Ghost in the Shell 2 Anime Review
US Release By
Cyberpunk Philosophical Drama
The year 2032 is a future where cybernetics, pervasive computing, and urbanization have run amok. In this dark future of Japan, a group of covert police officers handles the most devious and dangerous sorts of technological crime. Major Motoko Kusanagi, formerly one of the top agents, has disappeared, her ghost--the data that comprises the soul of her otherwise completely mechanized body--having gone into hiding in the global information network. When a string of grisly murders are perpetrated by seemingly harmless pleasure robots, the current top cybernetic agent, Batou, is partnered with the younger and less mechanized Togusa to find out the dark secret of what is behind these killings, and who is willing to go to almost any lengths to stop them from finding out.
Quick ReviewSwitch to Full Review
Ghost in the Shell 2 is a movie to behold, methodical, deeply philosophical, cerebral, pretentious, and visually stunning, but given such unwavering focus by writer-director Mamoru Oshii that it very much a love it or hate it piece of art. In essence an art film wrapped in a massive visual budget and cyber-noir plot, Oshii combines an intricate political detective story with what is essentially a philosophy essay--probably a full quarter of the dialogue consists of quotes and truisms. Though often something of a stiff literature review, the movie is saved by a sense of subtle humanity that was missing from the characters in the first film and absolutely spectacular visuals, from the dense, intricate action scenes to awe-inspiring dystopian vistas.
Whether you will enjoy the movie is going to depend on whether the ongoing philosophy essay that passes for dialogue is an asset or liability, and how engrossed you are by the plot and astounding visuals. I, personally, found the philosophy self-indulgent and often unnecessary, but the rest was interesting and so beautifully visualized that I was willing to forgive.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Methodical, deeply philosophical, cerebral, pretentious, and visually stunning, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is a movie to behold, but its unwavering focus makes it very much a love it or hate it piece of art.
Though having seen the first film is not a prerequisite to enjoying or understanding this sequel, it serves as a very good gauge of whether you will find watching it a worthwhile experience, as Innocence is in essence a purified version of its film predecessor. It addresses the same sort of heavy philosophical issues, similarly puts its energy into discussion rather than action, and revels in similar beautifully-realized dystopian scenery, all with even more unfettered vigor.
The most notable difference to me is a stronger sense of connection to the characters as people. The first film intentionally sapped the characters of their humanity, making them a very difficult cast to feel any empathy for. Although they remain icy and introverted in this film, we're supplied with enough subtle hints of their emotions and humanity to make some connection to them as humans, however mechanized and lost in a world drowning in technology they may be.
Also on the topic of comparisons is the manga on which this is based. The story is taken from a plotline near the middle of the original Ghost in the Shell manga (not the sequel), with the central character shifted from Major Kusanagi, who only plays a minor role in this movie, to Batou and Togusa. However, as with the first film, by far the biggest change is the mood and focus; Shirow's original vision of a dark, violent future with an undercurrent of difficult philosophical questions in an age of pervasive mechanization is used in essence, but the characters have been reduced to philosophical machines, with Shirow's sense of humor and humanity drained and almost none of the original mood left.
The plot, though definitely not the focus of the movie, is a solid little chunk of cyber-noir detective story, filled out with interesting concepts and spiced up with sufficient twists and zags. It's the only part of the film that can honestly be said to have come from Shirow, but his hallmarks have carried through solidly: Dense, involved politics, muddy morals, an overriding sense of paranoia, and almost-otherworldly technology.
The paranoia is enhanced by cybernetics so pervasive that even what you see may not be real, yet the Neuromancer-esque technology is believably extrapolated from current trends. Even when the scene borders on outright surrealism, there is a foundation in solid technological reality.
Aside from the plot, however, there is no question that Innocence is Mamoru Oshii's film; for the first time since the live-action art film Talking Head, Oshii both writes and directs. The result is wildly different in theme but nearly identical to that early experiment, placing philosophy and discussion above all else. The rest of Oshii's recent films, though distinctive and set in various locales, also share this movie's dark, subdued mood and palette of introspection, repressed violence, and a bleak view of the human condition.
Oshii has played heavily with these themes for years, so it's perhaps not surprising that given creative control over a film, even a big-budget sci-fi movie, he put his vision ahead of all else. This makes Innocence unique in its meticulous detail and unswerving purpose, but whether that comes across as genius or a very expensive, self-indulgent essay is going to depend on the viewer.
Though the film is impressive for its Gibson-esque, technology-soaked, dystopian vision and beautiful visuals, I tend toward the latter opinion; it's as if Oshii didn't care enough about the plot or characters to restrain his desire to lecture unendingly and show off his metaphoric prowess. I'm not exaggerating when I say that nearly a quarter of the dialogue is composed of truisms and quotes from sources ranging from philosophers to the Bible. Though the encyclopedic vocabulary of the characters is impressive, large parts of the film feel more like reading an essay on the nature of humanity than a conversation.
Some viewers may enjoy this discussion or appreciate a film brave enough to address such issues at length, but to me more often than not it felt pretentious, tedious, and frankly somewhat annoying. I also wonder whether those well-read and thoughtful enough to appreciate the philosophy won't find it a little generic; though there are some interesting points raised, Innocence doesn't seem to add anything particularly substantial to its broad literature review.
For me, the film's saving grace is that it looks flat-out amazing. Even if you find the techno-philosophy tedious or the characters drab, it's hard to deny how stunning it is to the eyes. From towering gothic cathedral-skyscrapers to awe-inspiring, insanely detailed Chinese street festivals, to the ornate interior of a richly-decorated and moodily-lit mansion, to nearly-real guns and gloomy apartments, everything is steeped in exaggerated style yet based in concrete, hyper-realistic design. The film positively oozes high budget, with pervasive and well-integrated CG effects, absolutely extravagant backgrounds, and detailed artwork. Even the animation is fluid, despite the lack of action in the usually dialogue-heavy scenes. It is also one of those rare movies definitely designed to be shown in a theater--the grand-yet-detail-rich scenery begs to be viewed on an expansive screen.
