It’s common practice to use the term “thought-provoking” as praise for a movie, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has been designed from the inside out to provoke so much thought that said impulse threatens to override everything else except for its staggering images. It uses lush visuals and striking action sequences as a vehicle to deliver extended ruminations about memory, human nature, society, information theory, the mind vs. the body, and a good many other things that you would expect more to find in a college philosophy course than an animated science-fiction movie. That doesn’t make it bad, mind you, just a tough pill to swallow if you are not already primed for it.
GITS2 is an explicit sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell film (which I admired a great deal, and should also review when it’s reissued shortly). While it takes place in the same world and features many of the same characters, it’s not absolutely required that you see the first film to get through this one. It takes place some time in the future, when humans and machines have become heavily co-integrated; almost everyone in the film has electronically-modified eyesight, for instance, which allows them to receive metadata about everything they look at. Needless to say, digital terrorists and electronic crime run rampant, and you are about as likely to have your body hacked into as your PC or your bank account.
The police have created the covert Section 9 to counter such cybercrimes. Bateau and Togusa are two of Section 9’s top men, and when they find themselves paired up for a new case their inapposite nature becomes clear. The grizzled and heavily cybered Bateau has no worldly connections other than his basset hound, and is perfectly willing to take calculatedly violent risks to tease his enemies out into the open. Togusa, a family man with a wife and daughter, isn’t as keen to rush into danger, but he has an quick-study aptitude for the work that few other men do. He’s also not nearly as combat-illiterate as he likes to think he is, but in his mind he’s a detective, not a soldier.
The case in question is patently bizarre. A series of female doll-like pleasure androids — “gynoids,” the term popularized by SF writer Richard Calder — have apparently run amok, murdering their owners and then spontaneously self-destructing. There’s no apparent connection between the victims except for the fact that they owned these dolls, and that a few of them had shadowy ties to the underworld. Bateau uses calculated brio to make the bad guys talk: he arms himself with a heavy machine gun, walks into a yakuza den, shoots the place up (and has great fun messing with his enemies by remotely hacking their sight), and waits for a reprisal. When reprisal does come, it’s quite unexpected: someone hacks into his visual cortex and makes him shoot off his own arm in a convenience store. Why? To discredit him in the eyes of his peers. His enemies read Sun Tzu too, from the look of it.
The "gynoids" responsible for a string of deaths don’t seem to have anything overtly wrong with them.
Togusa and Bateau follow an evidence trail back to the gynoids’ creators, who have employed an ex-police electronic espionage expert to run interference for them. There’s an extended, dreamy sequence in the middle of the film, a good example of the movie’s impossibly lush visuals, where Togusa and Bateau visit this man. He lives in a giant castle-like house with dozens of android servants, and has transplanted his own consciousness into a doll-like body to avoid detection. The house itself sits in the middle of a giant lawless zone, a “free city” of massive crumbling towers and street festivals featuring giant robots, and clouds of seagulls twist their way between the spires. All the images in the film are inspired fusions of conventional hand-drawn animation and CGI, but this part of the film in particular is like nothing put on a screen before. Not even the ambitious (but dramatically flawed) Korean animated epic Wonderful Days comes close to what’s shown here.
Most animated movies — in fact, movies in general — are supposed to look good.GITS2 is so achingly gorgeous in every single shot that it threatens to become distracting. That said, I think the lovely look is in part a strategy, one that the director, Mamoru Oshii, has used before in films like Avalon and the original GITS. He enjoys dealing with grand abstracts — the nature of human society, the persistence of memory, the meaning of being human — and has his characters talk about such things while the movie’s images provide us with a meditative backdrop to process it all. His characters (and even his scenery) incessantly quote Milton and Confucius, the Bible and the Buddhist canon, and in fact one of the major plot elements involves a Buddhist epigram that pops up at critical moments. The sights we see keep the film’s talkiness from being unbearable, but I sometimes wish Oshii could find less obvious ways to embody all the things he wants to bring up in his stories. Granted, if you already find such things interesting, you’ll probably be eating it up.
Bateau is turned against himself by a hacker whose specialty is
using one’s own senses in counter-intel warfare.
A major character from the first GITS film, Major Motoko Kusanagi, also figures into GITS2. She was also a Section 9 officer, and at the end of that first film translated her intelligence or “ghost” into pure information and uploaded it into the world’s computer networks. She’s emblematic of the movie’s notion that the main difference between living beings, animate but unsentient creatures, and inanimate objects is the ability to create abstracts like language and warehouse information outside of our bodies. The gynoids are unalive and unsentient (one would think), but they disturb us because they remind us of us. Bateau’s basset hound is alive, but is it a thinking being? And Kusanagi “herself” (who makes an unexpected appearance towards the end of the film) is now pure intelligence, but does that make her any less human? Humanity embarked on a unique course when it chose to dictate its own evolution, and science fiction seems to be the only art form used to address such issues at all.
The Ghost in the Shell universe was first mapped out by manga-ka Masamune Shirow in his comic of the same name. Shirow is a brilliant visual artist, and like Oshii, an intellectual omnivore: it’s hard to find a concept he doesn’t touch on at least once in his work, from the potential emancipation of AIs to whether society itself is an artifact of our genetic makeup. What I found fault with was his storytelling, which was too self-referential, in-jokey and glib to really suit the material. Oshii took the story, threw out about 80% of the details and made the first GITS movie from that. It was so lean and spare that it threatened to become glacial, but I prefer Oshii’s stately approach far more than Shirow’s kitchen-sink-plus style.
GITS2’s images are lush and overpowering, but seem to be that way as a compensation for
the mostly dry and didactic way the movie’s themes are put forward.
Other spinoffs on the original material continue to come out. Shirow has himself created a sequel to the manga that has no connection with the film sequel — Ghost in the Shell 2: Man Machine Interface — but despite making his art even more spectacular than before, his storytelling’s a mess and he hasn’t found a better way to integrate his ideas into the action except through footnotes. The best of the bunch, however, is a TV series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, now in its second season in Japan and already being released to video here in the States. What I have seen of it so far is so good that I urge you to go and watch it now without waiting for my full review. (GITS:SAC was also produced by the same animation house that did GITS2, Production IG, who can also list on their resume the lively Sakura Wars theatrical movie and the thoroughly obnoxious Dead Leaves.)
I admire movies that dare to be about something more than just the contrivance of a plot or the prejudices of the day. Few people want to make such films, and even fewer choose to watch them. I can understand why most people wouldn’t be inclined to watch GITS2, even at my urging; they’re not into movies about big ideas or flashy concepts. It also doesn’t help that the film tells a good deal more than it shows — even if that may be a deliberate stylistic choice, it isn’t always a good one. I was reminded again of 2001, another movie that used lovely imagery and a stately pace to address grand ideas about man’s place in the universe, but which embodied its concepts in its storyline instead of merely having characters stand around and muse about it.
The film’s climax has Bateau squaring off against an army of gynoids
... and receiving some unexpected help.
If you see Ghost in the Shell 2 for any reason at all, see it for its value as a sheer work of visual art, for the level of effort and dedication and love the filmmakers put into every frame. The ideas, as provocative as they can be, do not make the film, but perhaps in this case the ideas are just a bonus, with the images being the main attraction. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to admire the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and likewise one doesn’t have to care about Oshii’s ideas to admire GITS2 for what it wants to show us.