At this stage of Mamoru Oshii's career, what once looked like innovation is simply becoming repetition. Through a dozen animated and live-action films, the Japanese writer-director has ambitiously injected hushed, anticipatory, desolate airs into genre films that don't usually support such a quiet approach. His cinematic spin-offs of the anime TV series Urusei Yatsura and Mobile Police Patlabor gave long-established characters a newly three-dimensional feel and moved them into a more adult world, while his groundbreaking 1995 film Ghost In The Shell transformed a cyberpunk comic into a weighty think-piece. But Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence pulls out the same old stops for a snoozy, uninvolving police procedural that feels like a hollow echo of everything Oshii's ever done.
The original Ghost In The Shell ended with cyborg cop Matoko Kusanagi reaching a personal apotheosis; as Innocence begins, she's moved her consciousness into the global arena, effectively disappearing and leaving her quiet, stolid cyborg partner Batou to carry on in her wake. The film's actual plot involves a series of "sexaroid" androids that have been malfunctioning and killing their owners. Batou and his new partner Togusa duly tramp around town investigating, though they spend far more time trading strange, abstract philosophical aphorisms than following police procedures. And really, the rote plot—which seems familiar from a dozen other anime films, including Oshii's earlier work—isn't the point. Just as Ghost had more to do with Kusanagi's search for humanity than the case she was working, Innocence has far more to do with Batou's doglike loyalty as he awaits the return of his personal Odysseus and continues to ask the questions she never really answered about where humanity lies in a robot age. His patience is admirable, in a way, but it results in a film that feels as much on hold as his life.
Innocence features a spectacular blend of traditional animation and heavily textured, layered CGI, as well as a serious, intellectual bent, but none of it feels new. Jumpy firefights alternated with musings about humanity? Fresh from the original Ghost. Batou's tender relationship with his basset hound? A humanizing symbol prominently used in Oshii's live-action cyberpunk film Avalon. Talky-yet-uncommunicative police partners following a vaguely delineated trail? The Patlabor films. Dialogue-free interludes filled with music, and often with shots of immense flocks of birds? An Oshii standard at this point. At times, Innocence feels like a clip show of Oshii projects past. But the effect proves more dulling than warmly familiar.