Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is a direct sequel to Mamaru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell. Like the original, it is a screen adaptation of the manga by Masamune Shirow. It was released in the U.S. by Production I.G. on Friday, September 17th, 2004 in 'select cities' - and since Cambridge, MA was one of those, off I went with cash in my hot li'l hands.

The film clocks in at 99 minutes, which feels just about right. I'll offer some general impressions first, followed by some more detailed observations - so if at any point you think I'm telling you things you'd rather not know yet, stop reading and go see it. I'll wait. I'll try not to offer true spoilers, but one man's spoiler is another man's context, so YMMV. I do assume you've seen the first film, though.

As I mentioned, the film is a true sequel. The action takes place some time after the original film leaves off, and is mostly concerned with Agents Bateau and Togusa of Section 9. Their enigmatic Chief Aramaki makes appearances, as does their colleague Ishikawa. As we are told early on in the film through dialogue, The Major is listed as 'missing' on official records. Bateau is still apparently the only one who knows the whole story on her disappearance.

This movie follows the same sort of pattern as the first - there is a general plot, concerning a crime or series of crimes committed by a shadowy adversary. On top of that, there is a fairly deep philosophical question that is explored somewhat obsessively. The dialogue is rife with quotations from various writers and philosophers, ranging from Descartes to Confucious to Shakespeare and the Old Testament, with all manner of uncredited proverbs and others thrown in. The characters spend entire conversations just tossing quotes at each other. This makes the actual progress of the movie somewhat difficult to follow on the first sitting, especially if you are viewing the dialogue as subtitles (as I was). I still prefer subtitling to dubbing, however; the native (original) voice talent is noticeably superior to the English voice talent used for the dubbed versions of the first film.

The animation is fascinating. There is an enormous quantity of CGI used in the film, but very little of it is whole-scene; in most cases, the hand-drawn characters move through obsessively photorealistic CGI-rendered scenery, looking eerily out of place, almost like the Ghosts the title invokes. Their muted tones and simple shading differentiates them from their surroundings, which are sometimes so sharp-edged as to be almost painful (to wit: the convenience store). Vehicles are a mix; there are anonymous non-central cars which dart in and out of darkness and rain, but there are also the main characters' vehicles, which inexplicably have become almost fetishistic. Bateau drives what appears to be a replica of a 1950s Chevrolet, as near as I can tell. Ishikawa drives a Duesenberg J replica. Even Togusa's drab sedan is a classic car rather than the blandly ultramodern conveyances preferred by Section 9 in the original film and in the TV series. Besides being sometimes CGI and sometimes obviously hand-drawn, some of the cars sport mirrored surfaces, further confusing the world they zip through.

Around two-thirds of the way through the film, just as in the first, there is an 'intermission' of sorts which is devoted to pure eye-candy - an aerial and street-level tour of the 'northern frontier' region, a lawless extra-sovereign data haven which happens to be sporting a mammoth festival as our protagonists pass through. Gigantic puppets and false ships pass through classically anime streets lined with impossibly tall and somehow gothic skyscrapers, people observing from Gernsbackian balconies and skyways along the route as Blade Runner-esque displays on every flat surface trumpet not only the action on the floats but the latest pills and gadgets. The sensory overload is palpable, driving even the characters on screen underground to escape the clamor.

After this point, the philosophical angle of the plot picks up. Deliberate blurring of reality and hacked memories implanted directly into the 'e-brain' of various characters, confusion between people and robots ("gynoids") - all fairly familiar to any aficionado of the genre, but handled with care and reverence by Oshii and company. The film raises some questions that will stay with you after you leave - not about what happened, which is fairly well wrapped up, but about what didn't happen. Or, if you prefer, about what may or may not have happened. The games start there, and I suspect will only get worse until I can get my hands on a DVD copy and watch it enough times to be able to ignore the subtitling and pick up on the many important bits that Oshii likes to drop in around the periphery of the visual field.

None of this is to say the film stints on action. While there is less humor than in the first, perhaps, there is a goodly quantity of familiar combat sequences, well done and tightly choreographed, interspersed with the virtual combat of computer network intrusion that anyone who saw the first film will be familiar with. Bateau has certainly not lost his taste for obscenely large weaponry; Togusa still has his old-fashioned revolver (despite what the Major told him in the first movie) and is still 'mostly human.' Folks that have watched the TV series will perhaps feel more at home, as the plotline seems to feel more like an expanded episode of the series than a continuation of the first movie; however, when paired together, the two make a satisfying match.

