Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Color me shocked when I saw that this movie came out ten years ago. In some ways anime has evolved quite a bit since 2004. But it also marks the last time that director Mamoru Oshii helmed a story in the Ghost in the Shell universe. This film was released after the television series Stand Alone Complex aired in 2002. For many the television version was the way a Ghost in the Shell story was supposed to be. But Oshii was going to do what he does best, and that means tell the story with lots of slow pans, long dialogue scenes and amazing visuals.

It has been a number of months since the events of the previous Ghost in the Shell film; Section 9 is still operating as an anti-tech-terrorist unit, but without the guiding hand of Major Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka). Instead her former partner, Batou (Akio Ohtsuka) finds himself teamed up with Togusa (Kouichi Yamadera), on a case that appears to involve a serial killer. Someone is hacking into the cyber brains of servile androids and causing them to kill their owners. When several of these owners turn out to be prominent politicians and businessmen, a foreign power is suspected behind the plot.

As Batou and Togusa dig deeper into the investigation they find that these servant androids are actually prototype models of illegal sex-roids. Is the company creating them, Locus Solus, covering up a mistake in the new cyber brains, or is something more sinister going on? It all leads to a tangle with a yakusa gang, Batou getting his cyber brain hacked, a house of illusion and a final battle against an army of killer gynoids aboard a huge ship.

Good Points:
  • Some beautiful visual sequences and tense action scenes
  • Explores themes and ideas beyond the main plot
  • Expands on the world created in the first film

Bad Points:
  • Moves very slowly with lengthy dialogue sequences
  • Lacks the stand out action sequences of the previous film
  • Far removed in tone and tempo from the manga and television series

Expectations are the key to this movie. If you are expecting a solid follow up to the previous Oshii film, then you’ll be fine with this movie. Just know that it moves much slower and spends more time philosophizing about existence then ever before. Action hounds will be disappointed, with the exception of one scene. But animation fans will have a visual feast, as Oshii creates vivid and memorable settings and sequences that will stay in your mind long after you’ve seen the film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  4

In Depth Review
A killer doll, or a doll made killer?
This movie is a tough one to review. Much like Ghost in the Shell, it is very serious, very cold and often more concerned with theme and atmosphere at the expense of plot and characters. But that is what makes the film stand apart from much of the other science fiction films and anime of the same era. Compared to something like The Matrix and its sequels (heavily influenced by the original Ghost in the Shell), Innocence feels more like an art film than anything else.

But to be very honest here, Mamoru Oshii takes all the elements that seem to annoy critics of his films and indulges in them endlessly in this film. I don’t like to use the term self-indulgent, but in many ways Innocence feels exactly that. You get the feeling that Oshii is more concerned with cramming as many quotes from literary sources into his film as possible. Or including as many scenes with a basset hound as possible. Or having as many long slow dialogue scenes as possible. It feels excessive. But for all that, it is part of what makes an Oshii film an Oshii film. I don’t whine about David Lynch showing another scene of red curtains blowing in the wind, or a blonde with ruby red lips exhaling smoke in extreme close up. That’s just what he does.

Batou is our hard boiled hero.
Oshii builds this film off of the world he created in Ghost in the Shell, but there are a few changes. First off, it feels more like a noire film than science fiction. Batou becomes our gruff detective out to solve the mysterious crime. There are plenty of scenes where Batou moves in and out of shadows. The city (still appearing to be Hong Kong) is a dirty dangerous place, and in many ways feels more oppressive and grim than in the previous film. Adding to this feel are the cars roving the street, looking like they could have rolled out of Chinatown or Double Indemnity. Of course inside they have full-blown computer systems, but on the outside they look like 1940s cruisers.

The other major change is the color palette. It is based on yellows, golds and oranges. This gives the movie a very unique look, a warm feel at odds with the coldness of the characters and the direction. Darker scenes end up a murky wash of yellows and browns. But later in the film, we a dazzling array of gold, copper and brilliant bronze reflections as Batou and Togusa explore the estate of a hacker who may have already penetrated their cyber brains. The contrast between the visual warmth of Innocence and the cool world of Ghost in the Shell makes for a striking and interesting contrast. It explains why Oshii felt the need to go back to his older film and change the hues more toward that warmer palette (but you can read my thoughts about that little redux over here).

