If you've had a busy week, if you haven't the time to sort your replicants from your post-apocalyptic homicidal gynoids, the good news about Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is that you needn't see Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime classic, Ghost in the Shell, to follow its foreboding sequel.
You needn't even know how to say "Mamoru Oshii," or have a clue what an impenetrable title like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence means. You needn't even follow the occasionally Byzantine metaphysics and philosophical bent of its overdone dialogue to luxuriate in its elaborately techno-gothic visions of a future where the distinction between humanity and machine is fuzzy.
My advice is, if you're new to anime, don't ignore Ghost in the Shell 2; it's a superior argument for a bolder, more varied world of feature-length filmmaking. But don't bother to try to figure out what is going on, either. There are moments, as with the best moments in Zhang Yimou's Hero, when Oshii halts the story dead and indulges in spectacle: a spiral of snow flurries; a slow-motion shoot-out in a convenience store; an extraordinary pageant of Hindu ghosts and apparitions floating down a street.
Images and ideas - the nature of the soul, what happens to mankind when technology changes us faster than evolution - that's what it's all about. And so who needs lots of back story?
Remember when - to quote Philip K. Dick, the visionary novelist and great grandfather of the cyberpunk age - androids dreamed of electric sheep? In Oshii's films, cyborgs dream of the sliver of humanity that remains in them. They think. That is, when they're not dreaming of suicide and the vast Japanese underworld they operate in, and, of late, subservient sexbots who are murdering their masters. The investigator is Batou, a mostly robo cop who lost his female partner in the first picture.
This is the world of Tokyo 2032, and though it pulses with neon colors, it makes the dark and perpetually drizzly setting of Blade Runner look like Club Med. If you must have a touchstone, Blade Runner would be most apt. As with that hallucinatory Ridley Scott 1982 masterpiece (adapted from a Dick story), to which both Ghost in the Shell pictures owe a debt, past and present mingle into a haunted cityscape and the mood feels lifted from a 1940s film noir. A layer of cigarette smoke hangs over everything. Sex tends to be sadistic. But remember, the Japanese take it as a given that animation is not just kids' stuff, and that words are not necessarily the dominant lingua franca of a good story. Pictures work, too.
Which is good because Batou does not run a subtle crime investigation. He's all about big guns, Peckinpah-ish blood splatters, and a harsh Dirty Harry whisper. These moments may be the most ho-hum, the most conventional, but they serve a perverse purpose. They're like reminders of the flesh and blood that still exists among the dense thicket of machines. Just like the film's hand-drawn, 2-D cell animated characters, which are set against digital 3-D pagodas, alleyways, and backdrops. The two animation styles are not a smooth match, but it works. Even as traditional cell animation is phased out in favor of a shimmering Pixar-ish digital style, we're reminded of how warm and human it appears, of the ghost in the shell.
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