The Major? Well, you'll have to see it. I did say it was about Bateau, after all.

Technicalities:

Innocence

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Story: Masamune Shirow (manga) and Mamoru Oshii (screenplay)
Runtime: 99 mins
Released: 2004 (Japan, US)
Sound mix: DTS / Dolby EX 6.1 Languages: Japanese, Cantonese (English Subtitle) MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence

(Thanks to IMDB)


SPOILERS: Responses to dkogan's points as raised below.

In general, the flow of GiTS2:I suffers from the fact that it is subtitled. I suspect but cannot prove that some (not all) of the ponderous nature of the dialog is due to the subtitling. One problem I didn't mention is that the subtitling detracts from the flow of the film (especially from the first viewing) due to the need to have one's view concentrated at the bottom of the screen for large portions of time.

First off, I've never seen Grave of the Fireflies or Jin-Roh, so I don't know if I fit into "Set A." I fairly despised the second two Matrix movies. I do enjoy the first GiTS movie. I will say this: This movie does, indeed, revisit the same issues that the first GiTS movie spent a great deal of time exploring. Namely, what makes humans human? There are slightly different angles here, though. The first movie asks us: at what point do modified humans retain or lose their humanity? The Major's pensive mien is informed by her obsession with this question - her concern with her own potential loss of her humanity. In this film, the torch has been passed to Bateau, who has even more data - he watched the Major transcend her human-built cyberbody entirely, and must wonder: if she survives, in the net, is she human, in some way? If so, does that make him more or less human?

The question is complicated by the problem of the gynoids. They are approaching the question from the other end - machines built to be more and more human, approaching self-awareness, with (as we learn) extreme measures taken. The young girls are not actually 'transferred' to the dolls, rather, they are copied (using a process called 'ghost dubbing' which debuted in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series) (Note: randombit tells me the notion of ghost-dubbing girls into gynoids was introduced in the original print manga). Those copies are embedded in the dolls. The process is eventually destructive to the originals, but (as the ending shows us) the original human is at no time actually transferred to a gynoid. The question Bateau struggles with, then, is what is the degree of difference between himself and the gynoid - as he approaches mechanicity, and it approaches humanity?

The additional dimension that GiTS2:I offers is the study of the relationship between humans and the robots they create, something which the first film essentially ignored. The obvious relationships between humans and their sex-toy gynoids is not the only one under question; as dkogan notes, Togusa's daughter's doll is another example of the same type of relationship, as is the relationship between Bateau and his (cloned) basset hound. It's not supposed to be 'eerie' - it's supposed to make you think. At the end of the film, we see both main characters embracing their own 'smalls' - Togusa holding his daughter, Bateau holding his dog - and Togusa's daughter is holding her doll, the cycle continuing, as Bateau watches.

dkogan has some quite valid points about the film's pacing and styling, and of course some perfectly valid opinions about the same. The balance of contemplative vs. action-oriented storyline in an anime is a matter of personal preference, and this film definitely tends towards the former. If this is not to your liking, you will be disappointed. However, the questions that the film uses to anchor its story are no less valid or 'deep' for having been raised before. They are asked using a medium that Oshii and Masamune are comfortable with, and are expert with; this is why it's worth (IMHO) seeing. If you feel the need to see enormous weapons and cute dialog in (nearly) every scene, it's not for you. If you need to see the birdshit with every bird, nope, maybe it's not for you. But if you like to watch artists grapple with questions, even familiar ones, then I still recommend the film.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is damn impressive. Some of the city scenes are likely the most detailed animation I've seen (although more isn't necessarily prettier). But that's not my main concern. If your goal in life is eye candy, drop some acid.

Let's call the set of anime which American audiences consider to be deep (Grave of the Fireflies, Jin-Roh...) set A. (I don't know how these fared in Japan, so I can't speak for that.) It seems that the directors of the members of set A think that when you are being artistic, or philosophic, you don't have to have conflict. Hence long drawn out scenes of talking heads, or extended interludes with scenery & a chorus and nothing else. The former is only marginally interesting if you are the first to come up with an idea (this movie had none such), and the latter gets dull after the first couple of times.

