October 5, 2023
By Andrew Osmond.
Dolls, dogs, gods, children and their relationships with neurotically self-conscious humanity come under philosophical investigation in Mamoru Oshii’s sequel to his film, Ghost in the Shell. Rendered in a blend of drawn and computer animation, the sequel’s first half looks like a sleekly beautiful variant on the future-noir aesthetic of Blade Runner, with 1950s cars and dingy alleys overshadowed by sterile techno-splendour.
However, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence could be comfortably double-billed with Richard Linklater’s animated journey of ideas, Waking Life. Its later scenes explore byways dreamier than Spirited Away, as its subdued heroes loop through the Chinese-doll geometry of a time-warping crystal palace, ending up in a steel Tartarus of dead-eyed killer mannequins.
The protagonists drop aphorisms and quotations (Descartes, Shelley, Milton and the Old Testament are just the start), as readily as Disney characters once burst into song. Critic Steven T. Brown sees a nod to the citation-heavy work of Jean-Luc Godard, and notes the quotations reflect our “always already mediated thoughts and intentions.” In Innocence, humans are puppets of cerebral, civilising frameworks, which download into our constructed minds as easily as the film’s protagonists download into artificial bodies.
The Ghost in the Shell franchise began as a manga by the artist Masamune Shirow (the pen-name of Masanori Ota). Shirow envisioned a future in which people inhabit mass-produced cyborg bodies, while computer networks extend virtual human senses. The heroes of Ghost in the Shell are detectives and public servants; Oshii stresses they’re also philosophers. As in his other films, the protagonists’ musings are expounded in monologues, dialogues and wordless reveries. A transcendent carnival of man-made gods on giant boats counterpoints a canal interlude in the first Ghost, in which Oshii used water, mud and mannequins to convey a world of disposable, decaying mortals (transfigured suddenly by the life-force of rain).
The first film was made in response to the world success of Akira (it was partly backed by Britain’s Manga Entertainment). Its imagery influenced The Matrix; most obviously, Ghost’s glowering, masculine heroine Kusanagi was homaged in The Matrix’sTrinity character, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. This may have encouraged DreamWorks to release Oshii’s sequel to US cinemas, though even Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the president of anime studio Production I.G, admitted that Innocence was too cryptic for the mass-market.
The main protagonist this time is Kusanagi’s hulking cyborg comrade, Batou. (Kusanagi had found a higher destiny at the climax of the first film, though she has a pervasive influence on the sequel’s action, and returns in person at the end.) The setting is a luxuriant world of grandiose carnivals, golden oceans of communications towers and pungent skyscapes of brown-red. Oshii retains the spartan character animation from his earlier anime, his characters often freezing into near or total immobility, “animated” only by flickering light, before bursting into action. Typically for Oshii, the action scenes are strictly rationed. However, he makes a dry joke of laboriously setting up his heroes for a fine-balanced meeting with yakuza gangsters, then ploughing straight into shoot-em-up carnage without a pause.
The story sees Batou investigating killer sex-dolls, but the only erotic moment, in which a ghostly geisha droid begs “Help me,” while trying to rip out her robot heart, is closer to Ringu than Sin City. (The scene is based on an illustration by the German artist Hans Bellmer, whose doll imagery pervades the film from the titles onwards.)Oshii’s cerebral elaborations on the plot – based on a chapter of Shirow’s original manga strip – mean we’ve almost forgotten the mystery by the time it’s wrapped up, with a suggestion that we should have cared more for the dolls than the humans all along. It’s the dolls, after all, which are forced from the purity of the uncanny into the horrors of anthropomorphism.
Dispensing with his usual writing partner, Kazunori Ito, Oshii focuses on his own mouthpiece interlocutors, including a languid chain-smoking woman coroner called Haraway (a nod to Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto) who asks why humans are obsessed with recreating themselves, and a mad hacker so enamoured with soulless dolls that he becomes one himself. But the investigators in Innocence look most “human” beside what Oshii presents as unselfconscious Others: a rookie cop’s little girl, Batou’s beloved basset hound.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is screening at Scotland Loves Anime this November.