Nine years after his classic Japanime "Ghost in the Shell," creator Mamoru Oshii fails to spin the same magic twice. Covering the same ground with no new thoughts, "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" is a let-down. Futuristic fable about vanishing human identity has a must-see appeal for fans, but pic will only enjoy a ghost of the original's success.

Nine years after his classic Japanime “Ghost in the Shell,” creator Mamoru Oshii fails to spin the same magic twice. Talky, repetitive and largely covering the same ground with no new thoughts, “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence” is a major let-down. Futuristic fable about vanishing human identity (the “ghost”) in a cyborg/artificial age follows two characters from the original, beefy Batou and sidekick Togusa, on hunt for murderous female robots (“gynoids”). Journey has a must-see appeal for fans of the 1995 movie and sequences of imaginative visuals, but, internationally, pic will only enjoy a ghost of the original’s success.

Film’s slot in this year’s Cannes competition is puzzling in light of the presence in the market of hot new live action/anime title “Casshern,” which bests “Innocence” in inventiveness and sheer excitement at every level.

It’s 2032, and the almost totally mechanical security cyborg Batou, along with the human-looking Togusa, is assigned to a case in which a brand of gynoid, created for sexual pleasure, has gone crazy and started killing people.

After following a gun-blazing trail that leads through the city’s underworld, the two anti-terrorist Section 9 detectives track down mechanical Web head Kim, who points them in the direction of Locus Solus, the org behind the bad gynoids.

En route, Batou is troubled by his memories of the now-legendary Major, former femme head of Section 9, with whom he shared a memorable adventure –and, more important, philosophical discussions about their identities — in the first pic. However, in the meantime, Batou has become an aphorism-spouting machine (sample: “However a jackass travels, it won’t come back a horse”), which initially seems to be used for comic effect but soon becomes tiresome.

Apart from being largely incomprehensible and muddied by yards of meaningless techno-talk, the plot also provides few opportunities for the major theme of the pic — if people are now largely creations of science, is love also a creation of science? — to be developed.

Oshii delivers some reasonably good action sequences, though they’re pretty conventional in anime terms and lack the strange combination of physicality and sexuality that gave the original film its special flavor.

Animation this time round is much smoother and technically more elaborate, with intricate flying machines and rococo Chinoiserie. (All writing and signs are in hanja rather than kana.) But there’s a shortage of the earlier pic’s haunting, dream-like atmosphere, and memorable moments of stillness and sensuality.

The closest Oshii comes to that in this film is an aerial voyage, 50 minutes into the film, across a city of tall spires and oriental-Gothic buildings, billed as a “former prosperous Asian zone that’s now a lawless haven for criminals and undesirables.” (A futuristic Hong Kong, perhaps?)

But even the poetry of the animation — seagulls, twilight, mist and floating blossom — seems forced. At best it’s a striking central interlude, unincorporated into the main plot and hardly made much of even when our heroes land.

Encoring as composer, Kenji Kawai contributes high-pitched choral music that’s basically repeated without variation — a pure wash of color rather than a dramatic commentary on the action. The character of Togusa is little more than a reactive sidekick, and muscle-head Batou is not sympathetic enough to carry a whole movie.

Stealing the charm honors are the occasional animals, especially a basset hound that’s cute enough to adopt.

As one aphorism repeatedly states in the movie: “Life and death come and go like marionettes on a table. Once their strings are cut, they easily crumble.” Some sequels do, too, it seems.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Competing / Japan

Production

A Toho Co. (in Japan)/DreamWorks (in U.S.) release of a Production I.G. production. (International sales: DreamWorks, Los Angeles.) Produced by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Toshio Suzuki. Directed, written by Mamoru Oshii, from the story "Ghost in the Shell" by Shirow Masamune. Animation directors, Toshihiko Nishikubo, Naoko Kusumi.

Crew

Camera (color), Miki Sakuma; music, Kenji Kawai; theme song ("Follow Me"), Kimiko Itoh; production designer, Yohei Taneda; art director, Shuichi Hirata; sound (Dolby Digital, DTS Digital), Kazuhiro Wakabayashi, Shuji Inoue; sound designer, Randy Thom; character designer, Hiroyuki Okiura; Mecha and vehicle designer, Atsushi Takeuchi; digital effects supervisor, Hiroyuki Hayashi; visual effects, Hisashi Ezura. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 19, 2004. Running time: 98 MIN. (Japanese dialogue version)
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