I've seen this issue of a lack of conflict run rampant through the movies of set A. Let's look at this specific example:

Warning: Spoilers! (scroll down past the second <hr> for relatively spoiler-free summary)

The plot of the movie is basically this:

An evil company is putting the souls of young girls (of course) into sex robots (sexudroidus). Presumably, this gives the resulting intercourse a certain je ne sais quoi which you just can't get from fucking a Real Doll. (Given the plastic body structure of the robots as depicted, I can't imagine sex with them being more pleasant than sticking the relevant anatomy in a disk drive. Maybe the sexudroidus were made for lesbian sex - that would be more logical. Of course, that would mean that the high level politicians subsequently killed are transvestites... but I'm digressing). Presumably the customers don't know about the soul thing (otherwise the plot falls apart). The sexudroidus are inhumanly strong, which actually makes sense, as no one wants to shell out money for a robot that can't go through every position in the Kama Sutra.

The girls whose souls are being used don't like this, so stage a rebellion by having some of sexudroidus kill important politicians who 'play' with them.

Bateau (a main character of GitS), along with Togusa (another), investigate this. There's a fight scene at the start (the fighting is pretty damn good), followed by a lot of deep intercourse about people worrying they're nothing but the sum of their parts (shocking), even though the technology of the era seems to have established the existence of a soul (a ghost), including methods of transferring it. There's mention of children being no more similar to adults than robots are, and some problems with dolls. Not a big Barbie fan, this movie.

Long after one would think the conversations would be over, they continue, rehashing the same ideas for a good long time, each statement paced as if the director is expecting dyslexics to keep up with the subtitles. Now, I'm not of the opinion that movies should be all action. But the conversations here are not of the interesting, conflicted, or even entertaining varieties. They go as follows:

Bateau: <something deep>
Togusa: <long pause> Oh?
Bateau: <long pause> <something else equally deep>
Togusa: <long pause> Oh.
Bateau: <long pause> Yeah.
Togusa: <long pause> <quotes a philosopher>
Bateau: <long pause> <quotes the bible>
Togusa: <long pause> Ah.

And by deep, of course, I mean done to death in every cyberpunk novel, movie, and animation ever done. Things like whether robots are better than humans, whether humans are better than robots, the relative purities of robots, humans and gods, etc. Very profound, if you're between the ages of 15 and 22 and haven't seen GitS and never read any cyberpunk. I can forgive half an hour of slow dialogue if it's insightful, but when you're rehashing topics which have been dealt with throughout the recent history of anime, those ideas should be in the background, and a decent storyline should be the focus of the movie.

And that's pretty sad, because GitS had similar philosophical elements, but managed to stay entertaining. Of course, its plot was reasonably innovative for its time. By now, all that has been done to death. Sort of how the Matrix sequels sucked in part because all the special effects had been done too many times by then. (Not to say that was the only thing that sucked about the sequels.}

Back to the plot:

Bateau wrecks up some yakuza (which is fairly entertaining). Then there is a half hour interlude during which Bateau's humanity is shown in that he has a dog. The audience is amused at this because by now, it's laugh or cry. The two agents head over to the northern regions, which are somehow terribly dangerous - this is illustrated by a long panoramic display set to chorus - similar to what was done in the original GitS, but at this stage of the movie, predictable and boring. Just because you can animate 10,000 birds doesn't mean you should put them in every scene (how the streets aren't white with bird shit, I don't know). The Japanese seem to have an obsession with junk cluttering the air. This was impressive back in the day, when one had to figure out a way to animate a thousand cherry blossom petals. Now, when computer animation has trivialized the task, I think the directors need to rethink scenes wherein characters can breathe without inhaling lungfuls of crap. I don't think a single city scene had air that was clear of foreign objects.

The agents meet with a hacker who provides one of the more entertaining parts of the movie - a set of psychotic episodes which are actually somewhat disturbing. If the movie had been able to maintain that atmosphere throughout, it would have been excellent.

After this, Bateau infiltrates the evil company, the Major comes back long enough to help him (why she gives a damn isn't established - I'd have let him die on general principles), and they emerge victorious. The last scene is a chilling view of the daughter of Togusa holding a doll. (This is chilling because... okay, it's not. Never mind.)


Overall, the movie is 20% excellent (interesting scenes, conflict, some tension, a psychotic episode or two), and 80% slug-paced filler. The only good reason to see it is for the animation. And even that, in my opinion, was overdone - there were good moments, but most of the movie was too cluttered for its own good. This is sadly common for movies that belong to set A. I'm not sure if that's because of a culture barrier, or if the people who decide which movies have artistic merit are just mindless twits.

It would be nice to have visually attractive film without the pretentiousness and the deliberate snail's pacing. I've seen them, but somehow they just don't end up being considered up to par by the snobs. If you want to see animation that have good visuals, insightful things to say, and yet manage to be entertaining throughout, try starting with Utena or Cowboy Bebop.

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