Judge Mike Pinsky wonders what OS the cyborgs in the Ghost in the Shell world are running, if they get hacked so often. Insert your own Microsoft joke here.
"What you call 'getting it' may just be wishful thinking."—Aramaki (Tamio Ôki)
In the future, the body is a purely technical object. Flesh, circuitry—there is no particular difference. You can replace anything you want, including your brain, with electronics. You will still be human, so long as you possess your "ghost." But is your ghost just a piece of software, prone to hackers and theft and illegal downloading?
Facts of the Case
When a robot geisha, a "gynoid," goes berserk one neon-washed night in the city, it cries for help just as Section 9's toughest cop Batou (Akio Ôtsuka) blows it apart. Batou could use some help himself. He feels lost, unsure of his mission. He awaits word from his old friend, Major Motoko Kusanagi, who transcended the material world to become the first true cyborg of the new age. Will she ever return, and what message will she bring?
While he waits, Batou still has a crime to solve. Eight gynoids have gone mad and committed murder. Why did they revolt, and what deadly secret is their manufacturer, the mysterious Locus Solus, hiding in its gigantic offshore factory ship?
No one should be surprised that Batou visits a forensics expert named Haraway early in Innocence. If you want to understand the politics of cyborgs, you need to read the work of Donna Haraway.
Three years after Major Motoko Kusanagi fused with the Puppet Master to create a new entity, Batou waits at home for a sign, trusting only his basset hound, his link to the organic world. Aramaki, head of the elite cybercops of Section 9, worries that Batou might disappear like the Major did. This cannot be allowed to happen. After all, Kusanagi's body and memories belonged to the government. She was an investment. How dare she abscond with her own ghost.
And so Batou must be pulled back to reality. Aramaki partners the brooding detective with the younger Togusa (Kôichi Yamadera), who has resisted replacing his flesh with metal, has kept a family, and seems more, well, human. Should we expect him to be more innocent? Certainly Batou is not. After all, as Donna Haraway remarks, "A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted" ("A Cyborg Manifesto" 180). Batou is well aware of the transgressions true cyborgs engender, how they cross the boundaries between (as Haraway details) human and animal, organism and machine, physical and nonphysical.
He knows all this because he was there when Kusanagi became the first true cyborg, the first being to reject the premise that the "ghost" can only originate in an organic body. In accepting the Puppet Master's ghost into herself, she accepted the machine-as-subject and collapsed the distinction between reality and the virtual. Three years later, does Batou really understand the implications of all this? Does he also have the potential to move from cybernetic body to true cyborg? Or is he merely haunted by the ghost of Kusanagi?
In the decade since Mamoru Oshii's influential cyberpunk thriller Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, its disjointed sequels, and uninspired knock-offs have apparently dented the chrome on the cyberpunk genre. Ghost in the Shell has become an entertaining (if somewhat superficial) television series, although without Oshii's input (and apparently set in a parallel universe). You can buy your Kusanagi doll—without a trace of irony—at your local store. I was so fond of Ghost in the Shell myself that I devoted a substantial section to it in my book, Future Present, discussing the film in relation to Donna Haraway's work and the radical politics of cyborg identity.
I suspect that the impact of Ghost in the Shell has become somewhat of an albatross around the neck of Oshii. In the years since this film, he has only directed the live-action film Avalon, which garnered rather mixed reviews and generally fell short of audience expectations (for the record, I liked it). He has spent the intervening years engaged more as a producer, working closely with hot anime studio Production I.G on the undercooked Blood: The Last Vampire and Jin-Roh, an anime reworking of his live-action "Kerberos" films. Oh, and spending time with his basset hound. The Ghost in the Shell franchise was still there, with the patience of a robot awaiting its orders.
Okay, I will get to the point. The art design on Innocence is stunning, proof that Production I.G is right on the cutting edge of feature animation. Computer animation is used heavily here, particularly on the backgrounds. In fact, there is a jarring sense in which the characters, still animated in traditional fashion, almost look insubstantial against the weight of the virtual sets and props. I am unsure if this was intentional or not, although it does seem to fit with Batou's own sense throughout the film that the real world is not quite as real as the virtual.
