If Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence were a live-action sequel, there would be a lot of gossip about star histrionics, creative conflicts and so forth. Since the original Ghost in the Shell, first released nearly ten years ago, made an anime icon out of its star, the frequently nude female android Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka) -- long since immortalized in numerous action figures, posters and clothing items -- one would think she'd be the star of the second installment, but no. Instead, Innocence focuses on her cyborg ex-partner, Batou (Akio tsuka), a ponytailed cop with robot eyes and right arm, along with the personality of Robocop. Trading in a hot naked chick (however mechanical) for a partially mechanized man with attitude doesn't seem like a shrewd marketing decision, but because the story's animated, and this movie was five years in the making, you know it has to be more or less what writer-director Mamoru Oshii intended.
The first thing to know about Innocence is that it ain't a movie for anime neophytes. Embodying the best and worst stereotypes of the genre, it's amazingly beautiful to look at and often utterly incomprehensible. A second viewing rewards patient souls, but there are still apparent plot holes -- more on that later. And while the first Ghost in the Shell was perhaps the most blatant inspiration for the Matrix trilogy, Innocence (which makes an explicit reference to The Matrix) at times feels like a retread of Blade Runner.
The incident that sets the plot in motion will be familiar to fans of both I, Robot and The Animatrix. A new series of prototype robots are killing their owners and then self-destructing, in blatant violation of Asimov's Three Laws, which appear to be in effect in this universe. Because these "gynoids" are sex robots, none of the victims' families are willing to risk a public spectacle, and all settle out of court. But yakuza involvement is suspected, which brings in Section 9, employers of Batou and his mullet-headed partner, Togusa (Kôichi Yamadera).
Initially, the investigation proceeds in a linear fashion, but at a certain point, Batou makes a leap of logic that leads him to a suspicious computer programmer named Kim (Naoto Takenaka). Many anime films contain deliberately complex plot turns designed to be understood only upon a second viewing, but I've watched the film twice and can't figure out how Batou comes to this conclusion, or why he didn't come to it earlier and save us all a lot of time. Kim is clearly the right guy, though, and his secluded mansion is also a wonder to look at -- imagine Blade Runner toymaker J.F. Sebastian with an unlimited budget. Holographic displays of a family dinner in flames are remarkable; a CG aviary makes sly allusions to John Woo before dazzling on its own terms; and the numerous reflective surfaces project double and triple echoes of images that blow away most any other computer-enhanced sci-fi efforts. The movie took five years to craft, and it shows.
Would that the script showed as much crafting as the visuals. Those who long for their big-budget actioners to contain more plot may backtrack after seeing this one -- there's too much "plot" here. The film-noir mystery tale is fine, at least until the aforementioned plot leap, but the action pauses at numerous points so that Batou and Togusa may exchange literary quotes from the Bible, Asimov, Descartes, the Brothers Grimm and more. They also discuss the nature of artificial intelligence and whether it has a soul, but if you've seen Blade Runner, A.I. or even the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation centered around Data, you've heard all this before, and more eloquently too (it's possible that the dialogue comes off slightly better in the original Japanese, but most of us will have only the subtitles to go on).
Motoko Kusanagi does make an inevitable appearance, but not exactly in the same form we saw her last. That's OK, though -- she's got so much more personality than Batou (whose face and voice remain pretty much expressionless throughout) that we'll take what we can get. It's in the small moments that Innocence really shines, anyway -- you've never seen such painstaking and loving care go into the creation of a convenience store before, and the shootout that ensues there easily tops a similar scene in the Cowboy Bebop movie. Elaborate throwaway visuals vary from the snazzy (a pet toy containing a realistically rendered 3-D fish hologram) to the nonsensical (a robot smoking cigarettes...why, exactly?), and it's a shame the guy with a giant can opener for an arm is dispatched so quickly and confusingly. There's a lot of imagination at work here; too bad just a little bit of it couldn't have been channeled into the creation of a better narrative.