Review: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Mamoru Oshii’s challenging follow-up to his breathtaking original film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)Ghost_in_the_Shell_2_Innocence.jpg is a post-cyberpunk, post-human foray into the vanishing line between humans and machines. Set some time after the conclusion of the first film, the sequel follows Batou and Togusa, newly partnered up, as they investigate a series of grisly murders involving gynoid sex dolls. Despite being overshadowed by its predecessor, Innocence remains one of my favourite anime film.

Following the events of the first film, Batou replaces the Major as the primary protagonist, and Innocence pretty much cements my love for the character – from his approach to dealing with an office full of yakuza to his pampered basset hound. Togusa is used as a foil just as his role in the first film, as the cyborg Batou’s almost entirely human partner, though there’s a little less emphasis on him not being cyberised, and much more on him being a family man with a wife and daughter as compared to Batou’s increasingly solitary lifestyle. Other familiar faces, like Aramaki and Ishikawa, do crop up, but they’re mostly sidelined as the film focuses almost exclusively on Batou and Togusa; it’s not really a complaint, but when returning to the original films after watching Stand Alone Complex or ARISE, it’s jarring how little screen time, and how thinly characterised, the other members of Section 9 are.

ghost in the shell 2 batou
Batou takes centre stage this time around

The plot revolves around gynoids, female humanoid robots, built by Locus Solus and, at the start of the film, loaned out as test models. These test models are failing and killing their new owners in gruesome ways, but instead of a product recall and civil lawsuits, Public Security Section 9 is called in because of the high profile nature of the victims. It’s revealed early on that part of the lack of scrutiny is because the gynoids are in facts sex dolls – a reveal that’s a little odd, since it seems obvious that’s what this particular model was built for – and the evidence drags Batou and Togusa from place to place, interacting with sketchy police technicians, offices brimming with cheaply cyberised yakuza, and out of the film’s Hong Kong substitute all together to go ‘North’, to Etorofu, a sprawling ‘information city’. There, the film drops the crowded, Kowloon Walled City-like aesthetic in favour of towering industrial spires and Blade Runner– or Warhammer 40,000-esque architecture.

There are numerous nods to the original film, not least in an extended sequence mirroring the original “Ghost City” segment, with a parade of giant floats and marching robots in Etorofu set to another of Kenji Kawai’s incredible scores. Other callbacks include the damage one gynoid does to its own body straining at an access panel, as the Major did tearing the tank open in Ghost in the Shell, or the way Batou and Togusa get hacked and start questioning reality and their own memories, like the garbage truck driver hacked by the Puppet Master. The film is also rife with doll and doll-like imagery. Compared to the cyborgs that could pass for human that dominated the first film, the gynoids in Ghost in the Shell 2 are explicitly based on ball-jointed dolls, inspired by the work of Hans Bellmer. A key plot point, carried over and spinning off from an idea in the first film, is whether the dolls have ghosts, the indefinable consciousness or soul that separates humans and cyborgs from purely robotic machines. In Ghost in the Shell, the film asked whether the Puppet Master AI could have developed a ghost; in Ghost in the Shell 2, the dolls are made more desirable by having a ghost forced upon them.

Ghost_in_the_Shell_2_Innocence Etorofu
Etorofu, the Information City

Visually, the film is a feast. The hand-drawn animation is beyond reproach, though some of the CGI shows its age – however, being better integrated into the original animation, it’s nowhere near as bad or jarring as the horrible Ghost in the Shell 2.0, that mixed the original hand-drawn animation with completely new, yet still subpar, computer animation. Largely explored from Batou’s perspective, numerous scenes effectively take place in first person, seen through  Batou’s ‘sleepless eyes’, with a holographic overlay or HUD picking out details and displaying information in orange-gold. That particularly colouration, and especially the edge-highlighting of bodies and objects, is picked up by the Deus Ex series starting with Deus Ex: Human Revolution and kept up in Mankind Divided, which of course also stars cyborg law enforcement (as well as being one of my favourite videogames).

Normally I don’t go into much detail on the actual publication of a film unless it’s to sing the praises of outfits like Arrow and Masters of Cinema, but, a note on translation and subtitling: Ghost in the Shell as a series is notoriously complex, and carrying the nuance of the philosophy involved is surely a difficult task. However, the English subtitles on the Manga/Madman Blu-Ray I rented are terrible from an even more basic standpoint. The credits indicate they’re from at least two people, with notes from a third – and this perhaps explains the disjointed translation that begins the movie incorrectly reading Locus Solus as “Rox” and getting multiple names, like Haraway and Walkson/Volkerson, wrong. More generally, if you’re listening to the Japanese audio with any comprehension of Japanese, it’s occasionally clear the flow of a conversation has gone completely wrong, or the meaning been flipped – such as in the conversation where Ishikawa and Batou discuss dry versus wet dog food. A thread discussing the variations between releases in different countries goes into this in further detail; in short, avoid the Manga/Madman release in the UK as the quality is appalling and renders a complex film almost incomprehensible if you’re relying on the subtitles alone. It’s a terrible shame that the enduring popularity of Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2 actually mean a better release is somewhat unlikely, as it would be difficult for another company to wrest the rights away and do both films justice.

ghost in the shell 2 gabriel
I’d be remiss in not mentioning Gabriel, Batou’s spoiled basset hound.

It’s hard not to feel like Innocence is often overlooked in the wider Ghost in the Shell franchise. It doesn’t star the Major, it’s further removed from a recognisable human society, and it’s somewhat darker in tone – especially when compared to Stand Alone Complex or ARISE that have come later. Yet, to overlook it is to miss out on an extraordinary film, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence / 攻殻機動隊 イノセンス

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Japanese Release Date: 6th March 2004

Version watched: 98 min (Manga Entertainment UK Blu-Ray)

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