Ghost in the Shell (1995) was one of the more widely released animation in the West during the opening phases of the form’s assault on popular culture, away from the underground and sent blinking into the public consciousness. Based upon the Shirow Masamune (Appleseed, Dominion Tank Police) manga, the film offered a heady brew of stylised violence, fetishised costumes and weaponry, an exhilarating sense of plot and a heavy vein of philosophical discussion on the nature of humanity. Surely an influence on the Matrix films, the unfortunately abbreviated G.I.T.S. proved that anime could be brusque, sexy and thought-provoking, often simultaneously. It would be a decade before the sequel would see the light of day, a decade in which original director Oshii (Patlabor and the delirious screwball series of Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura) made just one film – the truly outstanding mixed-media Polish science fiction shoot ‘n’ think oddity Avalon (2001). Avalon’s disregard for conventional realism, the blurring between live action and animation being deliberately transparent, feeds into G.I.T.S.2’s adoption of any technique necessary in order to realise a fully aesthetic experience.

Make no bones about it, this is as visually stunning a film as you are likely to see, an opulent feast for the eyes. But G.I.T.S.2 is more than a standard sequel – the formula of "like part one but bigger and more expensive" only partly holds true here. The animation is certainly more expansive, expensive and impressive second time around (though this doesn’t belittle the first instalment in any way) but the ‘more’ element doesn’t come from the expected areas of action sequences or explosions, rather from the realms of

philosophical discourse. Expanding on issues explored in both part one and in the exemplary spin-off series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (the first series is placed chronologically between the films, although knowledge of either is not necessary to enjoy the sequel), Innocence questions the fundamental reasoning behind humanity itself, challenging both faith and Darwinism while also setting aside quality time for some shootouts and murders. Key to the G.I.T.S. ethos is that machines are derived from humanity – but where does humanity end and mechanisation begin? How much of a body can be replaced by mechanical parts before the body ceases being human? And if a robot can show compassion can it be more human than a human who cannot?

Batou of Section 9 is slowly becoming more cyborg than human. His previous partner Major Motoko assimilated into the net and ceased to be in a purely physical sense. His latest partner Togusa is certainly more human than that. Between them they have to solve a series of murders performed by Rox Sol robots on their masters, a task made more difficult because of the robots’ subsequent, unprogrammed, suicide and the fact that they were employed for sexual services hence creating potential embarrassment. This leads the pair, with aid from Ghost in the Shell Motoko, onto a path confronting renegade hackers, yakuza and spooky masked children. The world is one where man and machinery are almost indistinguishable except in death – the characters for the main part are emotionally drained to the point of numbness. Expression comes in the form of Batou’s pet beagle (beagles are a common theme in Oshii’s work) whose animated expressions and fluidity of movement contrasts that of the detached Batou. But, as Oshii points out in the informative "Making of" documentary, dogs are no longer a force of nature but have been moulded into dolls that reflect humanity’s desire to imprint everything with versions of itself. Thus man, cyborg and even animals are reflections of

humanity’s need to see itself in everything, subverting natural selection. As is pointed out "the difference between species is not black and white".

This sets up a series of arguments that are subtle, questioning and necessarily unresolved. This could all be a touch worthy but the extent to which these arguments are set against such a vibrant backdrop makes for exhilarating viewing – visually, Innocence excels on almost every level, integrating fully realised CGI sets with traditional cell animation. There are so many arresting scenes to choose from it is difficult to single one out, but one of the most interesting occurs about half way through the film when Batou is placed within a huge carnival. Huge pagoda floats drawn by mechanised elephants surreally drift past the skyscrapers, hundreds of figures move through the undulating fall of glittering paper while the mainly choral and percussive soundtrack majestically draws the viewer through the streets. Filmed sedately (even in forced slow motion) the sequence manages to be both awe inspiring and elegiac.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence manages to combine the cinema of spectacle whilst questioning man’s place in a technological world. Its arguments are thought-provoking and relevant (as opposed to the cod-philosophical hodge-podge post-modernism of The Matrix), explicitly raising questions hinted at in Ridley Scott’s last decent film Blade Runner (1984 which Oshii indicates is an influence on his film). It revels in the details as much as the grand scale. A feast for the eyes and brain alike.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is out now