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Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Despite the medium's popularity among DVD buyers, theatrical anime features have rarely been able to dent the American box office. Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (originally a manga by Masamune Shirow) was one of the few to make a splash. Its mix of gritty action, detailed technological futurism, and philosophical musings struck a chord with audiences, and the title has endured as a classic of the sci-fi genre, animated or not. Without Oshii's involvement but with that of Shirow, the Production I.G studio later launched a spin-off TV series called Stand Alone Complex, leaning a little more towards the action and a little less towards the philosophizing, that has proven equally popular. Although utilizing the same characters and settings, S.A.C. is technically considered a parallel adaptation of the Shirow manga, and does not follow the continuity of the movie (events at the end of the first feature have no bearing on the TV show). However, the character art is nearly identical, most of the voice actors are the same, and the storylines blend so well with the movie's that most viewers find it easy to consider the show and film all part of the same universe, so long as they don't mind fudging some of the story details a little.
As if just to throw a wrench in the works, in 2004 Oshii returned to one of his most popular properties with a theatrical sequel, Innocence. The new movie is a direct sequel to the 1995 film, with no concession made to the S.A.C. series, and in fact often plays as if Oshii had deliberately avoided ever watching the show. This may confuse some viewers who hadn't been paying close enough attention to the continuities of the two adaptations. It really helps to make sense of the sequel if you watch the original immediately beforehand.
In all of its forms, Ghost in the Shell explores a near future society in which humanity and technology have blended to the point where most people utilize cybernetic enhancements to their physical bodies, and are even able to download their memories and consciousness to electronic format externally. Only the soul (or "ghost") differentiates a human being from a purely robotic machine, but even this line is blurring with advances in artificial intelligence and ghost mimicking.
Innocence picks up a number of years after Major Motoko Kusanagi's cyborg body had been destroyed, and her ghost vanished into hiding within the vast computer Net. In this timeline, she has not returned, and her partner Batou has stepped up as lead field agent for the Public Security Section 9 task force. The mostly still flesh-and-blood Togusa, formerly a supporting player, has been assigned as Batou's new partner, and the two are sent to investigate a series of gruesome murders in which robotic sex dolls have turned against their owners and then self-destructed. The trail leads them to root out a conspiracy involving the robot manufacturer and the secret to these particular sex toys' popularity among a certain high-society clientele. The Major does eventually make an appearance to lend a hand, but not until a good 80 minutes into the movie, and not in a form most will be expecting.
The brief summary above barely skims the surface of the film's greater depth and complexity. If it makes the movie sound like an episode of C.S.I.: The Future, don't get the wrong idea. Oshii is, as always, less interested in the burden of plot than in his long-winded exploration of abstract intellectual ideas. To that end, Innocence could be best described as an existential cop buddy picture. It has a couple of really cool action scenes, but the characters spend more time spouting impenetrable technobabble and quoting extensively from obscure philosophical texts than doing anything that could be described as traditional police work. The back-and-forth banter between the two leads flows at a dizzying pace that's difficult to keep up with, especially since practically every subtitled line of dialogue requires two or three readings to comprehend.
Yet the movie is utterly fascinating, both for the ideas on its mind and its truly visionary direction. Even with the first movie and two seasons of the TV show already familiar to audiences, Oshii really steps up to the plate with the breathtaking visual design of Innocence. Not since Blade Runner has a view of the future been realized so completely down to the most minute of detail. Every frame is crammed with layers upon layers of densely-packed imagery, some traditional animation and some computer generated (a fusion much in keeping with the movie's themes). You could step frame-by-frame through the entire feature and feel greatly rewarded for the experience.
Under its Americanized title designed to remind viewers of the connection to its predecessor, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence played theatrically in the United States in limited release, with its original Japanese language soundtrack and English subtitles (a brave move from distributor Dreamworks). It didn't light nearly the same fire as the original, unfortunately. Perhaps it was the subtitles, or perhaps it was misplaced expectations based on the TV series, but Oshii's surreal head trip left theater audiences confused and dissatisfied. It was a real treat to see its amazing visuals on the big screen, but the ability to pause and rewatch scenes assures a much greater appreciation on home video.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Innocence debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of I.G Cinema Selection, distributed by Buena Vista Home Entertainment in Japan. The disc is coded for Region A playback, which encompasses Japan and both American continents. A Japanese Blu-ray should function in any American Blu-ray player.
