At its center a detective film, or any narrative disentanglement of a mystery, presents a struggle between versions of reality. I relish this idea, which I first heard from a writing teacher, because it isolates what I love about the genre—nothing is what it seems. The framework? Amorphous. The stakes? The very fabric and structure of the world. Neo-noir pushes this weirdness past the plot into aesthetics, where surfaces are of supreme importance. In Mulholland Drive, Chinatown, Oldboy, and many others, surfaces are not to be brushed past. They do not simply signify, nor function as neutral spectacle. Instead, the exhibitions of objects, people, and time vibrate with unexpected tension and inflected textures.
I propose that neo-noir, like film noir, is about tracing hidden lines of power and motive, but even more, it’s about the shifting feeling of such a process. What is it like to be affected? What does it look like, to be influenced by power? What do you notice when overwhelmed by an environment that is glittering, warping, or startlingly alive? The unknown bubbles up into the present, and makes recognizable surfaces seem mysterious and inscrutable. And importantly, the film revels in this. The observing eye, the feeling consciousness, is earnestly ambivalent, in order to transcend the inherited framework—moral, physical, social. Nothing can be taken for granted. Every sensory experience seeps like a weird wound.
Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell enacts this mode exquisitely, and is rightly lauded as a cyberpunk tech-noir masterpiece. In the tradition of Blade Runner, the movie follows Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg Japanese intelligence officer whose artificial body and human brain are both government property, as she investigates a criminal hacker who claims to be an unprecedented pure artificial life form. The film has a polished, even surface and lines up compactly, maintaining a perfect balance between directorial reserve and wildness. Scenes are elliptical and dense, with just a touch of strangeness as the story propels itself, sleek as a submarine, to its conclusion, where the Major forsakes the status quo and merges with the artificial life form, repurposing her old self into a new being.
In comparison, Oshii’s 2004 follow-up, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, risks being pretentious, self-indulgent, convoluted, and just too much. Both films feature warped foregrounded surfaces, in my proposed neo-noir style. But where the first film is cool and controlled, in Innocence the parameters of the experience relentlessly wobble. Whether from clumsiness or deliberate disregard (I suspect the latter), Oshii boldly collides incongruent realities—the story world, our world, his own preoccupations—with little effort to hide the seams. The film features mismatched animation styles, non sequitur montages, a sphinxlike plot presentation, and bulky meditations on the nature of reality, featuring shoehorned quotes from Descartes, Milton, Confucius, and many more. But such committed excessiveness, for this viewer, makes Innocence my favorite kind of film: powerful in its earnestness, and captivating in its thoughtful defiance.
Innocence tracks the Major’s former sidekick Batou, a grim, brawny cyborg with a dad-like sardonic sweetness and a taste for huge guns, as he continues to do his duty in an environment that feels increasingly hollow, haunted by the absence of his old partner. When a series of sex robots impossibly violate their coding, killing their high-profile owners before committing suicide, Batou investigates the murders for possible terrorism. Navigating a dangerous labyrinth of leads, he finally discovers the manufacturers have illegally “ghost-dubbed” human children’s souls into the robots to make them more lifelike. With a breathtaking intervention from the Major, Batou manages to rescue the human children and collect evidence against the corporation. The fate of the robots, however, is far less clear.
I don’t pretend to understand all the layers to Oshii’s film, especially the Japanese cultural context and the dizzying number of religious, philosophical, and literary references, and I want to be straightforward about these gaps. I am a young, second-generation mixed race American woman, born in Taipei and raised on a cattle farm in rural, prayer barn Oklahoma, where feminism was an evil word. I was homeschooled, regularly spoke in tongues, and was banned from most media for its demonic influence at worst and its irreverent, discomforting silliness at best. Horror films, secular music, sitcoms—I came to these icons late in life and at an angle. So I constantly feel affected by but unable to precisely participate in, or even identify, the undercurrents of the cultural and capital forces around me in my current New York home, including the forces at work in this film.
