There are very few writers and directors like Mamoru Oshii. Having worked in both live action and animation, he has been a pioneering figure in both. What with Ghost in the Shell receiving a lot of attention as of late, I thought it best to discuss some of his work with the man himself.
For most viewers of anime, Oshii is known for his early work on things like Urusei Yatsura and Patlabor. However, he is arguably more widely known for directing the 1995 anime movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell and its subsequent sequel.
What with a Blu-ray re-release of the first movie now available, as well as a new live-action movie version out at the end of the month, it seemed only logical to discuss the film with Oshii directly as well as his career as a whole.
Like all good directors, Oshii had an early passion for filmmaking, “I was born in the downtown area of Tokyo and lived there until I graduated from high school. It was a very nasty neighborhood. The sort of place where you had little factories and yakuza offices nearby. I was always thinking about how I wanted to grow up and get out of there as soon as I could. If I were to say one good thing about the place, the only thing that comes to mind is that there were a lot of movie theaters.
“I created my own independent films while at university and was aiming to become a director, but the Japanese film industry was in a slump at the time, so even the film studios weren’t hiring new people. After graduation I worked as a director at a radio production company, but I quit when they routinely failed to pay my salary. Now unemployed, I was enjoying myself building plastic models and playing around. When I happened to hear that a nearby anime studio was hiring newcomers, I interviewed there and joined the company.
“While growing up, I was always watching period dramas because those were what my father liked. The only animated works I remember are American TV cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Dick Tracy. I hated the Disney films they made us watch in school.”
Shifting into the role of director on Urusei Yatsura, Oshii managed to somewhat improve his circumstances, “I was working as a director at the studio I had found work at when one day the president of the company called me in and chose me as Chief Director on that series. Being an employee, I had no say in the matter, but the people around me seemed surprised by it. I had only been working in anime for four years at that point, so I believe it was an unusual case. I negotiated with the president and had him double my salary.”
“In general, there are directors I sympathize with, but I think that’s different from admiring them.”
Around this time, a new form of anime was being produced called an OVA, short for “original video animation”. These were straight to video releases that were often much shorter in length than a regular TV series but could focus on higher quality animation.
The first of these was an anime called Dallos and it was directed by Oshii, “The production company Bandai had sounded me out about the idea, and being able to create something free from the restrictions of television appealed to me, so I decided to participate. I aimed to create a serious work of sci-fi rather than a toy commercial, but it came at a busy time for both the studio and myself, so the limitations imposed by the schedule made it a very difficult job. OVAs were an expensive product even back then, so I had doubts about how well it would sell.”
What followed Dallos was a fascinating work called Angel’s Egg. With art and character designs by Yoshitaka Amano, of Final Fantasy fame, Angel’s Egg was a beautiful and wonderfully surreal one off OVA about a young girl protecting a fragile egg. In a cultural sense, Angel’s Egg is very highly regarded but it didn’t work out too well for Oshii, “I used all of the techniques available to me at the time. It was the first work I was able to produce the way I wanted to, so I felt some sense of satisfaction from that, but it was criticized for being difficult to understand. I stopped receiving offers of work for three years after that. It’s a bitter memory, but it taught me many lessons about what is necessary when working as a director in the commercial film industry.”
One additionally sad aspect to Angel’s Egg was that it was appropriated into a 1988 movie called In The Aftermath, which is again a painful memory for Oshii, “Until I heard from an acquaintance of mine who saw it at a film festival, I had no idea. When I questioned the production company about it, I learned for the first time that the film had been sold overseas without permission. This is another bitter memory for me.”
Unlike many other directors in anime, Oshii has also done a lot of live-action films over the years. I was curious as to how the process differed between live-action and animation, “While there’s not any fundamental difference between the two, in a live-action film there are real world limitations imposed by location, set, casting, and so on, so it’s not exactly the same either. There is greater freedom in how to present things in anime, but I think having fun working with the actors is the biggest appeal of working in live-action. If I were to give a specific difference it would be that you have to wake up early when shooting a live-action film. That’s because the people in the anime industry are overwhelmingly nocturnal. I got used to it in no time, though.”