One of many amazingly detailed settings.
Even with the changes to the style, the detail, depth and scope of the film are impressive. The backgrounds and settings are filled with all kinds of little elements and intricacies. At the time it pushed animation detail to an amazing level, one I have rarely seen topped. While the film does take its sweet time doing anything, it does slow down to allow us to really drink in these visuals.

Innocence has a few action scenes in it. The most impressive is when Batou takes on a whole building full of gun touting gangsters. The action is fluid and a nice mix of angles and perspectives. The finale scene also focuses on Batou as he raids a floating gynoid factory as all the defenses are armed. This includes the androids themselves: dolls with the ability to smash a man’s head into pulp. The scene jumps from Batou’s perspective, and his cyber vision feeding him critical information, to amazingly animated combat. But none of these scenes are as exciting as the highlights from the previous film.

Sound effects work is excellent in this film, and it should be considering they got Skywalker Sound to give them a hand. It really immerses you in the world. The quieter scenes work great, especially the scenes inside the mansion of illusion. But the action scenes are a blast, with gunfire seeming to rain all around.

Batou and his guardian angel battle the dolls.
Composer Kenji Kawai returns to work with Oshii again. Innocence is a natural extension of the musical sound he used in the previous film. It is moody and atmospheric, with no real themes or melody. Percussion and simple strings are used to create tension pieces or pulsing moments. The stand-out pieces are the vocals, and once again Kawai uses ancient Japanese singing style and lyrics to create an audio contrast with the high tech world. The new theme song is actually a revision of the previous film’s with slightly altered lyrics and melody. Kawai also worked on a couple of torch songs that play in the film and fit the overall noire feel. It’s an interesting and eclectic mix, one that will rub some viewers the wrong way. But I think Kawai’s score and songs actually help make these films stand out from the crowd.

The DVD I have of this film is actually in Japanese only, so I have to judge the voice acting as best as I can. It is the same cast reprising their roles, and they do a fine job with them. Especially given the fact that they have many long dialogue scenes to work through.

The journey to the mansion is a visual treat.
The script for Innocence is actually based on one of the manga stories from the original run of Ghost in the Shell written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. Unlike the previous film, which combined several of Shirow’s stories into one, this film uses the single story as the focal point. Oshii penned the script himself and keeps a few key moments from the original manga intact. An example is when Togusa nearly gets killed and says “All I could see was my wife and my daughter.” To which Batou replies, “That wasn’t your wife or daughter, they were angels of death”.

And speaking of quotes, Oshii decided that Shirow’s original dialogue just didn’t include enough literary quotes. So he grabbed Bartletts and started highlighting. The result is a film filled with characters quoting Milton, Confucius and ancient proverbs. It becomes a bit comical at times, trying to imagine a world where everyone has extensive knowledge of these texts. The quotes do all end up working with the themes of the film, so I can’t fault the selection, but I do end up wondering if Oshii is trying to impress us with these lines, or if he figured that everything he wanted to say had already been said, so why rephrase it. It’s an interesting choice, and once that ends up distracting me as the film continues.

The mansion is filled with reflective and metallic
Ghost in the Shell was concerned with the nature of life. What do we consider “alive” and to that point, what do we consider “human”. Was Kusanagi, a woman who was pretty much completely synthetic except for her brain a human? And was project 2501, a program the gained sentience and seeking to reproduce also “human”? Innocence goes a step further, asking if something that we don’t even consider animate capable of having a soul? This is an idea that seems very strange to Western thought, but is something that is very much part of Japanese culture and ancient Shinto beliefs.

As the investigation continues, Batou and Togusa discover that the killer androids all end up destroying their cyber brains. But one message is clearly found, the single phrase: “Help me.” This puzzle causes them to wonder who is asking for help, the killer, the victims, or is it somehow coming from these “dolls”, who are being mass produced to serve humans as slaves and sex toys. How far does making something look human go toward giving it a soul? Can a doll be alive?

