Mamoru Oshii is a very complicated man. One of Japan's leading auteurs, Oshii's films range from highly entertaining and extremely confusing to depressingly maudlin and extremely confusing. Even the Urusei Yatsura film he directed, Beautiful Dreamer, is something of a conundrum, even though it's based on a typically light-hearted, straight-forward franchise. The first Ghost in the Shell film (incidentally also based on a fairly straightforward manga series by the lauded and controversial Shirow Masamune) confused and astounded American audiences, who went on to make the film a hit after it failed miserably in Japan. Here comes Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and it manages to outdo its predecessor on almost every level, including the levels you wish it didn't.
The storyline is fairly simple. Batou, a cop who's mostly cybernetic, is partnered with Togusa, a cop who isn't. Together they unravel the mystery behind a handful of bizarre murders at the hands of dangerous ‘sexaroid’ robot dolls (just try not to giggle when they reveal that name) who are killing their masters. The crime trail leads them to a swarm of yakuza gangsters, an insane and brilliant hacker who lives in a palace of clockwork glass, and ultimately to a factory that's been using a monstrous technique to produce sexaroid dolls that have the capacity to learn, grow and develop personalities; they can also be controlled by the malevolent intelligence back at the factory. Batou and Togusa unravel the plot, run in to a helpful fragment of Motoko
Kusanagi's personality (her only appearance in the film), learn a lot about what it means to be human and save the day. That's about it.
At least, that's all there would be to it, except Oshii can't help but coat the entire film in an extra-thick layer of bombastic pretension. Characters whose names you don't know will go on for minutes at a time about the nature of self versus virtual self versus virtual construct, literally derailing the plot for up to 10 minutes or so. When the evil hacker hijacks Togusa's brain in the last hour of the film, resulting in an endless loop of the same event happening again and again that culminates in the same labyrinthine speech about relative morality, you'll be ready to curse Mamoru Oshii and his godforsaken basset hounds. Thankfully, just when the film threatens to collapse under the weight of its own ridiculous and unnecessary pretension, Kusanagi shows up and there's an extended ass-kicking scene featuring her and Batou mowing down an army of evil sex robots. If it weren't for the last 20 minutes or so of Innocence, the film would be a complete write-off in the plot department. Perhaps if Oshii had bothered to introduce some concepts that weren't thoroughly discussed in the first Ghost in the Shell (or at least something that hadn't been visited in countless other sci-fi thinkpieces over the past 10 years), Innocence might have felt a little fresher. As it is, the film's philosophical core is little more than a disappointing, laboriously drawn-out retread of ruminations past.
Of course, there's more to Innocence than just the story. Much hype has been heaped upon the film's lavish visuals, and the film lives up to its blossoming fame. Never before have 2D and 3D visuals met each other so agreeably. A scene wherein Batou buys dog food (featuring a basset hound on the cover; get used to the dog imagery, it's everywhere in this film thanks to Oshii's basket-case obsession with the animal) is rendered lovingly, with every tiny detail of the store paid special attention; it makes the film believable. Innocence succeeds where so many other animation experiments have failed. The frame rate between the 2D and 3D animation is consistent, resulting in a believable and beautiful world that draws the viewer in. Gone are the distracting drops in animation quality and gaudy mismarriage of animated visuals; Innocence is a living, breathing world that pays homage to antique animation methods while embracing the new. Treasure Planet, eat your heart out.
The score is a pounding throwback to the first film by legendary composer Kenji Kawai. The man knows his way around a symphony and his work here, while derivative of his score from the first film, gets the job done. The song that plays over the opening credits is a particularly effective rehash of the first film's opening sequence, and it both reminds the viewer of the original while preparing them for Innocence. The closing song, a sad, dreary little ditty in English, isn't as interesting. The Japanese voices speak in long, slow monotones, occasionally dipping into an archaic tongue even the Japanese can't understand. It must all be part of Oshii's plan to make the film as laboriously dense as possible.
Is Innocence better than Ghost in the Shell? In terms of animation, the answer is yes, but that's obvious; leaps in technology have made this film possible. While the first film had the viewer genuinely scratching their collective heads over what it all meant, the second simply ladles pretension on to a relatively simple storyline, resulting in a highly frustrating viewing experience. There isn't a lot of depth, but the film desperately wants you to regard it as being deep; it's an exercise in transparency. That doesn't mean Innocence is without merit, it's just easier to find the film's good points on a purely surface level. Digging deeper into Oshii's needlessly complex storyline will only result in disappointment.