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Key Films #31

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence [Mamoru Oshii, 2004]:

If the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) used the practicalities of a generic cyberpunk conspiracy to question the moralities of mortality, free-will and the complexities of human identity, this follow-up feature - less a direct sequel, in the conventional sense, than a philosophical reimagining - re-examines the same considerations from an entirely different point of view.  Rejecting the hard-line science-fiction influences and references to Hollywood action cinema that propelled its cult predecessor, writer/director Mamoru Oshii and his collaborators have instead taken the character Batou - a significant if peripheral figure from the previous film - and created around him an obscure but revelatory murder mystery that unfolds like a suspended riff on the tech-noir investigations of the Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982), with the deeper shades of existentialism found in a story like Death and the Compass (1942) by Jorge Luis Borges.  As with that particular narrative, the full course of the inquiry, as it develops through a series of echoes, repetitions and the mysteries of viral-infected dreams, is less about tying up the various loose ends of the investigation, or arriving at a suitable third-act "point", than an example of the character being led on a journey of self-discovery, from refutation to self-awareness and the acceptance of his fate.

Like the character of Deckard from Blade Runner, Batou takes on the role of the detective, here investigating a cycle of violent serial-murders involving a system of malfunctioning "gynoids" (essentially: mechanical sex toys, used for illicit means).  Through the development of this macguffin, Oshii is able to introduce not just the dramatic requirements of his narrative (the investigation and Batou's quest), but the various themes and ideas that will come to define the experience of the film and give a weight to its theoretical hypothesis on the nature of individualism and freewill.  The contrasting issues of sex and death, the role of artificial-intelligence and the perseverance of a pretence of human emotion in a world now entirely dominated by robotic technology, are each brought up and explored by the characters in the context of this fictional narrative, but are also deeply entrenched in the design of this character and in the dark and lonesome word that the filmmakers create.  While the first film had Batou as a kind of paternal mentor-figure - offering support, guidance and advice to the conflicted heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi - the version of the character presented here has been left resentful (possibly even jaded) by his experiences during the previous film, but also by his own sense of alienation and disconnection from the world, as it exists.

The progression of Batou though the different levels of the film is really the progression of a character who exists between worlds; no longer a human, in the conventional, biological sense of the word, but at the same time, not quite a "robot", either.  The underlying philosophy of this takes the film back to the same ideological anxieties littered throughout Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell; where the discussions on humanity itself as being the literal "ghost in the machine" - lost or in danger of being replaced - provided a subtext to the more conventional scenes of action and suspense.  In comparison, this follow-up film - subtitled "Innocence", for reasons that we'll soon return to - is a slow, sombre and emotionally inhibited work that strives to present a vision of the future that is less a modern-metropolis than a dank, decaying environment, closer in its rain-soaked misery and late night desperation to the territory of the American film noir.  In its presentation, the film once again brings to mind the world of Scott's "replicant" themed masterpiece, but at the same time is also intended to evoke (more significantly) the considerations of Jean-Luc Godard, and in particular the filmmaker's own science-fiction landmark, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965); itself, one of the great influences on Oshii's work.

The world of "Innocence" is a world of contrasts.  The idea of different technologies co-existing, of eras - of design, or human endeavour - reflected within a single space (a shot, or idea), are each indicative of the desire to transcend, to correct, to adapt or make easy the course of our own human experience; even if such attempts to use the technology to "make better" the perceived flaws of the natural world or the wrongs of civilisation invariably lead us ever closer to the loss of our own identity.  Here, the sight of old cars, baroque architecture and the Godardian influence of having characters speak almost entirely in literary quotations is an acknowledgement of the objectification of the past, as "fetish", against this cold, ultra-robotic world, where love and human expression no longer exist.  They're a part of the pretence of Batou's character, to convince himself that he is "normal"; that the car he drives, the apartment he owns, the words he speaks, are all, in some small way, like reminders of a lost humanity.  It is here where the subtleties of the subtitle become clear.  The journey of the character - like that previously taken by the protagonist of the Borges tale - becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  An investigation that has no conventional outcome, but is intended instead to facilitate the unconscious acceptance of Batou's role.  His "innocence" - the attempt to feign humanity - is an affectation.  He is just a "ghost", still clinging; unable to embrace the emptiness of a digital world.


