October 25, 2004
Mamoru Oshii’s film Innocence has been making the rounds across various art house theatres in the country, and I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to see it while it played in Minneapolis. It's the sequel to a 1995 movie called Ghost in the Shell, a rather uneven picture that found a devoted following in America. I’m never sure if these fans admire that movie’s reflections on humanity and life or if they just wanted to see the heroine take her clothes off every ten minutes.
Ghost in the Shell was “adult” animation in the college frat boy sense, but Innocence is an adult film because its intelligence requires it so. The clichéd anime sex-and-violence is either tamed down considerably or gone altogether, and what’s left is Oshii and his thoughts. Imagine if Blade Runner was made by Igmar Bergman, with touches of Kubrick scattered about.
Innocence plays out like a film noir police procedural, involving a cyborg detective named Batou and his young partner on the trail of several brutal murders. The murders involve sex robots, called “dolls” because they are supposed to possess no living souls. It turns out that may not be the case, and in the course of the investigation, the cops infiltrate a Yakuza den, a battleship, and slums set against decaying gothic buildings.
I’ve watched the movie twice, and I still cannot explain why all these murders are taking place, or why the parties ultimately responsible are doing this. The plot almost seems secondary. I suspect that the filmmakers are merely using the conventions of a genre to share its ideas. The movie is far more interested in reflecting on and discussing the deeper issues of humanity. What does it mean to be human when machines are integrated into everything? Is anyone really human when they all have computer brains and electronic arms and eyes? Can you really prove that this is reality and not a dream state? Can you prove that you are actually alive?
In this futuristic world, no one is truly human. Most people have had at least some cybernetic enhancement, be it mechanical limbs, robotic eyes, or more. The special police all have computerized brains that can be plugged in and accessed with the main computers and each other. Some robots have human souls. Even Batou’s beloved dog is a clone. It’s become so that no one can really define what “human” means anymore.
If your brain is essentially a computer, it can be hacked. The whole nature of reality can be openly questioned. This is one of the larger themes of the film, and Oshii offers a number of twists and surprises to challenge that reality, and a couple sequences that are just bloody brilliant. There is an almost hazy surrealism present, and it’s quite a trip. This is what those lousy Matrix sequels should have been aiming for.
Innocence is very much a thinking person’s movie. It's very smart, and it seems half the dialog is composed of poetic quotes from Confucius and The Bible and Milton and so on. Practically everyone is speaking in code, like deadpan beatniks quoting Kerouac. Am I the only one who’s disappointed that no one mentioned Dylan? You’d think the characters in this movie couldn’t get out the door without quoting Subterranean Homesick Blues. In any case, this is something that will either impress or annoy you.
One of the problems with the first Ghost in the Shell, I think, was that its visual style never matched its ideas. Everything just looked drab, boring. This time, the visual style is more expansive and bolder. There are many details that drift by, like the reflection on cars, or the sepia tones of a dark alleyway, and your imagination takes flight. Japanese animation is often criticized in the West because they usually animate at fewer frames than an American film. I’ll always argue that this is short-sighted, and an unfair way to judge the visual beauty of these movies.
The part of the movie that best demonstrates this is the parade scene, which took over a year to complete. It is a parade of enormous boats that weave across narrow, metropolitan canals. The floats feature people, masks, and giant robots, all dressed in the costumes of Japan’s mythological past. There are shots of spiraling skyscrapers and scores of birds overhead, and close-ups of masks that remind me of those swaying hands from the flashback scene in Nausicaa. The crowds in the slums watch and are amazed, and we are too, because it’s all so breathtaking.
The visual style of Innocence is a mixture of cell animation with three-dimensional rendering (largely for backgrounds). This allows for some truly dynamic camera work, and the dark, sepia tones add to that noir atmosphere. This something of a minor technical landmark; there really isn't anything to compare, aside from the 2001 Metropolis.
And did I mention the basset hound? That dog is wonderful, and has more spark and spirit than anyone else in the picture. The dog is actually based closely on the director's own pet, and you can tell how much he loves him and dotes on him. Just watch the dog's reactions when Batou comes home from work, it's scurrying, and droopy-eyed devotion. He adds a dimension of humanity into all of these stone-faced soliloquies.
If you're lucky enough to catch Innocence in your local theatre, by all means do so. It's one of those movies that must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. I’m not sure how the movie will look when played on your TV screen, but my guess is that you will be missing some of its sense of scale. Visionary pictures often require a big screen, anyway.
I think I’m more willing to forgive the Innocence’s flaws, especially the final twenty minutes (which basically crumble into a clunky, uninspired Rambo shootout), because Oshii is clearly trying to say something. Most science-fiction movies are merely content to hurl a lot of effects and noise at the audience and leave it at that. It’s what Pauline Kael called “bam-bam-pow filmmaking.” It may have been fine when we were nine-year-olds, but I can’t imagine anyone drawing any lasting satisfaction from something like that. Wouldn’t you rather watch a movie that sparks discussions and gets you to think?