireless communication just by "thinking" it, massive informational recall capabilities, and digitization of printed media and the encryption thereof. The series is notable for portraying a comprehensive and believable user interface to this technology. At the same time, drawbacks are revealed in the form of "Closed Shell Syndrome" or cyberbrain autism and "Cyberbrain Sclerosis". This technology is in many ways the crux of the series.
Microelectromechanical systems and the medical and less benign applications also figure heavily within the futurescape depicted within the show. In the fictional future year of 2030, this technology and its applications are still considered to be experimental, only reaching the first stages of practical usage.
An important technology used in the series is thermo-optical camouflage. Members of Section 9 as well as their Tachikoma tanks have the ability to activate a special camouflage technology which enables them to blend in with the environment, making them near-invisible to the naked eye. It is an active stealth system which projects ambient conditions of the opposing side, and thus rendering the masked object transparent by transmission. The system is not shown to be perfect, as it seems unable to compensate for sudden changes and physical impacts nor impervious to close observation. A faint translucent distortion is shown as the limitations of the technology. In the legal landscape of the series, usage of the technology without a warrant is heavily restricted. The use of this technology by Section 9 is the exception, and not the norm - further highlighting their extraordinary legal standing. Surprisingly, there is present day research into the active optic camouflage inspired by the fictional portrayal of it by the University of Tokyo
The use of Light Autonomous Tanks, left out of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie by time constraints, are used extensively in Stand Alone Complex. Called Tachikoma (also known as "think tanks"), they are four-legged light tanks with two forearms and adhesive wire shooters. Armed with a small caliber machine gun in their right arm and an interchangeable weapons mount at their "mouth", they provide Section Nine with a quick and highly mobile weapons platform. The weapons mount is often equipped with a grenade launcher or a Gatling gun. The body design and movement of the Tachikoma appear to be modeled after jumping spiders.
Their AI simulates the endlessly curious and innocent behavior of small children, which both logically encourages fast learning and enables them to act as the comic relief of Section 9. As such they provide a counterpoint to the cynical and hardened humans of the force. Two episodes are dedicated to their exploits; episode 12, "ESCAPE FROM", and episode 15, "MACHINES DÉSIRANTES". In the latter episode, the curious nature of the Tachikoma result in instabilities in their artificial intelligence fatal to operation as weapons, leading to their disarmament and decommission from service with Section 9.
Another technology that is noticeable in the series that was also not included in the 1995 film is the use of Armed Suits, bipedal powered armored exoskeletons. Resembling Shirow's Landmate armor from another of his works, Appleseed, the Armed Suit uses a small set of inner "master" arms to control the larger, more-powerful, "slave" arms. A prototype Armed Suit makes an appearance later in the first season, and a new upgraded version of the Tachikoma returns in 2nd GIG. Another type of think tank, the Uchikoma is briefly shown at the end of 2nd GIG.
The series features Section 9 using a tiltwing aircraft very similar to the American-designed V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The aircraft depicted within the show has the capacity to carry six Tachikoma and a complement of personnel, allowing Section Nine to rapidly deploy a highly mobile and well-armored force anywhere in Japan.
The ECHELON wiretap system makes an appearance in a later episode. While under the command of the American Empire's CIA, the system is borrowed by Section 9 for a short time. The system depicted within is a more powerful and more pervasive communications monitoring system capable of real-time interception of all phone, internet, cyberbrain communication of Japan. The limitation of this system was shown to be the computational power to process the flow of information.
The subtitle "Stand Alone Complex" refers to the phenomena of emergent behavior catalyzed by parallelization of the human psyche through the cyberbrain networks on a societal level. There is no original, there is no leader. What ties together the disparate and unrelated individuals into the event called the "Laughing Man" case is the systematic motive encoded into the basic informational flow itself. This concept of an ever normalized ego into the fabric of society recalls the writings of Philip K. Dick, among others.