Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Year: 2004
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Writer: Mamoru Oshii
There are a lot of preconceptions with anime. It comes with a built in cult appeal, and it seems to be a lot like brussel sprouts. You love it or you don't; as a film style, it's so distinctive there's little middle ground.

After Akira, the undisputed godfather of the anime movement, Ghost in the Shell is the most famous example of the genre (excluding the Matrix-inspired shorts in The Animatrix and indeed the Matrix films themselves, even described by their creators as 'live action anime').

The similarities with the Wachowski's magnum opus don't stop there; from midway through Reloaded onwards, Neo either stood there spouting a lot of pseudo philosophy and cyberjargon about the nature of existence or he fought people, very little else. It was by turns too overblown and too talky.

Ghost in the Shell 2 suffers much the same fate. Call it the Wachowski Effect; the original was (while still pretty confusing on first viewing) smaller, neater, tighter and cooler.

Ghost in the Shell 2 is like Microsoft compared to a zippy little software startup; too big, lumbering and full of its own importance, concerned more with the style of its legacy than the execution of what it has to offer.

Of course, anime is a genre specially made for collectors and repeat watchers. The story line would undoubtedly become clearer upon subsequent viewings - as with the original - and for that reason it'll work its way into your good graces if you're an anime fan.

As the press notes explain (a big help if you have trouble understanding what the movie's about), the line between humans and machines has nearly disappeared. Cyborg cops trawl a Neo Tokyo-like landscape keeping check on the sprawling data networks that are to the Ghost in the Shell world what asphalt roads are to ours.

Batou is one such cyboernetic lawman. His new partner thinks he might be crazy or suicidal. They're thrust headlong into a case where robots manufactured by the huge Locus Solus company have been turning homicidal on their masters and self destructing.

It's not entirely clear where the investigation leads or whether the case is cracked, but this is no ordinary police thriller. Cue lots of (sometimes tedious) monologues on the nature of consciousness, the Ghost in the Machine theory of the soul postulated by Descartes and occasional bursts of violence.

Along the way, Batou - together with his increasingly skittish partner - blast their way into a yakuza hideout to question the kingpin and have their heads seriously messed with by a decayed robot with a warped sense of humour (and it'll seriously mess with your head too, making you think the film's been spliced together wrong) and hear whispers in his head of the familiar voice of the Major from the original film.

The character of Batou is a fairly corny strong, silent archetype. The dialogue is (despite the heaviness of the subject matter) fairly sparse, very little said except for expansive quotes and lectures on philosophical theory.

And that's most of the problem with Ghost in the Shell 2; too mush stylistic flash, not nearly enough drama. As a simple linear story, it could have been told in 15 minutes. But director Oshii is from the Kubrick school of anime, letting images and moods seep into you in long stretches and showing off the considerable animation talent.

And if you watch Ghost in the Shell for no other reason, you'll be watching one of the finest entries into the genre for animation talent. The effort that's gone into the animation is unparalleled. Lit as professionally and creatively as if there were real lights on a real set, there could have been a real live DOP setting up the mood Oshii wanted to achieve in every frame.

And, worlds away from the old 60s technology of a foreground plate against a stationery backing, the 'camera' soars and drifts through the environment, exhibiting motion in every direction - an extremely hard thing to do in a blend of hand-drawn and computer generated animation.

Terminally dark, the film enshrouds faces and expressions in shadow, the landscapes and interiors disturbingly seedy. The picture isn't always clear, doubtless a parallel for the premise itself; of us never knowing what's real and what's inside a computer - what's a smart robot, or a human with ghost intact (soul).

With excellent design and style, it's a great anime film. But is it a great film? There are evidently a lot of talismans, levels and hidden meanings throughout (just what is it with the Bassett Hound?), but there's also too much missing. A lot of people were blown away by the graphics and design of 2001's Final Fantasy, but just as many were critical of the corny dialogue, stereotypical characters, and pat action movie plot.

Similar criticisms of style over substance could be laid at Oshii's door if anime's not really your thing. If it is, you'll hardly need any convincing.

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