The inception of Mobile Police Patlabor is something that has now become synonymous with Oshii’s output but as with all things great, he came to it somewhat by accident.
“I was sounded out by someone wanting to start an OVA series, and though the budget for it was tight, I was having financial difficulties at the time, so I decided to accept. When the first six episodes were finished, I was considering not doing any more work like that, but it was well received and the request to work on the movie followed, so I ended up being involved with the series for a long time. I never would have thought I’d end up directing a live-action version, though.”
Considering the emphasis on realism in Patlabor, as the mecha in the anime are used by the police after all. It should come as no surprise that Oshii is also a fan of Ryosuke Takahashi’s classic mecha anime.
“Ryosuke Takahashi’s Armored Trooper VOTOMS series is my one of my favorites I suppose. Because that was the first work I saw that depicted robots as weapons.”
Following the OVA of Patlabor, Oshii worked on the movies. These were fascinating films, with the first movie being a hardcore detective piece whereas the second was more philosophical in tone. As he explains, “On the first Patlabor movie, the budget was tight and the production time was short, so it was hard work. However, because the production company Bandai didn’t get involved in production, I am satisfied that I was able to work freely.”
“However, for the second Patlabor movie I wanted to make it a work that encapsulated all of Japan’s post-war history. It was just after the Gulf War, so I was interested in the relationship between the media and war, and I was also personally wondering if it was possible to create a film that also worked as urban theory. We were to begin production after extensive location hunting and gathering of materials. I enjoyed that process.”
It was around this time that Ghost in the Shell came about and the movie ended up being tonally quite similar to the latter Patlabor movies. After all, they are detective type stories much like Ghost in the Shell often is.
“Patlabor 2 was in Tokyo and Ghost in the Shell was in Hong Kong, and I did location hunting for both, so they had the same location-related processes in common. In terms of direction, through the two Patlabor films we had learned a system of production called the Layout System, so Ghost in the Shell wasn’t so difficult compared to those two prior films. I think that was the result of working with the same studio and same staff for a number of films in a row.”
The original Ghost in the Shell manga by Masamune Shirow is a very complex work. I have talked about this at length in past, especially in regards to the upcoming live-action adaptation.
One of the core themes is that of the Major’s quest and understanding of her own humanity. However, the manga took a long and winding route to explore this. As a result, it meant that Shirow could populate the world of the manga with artificially intelligent mecha called Fuchikomas.
In Oshii’s anime movie in 1995, the Fuchikoma’s were absent and artificial intelligence was used a springboard for the Major’s own journey. As I suspected, this was indeed entirely intended.
“80 minutes wasn’t sufficient to address both themes, AI and cyborgs. The starting point for directing a film is narrowing down your content, so I chose to have the existence of AI be of only secondary importance.
“The original work has a reputation for being difficult to understand, so my task as director was to structure things in such a way that it would be more easily understandable. The result was a film that was still deemed difficult to understand, but this was before the spread of the internet, so I think no matter who directed it, it would have been impossible to present it in a way that was any easier to understand.”
As many know, the Wachowskis took a great deal of inspiration from Oshii’s take on Ghost in the Shell and integrated it into their own Matrix trilogy. However, this wasn’t something Oshii expected to see happen.
“I didn’t expect that at all, so I was surprised.”
Finishing off, I asked about his process with composer Kenji Kawai, someone Oshii works with a great deal, as well as what his plans are for the future.
“Kenji Kawai is a very talented arranger and a funny man, too, so we’re always cracking jokes and enjoying ourselves as we work together.
“In general, film directors only work at the whims of the world at large. Until a job offer comes in, I don’t think about films, just walking my dog and playing video games while I wait. Right now I’m really hooked on a game called Fallout 4.”
A new steelbook Blu-ray release of the 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime movie is available via retailers such as Right Stuf Anime.
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I also manage Mecha Damashii and do toy reviews over at hobbylink.tv.
Read my Forbes blog here.