Earlier this year, Mamoru Oshii’s latest feature film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), became the first Japanese anime to be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. You wouldn’t know it from reading many of the English-language reports on Cannes, though, which seemed almost universally to ignore Oshii’s work in favor of the film’s live-action competitors. (Writing in the Village Voice, critic J. Hoberman’s account of Cannes was one of the few articles that mentioned Ghost in the Shell 2.) Prior to 2004, only four other animated films have been shown in competition at Cannes: Dumbo (1941, dir. Ben Sharpsteen), Peter Pan (1953, dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske), Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. René Laloux) and Shrek (2001, dir. Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson). This year also saw the entry of Shrek 2 (2004, dir. Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon) into competition, making Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence either the fifth or sixth animated film in Cannes history, depending on how you look at it. When I asked Oshii about the reception the film received, he seemed happy that his was the first Japanese animated film to compete at the festival, saying that it served as “a wonderful motivation to the animation staff in Japan.” In spite of the deafening silence from the festival critics, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is gearing up for one of the biggest ever US releases for an anime film, courtesy of Go Fish, the specialty distribution arm of DreamWorks.
The film is a sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell (1995), and is the first full-length animated film Oshii has directed since then. The first Ghost in the Shell has become something of an anomaly for an anime film, with its combination of commercial success (it is almost obligatory for all accounts of the film to mention that when it was released on video in the US, it shot to the top spot on Billboard‘s sales charts, although the film didn’t do nearly so well in Japan) and intellectual rigor (spawning a plethora of analyses from academics and fans alike). DreamWorks is evidently hoping for a similar sort of reaction for the upcoming sequel.
My own hope is that DreamWorks’ faith in the film is not misplaced. To be sure, the film is a visual tour-de-force, with some of the most detailed, awe-inspiring animation I’ve ever seen. Regardless of the story, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is worth viewing on the level of cinematic experience alone. Particularly intriguing is the very first scene, which features a small helicopter flying around a futuristic city, all created in a very smooth computer graphics style. From this sequence alone, it is hard to determine what kind of film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence will be: we have grown so accustomed to seeing computer animation in even our live-action films, that this intro does not immediately mark the film as being an “animated film”, per se. Such an opening scene attests to director Mamoru Oshii’s comfort with, and crossbreeding of, animated and live-action cinema. Although Oshii is most renowned for his animated works, many of his formative influences have been European directors of live-action films. “I watched many European films when I was a student,” said Oshii, “Such as films by Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I began to think about Jean-Luc Godard when I became a director myself.” He has also directed a handful of live-action films, including the high-tech Avalon (2000), his most recent film before Ghost in the Shell 2. When I asked him about the similarities and differences in making live-action and animated films, Oshii replied, “In terms of production, there’s really not much difference, except for your lifestyle changes completely. What’s really important is when you’re shooting a live-action movie, all these elements come up that you can do in animation that you cannot do in live-action, and I get to use all of those qualities when I create my next animated film. Also, at the same time when you are making animation you see all these different techniques that you cannot do in animation but you can use in live action. So it’s always best for me to be doing animation and live-action one after the other. For example, the coloring technique I used in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is something that I thought of when I was shooting Avalon. So I was able to come up with that new technique when I ended up using effectively in Ghost in the Shell 2. Most of the effects that were done in Avalon had been created by the same creators that created the effects for Ghost in the Shell 2.”
Many of Oshii’s films have been meditations on the nature of humanity and how we relate to technology, and Ghost in the Shell 2 is no different. The film follows a cyborg policeman named Batou and his partner Togusa as they investigate a series of murders committed by female robots. The emphasis of the film, though, is less on who committed these crimes and why but rather on what it means to be human in a landscape dominated by artificiality. Oshii accomplishes this through an interrogation of what is “real” in the world, and to this effect he employs a range of literary references from Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Tomorrow’s Eve (L’Eve Future, 1886), to Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), to feminist scholar and cyborg theorist Donna Haraway, after whom he names one of the film’s characters. When I asked him about his familiarity with Haraway’s scholarship, Oshii replied, “I’ve actually read some of her works and they were very interesting. But I didn’t try to make the character resemble the actual Donna Haraway. The character design was based on a professor of a college in Italy who took me around during location hunting.”
As fascinating a film as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is, both visually and philosophically, some viewers may not like the film’s sometimes languid pace (even the climax does not feel all that climactic) and convoluted dialogue. Themes such as the nature of dreams and reality have been present throughout most of Oshii’s previous films, but such issues are brought to the forefront in Ghost in the Shell 2 through the use of dialogue that quotes thinkers from Confucius to Descartes. However, even though some people find his films difficult to understand, Oshii says that he does not intentionally make them so, stating, “My theme is always dead simple. I never regard my works as ‘difficult to understand.’ If they look ‘difficult to understand,’ that is probably because I do not hold very much interest in story or drama.” Thus, it isn’t that the story of Ghost in the Shell 2 fails in any way, but that Oshii is much more interested in exploring and surpassing the dichotomies of man/machine and reality/dreaming than he is in crafting plot and character.
Regardless of how Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence performs in US theatres, Oshii has a number of upcoming projects that should prove to be equally thought-provoking. It has been rumored that Oshii will be directing a segment of an upcoming film tribute to Paris called Paris, je t’aime, and although this is a possibility, nothing has been confirmed yet. “There has definitely been an offer from the producers of Paris je t’aime and we are contemplating it,” said Oshii. (Other directors rumored to be up for segments in the film include Jean-Luc Godard, Michel Gondry, Mira Nair, and Joel and Ethan Coen.) Oshii has also been working on the second season of the Ghost in the Shell television series currently airing in Japan. (The first season has just begun to come out on DVD in the US.) Although Oshii’s credit on the series is for “story concept,” he said, “I’m basically supervising the entire series of 26 episodes and I’m also writing the plots for each episode.”
Oshii is also creating an installation for a pavilion at the upcoming Japan Expo 2005, to be held in Aichi Prefecture from March through September of next year. The Expo web page says the tentative name of the pavilion is the “Joint Pavilion produced by the Chunichi Shimbun”, and will include “the first-ever experientia image space at a World Exposition, which will be led by animation master Mamoru Oshii.” Said Oshii on this upcoming work, “I decided to take this offer because I wanted to work on something other than films. I am waiting to get the final products for display, the images to show on the monitors from the vendors. Everything should be completed no later than the end of this year. I created the concept of the entire project and I supervised all the designs. I did basically the same thing that a director would do to make a film.”
In the end Oshii feels that filmmaking is a very personal endeavor, saying, “In the past, I tried my best not to put any of my personal issues or opinions into my movies. But nowadays, I just end up putting so much of my personal stuff into my movies or otherwise I just wouldn’t be able to make a movie. Recently I’ve been noticing that movies are something that I shouldn’t make with my brain, but rather in negotiation with how my body feels.” It is in this exploration between the brain and the body, between the mind and the soul, where Oshii’s films truly succeed.
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Note to readers: The quotes from Oshii used in this article are from two different interviews I conducted with him. One was over e-mail in March 2003 and the other via telephone in August 2004. Special thanks go to Yoshiki Sakurai at Production I.G. and Olivier Mouroux at DreamWorks for helping to arrange the interviews.