The blood of the victim obscures Batou's view.
The two men are given multiple answers to the question as the film continues. A coroner tells them that dead human flesh and “dead” mechanical body parts are very similar. They meet a cyber hacker who has completely abandoned his flesh and lives only in his machines and false bodies. And then there is the Major, a fusion of a woman and a cybernetic program, alive on the internet, but physically dead. Kusanagi is literally a ghost in Innocence, mentioned often, and obviously mourned by her companions. But she is still listed as “missing” by Section 9, and Batou talks about her like she is still alive. When he does eventually run into her, she is called a “guardian angel”, a being transcended and alive, but nothing like the physical characters in the film.

There is another subtheme about perception. This is something Oshii has been exploring since his early days with Urasei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. In this film, there are countless shots of eyes, POV shots and strange shots with fisheye lens effects. You have many scenes of characters looking and being looked at. And most disturbing are the scenes of the lifeless eyes of the “dolls” staring at us. These scenes build a visual motif asking us how do we perceive life. Is it simple enough to trust our eyes to tell us when something is alive?

Hope you like hound dogs, because this movie is
full fo them.
Oshii makes a point in Innocence to say this is not the case. Many times in the film are we presented with false images. Batou has his brain hacked into, and nearly kills several innocent people because he believes he is under attack. We see most of this scene from his point of view, a flawed one. Later in the film it is Togusa who is hacked, and we see a sequence in the mansion of illusion play out three different ways, because Togusa cannot distinguish reality from the program sent to his mind. If humans are so easily fooled by these tricks (including the viewer of the film, who is along for the Groundhog Day-esque antics), can these humans be certain that what they view as “alive” is truly alive.

The mystery is eventually solved, with the killer being exposed and the murder spree halted. But Batou wonders about all the “dolls” that were forced to act in such a horrible manner. What did they feel? Could they feel at all? How many victims were in this crime?

The bizarre fisheye lens forces our perspective on
the scene, and the dead eyed hacker's words.
The hacker without flesh says that the world only contains a single type of perfect life form – animals who live in the present and know only what they experience at that time. They don’t have human memories or desires or corruption. They aren’t helpless like dolls. The movie ends with Batou holding his dog and looking at a child’s doll. It’s blue eyes eerily mirroring the eyes of the killer gynoids.

So yes, even the scenes with the basset hound managed to merge with the theme that Oshii is exploring in innocence. As we watch Batou and his dog stare into the eyes of the doll, we are left wondering if there is a ghost in that shell.

What the doll sees.
When it comes down to it, I find it hard not to compare Ghost in the Shell with Innocence. I guess it is inevitable that you do that with sequels. According to Oshii, he wanted to Innocence to stand on its own, and I’m not sure it can. The depth of the themes require you to understand the Major and her story from the first film. She plays a huge role in the finale, and if you don’t know anything about her, you’d be lost. So, I think this film is tied to the previous one, and tightly in many ways.

Innocence feels like an extension of theme and plot from the first film. But it also feels a bit redundant thematically. It explores and restates much of what Oshii covered in the first film, but with longer dialogue scenes, and a slower pace. Yes, it is a gorgeous film, and the eye candy alone makes it worth seeking out. But when it was over, I realized why I hadn’t revisited it in nearly ten years. Ghost in the Shell covered this, and did it exceptionally well. Innocence plays like a coda, crafted to suit the creator more than the viewer. It is an interesting film, but not a necessary one. 

And now a selection of various shots of the staring dolls, just to haunt your dreams and retard your sleep.

Doll: Evidence in the morgue
Dolls: Puppets watching Togusa
Doll: Sacrificial burning during a celebration
Dolls: They approach in legion
Doll: Broken and spattered in still warm blood.


  1. It’s a question we are likely to face eventually as AI improves, and the anime creators may well be right in supposing a major employment of AI will be in sexbots. The gender war always has evoked fantasies of replacing flawed lovers with manufactured perfect ones. I suppose we could start with Pygmalion, but let’s just go back as far as 1987 with “Cherry 2000” and “Making Mr. Right.” (I’ll not try to analyze why in those movies [spoiler] the guy ultimately opts for a real woman but the gal opts for the robot.) Part of the attraction is that it is a form of auto-eroticism, which to steal a Woody Allen line, is “sex with someone I love.”

