Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 83 minutes.


THERE MAY BE no historical evidence to support the veracity of the strange tale of René Descartes’s robot daughter, but the story remains compelling for anyone who’s ever been troubled by the emotional currents that run between humans and their handiwork. According to one version, Descartes was so devastated when his daughter Francine died of scarlet fever at the age of five that he used his expertise as a physician to construct a life-size mechanical doll in her likeness. The philosopher was so attached to this surrogate that he brought it with him everywhere—at least until it was discovered during a sea voyage by a ship’s captain, who was sufficiently horrified to throw it overboard.

It’s not surprising that the anecdote is a favorite of Mamoru Oshii, especially in light of the director’s ongoing fascination with technologically enhanced humans and their synthetic peers, who often ponder whether their newly acquired sentience means they get to have souls too. The Japanese filmmaker includes the Descartes myth among the array of references that add a pensive air to the ultra-stylized gun battles and explosions in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2005), one of five anime features by Oshii screening this week and next in a series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Oshii’s futuristic visions are infused with his unique brand of dualism, one that freely pursues heady ruminations about technology’s transformative effects on human consciousness while continuing to indulge the visceral thrills and visual panache expected by anime’s traditional fanboy constituency. First released in 1995, just as audiences in the west were discovering the more adult-themed varieties of Japanese animation, Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell remains the most famous and accomplished example of this tricky synthesis.

In the year 2029, Major Motoko Kusanagi—a cyborg cop with a shapely feminine form—pursues the Puppet Master, a mysterious criminal that has been hijacking the cybernetic bodies that are used as downloadable surrogate selves by much of humanity. Though much pilfered by The Matrix—and just about every other Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster in which minds and bodies roam free from each other in spaces both actual and virtual—Oshii’s film retains its power to startle and seduce. It helps that the film got a gorgeous upgrade in 2008, when Oshii released a revised and re-edited version with the cheeky title Ghost in the Shell 2.0. Most provocative was Oshii’s decision to change the Puppet Master’s gender, a move that further complicates the film’s take on sexual identity and the possible futures for our bodily forms and reproductive urges once the usual strictures of the flesh become irrelevant.

More of a companion piece than a sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence trades in many of the same themes with similarly vivid if more lugubrious effect. (Conversations are riddled with quotes from Nietzsche and Milton.) Here, the partner of the former film’s cyborg heroine investigates a string of deaths involving “sexaroid” units with an unfortunate tendency to blow themselves up. Never particularly interested in the demands of narrative, Oshii uses the noirish plotline as a framework for more idiosyncratic strategies, like a hallucinatory sequence that’s as jarring as anything conceived by the late Satoshi Kon, the fellow anime maverick whose films Perfect Blue (1996) and Paprika (2006) are unparalleled exercises in self-destructing storytelling. Oshii also finds ample opportunity to display his savvy about the ways that technology amplifies an age-old human desire to create real-world vessels for our desires. Thus do the pleasure-bots of our future (and present, for that matter) represent “the ancient dream of artificial life” just as strongly as that mechanical daughter did for Descartes. But whereas the corporeal characters in Spike Jonze’s similarly speculative Her (2013) may despair over the inevitability with which our creations will surpass us, Oshii’s visions of things to come are enlivened by a sense of awe and curiosity about these imminent unions between human and artifice, these mergers whose states and shapes we’re just beginning to imagine.

Jason Anderson

“Techno/Human: The Films of Mamoru Oshii” runs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox July 12–July 25.