My urge to defend Mamoru Oshii has always been at odds with my urge to lament him. I speak well of his work when I can, because there really isn't anyone else with his variety of vision or intensity of ambition working today. But every time I sit down to sing his praises, I also end up wringing my hands. Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence is everything that was great about Oshii's first Ghost In The Shell film, and also everything that was also muddled, pretentious, and insufferable about it. Oshii's best and worst qualities often exist side-by-side in the same work, and here they both manifest with about the same intensities — a work that is, to coin a phrase, great without actually being all that good.
They shoot gynoids, don't they?
Innocence is set some months after the end of the first Ghost In The Shell film, which ended with Major Motoko Kusanagi of the secret government agency Section 9 abandoning her physical body (synthetic anyway) and merging with the world's computer networks as a being of pure digital consciousness. She left behind her comrades, most notably Batou, the big bruiser with the artificial eyes who has clearly been carrying a torch for her ever since they started working together. Now Batou is partnered with Togusa, the slightly hapless family man and by-the-book cop who isn't sure he can hack such an assignment.
The assignment they receive is typical of their department: something is rotten in the state of cyber-Denmark, and Section 9 was born to set it right. A female pleasure robot, a "gynoid", went berserk and killed its owner, one of a rash of such incidents. On closer inspection, the gynoids appear to have had actual human consciousnesses (illegally) dubbed into them. The trail grows when an officer of the company that makes the robots is found murdered, possibly in revenge for a gangster boss that was one of the previous gynoid victims.
Togusa is not fond of Batou's headlong approach to things. When the trail leads to the yakuza, he goes to their nest, lets them shoot first, and then tears the place apart with a massive gun that would have given the soldiers in Jin-Roh a case of penis envy. For this he is given only the slightest of slaps on the wrist — it's all a ploy, you see, to beat the bushes and see who or what flies out. The clue trail thus unearthed leads Batou and Togusa to a massive rusting hulk of a city, a three-way cross between Kowloon, an industrial slum, and a Gothic ruin, where an old acquaintance of Batou's plays mind tricks on them while they try to unearth the last missing pieces. But Batou may have some help in the form of a "guardian angel", as he puts it — none other than the Major herself, in a newly hijacked gynoid body.
Half Raymond Chandler, half Umberto Eco
You'll notice the above plot description is not all that lengthy or detailed. For a movie with an hour and thirty-nine minute running time (credits included), it has barely enough story for a half-hour TV episode. Given that we are talking about a Mamoru Oshii film, this is a feature, not a bug. Story for him has always been less important than a dreamtime atmosphere and the free play of his favorite obsessions — the significance of being human, the persistence of memory, the same grab-bag of concepts that the original Ghost In The Shell encompassed and that Oshii has revisited throughout his career with fitfully fascinating results.
Cyberpunk is essentially noir in a plugsuit, and noir itself is mainly atmosphere punctuated with bursts of violence and hard-bitten cynicism. On that level, on the level of mere mood and texture, Innocence is right up there with Blade Runner, the movie Oshii clearly wanted both this and its predecessor to be most like. The rundown, gloomy streets are spattered with neon; layers of technology have been built atop each other without regard to how they'll coexist; the spires of skyscrapers suck the sky and gleam with traffic. It is something of a cliché to praise any of Oshii's films for being good-looking, but Innocence is so consistently gorgeous from end to end that it seems the fulfillment of yet another cliché, that what a movie can lack in story it can almost always make up for in sheer spectacle and intensity of vision. (Much of the imagery is CGI, but stylized in such a way as to seem a brother to the hand-drawn components and not a cousin once removed — something Production I.G has always been good at.)
Noir is as much about a certain kind of hard-bitten character as it is about hard-boiled atmosphere, and to fill that role Innocence paints Batou as a noir antihero, top to bottom. When he's finished with his headlong charging and outbursts of violence for the day, he retires to his lonely little apartment, where the only thing waiting for him apart from his recliner is his pet, a loving basset hound (another recurring Oshii trademark). Togusa, the family man and by-the-book officer, provides the same straight-world contrast here that he did in the TV series and elsewhere. He has little patience either for Batou's two-fisted work style or for the more esoteric philosophical implications of their mission, but he is hard-pressed to push back against either one, especially after it's Batou's very headlong attitude that saves his existential bacon.
What the movie does not do is give either of these characters — or any of its characters, really — freedom of speech and movement in the ways that would matter most to its professed themes. When Batou and Togusa are tough-copping it up, they sound like themselves. When they talk about the implications of an android being overdubbed with a human soul, or when they reach deep into the grab bag of philosophers' and artists' quotes that passes for erudition, they sound like an Umberto Eco novel — or, worse, they sound like Mamoru Oshii. And it's not just them; most every other character in the film of consequence suffers in the same way. When the Major finally does reappear, near the end, she's not spared this treatment either.
