Oshii's redemptive pets and killer puppets

Lisa Bode

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

In 1995, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell broke new ground in anime aesthetics, pushing the medium towards uncanny realism with unforgettable imagery and attention to sound. It proved that the form could also be used to explore philosophical questions rather than simply market game cards and cheap plastic toys. The sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, seeks to take these aesthetic and thematic projects further. On a recent visit to Australia sponsored by the Japan Foundation, Oshii said that he “put everything he knows” into this film, and it shows. But while undeniably gorgeous, the film is not an unqualified success.

The time and money spent and the labour of his team of artists and animators are abundantly evident on screen, but the sequel’s reliance on 3D digital imagery for backgrounds is strangely jarring. The film is also at times overloaded to the point of distraction and confusion, with borrowed ideas and imagery from both recent sources (notably Blade Runner and A.I.), the music video for Björk’s All is Full of Love and older texts (Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Eve Future and writings by ETA Hoffmann and Descartes).

Oshii is obsessed with the uncertain and ever-blurring lines between life and death, human and machine. This film, even more than its precursor, is one long riff on those themes. At the Australian premiere at Sydney’s Valhalla Cinema, we were fortunate enough to be addressed by the reclusive director himself. A short, rumpled man muttering softly in Japanese, he apologised through a translator for reneging on his promise to come to Sydney in 2000. What seemed at first a touchingly silly excuse (the death of his pet cat) elicited a ripple of giggles from the audience—giggles that fell into awkward silence as he continued to speak of his loss and what the cat meant to him. This tale of mourning segued into a more general point: that the death or loss of those we love tears an aching hole in us that is never really filled. A self that is torn by successive losses is perhaps the non-corporeal “ghost” of his films’ titles: a ghost forever disappearing piece by piece. Mourning, prosthetic technologies, the guilelessness of animals, and the struggle to retain our ‘ghost’ are just some of the strands running through Oshii’s work.

Set in the year 2032, Ghost in the Shell 2’s central character is cyborg detective Batou, Major Kusanagi’s colleague in the first film. A hulking figure with blank camera lenses instead of eyes, Batou and his mulleted sidekick Togusa are assigned to investigate a recent spate of killings caused by concubine “sexaroids”, androids designed for sexual pleasure produced by the Locus Solus company. The sexaroids have inexplicably turned violent, murdering their male owners. These “Hadaly type” (in reference to L’Eve Future) robots adorn much of the promotional art for the film and are appealingly girlish, pale and plump, with rosebud mouths and sleepy vacant blue eyes. The bulk of the main narrative is taken up by Batou and Togusa’s quest to uncover why these figures, valued for their compliant sexual innocence, are becoming violent puppets—who is controlling them, by what means, and for what broader purpose? The answer turns out to be quite sinister, especially in the context of the Japanese sexual fetishisation of school girls, but it is not the answer you may expect.

Batou’s sordid investigation is broken by interludes of a slower, more contemplative pace where we are shown clouds of birds wheeling through the sky, the majestic scape of the metropolis, and almost indescribably beautiful images of a religious festival parade. Here, gargantuan red and gold gods and mythological figures sway in glacial motion down rainy streets crowded with onlookers beneath a sea of umbrellas. As in the first film, Kenji Kawai’s spare and striking use of percussion and ululating female voices mark these changes of pace. It is not merely the music, but the use of real sound, the vibrations recorded from street and traffic noise, that conjure a physical sense of things and people moving in space.

Recorded sound also contributes to the essential “dogginess” exuded by Batou’s basset hound, a pet that serves as a gentle respite from the cold violence of the detective’s work. While the introduction of animal characters into many films can signal cloying sentimentality, the hound is so well realised that it reminds us why humans adore pets and their innocent exuberance. Perhaps Oshii is suggesting that the unconditional love and animal innocence of our pets is one of the few things that keeps us from becoming truly dehumanised while living and working in dehumanising systems.

Elsewhere, this moody rain-slick world, with its cityscapes, hallways, carparks, stairwells, alleys and many machines, is rendered in painstaking and startling hallucinatory detail with a heavy reliance on 3D digital imagery. Every surface seems layered with the grime and wear of use and pollution, as though the artists have been using a rendering software that at the click of a mouse covers everything with a Blade Runner patina. This detailed 3D context emphasises the stark flatness of the 2D characters, with their faces composed of ridges and ungraded planes of dark and light. At times they become haunted drawings brought to uncanny life, drifting forlornly through a world that is more solid, real and ‘alive’ than they are.

Later the action shifts to a locale with an entirely different atmosphere. Batou and Togusa enter a baroque mansion decked out in gold filigree and filled with the chiming and ticking of clockwork, its gilded rooms inhabited by a variety of enigmatic dolls and automata. It is as though we have travelled back in time to a perpetual twilight in the machine age. In this mansion, didactic and ponderous conversations take place on the human and the machine. The characters seem to become puppets themselves—mouthpieces for Oshii’s own explorations of ideas not fully thought through. Some insight does float to the surface though, regarding our uneasiness around dolls and automata: the human form reduced to matter is a reminder of our terror of death a future in which we are reduced to lifeless object.

After the film has finished it is less the mish-mash of platitudes and philosophical questions that stay with you than certain images and their sounds: the hiss of a spent cigarette crushed into a plastic cup of butts suspended in filthy liquid, or the lovingly drawn basset hound snuffling eagerly as he scrapes his metal food bowl around a tiled kitchen floor with his soft wet snout and skittering claws. The attention to these everyday details bring a grounding realism to the work that takes it beyond the usual anime fantasy world of sci-fi and cynical toy-marketing.

There is no doubting Oshii’s sincerity and the effort that he has put into this work. He reminds me of a character in a JG Ballard novel, obsessively gathering together clues and repeatedly arranging them in bizarre patterns, with a belief that the perfect alignment will create a blinding enlightenment. Perhaps the film requires repeated viewings on DVD before his magical patterns can emerge with clarity. Upon first viewing, don’t struggle with interpretation; simply surrender to aesthetic pleasures and let the maelstrom of images and ideas roll over you. As Oshii himself suggests, this is a film that should be less understood than “vaguely felt.”

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, director Mamoru Oshii, producers Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Toshio Suzuki, Japan, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 22-

© Lisa Bode; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005