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Wired for cynicism

Mamoru Oshii's Sequel To The Anime Cult Favorite 'Ghost In The Shell' Offers An Even Bleaker Vision Of The Human Race.

September 12, 2004|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

The future is a bleak and lonely place, and the present's not much better.

That's the unhappy conclusion Mamoru Oshii, celebrated anime director and scriptwriter, has come to after 53 years of life. And yes, it's reflected in his latest film, "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," which had the distinction in May of being one of the few animation features ever to compete at the Cannes Film Festival.

"The world is going to be unhappy, because people are rotten," says Oshii, a small smile on his impish face, as if daring anyone to challenge him. "I have no hopes for anyone in this world." Fortunately, dystopian futures seem to make for memorable sci-fi.

Nine years ago the Japanese filmmaker wrote and directed "Ghost in the Shell," which offered astonishing visuals and lots of careening action. It was also adult through and through, what with the heroine ripping off her clothes two minutes into the movie -- Major Kusanagi suggests that this allows her "thermoptic camouflage" to work -- and lots of ponderous musings on what it means to be human, especially when much of you is cyborg, which apparently is where the race is headed. Through all this, one's "ghost," or spirit, might remain.

The film became a cult hit in Europe and the United States and inspired other filmmakers, including "The Matrix's" Wachowski brothers and Quentin Tarantino, who asked Oshii's studio, Production I.G, to do the animated clip in "Kill Bill Vol. 1."

While "Ghost 2" also explores the human question, it offers a different set of answers -- and perhaps a darker vision of the human race.

Special investigator Batou is looking into a series of grisly murders: Gynoids, female androids, have been killing their owners, some high up in government. When Batou tracks down his first suspect, she attempts to kill herself, with the final words "help me" on her plaintive lips. (He blows her away.) In this future, there is still crime, cruelty and lust, and man's inhumanity to man has become inhumanity to robot.

The film offers technical upgrades, of course. While characters are still two-dimensional drawings, shading is now gradated, thanks to the computer. Some backgrounds and objects are computer-generated, three-dimensional illustrations, including a stunning opening sequence of the shining spires of the city of the future, reminiscent of "Blade Runner."

But Oshii believes in preserving hand illustration. "The animator's skills can't be lost; it's a huge treasure," he says. "In general, Japanese people like to see 2-D art as opposed to 3-D art. That's why manga in Japan is so huge -- people feel nostalgic when they see it."



On a recent visit to Los Angeles, the director is sitting in a DreamWorks conference room. A small man with thinning hair and a scraggly beard, he's wearing a light jacket over a T-shirt decorated with a soulful-eyed basset hound. Yes, that's right, he says, he owns a basset hound, Gabriel. She's the prototype for Batou's pet and warmest relationship.

The director hadn't wanted to revisit his most famous work, but the president of Production I.G, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, coerced him into it. "Oshii-san does his best work under pressure," Ishikawa says. "And I was interested in getting our studio known internationally, and I knew another anime by Oshii would do so."

Oshii stumbled into the world of anime when, at age 26, he decided he wanted to work in films. "One day I saw a poster recruiting people for an animation studio," he recalls. He rose through the ranks, though he's highly unusual in the world of anime -- he didn't take studio art and, he says, "I can't draw, I don't draw."

However, he's specific about how he wants his artists to draw and animate the figures and scenes. "Ghost" was based on a manga by Shirow Masamune, but when it came to making the movie, Oshii insisted that Kusanagi's eyes be made smaller, as were her breasts. "In the original she was like this" (he makes a gesture with two hands showing Jayne Mansfield proportions), "and personally I don't like that."

In "Ghost 2," Batou's dog is rendered in such loving detail that the question comes up whether Gabriel was brought to the office to model. "Oh, no, I felt sorry making my dog take a trip to the studio," Oshii says quickly. "So I insisted the artists come to my house and study him."

Except for his dog, Batou is a pretty solitary character in the cold, lonely future. "That's how I see people," Oshii says. "People in general are very isolated. When I'm with people I feel lonelier than when I'm all by myself. I feel very happy and content when I'm with my dog. I don't make these films to give hope to people. I want to show them reality."

Then he catches himself. After all, he can't be so negative. "Well, I do give them a certain hope. In the film I'm giving them a suggestion. Rather than hanging on to being a human, maybe it would be better for people to become dolls."

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