Dir/scr: Mamoru Oshii. Japan. 2004. 99mins.
Japanese sci-fi animation, from Katysuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988) onwards, often points towards a post-apocalyptic part-human future. For all the blasts 'n' babes - the buffed heroines in spandex pouring thousands of rounds into clanking foes - the essential vision is dark. But as Mamoru Oshii's Innocence makes clear, not all Japanese sci-fi animators are following the same path into dystopian gloom.
A follow-up to Oshii's 1995 international hit Ghost In The Shell, Innocence revisits Ghost's future world, in which cyborgs have souls. But we are now nine years further along in the digital revolution and this time Oshii has a far bigger budget at his command. Thus, by the technical standards of the earlier film, Innocence marks a huge advance.
Together with the staff at Production IG, Oshii has created a world of astonishing depth and presence, one that fully realises the potential of animation to bring to life the world of its director's imagination in all its hallucinatory complexity. Sometimes there is far too much information on the screen, visual and otherwise, to take in at one go.
This will delight Oshii's many devotees abroad, who will see the film again and again to revel in its detailed imagery and figure out its deep think dialogue. The larger public, who think that the height of animated excellence is Finding Nemo, will probably be baffled. As with Ghost, prospects are brighter on video and DVD, though Japanese anime fans will form long lines outside urban theatres screening the film. There is also a strong chance it will play one of the forthcoming summer festivals outside Japan: Oshii's live-action Avalon played outside competition in official selection at Cannes in 2001.
The hero is a hold-over from Ghost - the cyborg detective Bateau (voice actor: Akio Otsuka), he of the thick neck, bottlecap eyes and intimidating brilliant mind. The story begins in 2032, when Japan is inhabited by not only the dwindling race of humans, but purely mechanoid androids and cyborgs like Bateau, who have a "ghost" or human spirit, but are still vulnerable to "ghost hacks" by evildoers.
Trouble begins when gainoids - androids made in the form of young women and used as sex toys - begin turning on their masters and then self destructing. Bateau and his long-haired partner Togas (voiced by Koichi Yamadera) are sent to investigate.
Following a bizarre battle with an out of control ganoid and a troubling conversation with a chain-smoking coroner, Bateau and Togusa hear about a killing at a boat house. The boss of a yakuza gang has been murdered by his ganoid lover - and now the gang is plotting revenge on the company that made it. What is the link between the company and the gang' Why are the ganoids going mad' Bateau and Togusa go to find out.
All this may make Innocence sound action-packed and creepily lubricious - ganoid sex! - but it is not. Instead, it continues in the aesthetic and dramatic vein of Ghost, while flouting box office conventions. Though Bateau looks as though he could take on a platoon of Terminators, he is the android-as-intellectual, who finds himself interrogating his own existence - and 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 gets to the touchy feely are Bateau's encounters with his basset hound. Otherwise it is mainly an excursion into what might be called Oshii's World Of Dolls. Not the cutesy huggy 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 just owning, once and for all, their "ghosts".
Prod cos: Production IG, Studio Ghibli, Tokuma Shoten Publishing, Nippon TV Broadcasting, Dentsu, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Toho, Delights
Jap dist: Toho
Int'l sales (Asia): Denstu
Dist (rest of the world): DreamWorks
Prod: Mitsuhisa Ichikawa
Art dir: Shuichi Hirata
Prod des: Tohei Taneda
Digital FX supe: Hiroyuki Hayashi
Visual FX: Hisashi Ezura
Music: Kenji Kawai
Sound dir: Kazuhiro Wakabayashi
Main cast (voices): Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Atsuko Tanaka, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Naoto Takenaka