But, that is perhaps an interesting lens from which to analyze a movie about a protagonist who feels similarly bewildered and ambivalently affected by ungraspable forces that shape and shake his world—a world that is inconsistent, incomprehensible, and presents as increasingly unreal. Unlike me, however, Batou is male, tough, assimilated, and institutionally very powerful, and in every way he looks and acts the part. In a world of warping surfaces, he plays the straight man to moving, surprising effect, as he maintains a stoic, unswerving devotion to the absent Major, and a faith that she is still out there on “the vast net.”
This faith functions as one of the few solid handholds in Innocence, where almost every element is glaringly inconsistent. Notably, this includes Batou himself, for sequences are revealed retroactively to be illusions, planted by hackers into his e-brain. In contrast, in Ghost in the Shell, Oshii draws strict lines around the central mystery. The initial world is relatively solid, with its consistent animation, naturalistic dialogue, and polished mise-en-scène. Strange factors destabilize this consistency, but the Major traces these lines, uncovers them, and physically isolates them into one cyborg body. In the end, she can concretely take these forces by the hand, and then insert herself into them, integrating, learning about, and seizing power.
But Batou is completely unnerved in and overpowered by his environment. Weird forces move both below and above him in a multi-dimensional, layered, shifting space, as suggested by the 3D rendering of cars and buildings, juxtaposed with his 2D body. These renderings constantly inhabit the same frame, which Oshii also often overlays with cyborg VR vision—versions of being colliding, uncomfortably, in one image. A wizened old man meditates before a virtual forest. Mechanical animals stalk black market streets, in the shape of Kami deities. Batou’s cloned basset hound bats around a gemlike fish in a sphere, and later a globe spins to reveal a crude dog and fish, clue to a planted reality. A man holds a child, holding a doll. Objects, rooms, bodies, and ships might at any moment come to life, animated, and then abandoned, by the Major, by malevolent criminal actors, or by nothing—only Batou’s imagination. Like most neo-noir protagonists, he holds a deep suspicion of appearances, and like most neo-noir films, Innocence invests considerable energy into what things look like: white flowers on a geisha, rainy cityscapes, gleaming tanks, muscular bodies.
But unlike most neo-noir films, the opening sequence illustrates these surfaces being literally constructed, a tension we must understand and hold throughout the following scenes. Oshii continuously jars us with reminders of artifice, in case we grow too comfortable. In one scene, for instance, a beautiful sex gynoid, locked in hand-to-hand combat with Batou, pauses, whispers “help me,” and then initializes a self-destruct, causing her body to spring apart and reveal its mechanical interior. Usually, characters speak with their mouths, but sometimes they communicate through digital telepathy, just rarely and casually enough to startle. And when characters pause in their action to say out-of-nowhere lines like, “If the essence of life is information that is carried in DNA, then society and civilization are just colossal memory storage systems,” my suspension of disbelief not only stretches, it snaps.
These interruptions cannot be accidental. They are frequent and occur at every register, and Oshii has made plenty of films without them. Instead of incompetence, I sense play—he seems to be thinking through something, through selective destabilization. Counter-intuitively, humans, animals, and cyborgs tend to be flat, while conventionally “dead” or background objects, such as vehicles and passing figures, are rendered in foregrounded, detailed photorealism, so that the eye is drawn first to the lifeless being. The more we should identify with a character, the farther Oshii pushes them into the uncanny valley. And then there’s the breathtaking, exasperating set piece of a haunted mansion, where Batou gets sucked into a time loop and becomes a marionette in a virtual maze. He scurries repeatedly through the same intricate passageways, teatime with nightmare puppets, and the interrogation of a corpse, until a reference to a Golem finally shocks him out of the engagement. One senses Oshii wants to shock us too, out of complacency, to surge with Batou into awareness and wonder: what am I doing here, and why, and with what kind of life? Puppets dominate this environment. Batou is clearly also a puppet, slackening and unslackening at various commands, and he knows. And Oshii puppets every feature of this film, and he knows too, and wants us to notice his knowing, for he continuously shows his hand.
