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Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004)

When I first watched Ghost in the Shell: Innocence I remember the weight of my expectations weighing down on me. I really wanted it to be good. No, I wanted to be amazed. Try as I might to keep my expectations low they kept creeping up. I didn't know what to expect from it but back then I remember there was an intangible quality the original Ghost in the shell had that I hoped was in some way recaptured in its sequel.

With Innocence being released on Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment I was given the perfect opportunity to revisit this often overlooked entry in the Ghost in the Shell.
Ghost in the Shell: Innocence is set some time after the events of the first film. The Major has gone and left Section 9 behind. Batou has now become a loner, picking and choosing the cases he works on. Togusa sees that Batou is searching for something and even the Section 9 Chief Aramaki is concerned. Could it be that the big guy is looking for the Major? After being called to a new crime-scene where another gynoid (crudely a sex doll) has killed its owner, Batou finds something that piques his interest during the initial investigation. He then plunges headlong into it with an almost reckless abandon where his own life might be at risk.

The opening shot is familiar and reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell but Innocence quickly moves to a different place. Whereas GitS launched with the Major and elements of the technology of the world that seemed to frame it more as a cyberpunk tale, Innocence opens with a crime scene being attended by Batou. From the off this is a crime story with all of the traits of a film noir-inflected detective tale. Batou is the worn out, listless detective taking on the case that might break him. There are strong shadows, danger lurks around the corner and a dark mood hangs over everything.

Innocence is Batou's story. It is not so much a musing on what it means to be human but more about relationships and their impact on us. The Major is noticeable by her absence following the events of the Puppet Master. In everything that Batou does you can sense that he feels her absence and that he is trying to process it. Innocence could be read in terms of how we cope when the world is pulled from under us.

I said this is a detective story within a sci-fi setting. In addition to the gynoids "going rogue" they find traces of an illegal ghost in the most recent case. Batou fins a photo of a girl who has gone missing at one of the crime scenes so he and Togusa follow the clues wherever they take them. Along the way they cross paths with organised crime, big Tech/Pharma Corp and highly skilled hackers. This inevitably gives them opportunities to muse on technology, life and its meaning. These are perhaps more common elements in stories set in this kind of world and they are deftly woven into Innocence creating a richer environment for the detective to explore - both narratively and visually.

You wouldn't think that this feature film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, was produced in 2004. What we have on display here are some utterly beautifully crafted and realised 2D cells that have been augmented by 3D computer animation techniques or computer effects. This mirrors some of the characters in the film in fact. The carnival in Etorofu is an marvel. The Anime Encyclopaedia suggests it took a whole year to animate and you can see it all on screen. There is so much to look at - elephants, floats, crowds, performers and all in such vivid, almost unnatural colours. This is all set to a haunting piece of music by Kenji Kawai (who also composed the soundtracks to Ghost in the Shell and the Patlabor movies) and it feels ... almost like a spiritual event you are witnessing.

The final set piece sequence is another striking moment. Batou finally gets to show you why he is in Section 9 in a sequence which plays out a bit like a first-person shooter. He runs along walkways, ducks through doors and engages with his opponents. Layered over the top is another audio wonder from Kenji Kawai which opened my mind to repeating themes and motifs in a film score that I had never noticed before. Innocence is an anime that you could watch with the dialog off and still get the feel from the imagery coupled with the music. You can also dip in and watch a specific sequence in a way that you couldn't really with the original GitS anime.

Whilst I pick out two significant moments of the film the quality of the design work and animation is high throughout. There is none of that weightless feeling that I found with some 3D CG animation, especially of vehicles. As a result it never feels like a much digital work has been done at all. Like all good effects work you don't (or shouldn't) notice it. We get to see a bit more of the world too including Batou's commute into work. You can't help but think of Bladerunner with some backgrounds but others make me think of Bladerunner 2049.

Ghost in the Shell is a franchise which has in some way reinvented or re-imagined itself for a new audience. We had Stand Alone Complex which brought the wider cast into play and used science fiction to tell stories about subjects like terrorism, immigration and state interference. In 2013 Arise was released with yet another re-imagining of the cast and new stories to tell. Against all of these Innocence can hold its head high and stand shoulder to shoulder or maybe jostle slightly ahead of the other entries. After all these years the story is still strong and relevant, it still looks great. I feel that it hasn't dated like other older anime because of that film noir inflected styling and careful use of 3D animation.

Whilst Innocence is a wonder to look at it didn't have a moment that made my jaw drop. I still remember the first time I saw the thermoptic camouflage the first time I watched the original Ghost in the Shell anime. It truly has some breath-taking moments but nothing that quite combines the story-telling medium and the story in the same way as GitS did. It feels mean to say about Oshii's sequel which is a fantastic blend of quiet contemplation, visual spendour, action and deep philosophical conversations. For me that jaw dropping, goose-bump feeling is the mark of a 5* production.

I have a lot of time for Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. It is essentially a film-noir where Batou is the detective on both the trail of a kidnapped girl and the woman who got away. Woven throughout is philosophical exposition and a vision of a future that does make you think or question our relationship with technology. It is an audio-visual piece of art that without the dialogue you would still know what was going on. Its action lives up to the bar set by the first without copying or referencing it (I'm looking at you GitS:SAC Solid State Society). With some stunning animation sequences, it sometimes feels like an art project - the procession is sublime and the final showdown creates a genuine sense of tension. Innocence isn't Ghost in the Shell and it never could be, but it is infused with its essence or spirit. I could not ask or hope for more from it.


IN A NUTSHELL: A great piece of detection and science fiction storytelling with stunning visuals that continues to explore the themes of our relationship with technology and what it means to be human.