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Ghost in the Shell: Innocence

Tuesday 17th June 2014


Ten years after Innocence’s premiere, Jasper Sharp is still in love with it

ghost-in-the-shell-2-innocence-3.jpg2004 is certain to go down in history as a vintage year for theatrical anime, with such ground-breaking releases as Studio 4°C’s quirky cult favourite Mind Game, the sleek CG spectacle of Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and last but by no means least, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence all hitting the big screen in Japan.

With Miyazaki’s Best Animated Feature triumph at the 75th Academy Awards for Spirited Away (2001), never before had Japanese animation enjoyed such a high profile and critical esteem in the eyes of the world. Many who had previously dismissed these “cartoons” and their otaku adherents out of hand suddenly began to get curious, and commentators outside of Japan were quick to claim Miyazaki as the Eastern heir apparent to the legacy of Walt Disney.

However, it was Mamoru Oshii’s unashamedly esoteric sequel to his earlier global crossover Ghost in the Shell (1995) that would lend the most credibility to claims for anime as ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, when it became the first animated film from Japan to be entered in competition at Cannes.

800_ghost_in_the_shell_blu-ray_blu-ray2.jpgInnocence was not the only Japanese film competing at Cannes in 2004 – it was accompanied by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows. More significantly, nor was it the only animation, with the competition selection also including DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek 2. It seems particularly significant that in this particular year, these two particular animated features (both sequels, to boot) should be pitted against each other, given how they embodied such utterly different approaches to their art.

It had only been a few years since Hollywood animation studios had announced it was time to ditch the traditional tools of the trade and go completely digital. Japan, by contrast, had built up a world-renowned reputation for the quality of its cel animation, with its meticulous, near-photographic levels of hand-drawn detail often employed self-reflexively to raise questions about the nature of reality as we perceive it and as it is presented to us. When digital techniques were adopted, as in the films of Studio Ghibli from Prince Mononoke onwards, it was to embellish rather than to replace these human-created elements, with 3D objects (such as the titular castle in Howl’s Moving Castle) disguised as much as possible to fit within an overall 2D aesthetic.

Anime might not have had the same mass-market potential as the films of Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks, but at a time when the introduction of 3DCG offered challenges to the presumed wisdom of what animation and its target audience could be (not to mention the impact digital techniques were having on embellishing the “reality” of live-action films), it offered jaded cinema-goers a refreshing alternative vision of what the medium could deliver.

800_ghost_in_the_shell_blu-ray_blu-ray3.jpgIn 2002, DreamWorks had announced it had acquired the rights of Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001) for distribution outside of Asia. Kon’s film clouded the postwar history of Japan with the collected memories of its own cinema’s history, as channelled through a woman whose off-screen existence behind her various shifting, chameleon-like film personas is constantly called into question. Kon’s choice of animation to portray a drama that initially might seem better suited to live-action, in order to provide an ironic commentary on the real versus the reel world, presented the very essence of what one might term the animated ‘art’ film, aimed at a cosmopolitan international audience, and a world apart from the type of animation DreamWorks itself was producing.

Though the cyberpunk theme of Innocence saw it fit more comfortably with preconceived notions of what anime was, Oshii’s film went several steps beyond Millennium Actress with regards to its synergy of form and content to address its primary philosophical concerns – namely the shifting of human intelligence and, ultimately, consciousness, away from the material world.

Key to its approach was the pioneering integration of computer-generated and hand-drawn elements to create its world of man-machine hybrids. As Oshii has said “I could exploit the potential of CG in full in Innocence because I had a clear vision of what I wanted to realize with that movie. The method and the theme were in harmony with each other.”

gits2_15.jpgCharacterisation lies at the very heart of animation. If animation literally means bringing life, or ‘anima’, to the inanimate, then the best animators know that the key to their craft is simplification and abstraction. When it comes to forging an emotional bond with audiences through posture, movement and facial expression, it takes but a simple line to induce a smile or raise an eyebrow, and it is it is worth noting that the CG protagonists of Hollywood commercial animation such as Shrek, Toy Story and Ratatouille et al are essentially virtual puppets, very much cast in the same mould as their cartoon forebears like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.

The more faithful to reality the animator attempts to make his character, the more unsettling the effect; the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ disjunction between the original and copy so evident in a film like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). It is the reason that many Japanese animators give for their preference for hand-drawn character animation, and also the reason that the motion-captured wireframe-model characters in Innocence’s contemporary, the completely computer-generated animation Appleseed, were given a makeover with a software tool known as Toon Shader at the final rendering stage, to actual make them look like traditional hand-drawn anime characters (one could argue that few titles stretch the definitions of ‘animation’ as far as Appleseed!)

It seems only natural for a film whose characters sit at various points along the spectrum between “essentially cyborg”, such as Batou, or his “mostly human” partner Togusa, should exploit this ‘uncanny valley’ effect, and yet all of the film’s characters are hand-drawn.  It is clear that Oshii wants us to identify even with the most tenuously human of its dramatic agents, such as Batou’s former partner, Major Kusanagi, subsumed within the electronic ether at the end of the previous film, whose disembodied “ghost” temporarily adopts corporeal form when she downloads herself into the body of a gynoid sex doll for the film’s climactic shootout.

Though drawn by hand, the sophisticated designs of Oshii’s characters nevertheless render them colder than the powerful audience identification figures of virtual puppets such as Shrek, although this is undoubtedly intentionally, given the theme.

