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Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Cyber-noir anime cum existential cyborgs packs introspective punches

In 1995, writer/director Mamoru Oshii burst on the international film scene with the widely influential Ghost in the Shell. Skillfully blending computer-generated imagery and traditional animation in a moody and thought-provoking rhapsody on the meaning of life, love and robots, the film was nothing short of a watershed in Japanese anime. The film resonated with critics and audiences alike and inspired the makers of the Matrix trilogy as much as Quentin Tarantino, who used the services of Oshii's animation studio, Production I.G., for the anime segment in Kill Bill Vol 1.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence more or less picks up where Ghost in the Shell left off. The film is set in 2032. The world is overrun by cyborgs (bioengineered bodies inhabited by human spirits) and dolls (robots without human elements), and the few humans that are left try to remember what it must have been like to live in world populated by beings that were entirely human in both body and spirit and not just carriers of images and experiences hacked into one's brain.

Enter Batou, a hard-boiled cyborg cop. Still mourning Major Motoko Kusanagi, the partner he lost in the first film, Batou is in the middle of a grisly murder investigation involving a gynoid sex doll that wound up killing her owner and several policemen. Batou's superior suspects the doll has been infected by a virus, and he sends Batou and his near-human partner, Togusa, after a devious hacker name Kim. As they delve deeper into the investigation, Batou and his partner encounter situations that increasingly call into question the traditional meaning and value of human existence as they take on government bureaucrats, violent Yakuza thugs, and corporate criminals before entering the shadowy world of Kim and the company that manufactured the malfunctioning gynoid.

Innocence moves along with the same staccato rhythm that distinguishes its precursor, alternating rapid-fire action sequences with static dialogue scenes during which the characters try to make sense of their mystical and, at times, convoluted encounters and findings. Visually, the film is as much a hybrid as Batou, who likes to ponder the meaning of humanity (in a world where technology has all but eclipsed the human soul) as much as his pet dog. Drawing on the bleak and rich imagery of Blade Runner and the surrealist art of Hans Bellemer, Oshii and his team of artists and designers blend traditional and computer animation, with all the characters drawn in 2D animation and all the backgrounds and machinery rendered in 3D, as well as techno-sound with traditional Jazz to create an otherworldly experience.

For all its splendor and punch, however, Innocence is a deeply philosophical film that is much closer to the European art cinema of the 1960s than the Hollywood action cinema of the 1990s. Instead of pushing his characters toward an inevitable climax and resolution, Oshii likes to take his time; he has his characters wax poetic about human nature by quoting from the Bible, Confucius, Descartes, Grimm, and Asimov among others and ruminate on the effects of technology on the human condition at length.

In one of the film's most touching scenes, Oshii shows Batou returning to his home after a day's work where he is greeted by his sleepy-eyed basset hound. Batou prepares his dog's food, feeds the dog, sits down, and has a beer -- a driven being winding down in his private space, and in the process revealing the human side behind his Robocop killer-like veneer, much like Alain Delon does when he retreats to his room and feeds his caged canary in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai.

Although I immensely enjoyed sitting through this movie, I do have one cyber-bone to pick with the current release. Dreamworks released the film in Japanese with English subtitles, forcing viewers to read their way through the film, which can make for a less immersive viewing experience given that the film puts equal importance on the dialogue as it does on the visuals. Linger two or three seconds too long on the splendid imagery and chances are you will miss the last words of the subtitles. Still, like its predecessor, Innocence is bound to develop a cult following -- hopefully not just among die-hard anime fans.

Stars: 4 out of 5