This feels particularly important, and worth questioning, in his representation of women. Much has been written about the Bellmer shape of the gynoid “dolls,” as well as the nod to Donna Haraway (“Haraway,” a forensic expert coolly states, before flipping open her female face to reveal a port for electronics. “No need for Ms. or Mrs.”). I’m less interested in the fact that cyborg women exist, in this film, or that the objectification of women as sex objects is made explicit through the gynoids, than in the fact that literally all grown women are dolls in this movie, or at least their bodies are. Unlike the men, many of whom are implied to be all or mostly organic, or who breeze through the film with no emphasis, every single woman in this film—geishas, femme fatales, crusty investigators—has a body constructed with gaze in mind, and this is made explicit through its breakage, assault, or exposure (even if this exposure is as subtle as Haraway’s opening face). I interpret this move as subversive, rather than gratuitous, although others may disagree and would, I feel, have meaningful grounds. I don’t know if Oshii intends to make a statement here or if it’s my wishful thinking, but I do sense curiosity and earnest ambivalence in his execution, and I observe ambivalence, fascination, and even catharsis in my own response.
Oshii seems to take a convention historically endemic to both film noir and anime, the treatment of female characters as tools of the film—often sexualized objects who meet violence and humiliation to serve a (usually male and/or corporate) creator’s vision for style, plot, or market—and, again, in an uncanny, jolting way, he concretizes it. He makes the objectification visible, revealing the constructed nature of these roles on multiple levels: these female bodies, and the utility these bodies fill, are products in a setting where mechanical “doll-making” has embedded into every aspect of politics, economy, reproduction, sexuality, and culture. Characters of all types must swim in this ocean and some, like the Major, empower themselves both despite their bodies and because of them, and apparently transcend. This “apparent” is important, I think, because in Innocence, unlike the previous film, Oshii constantly reminds us that a filmmaker constructs the world that constrains these characters.
“We weep for the blood of a bird, but not for the blood of a fish. Blessed are those who have voice,” the Major says near the end of the film, an aphorism that seems original to Oshii. In Innocence, Batou has a voice. Most of the female bodies—these bodies that are explicitly constructed, utilized, and regularly detached from any fixed personality—do not. But for me, the difference between Innocence and many other films with similar exploitive imagery and situations is that these themes of roles, objectification, and voice and voicelessness are searchingly and intelligently emphasized. It is an intensely cynical film, and an intense experience to watch it. Oshii appears to point at each moment with his distracting, obvious interruptions, to want us to notice and feel interested, horrified, stimulated, and disconcerted by our range of responses. With Batou I wonder, how did we get here? What is going on, and at what levels?
And Batou? His presence unsettles too, for despite the trappings of a cowboy, he is clearly the support man left behind, waiting for his action hero. He knows he cannot trust his mind. He does not drive the power of this world. It is not for him to isolate, seize, or even understand, its currents. The ending revelation of corporate greed fails to shock any change in him—he anticipates such corruption long before its reveal, for containing it is his daily, automatic labor. Instead, he only seeks to see. Throughout Innocence, Batou longs for a sign. He believes his former partner is still out there, hidden in her work. He believes the framework of his world is shifting purposefully, even though he’s blind to most of the intentions. Somewhere, on the Major’s level, the world has clear rules and makes sense. She is consistent and she watches out for him. She represents the possibility of meaningful agency. She cut her strings. Thus, when the Major saves the day and delivers her wisdom to Batou and a rescued child, her appearance is spiritual, tender, and devastating. Batou asks if she happy. She replies that she is finally free of dilemma, and then reminds him she is always by his side. In Batou’s stiff pose, we read how bittersweet he finds her words. She says, “Perhaps the dolls, if they could speak, would scream ‘I never wanted to be human.’”
The Major transcended humanity. But after Oshii’s clear challenge to us, in his refusal to sustain Gardner’s vivid and continuous dream, this conclusion too gets glossed with disquieting ironic distance. In Batou’s ending stare we find a question. If we moved up a level, to her world, would we find yet another wanderer, constrained eerily by genre affects, striving to see?