3DCG is, however, used comprehensively for the quite breath-taking cyborg birth sequence of the opening credits, in which a female human simulacrum grows from a single synthetic cell that subdivides and transforms into various biomorphic doll-part constituents – its shifting form at various points mirrors the famous doll sculptures created by Swiss surrealist Hans Bellmer in the 1930s, which Oshii has cited as a major influence on his film. Bellmer’s work featured in an exhibition hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo entitled ‘Dolls of Innocence’ to tie in with the film’s release, which also included similarly disturbing works from a number of Japanese artists including Hiroko Igeta and Etsuko Miura.

Realism is a loaded term in animation. Nevertheless, it is an endpoint to which both the wholly CG-animated Shrek 2 and the organic/digital hybrid of Innocence aspire in their own distinct ways.

While the characters of Hollywood CG animation are kept deliberately non-realistic, their creators want audiences to believe that they exist on the screen. Thus the worlds they inhabit are rendered in as realistic a fashion as possible, as if filmed by a real camera, with the effects of light, for example, playing upon their skin or fur, or streaming through water. Shrek 2, which in many ways represented the state of the art of 3DCG at the time of its release, effectively creates a fantasy world from nothing but digital bits and bytes, but it is a world cast in the very same mould as live-action cinema in terms of its adherence to physical and optical rules.

800_ghost_in_the_shell_blu-ray_blu-ray4.jpgOshii had led the way in pursuing a photorealistic aesthetic since Patlabor. On the commentary track of the Blu-ray of Innocence, he concedes that the artificially-introduced lens flare used to suggest scenes were actually unfolding for real in front of a camera had subsequently become something of a cliché within anime. CG was perfectly attuned to this goal, and was used extensively for all the backgrounds within Innocence. As well as allowing for a photorealistic modelling of ambient illumination (used with expressive subtlety in scenes such as an early elevator ride, the light oscillating through grille door while it ascends), it permitted a greater sense of movement into and within the scene. As Oshii later said, “I could move my virtual camera within a computer generated 3-dimensional environment, and by doing this, I created an animated movie using a live-action approach.”

The attention to detail within Innocence is quite staggering. In the scene in which Batou is ghost hacked in the grocery store, every can or packet of food on the shelves is rendered as a unique 3D object. In an early scene of Batou and Togusa driving through the cityscape, the accumulated grime noticeable on the car windows was texture-mapped onto the virtual windscreen from a photo taken by one of Production I.G.’s animators of his own car’s dirty windows – a level of hyper-verisimilitude that goes far beyond that of live-action.

Oshii has said that the texture processing for backgrounds such as this turned out to be a huge amount of physical work. The standout parade festival sequence contained up to 600 textures for each shot, and alone took almost two years to complete, and yet most viewers would hardly notice that many of the tiny figures within the background crowds are individually animated, even when watching the film projected upon the big screen.

Innocence_Ghost_in_the_Shell_2_Batou.jpgThere’s clearly a method beyond such fastidiousness in a film that defines its own reality in terms of both the concrete and the virtual, and implicitly explores the related idea of the difference between seeing and knowing the physical world. Many of the cuts in Innocence frame its environment from the point of view of a non-human protagonist, and one whose perceptual abilities extend beyond the visual. The commentary track draws attention to a number of cuts that rely on traditional hand-drawn animation approaches to create a trompe l’oeil warped perspective effect that would be impossible to realise purely using 3DCG, suggesting that such mechanical vision need not be constrained by a monocular lens-based way of seeing.

But what does it all really mean? Might we view the flocks of birds that appear throughout the film as just image noise; movement for the sake of movement to add further dynamism to Oshii’s images? Or is their flocking a visual articulation of one of the film’s inherent ideas regarding self-organising systems, in which complexity emerges from a set of simple rules? Or is it a representation of the irrepressibility of organic wet life in urban dead zones? Or all of these things together?

gits-innocence7.jpgAnd the stunning elephant parade, seemingly superfluous to the main narrative, surely can’t be just a physical representation of the elephant alluded to in the dialogue, delivered in the form of cryptic koans, between Batou and Togusa? Is it perhaps also a reference to Al-Jazari’s famous elephant clock from the 12th century, that represented one of the earliest real-world examples of a manmade automaton precedent to Innocence’s cyborgs

Innocence is a gem of a movie in every sense of the word, and like a gem, reveals different facets when viewed in a different light from different angles. Viewed with a decade of hindsight, its articulation of a machine-based reality seems even more eerily prescient than ever, while its innovative application of 3DCG hasn’t dated one bit – and while it is tempting to attribute all of its virtues to its visionary director, Oshii himself is quick to acknowledge the considerable input of animators at Production I.G. over the three-year production period, stating that:

‘I’m confident that the impact that Innocence brought to the concept of 3D applied to movies has yet to be surpassed. And it’s not a matter of budget or software, but it’s due to a human factor, as it would be virtually impossible to gather the staff that made Innocence again.’

Let us ignore the fact that Oshii and his entourage departed empty-handed from Cannes, and that both Shrek 2 and Innocence ultimately lost out to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for the Palme d’Or, as chosen by the jury headed by Quentin Tarantino (the “second place” Grand Prix given to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, though, is a good reminder of how the West was just opening its mind to the considerable merits of Asian genre cinema around the time of Kill Bill).

We could have much to say about the actual 2004 Palme d’Or winner’s treatment of its contemporary reality, but whereas this was a film completely of its moment, on both a technical and thematic level, Innocence was way ahead of its time.

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence is available on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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