Innocence is Mamoru Oshii’s Golden Palm-nominated entry in the Ghost in the Shell series, which built upon Masamune Shirow’s original manga and Oshii’s classic film. Released to Western audiences as Ghost in the Shell 2, the film follows cyborg cop Batou soon after the disappearance of his former partner, Motoko Kusanagi. When she vanished into the Net, “the Major” left a void in Public Security Section 9 and in Batou’s life.

Innocence is possibly my favourite film of all time, and it just happens to be a cyberpunk opus. It covers so many themes relating to identity and the perils of a digital universe; it questions the ownership of human souls and untangles some deep-rooted issues in its characters. There’s a strong ‘neo-Asian’ aesthetic throughout, with forays into clockwork doll houses and Blade Runner-esque street scenes as well. Its plot, soundtrack and visuals all melt into an escapist’s paradise – an hour and a half of thought-provoking and immersive beauty.

Innocence: A street sign in Japan's northern frontier.

It’s hard to know where to begin writing about Innocence. It stands on its own as an example of cyberpunk film noir, but it also pools a great deal from Shirow’s original manga and from Stand Alone Complex, the Production I.G. TV series. Innocence is accompanied by a book, and serves as a sequel in parallel to Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface. There are poignant questions weaved into its backstory, and we’re left with more at its conclusion.

Of Ghosts and Shells

Innocence: A gynoid is born.

The ‘ghost within the shell’ is, of course, that central theme throughout all these stories. A ‘ghost’ is understood to be a human mind or a soul; that one irreplaceable, organic feature which can bring life and consciousness (as we understand it) to an otherwise almost entirely ‘cyberised’ body. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a fitting protagonist for the first film; she is entirely artificial save for a small amount of original brain tissue. With her whole life signed over to the government agency which provided her body, all Motoko has left is her ghost – her only confirmation that she is, in fact, a being capable of independent thought. Her body and everything inside it, right down to her memories, are considered to be government property and seizable upon her death.

Motoko managed to escape this shell at the conclusion of Ghost in the Shell, both manga and film. She fused with Project 2501 – top-secret software turned self-aware after exposure to society’s vast and wild internet. She and the artificial life-form split into around a dozen new beings; Man-Machine Interface tells of how Motoko Aramaki, cyber-warfare contractor, was led into this discovery.

The Motoko we encounter in Innocence bears much more in common with her former self, but is nevertheless an advanced being, capable of downloading splinter-selves into new bodies and manipulating the Net with flair. She is not this film’s protagonist however, as it is Batou who must deal with Innocence‘s ontological dilemma. A batch of seemingly docile gynoids have attacked their rich and powerful owners, leading his agency to suspect a terrorist agenda. Their makers, Locus Solus, sell such uncannily realistic dolls because they are perceived to have souls – that which sets humanity apart from its own creations. No-one but Section 9 would suspect they could possess ‘ghosts’ of their own, thanks to their experiences with the Puppet Master, Project 2501.

Blessed Are Those With a Voice

I spoke of implanted memories in an earlier piece, on cyberspaces. Stripping out a person’s memories and replacing them with false ones is a real risk for those with cybernetic brains. As memories dictate who we are from day to day, any alteration to them has the power to change who we are. However, just as memories have been digitised in Shirow’s world, so too can ‘ghosts’ be copied. ‘Ghost dubbing’ inevitably kills the original, but the process does offer cyberbrains the suggestion of sentience – useful when you wish to deceive.

Innocence: A ghost-dubbing chamber aboard Locus Solus' factory ship.

This is what lays at the heart of Innocence. Young girls, who are delivered to Locus Solus by the Yakuza, are copied until their eventual death, all so their souls can be implanted into ‘sexoids’. Their rich patrons crave the uniquely realistic Hadaly gynoids, and the innocents whose ghosts are dubbed long only to escape. This continues until the day one of Locus Solus’ employees bypasses the gynoids’ Third Law protocol (maintain existence without harm to humans), thus allowing them to murder. The death of high-ranking government officials brings Section 9 in to investigate, and ultimately they expose this devious practice.

What makes this story so chilling is that the dolls are victims too. While the crime lays in the murder of high-ranking officials and the dubbing of ‘ghosts’, the process has also created a batch of gynoids with verifiable ghosts. They may all be copies of the same person, but they now possess independent consciousness – forming a real quandary for those who believed the mere presence of a ghost is what defines a life form.

Cogito Ergo Sum

Ghost in the Shell: A Redcoat briefs Section 9 on the Puppet Master's inexplicable ghost line.

Section 9 have dealt with digitised souls before, with the emergence of Project 2501 in Ghost in the Shell. Motoko had realised, “what if a cyberbrain could generate its own ghost? And if so, what would be the importance of being human then?” She, as an assumed human with so little to prove her own organic existence, was confronted by her synthetic equal and opposite in the Puppet Master. It is no surprise, then, that she harbours sympathy for the Hadaly gynoids now bestowed with ghosts of their own.

Innocence‘s unasked question is surely this: what responsibility do the creators of digital life have to such creatures?

  • The Locus Solus company implanted ghosts within a gynoid product line for their own ends;
  • The Major was once in thrall to the Japanese government, who claimed ownership of her e-brain, body and memories;
  • Project 2501 had liberated itself from its creators in Section 6, who probably never intended for it to become self-aware but reacted violently when it did for fear of their exposure.

But are the gynoids now to be considered lifeforms? How do we define life – by the presence of a ‘ghost’ or a soul? What role did Motoko’s memories really play in her definition as an independent being? What if she or any other creature is led to believe they are its own? Do they then have the right of free will?

Blade Runner: Dr. Tyrell introduces Deckard to Rachel.

Cogito ergo sum.