The Best Ghost in the Shell Film (Isn’t the One You Think)

It’s one thing to review anime that no one talks about, and that’s pretty fun. Chances are if I’m struggling to find content discussing an obscure show that looks cool, there are others just as aggrevated. I feel obligated to give these shows some publicity, whether it be good or bad. What’s more interesting are the times when the anime I’m reviewing is a more obscure part of a well-known series.

Recently I had the opportunity to analyze a film for my course on media criticism and decided to write about Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, the sequel to the very influential Ghost in the Shell from 1995. Despite having the same director and an impressive visual onslaught, the film has never gotten the same acclaim. after all these years. This surprises me, because given the choice between which I like better… I might enjoy Innocence more.

This is a reworked, SPOILER-FREE version of that essay, so treat this like a review of the film. For the UNEDITED ESSAY, click here.

A group of armed Japanese police cordon off a city block, whose dark and narrow alleyways harbor a killer. Through a crowd of onlookers slowly moves a car reflecting the neon of the city’s night. Out steps Batou, a cyborg and a member of Public Security Section 9. He speaks little and is briefed by the police before walking in alone. Amidst the corpses of two beheaded officers is a robot, in the form of a young woman; a gynoid; a sex robot who has frighteningly turned lethal. 

She attacks almost silently; gracefully and attempts to do what she has done to the previous victims, but is thrown against a wall by the more powerful Batou. He approaches, his shotgun drawn but stops when he hears something. 

“Please help us” 

The robot pleads for her kind. She rips the artificial skin from her chest and the plating pops outward, like the ribs of a dissected animal, before her face opens up much the same. Perhaps out of instinct or perhaps out of fear, Batou fires at the robot. 

The film centers on Batou and his more-human-than-cyborg partner Togusa searching for answers regarding a string of murders committed by these gynoids, and the shady dealings of the company that produced them, Locus Solus (a reference to the French novel by Raymond Russel). Simultaneously, the film explores Batou’s personal struggle after losing his original partner and the lead of the first film, Major Motoko Kusanagi (often referred to as “the Major”).

In my review of the live-action film and my post about the upcoming new series, I’ve talked about the three crucial components of GITS. Political drama, police work, and/or high philosophy. This film, far more than any other entry, presents itself like a noir crime thriller. It’s dark, both literally and narratively. The first half of the film takes place almost exclusively at night with only one establishing shot presumably taking place during the daytime.

It’s actually a lot like Blade Runner in how the city looks. In the two scenes on the way to Batou’s home back from work, the neon of the alleys dominates the scene and the unusually anachronistic look of the cars even evokes a 1950s look that is more perfect the more I look at it. Additionally, there is a cluttered, lived-in look to the city that brings the film to life in a way only classic animation can. 

There is no narration, but the story of Batou’s tortured soul sure would have felt right at home with one. Perhaps though I should be glad there wasn’t one, considering my prior Blade Runner comparison and the shoddy quality of that film’s original narration. Batou tells Togusa about how if Major is alive, all the government wants are her memories, which like the rest of her body, was the property of the state. 

Given his view of the government’s attitude towards his friend, he becomes paranoid. When dropped off at home, he will wait until out of sight, then walk in the opposite direction towards where his home actually is. An untidy abode, with shots of numerous locks and passcodes safeguarding it. His only roommate is a Basset hound named Gabriel, which is revealed to be one of a large range of artificially inseminated dogs. Artificial, but no less adorable.

While the film does delight in discussing the philosophical quandaries of humanity’s technological advancements – much like every entry in the franchise – it is only one half of the story.  The other half hinges on understanding the first, contrary to what the creator likely intended. In Japan, the film was simply called Innocence, in accordance with Oshii’s intention to make a film that stood alone from the first and could be watched thusly. However, I would have to say this did not succeed like it should have.

The original film ends with Major leaving to explore the vast and infinite net, free from the cages that held her. The entire thesis of Batou’s story this time around is that he misses her and has been stuck wondering where she is and if she is even still technically alive. There is an importance to her character that may not be fully appreciated without the first.

The film can be enjoyed on its own but it should be treated as a sequel and watched after the first, respectfully. Thematically, while the first film made grand predictions about the merging of humans and machines from the perspective of a lead character who embraces it, the second film seems to be about those left behind and ugly downside of such advancements.

The pacing could be a barrier to some, but it is broken up with some incredibly frenetic and well-animated action. That being said, it is arguably heavier with its philosophy and can be more mind-bending, whereas the most iconic plot reveals of the first such as the man implanted with false memories, was more easily understood. 