Akira [Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988]:

As a kid, it was the mix of violent dystopia, sci-fi action and grotesque, almost "Cronenbergian" scenes of pure body-horror that defined the experience of the film.  The transmutation of the central character, Tetsuo - both fascinating and repulsive in its outrageous grandeur - was more a sufficient coda to its preceding scenes of gang violence, motorcycle rallies, police shootouts and government enforcements than anything more metaphysical, or philosophical, in intent.  On reflection, now approaching the film as an adult, aware of its cultural context and more significant historical perspective, it is this socio-political facet of Akira - its attempts to reconcile the history of the country with the then-present-day realities of advanced computer systems, economic uncertainty and the perceived loss of tradition, or cultural identity - that seems the most satisfying interpretation of the work.  That the film begins with an image of Tokyo, annihilated by the white haloed blast of a nuclear bomb, now seems less like a promise of action and spectacle, as it once did, than a calculated effort on the part of the filmmakers to evoke the symbol of destruction that not only brought about the conclusion of the Second World War, but in a sense changed the course of the modern Japan, as it exists today.

The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain shocking moments in twentieth century history; not just for the severity of their destruction, but for the way these events would shape the Japanese psychology during the fall of the 20th century.  It was the bomb that crippled the Japanese economy; ending the country's reign as a legitimate Imperial Empire, and bringing with it the rise of democracy, and a new form of western consumerism that would in fact make possible the economic miracle that saw prosperity during the post-war years.  In Akira, the concerns of the present "past" become the concerns of a potential, if as yet unrealisedfuture; this imaginary future that seems, in its design and direction, to be dangerously close to our own.  Here, the bomb that begins the film becomes a catalyst for the slow death of this future society; a society where the clashes between student radicals and armoured police suggest a political disharmony that is matched by the spiritual disharmony as supported by the ranting-mad prophet and his all-too-eager cult.  These political struggles are placed against the more personal disharmonies reflected by its gangs of disaffected kids causing havoc on the roads and motorways; their rituals and initiations suggestive of ancient knights, or samurai - both jousting and battling for honour and supremacy; like The Warriors (1979) or Mad Max 2 (1981) - but also representing a kind of corrupted fatalism; where life, as these characters now see it, no longer holds meaning.

It is one of these kids - the weakling, Tetsuo - that will become a symbol for all the various concerns and calamities that the filmmakers see as pivotal to the way the country has been shaped by the realities of nuclear annihilation; the course of life, more transient, reckless and unstable; its children, born in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, now lost to the world of technology, images, sensations.  The transmutation of this character, as referenced earlier, now has less to do with the facilitation of shock and gore (as I once perceived) than an effort to visualise the debasement of the culture in an attempt to understand.  The physical transformation as an outer expression of the psychological transformation occurring within is presented as a sort of figurative re-birth; the body transcending the limitations of flesh and blood and instead connecting itself to the new technologies that now define our way of life.  Tetsuo, in his metamorphosis and subsequent retribution, becomes the personification of the country's own post-nuclear identity turned against itself, flesh against flesh, steel against steel, etc.   A powerful image that seems related, in hindsight, to the concerns of the filmmaker Shin'ya Tsukamoto, and to his own "Tetsuo"; there subtitled The Iron Man (1989).

The world of the film is as beautiful in its design as it is brutal in its conception.  Brought to life in a way that is vibrant, vivid and entirely immersive - a modern-day Mecca of consumerism, black market racketeering and synthetic sensations - the reference-points seem blatantly obvious, but no less immense.  The literal "neon-jungle", with its large outdoor video monitors broadcasting 24/7 news bulletins, soap operas and commercial breaks, recalls the retro-futurist metropolis of the Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982) - the eternal benchmark for this kind of cyberpunk tale - while the subculture of gangs and gang violence, and their own world of graffiti-covered classrooms and derelict buildings, is closer to the "brutalist" future of Stanley Kubrick's similarly violent and prophetic A Clockwork Orange (1971).  However, it is the emotional and psychological struggle of Tetsuo (and those closest to him) that for me defines the experience of the film; elevating the action and violence above a level of adolescent excess, and instead connecting it to a more genuine concern about the relationship between youth, technology and the state of the modern-world.  The film is as such loaded with the tragedy of a generation unable to put down roots; to live a life with a sense of stability, or certainty; a generation that expects death to come quickly and without warning, as it did, so many times before.


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