The disc defaults to immediate playback of the movie, but does have a main menu page that you can jump to if desired. Since this Blu-ray was intended for the Japanese market, both the main menu and the interactive pop-up menus are mostly in Japanese text and may be slightly confusing for a non-Japanese speaker to navigate.
The source used for the transfer reflects the title as just Innocence, and the movie does not contain the additional prologue text that was tacked onto the American theatrical release to remind viewers what happened in the last movie.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Innocence Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a dual-layer 50 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 with tiny letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The picture looks very good, though not quite as remarkable as I had hoped. The image is just a bit soft, and has noticeable color banding artifacts in several scenes as well as some minor grain and video noise. Colors are decent, but the movie's palette is more restrained than eye-poppingly deep or vibrant. These are small nits to pick, however. It's a nice disc.
The DVD edition also had an excellent transfer for that format, one that upscales very well for display on a High Definition screen (the clean lines in animated movies tend to make the scaling process easier). For that reason, when comparing the two discs I found the difference between the DVD and the Blu-ray much smaller than expected. There is certainly an improvement in fine detail if you look for it; notice the close-up of the cyborg eye at the end of the opening credits sequence -- the serial numbers on the iris are more easily read on the Blu-ray. But generally speaking the two discs look more alike than not, and I can foresee many fans being satisfied enough with the DVD.
The Innocence Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.
The movie's original Japanese language soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 7.1, DTS-ES Discrete 6.1, or Dolby Digital-EX 5.1 formats. You can't go wrong no matter which option you pick, but of course the PCM track is a true stunner. I'll just go ahead and rate this disc with a perfect 5-star score. It's reference quality in every way.
The movie has outstanding sound design by the legendary Randy Thom (Contact, Cast Away, War of the Worlds, numerous others), and this mix is up there with his best work. Loud and expansive in the best possible ways, the audio has razor sharp effects, heart-stopping deep bass, and aggressive surround envelopment. The track is superbly directional and immersive, with excellent fidelity from the quietest whisper to the biggest explosion. There is absolutely nothing to criticize here. This soundtrack is simply terrific.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or French.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.
The English subtitles come from the very good American theatrical translation by Linda Hoaglund and Judith Aley. Unlike the Region 1 DVD edition, the subtitles translate dialogue only, and do not mistakenly display closed captioning sound effect cues.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the Japanese DVD edition. Sadly, none of them offer English translation.
- Audio Commentary - Mamoru Oshii and animation director Toshihiko Nishi Kubo deliver their commentary in Japanese. Unfortunately, no English subtitles are provided here. The American DVD edition does contain a subtitled version of this commentary.
- Animated Clips (35 min., SD) - An alternate opening credit sequence with all Japanese text is presented in cruddy Standard Definition video, as are a series of seven montages of footage from the movie edited to songs from the soundtrack. These music videos of sorts are moody and atmospheric. Some of the footage is taken from pre-production animatics, and some from background elements only seen in the movie with layers of additional animation on top of them. An additional 5-min. clip set to the song "Follow Me" is also hidden as an easter egg in this section of the disc menus.
- Documentary (44 min.) - Judging from the unsubtitled footage, this documentary seems to cover topics such as the movie's release and marketing, a history of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, the production studio, and Mamoru Oshii.
- Making of Innocence (16 min.) - Also not subtitled, this piece features interviews with the movie's animators discussing Oshii's obsessive perfectionism. They all look completely miserable and overworked. This featurette is available with subtitles on the American DVD.
- Trailers - American, French, Korean, and Chinese trailers are offered. The American trailer has an extremely cheesy voiceover and tries to represent the movie as a slam-bang action extravaganza.
- TV Spots - Four Japanese TV spots are available.
- "Follow Me" (5 min.) - As mentioned above, an additional music video can be found in the Animated Clips section of the disc by playing around in the menus until an unmarked icon is highlighted.
To be sure, Innocence is an anime landmark and a fascinating extension of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, one more focused on heady ideas than rocking action. It's a treat to have in High Definition, even if the Blu-ray isn't quite as big an improvement over the DVD edition as hoped. Still, this Japanese disc (fully compatible with American Blu-ray players) has very good picture and fantastic sound, though few of its supplements are English friendly. The high import price will certainly be off-putting for most casual viewers, but the disc rates a recommendation for fans.
At the time of this writing, HMV Japan offers the best deal on the disc. The price comes to a little over $60 after shipping to the United States.