GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is not only one of the greatest achievements in the history of anime; it is absolutely without doubt one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Much like AKIRA in the 1980s, this is the film that sets the standard by which all others of its kind are judged – and usually found wanting. Writer-director Mamoru Oshii picks the story up from where he left off in 1995’s GHOST IN THE SHELL, which was about an elite unit called Section 9 that handled politically related criminal cases. Most of the agents in the unit are cyber-enhanced – not only physical but also mentally – to the point that some question remains as to how much, if any, humanity is left. (The title is a reference to this phantom of human personal identity.)
The sequel is a new story featuring some of the same characters from the original, and it lives up to – and in many ways exceeds – its progenitor, both in terms of story and visuals. During the ensuing years, the field of computer-generated animation has advanced by light years, and it shows here. Much of the movie looks far more magnificent than many live-action special effects films that rely on CGI. (The opening title sequence, portraying the creation of a “gynoid” [a female android], is worth the price of admission alone.)
There are also numerous other visual and literary reference points. The cyberpunk feel of the futuristic cityscapes and flying machines recalls BLADE RUNNER. The emphasis on high-toned literary quotations (Milton, the Bible, Shelly, et all) recalls the philosophical ambitions of the MATRIX sequels, but Oshii pulls it off far better.
In a way, Oshii’s murder-mystery plot is just a hook on which to hang his philosophical musings. Based on the manga of the same name, the premise is that a new model of gynoid is turning homicidal, killing its owners and then self-destructing. This gives plenty of leeway to discuss issues like nature of consciousness and reality: What separates humans from the artificial life they create? Are people themselves really just organic machines?
For most of its length, these ideas support and enhance the story, giving a feeling that the movie is dealing with a profound topic without getting bogged down by it. In the last reel, however, the dialogue does get extremely dense, and you may find yourself wishing that you were reading a book instead, so that you could pause after each new dialogue passage to digest the concepts.
By the end, the resolution of the mystery has almost come to be beside the point, as Oshii seems more intent on wrestling with his philosophical questions. It’s a slight let down, but you have to give the man points for his ambition and integrity. GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is a piece of cyberpunk science-fiction that dares to take on heady issues in an entertaining, popular way; uncompromised by fear of alienating its audience, it’s a richly detailed and thought-provoking achievement that stands head and shoulders not only above American animated films but also above most live-action science-fiction films. Quite simply, it ranks among the best movies of its kind ever made.
GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (Inosensu: Kôkaku Kidôtai, 2004). Written & directed by Mamoru Oshii, from the manga by Masamume Shirow. Voices: Akio Otsuka, Atsuko Tanaka, Koichi Yamadera, Tamio Oki.