Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is so dense, graphically, verbally, and intellectually, that I find it difficult to write about it after just one viewing. It’s the film The Matrix wanted to be but failed to be, a profound pulp-fictional exploration of virtuality and cyborg-being. (There’s even a character called “Haraway”). Though plot-wise the film is a direct sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell, conceptually and affectively Innocence moves onto an entirely different plane.
Visually, the film is quite “advanced,” with its fluid cityscapes and technoscapes, and mixture of flat and more 3D animation techniques, as well as of hand-drawn animation (for the characters) and computer-generated (for the intricate backdrops). Oshii of course does not have the technological resources of Pixar or Dreamworks, but then his aims are far different from theirs. He isn’t interested in the kind of “realism” that is the holy grail of Pixar animation. Nor does he go for the sort of iconicity that is frequently the strength of both comics and animated film. Rather, Oshii aims for a sort of abstraction that is both expressive and representational. Forms are abstracted and simplified, as befits the animated medium; there’s no attempt to reproduce the shades and subtleties of emotion that would go through a live actor’s face. And the environments and backgrounds — though their surfaces are often lovingly rendered, and they are active, and metamorphize, in ways that would be impossible with “real” locations — never seem (as Pixar’s often do) like advertisements for the use of massive amounts of computing power. But these abstract visuals are expressive, because of the way Oshii draws upon, but mutates, what I think of as the “heavy metal” style of certain comics, together with borrowings from such cinematic sources as film noir and post-James Cameron action editing. And Oshii’s abstraction is also representational, because of the way it conflates physical/urban space with virtual/informational space. Schematic (though messy) abstraction is a form common to the film’s futuristic cityscapes (which draw heavily on the already-abstract languages of modern and postmodern architecture) and its depictions of computer datascapes. The point is that these two necessarily flow together, because all the human characters in the film have cyborg enhancements which allow them to experience “cyberspace” more or less sensorially; and because computing is so thoroughly embedded into physical places, machines, and landscapes that physical and informational spaces have come to be thoroughly isomorphic in any case.
In terms of visual style alone, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has accomplished what no live-action film ever has (no matter how expensive and brilliant its special effects): it makes visible (and audible; though without repeated exposure I am able to say nothing concrete about the film’s electronic sound track) how computational technologies have penetrated and transformed the real itself. (It’s important to maintain that these technologies are themselves thoroughly real, constitutive and constituent of the real, in short part of the very fabric of the Real; against the fashionable claims that they have murdered the real, denatured it, reduced it to spectacle or simulacrum).
(One side note. Several reviews that I have read have made the well-nigh inevitable comparison to Blade Runner; but I think the similarity is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Oshii places high-tech androids and cyborgs in dark and gritty, but media-pervaded, urban settings; but in terms of lighting, editing rhythms, pace of action, and so on, Innocence could not be more unlike Blade Runner).
I won’t try to summarize the plot of Innocence — which was too detailed, too economically expressed, and with too many subtle twists for me to grasp all of it on a first viewing — except to say that it revolves around a police investigation that is also, equally, a metaphysical investigation. The cyborg detective protagonist is trying to find out why “gynoid” robots (basically, animated female sex dolls who have been devised to service men sexually) have suddenly started killing their owners (which should be impossible according to Asimovian laws of robotics). But he’s really trying to find out what it means to be posthuman (a question which assails him, not only because he is dealing with sentient machines, which in this case basically means sex dolls, but also because of his own cyborg enhancements — not much of his original human body remains with him — and because of his former partner, who — at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell — had cast off her human embodiment entirely, choosing instead to vanish into the Net). This question comes up thanks to the very nature of the case, but also through the interchanges between the protagonist and his new (still mostly human) partner/sidekick: in the course of their investigation, they exchange aphorisms and citations deriving from a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific, and science-ficitonal sources of both East and West.
The film explores both different levels and layers of reality — from the purely physical, through the hallucinatorily virtual — at one point, the protagonist and his sidekick pass through a series of virtual-reality loops, whose imagery, both idyllic and horrific, is ironically far more “organic” or biomorphic than anything else in the film — up to the machinic and the spiritual. What’s noteworthy — especially in contrast to the Manicheanism of The Matrix, and so much other Hollywood SF — is how the distinctions the film draws are never dualistic. Innocence is not monistic either: the differences it draws between body and soul, and between various degrees and circumstances of embodiment are never abolished or dissolved into oneness. But the film espouses a pluralism, in which body and soul, or human and machine, or living organism and doll, or materiality and virtuality/information, are neither fused together nor conceived as opposites. They are more like different floors of the same mansion (to use Deleuze’s metaphor to describe the relation of body and soul in Leibniz). There’s certainly a lot of tension between body and soul; indeed, the solution to the mystery of the criminal investigation (and perhaps to that of the metaphysical quest as well) turns on what happens when they are put into violent conflict. But Oshii doesn’t present this conflict as inevitable, or as essential and all-embracing. Boundary displacements are inevitable, but they need not be seen as absolute and definitive. The film defuses Cartesian paranoia together with the kinkiness of its initial erotic premise. Oshii suggests that Descartes’ Evil Genius (whose challenge is taken up in The Matrix, as well as in the novels of Philip K. Dick) and the sexualized uncanniness of dolls (a theme which one can trace, in the West, from Hoffman through Freud to Bellmer and other Surrealists; it apparently has great resonance in Japanese culture as well, but of this I know little) are really just two sides of the same coin. And in displacing and rearticulating the energies present in both these myths, he opens up the possibility of thinking them in different terms, telling them in different narratives. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is too skeptical, as well as too sensuous and affectively ambivalent, to offer a new philosophy of cyborg-being; but it powerfully points up the inadequacy of our current conceptions. Events are outstripping the categories we apply to them; the most difficult thing, but also the most necessary, is to be “as radical as reality itself.” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes us a few steps in that direction.