    If you’re not already familiar with it, you might enjoy Charles Stross’ novel “Saturn’s Children,” set in a future in which biological humans have died out because they so preferred their machines to each other that they stopped reproducing. The machines – which continue to exist – arguably have no good reason to stay humaniform (not always a practical design, after all), but they do to maintain their sense of identity – for to change their form would change the essence of what they are. So, in his future the ghosts are pretty clearly there.

    1. I've never heard of that novel, sounds intriguing. Putting androids in human form is a staple of anime. It is rare you see a robot that is designed for function, like R2-D2 in "Star Wars". Most of the anime versions are very human (and usually female). From a writing perspective this makes sense, it is another character to write for and allows the creators delve into the familiar "why am I here, what am I" debate.

      Some of these characters become fan favorites and end up spawning a whole slew of imitators. Rei from "Neon Genesis Evangelion" was one of the most popular characters on the show. As the show starts out, you think she's just a shy girl with no friends and who is only around to pilot the giant mecha. Shinji and the viewer learn more about as the show progresses, and it becomes obvious that the reason she has no friends or family is because she is synthetic. Well, Rei was such a popular character that the pale, quiet, shy robot girl became a staple of late 90s and early 00s anime. Even shows that didn't have any other robots in them had a Rei-alike. I noticed that trend has died out, but it is funny to see how that single character took off.

  2. I have not seen any follow ups to Ghost in the Shell, but I think I've run across them on Youtube and thought of watching them to see how it goes. I saw a anime the other night, which was older called Battle Angel (Alita), and for the most part fits the mold of the robot/cyborg girl. Like most of these animes the English dubbing was off and it was too bombastic for my taste at times, but still was okay on some level for the night.
    Oddly though in that anime it did have a droids that was more an assembly line droid for work.

    Yeah, it would be hard to overlook pleasure droids in the further, it just seems logical , ha.

    1. I've run into more and more people that enjoy "Ghost in the Shell" in its television form, "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" more than the film version. I can understand that, it moves at a faster pace, is closer to the original manga stories, and it has some modernized technological ideas over the first film which was very grounded in 1990s tech. But I think Oshii's visual style trumps the television series n a lot of ways. I think it depends on how you feel as a viewer if you like more plot to chew on, the television series is the way to go.

      "Battle Angel" is a fun show, at least I remember it being fun. I haven't seen it in ages. It does have a distinct look to it, very grimy if memory serves. And yeah the dub on that one was an early one and very hit and miss. Funny thing about "Battle Angel", James Cameron is an anime fan from way back. Just check out the mecha in "Aliens" and "Avatar" if you doubt it. ;) Anyway his name has been attached to live action remakes of anime for a while. I remember back in the 90s there was quite a bit of buzz about him tackling a live action version of "Akira". I'm not sure what happened to that concept, but around 95 and 96 I heard quite a bit about it.

      Lately, he's talked about adapting "Battle Angel". In fact he was talking about it before "Avatar", and had been working with ILM on designing some concepts. Then after "Avatar" he started talking about it again, but now it seems "Avatar 2" is in the works, and "Battle Angel has been put aside again. Curious to see if he ever gets around to it.

  3. I loved your review Roman. It's a great write-up. Enjoyed it very much.

    Those visuals are sumptuous, but boy does Oshii love exposition. The man could talk you to death.

    It's easy to understand why the folks behind SAC wanted to take the concepts into an action-based arena. The universe is tailor made for it. But at the same time, you have to appreciate Oshii's restrained, philosophical vision. It's a pleasure to have both.

    You've got me very interested in revisiting GITS. I just finished Hannibal Season One and I will launch head long into GITS this weekend.

    Great stuff.

    Also, I would love to see that Cameron Battle Angel film happen. I've waited a long time and then Avatar came along. I'm not much of a fan of it either.

    Anyway, you take care Roman.

    1. Thanks for checking this one out! It was neat to revisit the film after all these years. As I watched, those visuals really popped out at me again. Oshii has a great eye for composition and atmosphere.

      SAC is a blast and in a lot of ways, much closer to the graphic novel then Oshii's films ever were. Lots of action in graphic novels, and SAC really captured that. I watched it for the first time at the end of last year and really enjoyed it. Looks like there is a second season too, so I'll need to check that out.