3 stars (out of 4)
The world of Mamoru Oshii's first "Ghost in the Shell" film has always made the apocalyptic, impersonal world of "Blade Runner" look like a vacation destination.
Yet Oshii's Toyko of 2032 shares a philosophical geography with Ridley Scott's futuristic Los Angeles. In both stories, robots (or replicants in "Blade Runner") are engineered to accommodate man's economic and carnal desires.
With "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," you needn't have seen the original to follow its sequel, as Oshii is more focused on the nature of the soul and its leap into the digital age than weighing his audience down with elaborate back story.
In "Ghost 2," special pleasure model "gynoids" are murdering their masters and cyborg detective Batou (voiced by Akio Otsuka) is put on the case.
"Cyborg" is perhaps too simplistic a label in Oshii's vision of mechanized evolution. Based on the comic books of Shirow Masamune, "Ghost" envisions a world where "human" is an abstract concept, as technology has blurred into biology. Those who populate Toyko in 2032 fall into three categories: humans, cyborgs and soulless "dolls," manufactured for the pleasure and service industries.
Oshii's first "Ghost" movie (1995) concluded with Maj. Motoko Kusanagi giving up her cyborg "shell" to become pure consciousness in cyberspace.
More than anything else, Oshii strives to provide perspective on our concept of humanity. Like Isaac Asimov, whose "I, Robot" and "Foundation" series examine the fabric of societies as they struggle to integrate robot life, Oshii's gynoids are simply metaphors for those whom we treat with the least regard. Does the presence or the appearance of a soul make life more valuable? When technology moves faster than evolution, how will mankind define itself?
Like its original, "Ghost 2" is elaborately designed, a breathtaking techno-gothic vision. Oshii and animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo's only technical flaw is inserting traditionally animated 2-D characters into 3-D, video game-like environments.
In the opening sequence, when Batou tracks a robotic killer in a computer-generated alley, he looks like he's on the screen rather in the screen, restoring a problem animators have battled since before Ray Harryhausen pitted sailors against a claymation Cyclops in 1958's "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad."
Though "Ghost in the Shell 2" reverts to buddy-cop movie conventions at times, it otherwise defies most narrative expectations and rhythms, taking a while to rattle around the brain before sinking in. Oshii tends to bog down dialogue with philosophical quotations, which can be distracting. But those able to pick through the hiss-tangled web of circuitry and wiring will find "Ghost in the Shell 2" an electrically-charged philosophical action movie.
Like "Blade Runner," it's dense enough to be rewarding on multiple viewings, the hallmark of a classic.
"Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence"
Written and directed by Mamoru Oshii; based on the comic book series by Shirow Masamune; animation directed by Toshihiko Nishikubo; production design by Yohei Taneda; music by Kenji Kawai; art direction by Shuichi Hirata; produced by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and Toshio Suzuki. A DreamWorks SKG and Go Fish Pictures release; opens Friday. In Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, disturbing images and brief language).
Batou - Akio Ohtsuka
Motoko Kusanagi - Atsuko Tanaka
Togusa - Koichi Yamadera
Ishikawa - Yutaka Nakano