Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was one of the most successful post-Akira sci-fi anime epics, its mix of dazzling futuristic animation and philosophical concerns providing compelling food for the eyes and brain. Nine years on, Oshii’s sequel ups both factors, but tips the scales too far into the cerebral; the result is a film that frustrates as frequently as it astounds.
It starts well enough. The year is 2032, an era where the boundaries between men and machines have become blurred. Humans are frequently given technological augmentations, of both a physical and mental nature. Once such cyborg is Batô, a tough cop working for the specialist anti-terrorist unit Section 9, and who mourns the loss of his former partner, an android called the Major. Batô has a new partner – the mostly human Togusa – and they have been given the task of investigating a series of apparent murders by a line of sex-androids, robots manufactured for human pleasure.
The first 45 minutes see Oshii really hit his stride. He opens with some gob-smacking visuals – a futuristic cityscape realised through both 3D graphics and traditional drawn animation, and a dazzling credit sequence showing the construction of one of the film’s murderous ‘dolls’. The story unfolds with the balance of old – sure we have a lengthy, eerie scene in which Batô and Togusa interrogate a robot designer about the humanity that exists within her creations, but we also have Batô getting tooled up with some very large guns to knock on a few Yakuza doors.
This is all very Blade Runner of course – with a bit of William Gibson thrown in – but Oshii’s arresting style ensures that this first half is not just another familiar cyberpunk yarn. Much of it is actually very un-anime – the director uses silence and static, held shots on his characters' expressions as much as the expected rapid editing and pounding music, in particular during one surprisingly moving sequence in which Batô comes home after a long day, feeds his devoted cloned dog and sits alone, consumed by deep, dark thoughts.
All of which makes Ghost in the Shell 2’s second half a real let-down. Batô and Togusa’s investigations lead them to a spooky gothic mansion constructed from stained glass where the villain is revealed and ghosts from the past return to haunt our heroes. All the weaker elements of the first half – in particular characters' annoying habit of speaking almost entirely in philosophical and theological quotes – force out the thrills, and it quickly become evident that Oshii wasn’t really that interested in the narrative to begin with. Maybe some will be engaged by the issues he’s asking – most of which are to do with questions of where the ‘soul’ of an individual lies and why humans feel the need to create mechanical versions of themselves – and full credit to the writer/director for taking his film into areas rarely tackled elsewhere in anime. But without a particularly strong story to hang these weightier concerns upon I quickly found my attention wandering. There are brilliant moments throughout – including a clever sequence where the same events are replayed three times with different resolutions – and there is some late-in-the-day climatic gunplay. But for all the brains and visual brilliance of his film, Oshii ultimately fails to reach the heights for which was aiming.