If Dolls Could Speak – Ghost in the Shell: Innocence

Ghost in the Shell (GITS for short), the acclaimed manga by Shirow Masamune, portrays a future Japan after a third and fourth world war that has advanced prosthesis to the point that full-body cyborgs exist. The series has existed in animated form ever since the classic from 1995 by Mamoru Oshii and each new entry has taken a different approach to utilize this world to talk about philosophy and ethics through the lens of a post-singularity world. There is one entry, however, that has been glossed over in the past, but which I believe to be criminally underrated.

This is my unedited essay on Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. This will contain spoilers for the film, so read at your own peril. If you would like the SPOILER-FREE review, 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. 

This is the beginning of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, a 2004 film produced by Production IG and directed once again by Mamoru Oshii. 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 struggle after losing his original partner and the lead of the first film, Major Motoko Kusanagi (often referred to as “the Major”).

I’ve always said that Ghost in the Shell is a mixture of three main components that are differently balanced depending on which creator is working on it. It comes down to Political drama, police work, and high philosophy. This film, far more than any other entry, presents itself as 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 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, per 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 as it should have. 

At the end of the first film, Motoko Kusanagi joined consciousness with the Puppet Master, the supposed hacker who was revealed to be a program with sentience. The film ends with her 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. Can the film be enjoyed on its own? I suppose, but to truly get the most out of it, it should be treated as a sequel and watched after the first, at least for perspective. 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 the ugly downside of such advancements. 

Perhaps Oshii wished for it to be standalone because of how different the two films are, stylistically. The first was very much a high-sci-fi film with elements of police work, but the second one strikes a balance between being a very staunch noir buddy cop film and a philosophical lecture eclipsing even the original. If I had to define the genre of the first, it would purely be Science Fiction, but to describe the sequel? It’s more of a genre-bending film. 

I have struggled to determine if the appeal of Innocence is broader or narrower to the moviegoing audience. 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. 

Why do humans try so desperately to impart humanity upon their dolls? 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 that which we give life wants to be alive. The discussion leads, frighteningly enough, to the implications of children playing with dolls, and how a child could be considered inhuman based on how they have yet to mature and learn social norms. In this sense, children playing with dolls is no different than raising children. This doesn’t sit well with Togusa. 

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. Understandably, Togus is not happy with the implication that his daughter is a doll. 

The 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. While Togusa reacts with disgust at the notion of his child being a doll, Batou recalls Rene Descartes and how he adored a doll that resembled the daughter he lost. “He didn’t distinguish between man and machine.” 

After one of the biggest action set-pieces in the film; an assault on a Yakuza hideout, Batou finds himself in a shootout at a convenience store. It’s also technically the first appearance of the Major in this film, as she simply warns him “you’ve entered the kill zone.” He gets shot and begins to open fire against an unseen adversary before suddenly he snaps out of it and realizes his body has been hacked into shooting himself in the arm. You don’t even realize how washed out the colors in the scene are until his other co-worker 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. 

Batou gets a new arm and is told how it should be indistinguishable from his old arm once he breaks it in. Another artificial imitation. It’s revealed that someone hacked Batou to make him go on a rampage and discredit Section 9 in hopes of ceasing their investigation. We even get some comedy for a change as Ishikawa grills Batou for having such a high maintenance mutt. This kind of comedy works well with the buddy cop aspect, but it isn’t common enough to give this film the same allure as others in the genre, likely because it wouldn’t gel with the philosophy in other parts. 

The parade in the film’s midsection

At the halfway point, Batou and Togusa journey to the vaguely defined “northern territories” (The Oshii films are never clearly defined as Japan or China. The setting is simply a futuristic international hub in east Asia). 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. 

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. 

What is likely the coolest/most surprising scene of the film comes when our duo investigates a mansion owned by Kim, a hacker with a connection to Locus Solus. After the creepiest house tour ever, Kim engages them in a discussion about dolls, an obsession which has caused him to abandon his body and dwell in a doll-like shell. As he talks, the film seems to rewind seamlessly to the point before they entered the house and they relive the entrance to the mansion three times, each more disturbing than the last before Batou breaks free and takes Togusa with him. 

Kim explains that humans fear dolls because they remind them of themselves, and we fear that we can be boiled down to simple mechanisms without a purpose: 

“It’s the uncertainty that perhaps something that appears to be alive actually isn’t. On the other hand, it might be the uncertainty that perhaps something that doesn’t appear to be alive actually is.” 

This is also the Major’s second appearance, as she appears in the lobby of the mansion to Batou as a doll pointing to cards on the floor. In a reference to Jacob Grimm, the word “aemaeth” (truth) is written out, then the second time, it reads simply “maeth” (death) and then finally the number 2501, in reference to the first film. The first two words are a reference to a story where an artificial human was created with aemaeth written on its forehead but could be returned to clay should the first two letters be erased. 

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 plays a big role in solving some of the film’s mysteries. Once Batou has broken free from Kim’s mental maze, we journey into the climax, which is far more of an action film conclusion than a cop film. 

Batou infiltrates a Locus Solus submarine while Togusa infiltrates the security system. Things don’t go as planned when mysteriously the virus that caused the gynoids to become homicidal is activated. It’s not exactly clear what causes this, and it’s perhaps the one logical fault with this film’s conclusion, but it’s a small issue compared to how satisfying the resolution is. Major makes her third and most prominent appearance, taking control of one of the gynoids and grabbing Batou’s shotgun. The two briefly get reacquainted and begin to gun down more gynoids as they shut off the ship before discovering the truth behind the gynoids. 

The final reveal is that Locus Solus was trafficking girls using the Yakuza and then performing an operation called “ghost dubbing” to put the girl’s consciousness into the gynoids, making them more life-like. It’s a horrifying discovery that only gets scarier. Earlier in the film, an employee of Locus Solus was murdered and a young girl whom Batou saves tells him he was going to save them by causing the gynoids to kill, leading to an investigation. Batou asks if they ever considered what would happen to the victims. “I’m not talking about the humans. I’m talking about the dolls that were given souls – didn’t you stop to think about what would happen to them.” 

“But I didn’t want to be turned into a doll…” said the young girl. 

The major chimes in. “We are saddened by a bird’s cry but not a fish’s blood. Blessed are those with voices. If those dolls had voices, I bet each and every one of them would have screamed ‘I don’t want to be a human.’” 

Soon after, the Major leaves again, assuring Batou that she will always be there, and then she disconnects from the gynoid, which falls to the ground. 

Batou and Togusa return home. The former picks up his dog and Togusa greets his daughter with a souvenir: a doll. The final shot holds on Batou looking to the camera. It’s on the nose, but it goes to show how much the experience has made him think. In a world where our minds and bodies are not inseparable, where we modify ourselves, and where what we create bears our own image, what separates us from the dolls?

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

I hope you enjoyed this detailed analysis. I enjoyed writing it and hope to write more just like it in the future. For more reviews and discussion of anime, I post bi-weekly most times, though I am traveling to Japan for several months and may find myself with less time to write.

Leave a comment letting me know what you thought about the analysis and tell me what other films and shows I should analyze. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.

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