Machine Dreams 

A talk with visionary Japanese animator Mamoru Oshii about his new film Ghost in the Shell 2

A talk with visionary Japanese animator Mamoru Oshii about his new film Ghost in the Shell 2

Ghost in The Shell 2: Innocence

Dir.: Mamoru Oshii

PG-13, 99 min.

Opening Friday at

Belcourt Theatre

Batou, the central character of the new animated feature Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, is a gruff, middle-aged detective who has replaced so much of his body with mechanical parts that he is loathe to call himself human. No wonder the film's director, Mamoru Oshii, picked Batou as his alter ego. In his work, as in life, Oshii has repeatedly questioned what it means to be human, particularly in a world driven by technology.

Now considered one of the most original and influential artists working in Japanese animation, Oshii attended Tokyo Liberal Arts University, where he studied many forms of philosophy and religion as well as film. "When I was in college, I was always interested in Christianity and religion," Oshii recently said by phone from California, during a rare U.S. publicity tour to promote Innocence. "I even thought of transferring to a Christian seminary"—a desire borne less of piety than of his endless curiosity about the hearts and minds of man. "It's really the phenomena created by religion that I'm most interested in, rather than religion itself."

Unlike Hayao Miyazaki, his peer among the top ranks of Japanese animators, Oshii works in both animation and live-action. Although he calls the animation industry "a sinful world"—a striking parallel to the milieu of organized crime and corporate criminals that Batou battles in Innocence—he expresses no preference for film or animation. "It would be more ideal if I could direct one live-action movie after doing one animation," he says, "so that I don't get bored doing the same genre repeatedly. They are both strenuous but rewarding in different ways."

They also reflect different aspects of the director's concerns. In his animated films—especially Ghost in the Shell, released in 1996 and now regarded as an anime milestone—Oshii provokes heated discussion of humanity's role in the age of advanced machinery. His live-action works often reflect a political pessimism that emerged during his days as a student protester against the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

His recent films have fused these issues, as in his script for the animated Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, which imagines an alternate post-World War II Japan run by militant fascists. And yet—in this interview, anyway—the director demurs that his films have any political content.

"I don't recall addressing any political issues in any of my movies," Oshii says, his voice trailing off. Perhaps he simply sees politics as irrelevant. As he said in a conversation with Miyazaki, printed in Animage magazine, "It is certain that the world has hit the wall, in both the economic and political sense." He says his vision is now focused on the exponential growth of technology and its effect on human interaction.

It's the visual dazzle of Oshii's animation that has drawn a devoted following in the U.S. and inspired imitators like the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame. (Their films even open with a neon-green character scroll, an homage to the opening credits of the original Ghost in the Shell—even if Oshii says the films' trailers remind him of nothing so much as the goofy anime series Dragonball.) Yet few have been able to marry dynamic action sequences and intellectual challenges the way Oshii has in his animated films. Compare the gobbledygook between bullet-time battles in the Matrix sequels to the seamless exploration of philosophy through action in Innocence, a mechanized police procedural told in stunning, often violent cartoon-noir imagery.

Released stateside by Go Fish, the anime division of DreamWorks, Innocence marks Oshii's widest exposure thus far to a U.S. audience. His timing could not be better, and not just because he addresses concerns such as anti-terrorist paranoia and artificial intelligence. Japanese animation, or anime, is in the midst of a rush of worldwide popularity. Money pours into Japanese studios from American corporations, who are desperately seeking the next Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh. This dwarfs what the studios gain from broadcasting rights in their homeland.

Some fans fear that anime's drive to conquer the U.S. market has led to a decline in quality. But Oshii seems unconcerned about the industry's direction or the reasons for its popularity in the States, perhaps because Innocence is clearly targeted at an international audience. "I don't know about other directors or people in the industry, but personally I don't think I'll change the way I direct my animated films, regardless of the target country," he explains. "I think entertainment is universal."

Indeed. Just as Hollywood Westerns helped inspire the films of Akira Kurosawa, Oshii says that the directors of the French New Wave shaped his own work. Especially Jean-Luc Godard—which shouldn't be surprising, given Oshii's love of film and philosophy, but is nonetheless. In Innocence, characters speak in a give and take of competing philosophies similar to the dialogue in Godard's In Praise of Love, something Oshii has no problem admitting.

"Godard's works have inspired me in many ways. It's not any particular elements or techniques that he utilizes in [In Praise of Love]. It's more the way he approaches his movies as a director." Godard's approach, which Oshii admires, is that visual stimulation alone does not serve its audience well: "The images associated to text correspond to a unifying act that renews cinema."

Conventional wisdom says humanity has suffered during the Internet age, that we are increasingly isolated from one another and in danger of becoming virtual beings. For Oshii, this is not a frightening prospect. "Humanity," he says, "has reached its limits." At the end of the original Ghost in the Shell, the futuristic investigator Motoko Kusanagi (whose presence is felt in the sequel) abandons her cyborg body completely, choosing a new plane of existence in cyberspace.

"What I really wanted to express is that humanity is changing or evolving," Oshii says. "People should not fear the changes but rather accept it. In order to maintain their humanity, he/she needs to accept the change."

And therein lies the task of Batou, the protagonist of Innocence. Stripped of most of his organic parts by the necessities of his job, stripped of most human contact by his own will as he's witnessed the ugliest sides of society, he's driven into solitude to contemplate life's meaning with his hound dog at his side. Not coincidentally, Mamoru Oshii has done the same. He moved far from bustling high-tech Tokyo to the lush Izu peninsula to soak in hot springs with his dog Gabriel nearby.

"Batou is very much like me in the sense that he loves dogs and can't live without dogs and is beginning to dislike being surrounded by people," Oshii says. "This is very much how I feel."

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