So, if you want to watch Innocence to see some top-notch animation, be my guest. But ultimately the film is disappointing and frustrating, at least compared to its predecessor. If you are concerned about plot spoilers, turn back now. In order to assess exactly what frustrates me about Innocence, I am going to have to explain certain aspects of the plot. It really will not spoil the experience of this film. Innocence is not about the story. The truth is that the "detective story" part of Innocence does not seem to interest Oshii and company very much. The plot—rebellious gynoids point to a sinister conspiracy by an offshore corporation to inject robots with human souls—could easily have been squeezed into a half-hour episode of the Ghost in the Shell television series, Stand Alone Complex. Oshii is clearly more interested here in the virtual reality traps that Batou and Togusa find themselves in during the course of the story. Actually, it is difficult to say if Oshii is really that interested in anything at all in Innocence. There is a strong sense that he is spinning his wheels on this project, in spite of its beautiful art design. If you are familiar with the recurring motifs in Oshii's films, you may find that Innocence contains more recycling than necessary. Enjoy the basset hound cameo he sticks in other films? In Innocence, his obsession with his dog seems downright creepy, as it pops up constantly throughout the film. Like those extreme close-ups and fisheye lens shots? Innocence seems at times assembled from nothing but extreme close-ups. Have you noticed how often characters in Oshii films quote poetry or the Bible? Here, they seem to have entire conversations made up of literary texts. Even if you favor these stylistic quirks in Oshii's filmmaking, you may wonder if the film has any other purpose than to allow Oshii to indulge himself.
Where the film does excel thematically is in its confusion of real and virtual experiences. Much of the film is told through Batou and Togusa's eyes, and both characters are tapped enough into the datastream that we can never be entirely sure what we are seeing. For example, does Batou really see a little girl (Kusanagi) in the hacker Kim's house? Togusa never sees her, but Oshii's camera feigns a third-person perspective, as if she is really there. But only Batou scans her (sitting with a basset hound, of course, and making allusions to the legend of the golem) and gets readings that they are biological entities. How can these virtual experiences read as biological? This bit of business sits in the midst of the film's most engaging set piece, in which our heroes cycle through a virtual reality trap.
Here is where the film gets genuinely interesting. Kim, who has given his body over entirely to the machine, prefers perfection without consciousness, which only "dolls and gods" can accomplish. Kim has chosen to become a doll. After all, as he notes, "The notion that nature is calculable inevitably leads to the conclusion that humans too, are reducible to basic, mechanical parts." Can identity be quantified and reducible? Or are we, as Donna Haraway suggests, cyborgs whose identities shift between the extremes of subject and object, between mysticism and science. This is what the kaballah references, the golem jokes, suggest in this film. Is the golem a creature of magic or a product of construction? Is alchemy a science or a form of magic? Yes to both. The distinction does not apply. Kim argues that technologization has freed us from evolutionary limitations, but also calls this a nightmare. At the end of the first Ghost in the Shell, Kusanagi becomes a new being, neither human nor machine, neither physical nor spiritual. She can reach out and collapse the distinction between the material and the virtual, the first child of a new stage of human evolution. The possibilities are endless.
Innocence, however, is about reestablishing the distinction between the material and the virtual. It is about Batou's journey back to the real world. Haunted, disaffected, awaiting the arrival of Kusanagi as if he is her prophet, Batou really only manages (with the help of a little deus ex machina in the final battle) to reinforce the distinction between robot and human. Humans should have souls; robots should not. Perhaps this is a sign that Batou is inferior to the Major, that he is incapable of understanding transcendence, even though he quotes a lot about it. Not that Kusanagi appears to have done much in the three years since her own transformation. Or maybe the world is not yet ready for her return.
If this is the case, then there is a reactionary element to Innocence that the first film lacked. Its ending was braver, offering the possibility of real transformation. Instead, we see a hero who is content to get left behind, to reject evolution and only replace his body piece by piece while keeping his original ghost. And in failing to develop the Major's transformation any further—instead making her little more than a "guardian angel" tacked on to provide Batou some sense of continuity with his past—the film backpedals on the momentum it began with. At the end of Ghost in the Shell, the Major looks out over a city she will soon spread into as pure information. At the end of Innocence, Batou hugs his dog and looks at this new partner Togusa with his daughter. These characters are anchored in the material world, holding on for dear life. They will not move forward. And perhaps they are content with that.
