I used to think that Mamoru Oshii's first Ghost in the Shell film was boring. I was wrong. I hadn't seen this yet.
Firstly, a warning. Make sure you're watching a good-quality copy of this film. Firstly, the production values are through the roof and you might as well see them properly. Even its 1995 predecessor had at the time been the most expensive anime film ever, but this outdoes that with a budget of two billion yen. It does indeed look stunning. Its use of CGI is particularly impressive, combining 2D and 3D animation in a way that the anime industry still struggles with thirteen years later.
More important than that, though, are good subtitles. This is a slow, talky piece that's full of philosophical discussions. Oshii quotes Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, the Old Testament, Saito Ryokuu, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and the author of Man a Machine. That's what it's about, really. It's a talk piece. Humourless people walk around a oppressive world and have conversations, ostensibly while investigating a crime. There's at best twenty minutes of plot and two minutes of characterisation, so you'll suffer if you can't even get into the dialogue. Unfortunately I had the kind of subtitles that have probably been filtered through a third language, e.g. translating "yakuza" as "secret society". Thus I was screwed. This will have affected my enjoyment and I'm sure my review will be unfairly negative. It didn't even help much to concentrate on listening to the Japanese voice actors, because the dialogue tends to be dense, dry and ferociously difficult to follow. Even if you're normally a fluent speaker, expect to struggle to understand this.
It's more or less a sequel to the 1995 film. (Oshii wanted to hide the fact that this was another Ghost in the Shell film, with the title just being 'Innocence' for its Japanese release.) Major Kusanagi isn't around, so we're stuck with Batou and Togusa. They were sort of okay in the first film, but that was when they had Kusanagi to bounce off. This time, they're a problem. Admittedly I don't even find Kusanagi that interesting, to be honest, but there's something about her and she's better at interacting with other people than these two dour cops. (I also like her voice actress.) Batou had a bit of spark when he was Kusanagi's sidekick, but this time around he's an Auton. He robots his way through this film. Cyborg, cyborg, cyborg. He's a tank in a coat. You could be forgiven for assuming he'd died while we weren't looking, which on reflection might even be deliberate. That could describe both his cybernetic nature and the fact that he's lost the only person with whom he had even a shadow of an emotional link.
As for Togusa, he's human but equally po-faced. He has a wife and daughter, though, while Batou just has a dog. (It's a basset hound. Oshii loves putting basset hounds in his films, but this time he's gone to town on it. In fairness, though, this particular one is lovable. It's also thematically significant, being effectively the only real thing in Batou's artificial life.)
If you're into discussions of reality, identity, sex and the boundaries between machines and intelligent life, then you're in luck. Watch this film. If you prefer a plot, though, forget it. The film's barely even pretending to care about plotting. If it's about anything beyond its mood, ideas and visuals, then you could perhaps interpret it as an exploration of Batou's mechanical existence, no longer in touch with the world and perhaps only doing his job because he doesn't have enough humanity left to embark on anything else. That works quite well, but it still makes for a fairly deadening film.
Does this film contain any straightforward entertainment? Mmmmm... occasionally. Sometimes things turn violent. After half an hour of dour conversations, for instance, Batou and Togusa go to meet the yakuza. This doesn't go well. This gives us the film's one and only flash of humour, when Togusa reminds Batou of his promise to try not to shoot everyone.
Also, more substantially, the last twenty minutes are good. The film remembers that it had a story, which you'd think would be hard to forget since it involves killer gynoid sexbots. (Fascinatingly, those aren't sexy. How many anime films would even think of creating a mass assault from naked robot sex dolls and yet not play up the fanservice? On the contrary, though, these gynoids are off-putting. Their anatomy's all wrong, with ball joint hips and blobbiness in the wrong places.)
There are surprises, some of them shocking (but thematically significant). Batou finds a reason to become more watchable.
One might suggest that it's borrowing from The Matrix, incidentally, but that's okay since the Wachowskis in turn had been borrowing from Oshii. They share a meme pool. Admittedly they borrowed from lots of places, but Joel Silver has said they first described their plans for The Matrix by showing him the 1995 Ghost in the Shell and saying "we wanna do that for real".
It's an achievement. It's pushing the boundaries of animation. There's a parade sequence based on a Taiwanese religious procession, for instance, that took over a year to complete and looks incredible. Admittedly it's also pointless enough to make you wonder why it's in the film, but it's still so striking that you and your friends will probably be talking about that parade afterwards. It's certainly a landmark film. It impressed a lot of critics. (Audiences less so.) It screened at the Cannes Film Festival and even competed for the Palme d'Or. I can imagine that. I should probably rewatch it one day and reassess, which I can imagine would actually be quite an interesting experience... but this first time was hard going.