In 1995, "Ghost in the Shell," an animated thriller with heady, metaphysical themes under its visionary designs and dazzling animation, introduced American audiences to the work of Japanese animation visionary Mamoru Oshii. Oshii's work represents the finest in adult animation not just in Japan but internationally. Tackling intricate scripts that explore the complex social world of today as well as the technological future that he sees for tomorrow, his films address the physical world with an eye toward social and spiritual concerns (his films are sprinkled with biblical quotes and religious imagery), and he brings these stories to life in all their dimensions with a rich animation style that reaches beyond the surface elegance of talented draftsmanship.
Co-produced with American money and executed with an international audience in mind, "Ghost in the Shell" became the biggest anime sensation to hit American screens since Akira in 1988. The film was a smash hit and became a wake-up call in the US (where most audiences still can't imagine animation as anything but kid stuff) and, inevitably, it spawned a sequel that is just as heady and even more visually exquisite and rich. The little details – the quality of light, the movement of shadows across faces, the rustle of clothing as it strains against moving bodies – that give his work a poetic realism unique to his vision are even more in evidence in his latest film. But behind the technology are his characters, vividly realized and painstakingly placed within a social framework. Humanity – in all its possible definitions – remains at the heart of Oshii's work and his vision.
Oshii-san made himself available for a series of brief conference-call phone interviews before the American theatrical release of "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence." What follows is not quite the in-depth conversation about his art and philosophy that I had hoped for (let alone one exploring his body of live action cinema that is far less well known), but the brief interview still manages to offer some insight to his art, his methods and his work as an animator. Maki Terashima, of the animation house Production I-G, served as translator.
Sean Axmaker: When you made the original "Ghost in the Shell," did you plan on or anticipate making a sequel to it?
Mamoru Oshii: I wasn't thinking of making a sequel to "Ghost in the Shell" at all. I never expected the first "Ghost in the Shell" to be successful overseas.
What new approach did you bring to "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence?"
Technology-wise, it's the first Japanese animation movie where the background has been made completely in CG.
Did you have to do much research into developing the tools and techniques for creating and combining CG backgrounds with your style of animation?
I didn't really do any research specifically for "Ghost in the Shell 2," but after I finished the first "Ghost in the Shell," I made two movies [the live action film "Avalon," which used computer generated effects, and the animated "Blood: The Last Vampire," a partly CG animated film that Oshii produced and for which he served as visual concept director] and through making these two movies, I did a lot of research into making animated movies successfully using computers. Those experiences led me eventually to making "Ghost in the Shell 2" with computers.
The character animation in "Ghost in the Shell 2" is still hand drawn. What are, to you, the advantages of the two different techniques, and do you think that the art of traditional hand-drawn animation is threatened by computer-generated animation?
I think that the biggest opportunity of computer-generated 3-D backgrounds is [the ability to] to take advantage of the camerawork. By making the backgrounds in 3-D, I was able to create more depth and more space in the background. The reason I wanted to do the characters in 2-D rather than 3-D was because of the group of highly talented hand-drawn animators I worked with. I didn't want to lose the quality of their work. I appreciate their talent so much that I wanted to use their skills in animating the characters. In terms of whether 3-D animation will take over 2-D animation – in Japan, at least – I don't think it will happen because there are still a lot of people that appreciate and value the quality of 2-D animation. In America, it may be a case of 3-D taking over 2-D. Almost all the animated films there are now being made in 3-D CG. But I believe and I hope that it [won't be] the same case in Japan.
When you make a film, are you more concerned with capturing certain emotions and images or in telling a story?
It varies case by case. In some of my movies, I put more weight on showing beautiful pictures; in other movies, I concentrate on the story. It basically depends on what kind of budget or production capacity I have on the movie. If I have a low budget, I concentrate more on telling the story. If I have a bigger budget, then I concentrate more on creating beautiful pictures.
Almost all of your films have been science fiction films, from your animated features like the "Patlabor" films to your live action films like "Avalon," and they both celebrate technology and caution against the dangers of technological dominance. As a science fiction filmmaker, do your films reflect your own fears that the next evolutionary step will involve a melding of the human and the technological?
In the last century, technology has developed widely and quickly and I believe the additions of technology have created a new kind of environment. It can be both a threat to humans and a help, in the sense that it's going to change people in a good way. So I think technology, whether good or bad – like religion or ideology – will keep changing human beings and keep changing the world.
There is definitely a difference between Japanese and American audiences. What are the difficulties in translating your films from one country to another – not just across the language barrier, but the cultural barrier as well?
I don't believe there is a movie that can be translated for all people in all the countries all over the world, and I don't think it's necessary to make a movie that could be understood all over the world. For instance, if an American person watches Japanese animation and finds it very interesting and very beautiful, he may be enjoying it because it is a different culture. When a Japanese person and an American person watch a Hollywood film together, I'm sure that they are not watching it in the same way. I think the ways that people tend to misunderstand the concepts and characters and stories of movies from other countries, depending on which culture or which country they come from, can be very interesting. Whether the person understands it or not, as long as the person enjoys the movie, I think that's all that matters.
Anime has been defined as the Japanese genre, much the same way that the western is the American genre. What do you think your influence on animation and Japanese cinema in general has been?
I don't think that my movies had any huge influence on the studios or the companies. If anything, they may have influenced the animation directors and animators and designers. I think that what happens when someone makes a movie that influences people greatly is that it's really not the companies or the entities that they influence – it's the individuals and the staffs. As far as the influence of my movies on the animation industry in Japan or the Japanese film industry is concerned, I can say that animation was once viewed as something for children. I think I has been able to engage the older adult audience as well.