Whether you realize it or not, there’s a very good chance that you’ve experienced Ghost in the Shell in one way or another. Back when the Wachowski Brothers were trying to convince producer Joel Silver to back their vision of a cyberpunk future, Silver just wasn’t getting it. Until, that is, the brothers showed him Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, an acclaimed vision of a cyberpunk future, and told him they wanted to make a live-action version of that. Silver got it, the brothers got their backing, and thus The Matrix was born — which, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you’ve heard something about.
Since then, the brothers have followed the amazing original up with two lacklustre sequels (to put it kindly) and Oshii has continued doing his own thing — writing, directing, and producing amazing works such as Avalon and Jin-Roh. The past year or so, however, has seen Oshii revisiting the animé world that brought him into the limelight, first with a stellar TV series (Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex) and now with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the follow-up to his landmark film.
Set several years after the events of the original movie, Innocence focuses on Batou, a man who can barely be considered human considering the amount of cybernetic enhancement he’s undergone. After the disappearance of his longtime partner Major Kusanagi (the original movie’s main character), he’s been matched with Togusa, who is mostly human except for a handful of cybernetics necessary to carry out his duties as a Section 9 officer.
Section 9 is a special ops force called in to investigate extremely sensitive cases, ones far above the capabilities of the regular police to investigate. When a series of “gynoids” (robots created for sexual purposes) begin murdering their owners (many of whom are high-ranking officials and businessmen) before committing suicide, Section 9 is drawn in. And naturally, as their best man (or whatever he’s become by this point), Batou is put on the case.
What he uncovers, however, is far more than a simple malfunction. The company producing the gynoids, Locus Solus, seems to have ties with the yakuza. What’s more, they seem to truly be tampering in God’s domain, somehow imbuing their creations with actual “ghosts” (souls, in other words). But how is this possible? As with the first movie, Oshii constantly raises the question of how we are to envision the separation between man and machine, especially in an era when it is becoming increasingly impossible to tell the two apart (indeed, the film’s visuals practically thrive on this conundrum). What’s more, when we as humans begin dabbling in God’s territory, seeking to create artificial life in our own image, what sorts of obligations do we have to our creations? Are they mere property, things we can throw away as soon as we upgrade to the next version? Or are they something more?
At least, that’s what I think Oshii is trying to get at. Unfortunately, he chose to make 75% of the dialog consist of the most abstract and obscure quotes he could find — Bible verses, Elizabethan poetry, zen koans, Milton, Descartes… it’s all there. While this certainly drives home the idea of the blurring between organic and artifical — after all, how could a mere human remember all of these obscure passages? — it also serves to make the characters shallow (especially when compared to their colorful, fully-fleshed out incarnations in Standalone Complex). Thankfully, a certain dry sense of humor occasionally pops up from time to time and infects some energy into the film’s dourness, as do some amazing action sequences — such as when Batou and Togusa storm a yakuza compound, or Batou takes on a cyborg with a wicked-looking set of blades for an arm.
Unfortunately, the needlessly metaphysical dialog means that Batou and Togusa’s struggle to make sense of the crimes, and to puzzle out the meaning of life (both organic and artificial), is frequently swallowed up by the film’s consistently amazing visuals. Admittedly, I still haven’t quite bought the melding of traditional cel animation and CGI (and yes, I realize it’s 2004), but Innocence practically has me sold. At times, the visuals are so striking that I don’t find it an exaggeration to claim Innocence as the next step in animation’s evolution as an artform. What Akira did for the genre back in 1988, Innocence does for it now in 2004. I think it’s a safe bet to say that some of the scenes from this movie are among the most memorable visions I witnessed in the entire festival.
The film opens with a sequence directly reminiscent of the original’s. An egg is fertiziled and begins dividing. However, as the division increases, we see circuits, not cells multiplying. After a series of stunning vignettes, each one revealing a seemingly human body part to be artificial, we realize it’s a gynoid being formed, literally, in the womb. The sequence is made all the more stunning by Kenji Kawai’s score, especially in the choral pieces which are similar to Shoji Yamashiro’s work on Akira.
In another scene, Batou and Togusa fly out to the dilapidated structures of a literal “data city,” one created in internationally-ambigious lands as a data warehouse for companies. Huge, Blade Runner-esque structures punch through a dense, golden fog as the duo’s transportation, a bird-like helicopter soars between them. Later on, a gigantic parade drifts through its streets, all of its participants in alien masks.
Unfortunately, without a stronger dramatic sense, and some more intriguing dialog, the film eventually begins to collapse under all of its style and obscurity. I was especially disappointed when the final reveal took place, when Locus Solus’ real methods finally came to light. Considering all of the time and energy that was probably spent hunting down abstract quotes and whatnot, not to mention creating the film’s astounding visuals, I found the final explanation far too easy and convenient, with little exposition. As such, I can’t quite label the film a “masterpiece” like so many others are doing. Not to deride the amount of effort that was obviously put into Innocence, but to be quite frank, I was expecting a lot more from the likes of Mamoru Oshii.
No doubt about it, Innocence is a very impressive work, but I’m lefting wanting even more.