As gloriously impenetrable as its title, and even more visually spectacular than its precursor, Mamoru Oshii’s new anime—Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence—can be most simply described as an animated film noir populated by existential cyborgs.
A nominal sequel to Oshii’s voluptuously moody Ghost in the Shell (1995), Innocence draws on Blade Runner, Dirty Harry, and the surrealist artist Hans Bellmer to posit a lovingly wrought world in which a hard-boiled robot treasures his pet beagle as much as a possibly human child does her doll, a cabal of unscrupulous industrialists peddle sex-toy “gynoids” with stolen souls, and the police coroner is named for Donna Haraway, author of the feminist “Cyborg Manifesto.”
Batou, a hard-luck robocop with a near-human sidekick, is nearly blown up by a suicidal gynoid. Recalling the central trauma in the Oshii-scripted Jin-Roh, this incident sends Batou—still mourning the partner he lost in Ghost in the Shell—through an urban labyrinth where cyborg agents interface online or download simulated memories into hapless humans. By the time Batou follows the trail into the baroque mansion that houses the Locus Solus corporation (named for one of Raymond Roussel’s narrative machines), it’s clear—or not—that the scary mannequins and frozen holograms he encounters are, as another cyborg helpfully notes, “a tangle of virtual experience hacked into your brain.”
Innocence does not lack for incident—witness the Woo-worthy slo-mo glass-shattering shoot-out in a cramped grocery. But like everything in Oshii’s violently Cartesian universe, even this carnage has a philosophical spin. Can animation question life? “It’s just a fragment of me, downloading via satellite,” one character murmurs. Oshii’s cinema is itself a programmatically hybrid form. The facial expressions of the actors in his live-action Avalon were digitally manipulated in post-production. Here, the cyborgs look like dolls but the backdrops are hyper-real. Oshii typically devotes as much care to reproducing the impossible play of light reflected off the sleek surface of a slow-moving auto or a close-up of water sloshing down the dish drain as to his set pieces—like the fantastic pageant of crypto Hindu gods and pagodas floating to lugubrious Bulgarian choral chants, amid spiraling snow flurries, through the concrete canyons of some reinvented New York.
For all its graphic splendor, fluid action, surrealist attitudes, and self-aware cyber-philosophizing, Innocence was indifferently received when shown in competition last May at Cannes. Was it a cartoon trying to pass for something real? The “innocent” pathos here is not that of cyborgs seeking to be human—it’s of animated beings striving for life. You can call me fanboy, but this is the best anime I’ve ever seen.