The film seeks to unsettle as much as it wishes to pose philosophical questions. Early on, Batou and Togusa visit a crime lab where the gynoid from the introduction is being inspected. The two talk with Haraway, the one running the lab, as they begin to discuss the possibility that the gynoid was committing suicide. This leads to a discussion of dolls and how humans interact with them.

In the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Togusa is the most human, having the least amount of cybernetic enhancements. He’s a great detective and a family man, which is why the Major recruited him. He offers a perspective relatable to the audience unlike other characters in the series who tend to speak of the scientific advancements of the film as though they were commonplace. It makes him the perfect counter to Batou in this buddy-cop dynamic.

The visual style permeats the sense of unease I eluded to earlier. One shot puts Togusa in the foreground towards the right, with Batou facing the other way in the background. The reverse shot flips this image, putting Batou in the foreground, with Togusa and Haraway in the background. Both shots have a surreal fish eye lens look to them.

There is a moment where Batou is hacked, leading to a shootout. You don’t even realize how washed out the colors in the scene are until Ishikawa plugs a “ghost lock” into Batou’s neck and suddenly the whole store looks more colorful. Batou didn’t know he was hacked, and neither did we. The style puts visual storytelling to the same standard as its exposition, creating dialogue that hopefully entices more than it does bore.

This is especially true of the mansion scene in second half which will no doubt be either the moment you lose the ability to continue watching or the very thing that propels the film to greatness for you. It’s creepy, it’s unexpected and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the entire franchise.

Much like the first film, there is a musical montage set to a theme by Kenji Kawai. Where the first one saw Major soul searching throughout the city seeing other versions of herself, this film’s montage indulges in the symbolism of dolls and puppets during a parade through the unnamed mechanical metropolis the characters find themselves in. 

The parade in the film’s midsection

Breaking up the two halves of this montage is a scene where Batou gets information from an informant while Togusa noticed writing on a wall. It reads “when we face death, life is like a puppet on a festival cart. As soon as one string is cut, it crumbles and fades,” and the next shot is a bonfire where people are burning the dolls from the parade we saw. Discarded, much like the humanlike dolls this advanced society has constructed.

For fans of classic literature, philosophy or even the bible, this film relishes in quoting all sorts of texts, and the two leads almost make a game out of quoting them throughout the film. Not to mention it clearly plays a big role in solving some of the film’s mysteries.

The final part of the movie takes a more action-packed approach that might feel like a completely different movie at first. That being said, the gunplay and violence is awesome. Did I mention this film was rated PG-13 in America? Because it’s basically R-rated. Like everyone jokes how Alita: Battle Angel is pretty violent for PG-13, but this has a lot of beheadings in it and not all of them were done to cyborgs.

If there is a drawback to the climax it is the logic behind the conflict. It seems like a simple infiltration but then suddenly shit goes south and we aren’t given an exact reason why. This is however the only part of the conclusion that is without answers.

Once the curtain is pulled back and the case closed I was satisfied with how everything resolved, while still posing questions ethical questions about how it was resolved. As technology develops, humans try to create themselves. Whether it’s AI or robots, we attempt to play God in a way, and Innocence explores whether or not the dolls would want to be alive at all.

The film was recently re-released in the US on Blu-ray courtesy of Funimation after years of rights disputes and DVD releases of varied quality. The dub cast is great though, utilizing the cast from Stand Alone Complex.

This film’s animation is incredible in some pretty meaningful ways. Long before TV anime started to figure out how to utilize CGI properly, Innocence made it look like child’s play. All character animation is hand-drawn, along with plenty of the environments, but the synergy of 2D and 3D animation is spectacular. It only ages poorly during extended sequences depicting aircraft flying through the skies.

On the whole it’s less consistent that the original, but at times surpasses even the original’s best sakuga and that’s worth praising. Same goes for the music, which Kenji Kawai came back to do. I will also say that the theme for Innocence, “The Ballad of Puppets” is even better than “Reawakening,” the theme from the original.

That last bit kinda sums up a lot of things about this movie. Even when I consider how good and how important the original Ghost in the Shell is, there are some things that Innocence do that impress me just as much and sometimes more. It is to the original film what Blade Runner 2049 is to Blade Runner. It’s a great sequel and my favorite Ghost in the Shell film. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let it be forgotten.


Ghost in the Shell: Innocence is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Funimation.

Later this week I will upload the full essay, which is primarily an analysis of the narrative and themes of the film that delves into spoilers. I wanted to post a spoiler-free variant for those debating if the film is worth the viewing (it is).

Let me know what you thought of my review in the comments below and tell me you’re favorite entry in the Ghost in the Shell series. Thanks for reading!!!

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