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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Ghosts in the machines


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japanese science-fiction animation, from Katsuhiro Otomo's seminal "Akira" (1988) on, often points toward a post-apocalyptic, post-human future. For all the blasts 'n' babes, the curvy heroines in Spandex pouring thousands of rounds into clanking foes, the essential vision is dark -- more "Blade Runner" than "Star Wars." Japan's nuclear-ravaged past is one source; another is its cultural enthusiasm for all things robotic -- from Tetsuwan Atom ("Atom Boy") to Morning Musume.

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Birds on wire - Cyborg detective Bateau(above) in Mamoru oshii's "Innocence" PHOTOS (C)SHIROW MASAMUNE/KODANSHA

Not all Japanese animators are following the same path into the dystopian gloom, however. Based on a manga by Shirow Masamune, Mamoru Oshii's "Kokaku Kidotai (Ghost in the Shell)" (1995) went beyond the usual man-as-machine tropes to explore a world in which cyborgs have souls -- only we find that what remains of humanity is merging with the digital data stream.

In place of the relentless visual and aural pounding, which was the genre standard then, Oshii opted for a slower pace -- deep-think dialogues, eerily beautiful cityscapes and music by Kenji Kawai that created, with its pulsing rhythm and unearthly female voices, a strangely seductive mood. (It's music for a dreamy limo ride with a cyborg lover.) Yes, there were blasts and babes, particularly the cyborg cop Motoko Kusanagi -- who ended up as a disembodied brain -- but the film was less a genre product than an expression of Oshii's own, disturbingly prescient vision.

That vision proved influential, and not only in Japan. After being released abroad, the film hit the top of the U.S. Billboard video chart -- a first for a Japanese movie -- and drew raves from James Cameron and the Wachowski brothers, who used it as an inspiration for "The Matrix" trilogy.

Now, after venturing into live-action features in 2001 with "Avalon" -- an SF film shot entirely in Polish -- Oshii has returned to the characters and concerns of "Kokaku Kidotai" in his new film, "Innocence." But we are nine years further along in the digital revolution, and Oshii is a more bankable name, with a bigger budget at his command. Accordingly, by the technical standards of the earlier film, "Innocence" marks a huge advance.

Together with the staff at Production I.G., Oshii has created a world of astonishing depth and presence, one that fully realizes the potential of animation to represent the imagination in all its hallucinatory complexity. It's impossible to take it in at one go -- there is simply too much information, visual and otherwise, up there on screen. While trying to process it all, I finally understood the meaning of that queer word "boggle."

The hero is a holdover from "Kokaku Kidotai" -- the cyborg detective Bateau (voice actor: Akio Otsuka), he of the thick neck, bottle-cap eyes and intimidatingly brilliant mind. Imagine a cop who not only never blinks, but reels off pages of kanji-dense dialogue, and even kanbun (classical Chinese verse), with never a pause or slip. This, folks, is not Columbo.

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His story begins in 2032, when Japan (or whatever remains of it) is inhabited by the dwindling race of humans, purely mechanical androids and cyborgs like Bateau who still have a "ghost" or human spirit but are vulnerable to "ghost hacks" by evildoers intent on using them for their own ends.

"Gainoids" -- androids made in the form of young women and used as sex toys -- begin turning on their masters and then self-destructing. Aramaki, the wizened chief of Section 9 -- a special police unit -- sends Bateau and his long-haired human partner Togusa (Koichi Yamadera) to investigate what he suspects is a terrorist plot.

After a bizarre firefight with a rampaging gainoid -- who looks, in both her outward appearance and inner machinery, like an old-fashioned Japanese mechanical doll -- Bateau and Togusa visit Haraway (Yoshiko Sakakibara), a coroner who examines the dead, or rather disassembled, gainoid. A chain-smoking middle-aged woman (heartening somehow to see one of those in 2032), Haraway wonders out loud why the human race has made machines that so closely resemble human beings, until the distinction between the two is hopelessly confused.

After leaving the morgue, Bateau and Togusa hear about a killing at a boat house. The boss of a yakuza gang, the Kojinkai, has been murdered by his gainoid lover -- and now the gang is plotting revenge on the company that made the android. What is the connection between the company and the gang? Why are the gainoids going, well, ape? Bateau and Togusa go out to find the answers.

If all this makes "Innocence" sound action-packed and creepily lubricious (gainoid sex!) -- it is not. Instead, it continues in the aesthetic and thematic vein of "Kokaku Kidotai," while flouting box-office conventions. Though Bateau looks as though he could take on a platoon of Terminators, he is hardly the usual action hero. Instead he is the android-as-intellectual, who finds himself interrogating his own existence -- fighting to save his soul against a malevolent hacker.

There is little in the film that could be called conventionally humanistic -- or even human. The nearest it approaches the touchy-feely are Bateau's brief encounters with his basset hound (a breed that has appeared in every Oshii film and is the director's own favorite). Otherwise, it is mainly an excursion in what might be called Oshii's World of Dolls. Not the cutsey, hugable ones, but the all-too-real ones that, with their solemn air of knowing secrets, give small children nightmares. In "Innocence," they walk, they talk -- and are taking over from their human creators. Do they dream of victory -- or of just owning, once and for all, their "ghost?"

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