In the opening sequence of Mamoru Oshii’s follow-up to his acclaimed anime Ghost in the Shell, we hover vertiginously above a glowing, futuristic cityscape before quickly descending into its labyrinthine streets. Here, stolid cyborg Special Agent Batou (Akio Ohtsuka) pursues a murderous gynoid (a robotic sex doll) into a narrow alleyway. In an explosive confrontation, the doll attacks him mercilessly, then self-destructs, clawing at her own porcelain skin until it bursts open, revealing her flayed, flesh-and-circuits interior.
This scene is followed by a title sequence as ethereal as the opening is action-packed. Golden-hued, mechanical female body parts slowly rotate and float in an electronic amniotic soup, resembling German artist Hans Bellmer’s eerie, ball-jointed dolls, whose interchangeable body parts could be arranged in all manner of perverse combinations. Interspersed with stark credit screens, the sequence almost seems to breathe, as the parts slowly coalesce into full-size figures. With its striking, abstract images of the female form, it’s a twisted version of a James Bond title.
These two opening scenes are not only breathtaking, but also establish the film’s primary experiential modes: extreme action and contemplative reflection. For the most part, Innocence alternates between the two; its action sequences are as vivid as video games, while its more philosophical moments rely on lengthy chunks of heady, academic dialogue. The film’s only flaw is that these expository segments drag on too long. Characters muse for what seems like an eternity on the subjectivity of dolls, the human ego, and the import of the “mirror,” or self-consciousness. Although these scenes display an intellectual gymnastics rarely seen in anime, they ultimately slow the pacing of the film and seem redundant with more visual sequences, which “show” rather than “tell” the same story.
In the world of Innocence, showing is far more rewarding than telling. The film’s skillful use of digital animation is without peer. In the nine years since its use in the first Ghost in the Shell, computer generated animation has become industry standard, but attempts to integrate it with more expressive, hand-drawn techniques are usually awkward, resulting in jarring transitions between 2- and 3-D spaces. With Innocence, Oshii achieves an intelligent blend: backgrounds and vehicles are computer-animated, while characters are hand-drawn; together, the two styles create an environment that is both immersive and expressive.
This technical achievement is most effective in a scene featuring an elaborate Chinese New Year’s parade. A sequence that took a year to create, the parade is a tapestry of ornately decorated dragons, glowering demons, and sparkling lion dancers. Beneath this massive spectacle scurry the hand-drawn figures of human spectators, dwarfed by the parade’s Byzantine grandeur. The scene is utterly otherworldly, a space that is alive and yet nearly devoid of human presence.
This otherworldly atmosphere is apt, given that Innocence takes place in a future where the line between virtual and physical reality is blurred. In an unnamed city in the year 2032, most people are cyborgs, a combination of human and computerized parts, and cyber-crime has physical as well as virtual repercussions. Brains can be hacked and ubiquitous robots infected with all manner of viruses. Batou is an agent in the elite police squad Section 9, specializing in these crimes. He possesses enhanced cyborg abilities, like armored skin and infrared vision. When injured, he augments his body with ever more sophisticated cybernetic parts, becoming increasingly more machine than man. Despite this gradual transformation, glimpses of his humanity (his soul, or “ghost”) are still visible. He mourns the loss of the Major, his former partner, and maintains a touching affection for his pet basset hound.
Batou and his new partner, Togusa (Koichi Yamadera) are assigned to solve a series of murders perpetrated by gynoids who have mysteriously gone berserk and attacked their masters. Following the evisceration of an executive at the company that manufactures the dolls, their investigation leads to Kim (Naoto Takenaka), a wily hacker, who has designed the virus that turns the gynoids into killers. Through him, they uncover an even deeper subterfuge, which has imbued the dolls with their own “ghosts.”
The references to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are clear: androids, created for the pleasure and service of humans, suddenly develop self-consciousness and revolt. But Innocence takes the premise further, creating a spectrum of consciousness that runs from entirely “natural” animals to “dolls.” On one end is the unconditional love of Batou’s basset hound. Then, flesh-and-blood Togusa, who, despite his enhanced, networked brain, worries about his family and his physical safety. Batou, his feelings numbed within his impervious mechanical body, clings to the last shreds of his humanity. And finally, there are the dolls, who look human and display something akin to consciousness.
Throughout the film, Oshii blurs the distinctions among animal, human, and machine. A helicopter looks and sounds like a wasp, an airplane flaps its mechanical wings like a bird’s, and a submarine wends its way through the deep with the undulating movements of a dolphin. In one striking scene, the camera looks deep into the eye of a seagull in much the same way it has examined the digital lens of a gynoid’s iris. Even Batou, in a moment of surprising tenderness, mourns the loss of the dolls, his erstwhile adversaries and sister machines.
By subtly subverting our assumptions about the opposition of nature and technology, Oshii suggests that the two may not be so different after all. If machines can mimic our movements, develop feelings, and arrive at self-awareness, what makes us unique as humans? The hubris of human existence is the belief in our superiority over other forms of life, most especially the lives of the machines we create. We outdo ourselves fashioning ever more realistic likenesses, but then refuse to accord our creations equal footing.
In the first Ghost in the Shell, and in movies like The Matrix, The Terminator, and I, Robot, the line between machines and humans is tenuous, yet still discernible. These films define and preserve a uniquely human essence — a ghost, a body, a spirit — that transcends technological reproduction, and posit self-conscious machines as the enemy. Innocence takes this familiar trope and turns it on its head, suggesting that consciousness, no matter what form it takes, deserves the same treatment we typically reserve for humans. With this beautiful, thought-provoking, adrenaline-fuelled film, Oshii heralds a truly post-human era in which all forms of “life” deserve our respect.