'Ghost in the Shell' a visual masterpiece

Those who wish to see an animated movie this weekend are privy to a better option than the feeble "Shark Tale."

Lawrence is one of the few markets to merit an early run of "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" before it rolls wide in two weeks.

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Bajou, left, reunites with the Major in the futuristic Japanese anime project, "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence."

Director Mamoru Oshii's 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" (based on the comic book by Masamune Shirow) was somewhat revolutionary in its scientific and philosophical themes. While the material has since been explored by everything from "The Matrix" trilogy to the recent blockbuster "I, Robot," the original remains a favorite among Japanese anime enthusiasts.

Yet the sequel "Innocence" is a far more beguiling picture. It is visually superior and features a more compelling plot. While the film does get a bit too idiosyncratic during its final act (a continually repeated sequence with slight variations really drains the momentum), it is worth a look for those whose only exposure to cinematic animation is limited to Pixar and DreamWorks projects.

The story begins about 30 years in the future, "when most human thought has been accelerated by artificial intelligence and external memory can be shared on a universal matrix."

Bajou, a cyborg detective for Tokyo's anti-terrorist unit Section 9, is called in to investigate a similar string of murders. These feature female "sexaroid" pleasure models who go berserk, kill humans then commit suicide. This forces a recall by the Locus Solus corporation, and Bajou and his new human partner Togusa try and track down the reasons for this malfunction.

What follows is half twisted film noir and half existential hunt, punctuated by passages of violence.

Although Bajou was just a sidekick to the more formidable cop named the Major in the first film, he gets his own story here. The blond, mirror-eyed enforcer provides a brooding presence, filled with self-doubt about how much of his humanity has been retained within his mechanized body.

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Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence ***

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A cyborg detective is called in to investigate a string of murders in this futuristic Japanese anime effort. Superior in plot and concept to the original 1995 film, "Innocence" is a half twisted film noir and half existential quest that reveals a perfect visual marriage of digital and hand-drawn styles.

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Although the plot is passable on its own merit, it is really the distinctive visual aspect of the picture that distinguishes it. "Innocence" reveals a perfect marriage of digital and hand-drawn styles. There are images that are jaw-dropping in their design, from simple things like the way light passes though an ascending elevator cage to vivid renderings of stained glass windows.

Even the recurring character of Bajou's new basset hound is crafted with such realistic detail that the humble act of a dog eating out of a bowl is sublime.

Anime has developed a huge cult following in the states, even though these movies are invariably a bit talky and introspective for the American masses. Narratively, "Innocence" elicits as many questions as it does answers. However, there's never any doubt as to whether the film deserves a slot at the local multiplex.

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