So call Innocence conservative cyberpunk. But maybe this movie is supposed to be about how Batou, feeling insubstantial, reconnects with his humanity. But honestly, the film does not show that either, since he sympathizes more with the Major and the dolls than with the human victims caught up in Locus Solus's dastardly plot. And the last thing he looks at after seeing Togusa pick up his daughter is her doll. So his sympathy is for dolls. So what the hell has he learned? Perhaps Oshii intends this film as an intermediate installment of a trilogy, showing Batou's growing realization that the dolls might have ghosts as well. Even if the dolls themselves are not yet prepared to step forward and announce their noisy presence quite yet. As Donna Haraway remarks in her "Cyborg Manifesto," "Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication…That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine" (176).
You will not discover any answers from Oshii or Animation Director Toshihiko Nishikubo. In their commentary track (in Japanese with subtitles), they talk exclusively about technical issues: color tones, computer rendering difficulties, et cetera. All this might be nice for animation buffs, but there is a distinct refusal to deal with characterization, plot, or especially thematic content. For example, during the scene with Haraway, there is room for a lot of potential discussion of cyborg themes—or even just mentioning the origin of the character's name. Instead, they talk about whether they should have made her younger or older, how to create the fisheye shots, and how hard it is to animate cigarette smoke. It is like we walked into a conversation between two men who talk about their friends (fellow animators) as if we are not even in the room. Okay, we get the point that this shot was hard or that animator complained about the basset hound. So why is the scene here? What does it add to the story? Why did you make the narrative choices you made, other than trying to keep the film under two hours (as we are told repeatedly)? Frankly, this is an awfully dull track.
Perhaps Oshii does not have good feelings about Innocence himself. He and Nishikubo describe the production atmosphere as contentious, which might explain their coldness here. Oshii seems to treat the film as if it is unfinished, and although they praise it constantly, there is a sense of discontent. The 16-minute "making of" featurette does not offer any additional insight. Why does the film focus on Batou? Oshii explains that this is simply because Kusanagi is gone. Lots of animators at Production I.G complain about their workload on the project. And Oshii, never one to drop the whole basset hound issue, makes an odd comparison between the domestication of dogs and the exploitation of robots.
I want to make one comment about Dreamworks' DVD release of this film, which is otherwise technically fine. No English dub is offered, which in itself is not really a complaint, merely an observation. In these days when high-quality dubs can be put together quite easily, it seems awfully cheap of Dreamworks not to make this film more accessible for the audience. The real complaint: The subtitles on most copies of this disc are actually captions for the hearing impaired. This can get annoying at times (yes, we know there is a helicopter approaching or music playing). It also shows a considerable lack of quality control on the part of Dreamworks, and I certainly hope the idiot responsible got fired. Dreamworks is trying to correct the problem, however. If you purchase a copy of Innocence with hearing-impaired captioning instead of standard English subtitles and you wish to exchange it, I have provided a link in the sidebar to receive a replacement from Dreamworks.
As a longtime fan of Oshii's work all the way back to his second, adorable Urusei Yatsura feature 20 years ago, through Patlabor and his head-spinning feature films, I feel somewhat disappointed that Innocence breaks no new ground. Perhaps the difficulties of making his live-action Avalon exhausted him. Or maybe he just had nothing new to say or did not want to muck up what has become a lucrative Ghost in the Shell franchise.
I am going to keep my fingers crossed that Oshii plans another installment of this series in which he will push further with the themes of Ghost in the Shell than he does here. The film's trailer describes Batou repeatedly as a "living puppet." I wonder if Oshii and company think of him and his world as much more than that. There is, in spite of the marvelous technical achievements of this film, a rather workmanlike approach to story and theme that suggest Oshii's heart really is not in this project. And while there are things about Innocence that I like, I cannot say that I feel satisfied with this sequel. And I suspect Oshii is not satisfied either. It looks good, it sounds good, and it introduces a lot of interesting ideas that are worthy of discussion. But in the end, Innocence feels hollow, like a shell without a ghost.
The court orders Mamoru Oshii and Production I.G back to the drawing board to design the next upgrade to the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Dreamworks is cited for their subtitle mistake, and the studio is ordered to provide a quick patch to all customers with haste.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Mamoru Oshii and Toshihiko Nishikubo
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