Oshii's biggest problem, aside from not seeming to be all that interested in storytelling as such, is that he doesn't seem to know the difference between a) a story where people just recite windy philosophical dissertations about a subject and b) a story where the subject is the story. This is bad enough when Oshii does it with characters of his own creation, but it's miles worse when he does it to the likes of Kusanagi and Batou and Togusa. What did they do to deserve this?
More ambition than execution
If you're a great man, El Topo is great. If you're limited, El Topo is limited.
-- Alejandro Jodorowsky
A formula like the above is one possible way to defend a project like Innocence against negative criticism. Blame the audience for not being up to snuff; blame the times for being behind the film itself. How many times have critics turned their noses up at something, only to reverse themselves further on down the line and get right in line rhapsodizing with everyone else?
Part of why I've been tempted to apply the above formula to Innocence is because many of Oshii's other works have, in fact, been like that. I don't think I'll ever get to the bottom of Angel's Egg, but I'm not sure that's the point; it is first and foremost a generator of existential melancholy, and it no more needs to make "sense" than things like Eraserhead or Dog Star Man ought to. But Oshii has also shown that when he has his druthers, he can balance storytelling and intellectual ambition beautifully. He did it with Avalon, with The Sky Crawlers, with Jin-Roh (even if he didn't sit in the director's chair, that's his movie end to end), and to a great extent with the original Ghost In The Shell. He doesn't do it at all with Assault Girls or Garm Wars, though.
With Innocence, Oshii does it somewhat, but not to the degree that the material and its underlying franchise demand. His talky and didactic approach to every story is problematic enough, but it really hurts when applied to Innocence's noir/thriller framework. Not just because it slows what story we get to a dead crawl, but because his ideas are imposed on the material from the top down instead of being allowed to grow out from within. It comes off like the work of one of those self-conscious authors who poaches SF themes for his novel, but gets very angry if you call it SF instead of fiction or literature.
I get hung up as much as I do on Oshii's failings for three reasons. First is that someone this ambitious and with the resources to realize such visions shouldn't end up in what amount to such aesthetic cul-de-sacs. The other is a more general observation about the way stories embody meaning — we find meaning in stories because they are stories, not mere containers for ideas and events. They are the embodiment of a process of life, a reflection of the way we ourselves organize and make sense of things. That process reflects truth more than it does facts, and so every story is automatically biased, one-sided, part of a larger cultural back-and-forth. But that's fine; as long as you are making the attempt, that's what matters. Oshii always seems to want to skip the whole process and cut right to the truth behind it. Trouble is, you can't disentangle the truth being presented from the presentation. How things are told are a big part of what's told at all.
Brains versus heart
The third big reason I'm miffed is because when Oshii does try to make his story touch down on genuine human emotion, his cerebral approach gets in the way. At the end of the film (warning: spoilers), Batou rescues a child that had been kidnapped and used to program the gynoids with human intelligence. As it turns out, the "dolls" were being deliberately sabotaged so they would draw attention to the evildoing, although at the cost of the gynoids themselves self-destructing and the souls within being killed. In response to all this, Batou angrily tells the little girl: "Didn't you ever think there would be victims? I'm not talking about the dolls — didn't you stop to think what would happen to the dolls that were given souls?" The girl bursts into tears — all she wanted was to be rescued, not yelled at. Then Kusanagi replies, in a way that leaves Batou appropriately chagrined: "If those dolls had voices, I bet they would have screamed, 'I don't want to be a human.'"
This is a classic Oshii sequence — a great idea, a piercing piece of insight, all muffled by Oshii's interminable didacticism. Because all of Batou's insights into these things during the story have been constructed out of Oshii-isms, there's no sense that his angry, lashing-out response to all this is, say, erupting from some struggle in his soul that has been taking place during the course of the film. It's because they're not coming from him, but from Oshii, and that makes his anger seem merely stupid instead of tragic. If you've got some killer philosophical insight to weave into your story, the least you can do is include it in a way that doesn't make your main character inadvertently seem like a jerk.
It's because Innocence is so frustrating as a story that I fall back on being fondest of it as an experience. This is really what Oshii has always been best at — creating museum-like spaces that we can inhabit for a time, and where we can muse along with him. And as contradictory as it is for me to say this, I am fond of Innocence, and Oshii himself. His attention is on higher things, and he is preoccupied with them in a way that I cannot write off as fakery or mere fashion. Innocence itself has been out of print for some time, so having it reissued (and in glorious shape, too) by Funimation is a boon.
If I recommend Innocence, it's not because I am proud of it, but again because I am fond of it — because it is ambitious, and because the way it falls short of its own ambitions is a starting point for others to pick up on and wrestle with. Few movies even have ambitions to fall short of. And maybe for some, Innocence won't fall short at all. You owe it to yourselves, in spite of all I've said, to see if I'm wrong.