Also of note is that, for all the grandeur, the visuals address the human angle equally well; the subdued character animation is realistic and has a precise attention to detail. This is most visible in scenes with no dialogue at all, depicting people going through their daily routines--particularly the stoic Batou spending time with his quite normal and totally believable dog. Though the emotional range is fairly narrow, the sad-eyed character designs are realistic and distinctive, closer in style to the first film than Shirow's art.
The most notable feature of the cinematography, though, are the scenes that borrow heavily from gangster films and John Woo; these portray ordinary acts, sometimes in slow motion, with extreme sensual detail as the tension builds toward an inevitable violent exclamation point. That said, like its predecessor, Innocence is not an action film, despite being punctuated by violence throughout and featuring a couple of more involved scenes. All the action is animated with amazing detail and a combination of cyber-enhanced POV shots, chaotic cuts, and Woo-style slow-motion sequences. The one weakness, if it even qualifies, is the final showdown with a horde of robot drones; it looks as much video game as noir gunfight despite the spectacular animation.
The talented Kenji Kawai provides a low-key, exotic score very similar to his work for the previous film, consisting largely of eerie atmospheric chanting backed with drums and chimes. It is a near-perfect fit for the methodic pacing and beautiful-yet-alien visuals; quiet when necessary, grand when it fits the scene. A contrast is the film's sad, bluesy theme, sung capably in English by Kimiko Itoh.
The Japanese cast is top-notch all around. Veteran Akio Ohtsuka reprises his subdued performance as Batou, and Atsuko Tanaka and Tamio Ohki return as Major Kusanagi and Aramaki, respectively, though the former now has a much smaller part. The one change is Togusa, now voiced by another seasoned veteran (and skilled actor well suited to the part), Koichi Yamadera. There's only so much life that can be put into dialogue that often reads like a philosophy textbook, but these actors do their best to give the mechanical characters an undercurrent of humanity.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is, in essence, an art film wrapped in a massive visual budget and cyber-noir plot, with Mamoru Oshii going all-out in the framework of a Ghost in the Shell sequel. Whether you will enjoy it is going to depend on whether the ongoing philosophy essay that passes for dialogue is an asset or liability, and if the latter applies whether the noir plot and astounding visuals are enough to distract you. For me the plot held up and the movie was beautiful enough to forgive (particularly in the theater) the self-indulgent and often unnecessary literature review, but I can only give a hearty recommendation to fans of pop-philosophy or cyberpunk style.
Have something to say about this anime? Join our newly-resurrected forums and speak your mind.
The closest match is, rather obviously, the original Ghost in the Shell, followed closely by Oshii's Jin Roh. The darkest and most surreal parts of the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series are also similar, though that series is far less unnecessarily cerebral and has much more human versions of the characters. The surrealist TV series Serial Experiments Lain and Boogiepop Phantom also cover some similar stylistic and philosophical ground from a much different perspective, and Appleseed (the newer movie) and AD Police Files (the older OAVs, not the newer TV series) also share some stylistic flavor. Finally, Oshii's live-action art film Talking Head deserves a nod as it is really the most similar in unabashed philosophical style, if not content.
Notes and Trivia
Shown theatrically in both the US and Japan, this movie is based on a manga series by the reclusive cyberpunk manga maestro Masamune Shirow. There is also a sequel comic series, Ghost in the Shell 2, that has nothing to do with this movie; the plot of this film is loosely based on a section around the middle of the original series.
In addition to the film itself, there is also a spin-off novel by Masaki Yamada, subtitled "After The Long Goodbye," and an "ani-manga" adaptation. Both are available in English from VIZ. There is also a "Music Video Anthology" DVD that is essentially a music-video interpretation of the film; it's available from Bandai in both regular and "special edition" versions, the latter of which also includes the soundtrack CD.
The offical movie websites in both Japanese and English have gone the way of domain squatters.
US DVD Review
Dreamworks has produced a solid DVD. Aside from the pristine anamorphic widescreen presentation and Dolby 5.1 soundtrack (Japanese only; there's also a separate Japanese 2.0 soundtrack, and French subtitles in addition to the English), extras include a commentary track (with subtitles, of course) by director Oshii and Animation Director Toshihiko Nishikubo, a "making of" feature, and the Japanese theatrical trailer (oddly not anamorphic, despite being widescreen).
There has since been a re-release from Bandai, who also briefly produced a Blu-ray version.
Though given a PG-13 rating on the theatrical release, I would've called it 16-up because of occasionally graphic violence and some mature content.
Violence: 3 - The violence is sparse, but brutal when present, and there are some grisly crime scenes.
Nudity: 1 - A number of somewhat nondescript nude robots.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Some mature themes come up in discussion of the sexually-related crimes.
Language: 2 - Some strong language in the subtitles.
Available on bilingual DVD and (briefly) Blu-ray from Bandai; the Blu-ray version is out of print and hard to find. Was previously available on subtitled (only) DVD from Dreamworks.
RightStuf doesn't currently stock the movie, but Amazon has stock of Bandai's release, and very cheap copies of the older Dreamworks version: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Bandai), Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence (DreamWorks), Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence [Blu-ray].
RightStuf does have both the Music Video Anthology in both regular and special edition (which includes the soundtrack on CD) at the budget price of $6 and $8, respectively, at last check: Music Video Anthology Music Video Anthology + Soundtrack CD