This week in Director Spotlight: Mamoru Oshii
Mamoru Oshii came into anime with a very different set of standards and expectations compared to many of his peers, seeking to use the camera and setting with much more importance than others. He also is unique in producing more Live Action series compared to anyone else I’ll cover.
Oshii is unique in his own way,but it’s also interesting to see how Live Action plays out with him directing. His work features a lot of digital elements and long drawn out shots that create an oddly muted tone for Action/Sci-Fi Series.
Rather than look at his career in a time-line, I’m going to focus on Anime, Live Action, and his most important pieces.
The Stray Dog of Anime
Oshii’s anime work has central to his focus the idea of always visual presentation over story structure, oh and Basset Hounds are a big thing for him.
His view on the animated medium, is that the visual should be similar to a painting, conveying it’s message visually. Plot, characters, and events should all serve to re-inforce the visuals and questions posed. This creates an interesting paradigm of Oshii’s swapping between working for others, and working for himself.
Most of you will know his name from Ghost in the Shell, which fittingly was one of his major attepts at breaking mold and appealing to the masses. Even then he commented that his use of philosophy caused producers to become frustrated because of sparing use of action scenes. Producers thought more action would generate more money, proven to be true when the Watchowski’s remade GitS into The Matrix.
Oshii began his career with Tatsunoko Productions, working on Homerun Kanta and Yatterman. Staying mainly as a Storyboard artist, leaving his influences in the background until the move to Studio Perriot.
Working under Hisayuki Toriumi, creator behind Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Speed Racer, Oshii worked on notably 18 episodes in Wonderful Adventure of Nils, and then becoming Chief Director for Urusei Yatsura.
While managing Urusei Yatsura, Oshii made what is credited as the first OVA series, Dallos. Not the greatest film ever, and I’d probably recommend almost anything else highlighted from Oshii before this. Oshii had not yet figured out his “visual communication” that would make his later series so interesting.
He set off the 80’s run of storytelling that changed the industry, but I’m not sure it’s relevant outside of Industry importance. It was his first director credit, and an experiment, so it is interesting to watch in that light.
Oshii’s first chance at full control without Toriumi looking over his shoulder, was Urusei Yasura Movie 2 and he went wild. Dallos was confusing and slow, but this felt much more restrained and paced. The film took a drastic change in tone and structure from the previous works, and there was a large backlash from the fans. Eventually Oshii remade it into a Live Action called Red Spectacles, which I’ll cover later in the post, and also made the masterpiece Angel’s Egg, which I’ll cover in the last section.
He then joined Toshio Suzuki, the producer of Angels Egg, with Takahata and Miyazaki to help found Studio Ghibli.
I have mixed sources, some saying that he was involved in making the studio, others saying that he was supposed to direct their first major feature. Either way, the three directors worked together to make a film called *Anchor*, that would die on the table and Oshii left the studio. Suzuki, and Studio Ghibli, would help with production on Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence years later.
There was obvious differences of opinion with Miyazaki and Oshii, one portraying the beauty of nature and the other loving dark urban worlds. Past that, Ghibli Studio has a fanatical devotion to stories first and then “painting” the pictures to tell it. Mamoru Oshii on the other hand clearly states that he thinks the image comes first, story and narrative come second.
Miyazaki’s son Goro commented on how the two would spend hours and days arguing how anime should be made, and what it was made for. Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies was a kind of homage to Oshii’s depressive story themes and *perhaps* a tweak of what Anchor might have been.
After the failed Studio Ghibli joint, Oshii created one of the most important series of the era. The series and films are important, mostly entertaining, and a change of pace for most Mecha shows. There is not a whole lot to talk about though. I found the focus on characters, and the physical movements within each moment, to be pretty interesting.
The sequels and specifically it’s 2nd film, Patlabor 2, is where Oshii finally managed to commercially transcribe his ideas. A kind of blueprint for what would become Ghost in the Shell, a balance between the heavy metaphorical stance against societial control and engaging character story lines. This also saw the gathering of Headgear, a group of writers and artists Oshii worked closely with during this time.
Before leaving Studio Perriot, he made Gosenzosama Banbanzai!, a kind of extension of the odd comedy styles used in Patlabor. Akiyuki Shinbo created an homage series to this, which I mentioned in his Spotlight.
Oshii’s last anime film takes full advantage of the digital effect team from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. The film is a somewhat shaky blend of Oshii’s Kerberos Saga, GitS, and Angel’s Egg, with messages and attempts to speak to all areas of thought. Some of it is left un-explored, but the central characters have a strikingly beautiful story. Slow paced, pronged with overlapping and weaving messages, the main story will leave you befuddled mid way through. By the end it wraps these all together in quite a wonderful way, and I highly recommend.
The Live Action Director
Oshii’s influence came mostly from film, unlike the other directors so far, who have all come from anime as an influence mainly. He would go almost daily to the theater with his father, becoming a fan of Andrei Tarkovsky, French New Wave Cinema, and specifically La Jetée that would go on to inspire the film 12 Monkeys.
I mention earlier that Oshii remade Urusei Yasura 2, and this was the result. Dark, filled with Nazi and Steam Punk influence, the series holds no punches. This would be the start of the larger Kerberos Saga, featuring Stray Dogs: Panzer Corps and Jin-Roh as the two prequels.
Oshii was a big political activist in his youth, perhaps inspired by a lot of that French New Wave entertainment from childhood. The Kerberos Saga stands as a kind of flag of defiance for Oshii. The series of films are also important in his direction style, making the films feel very similar to Anime and having an un-real but visceral feel that is hard to compare.
Mamoru Oshii would also produce live action films, scripts, and story plans for a lot of series, some of which he directed.
While all his films are interesting, Avalon stands out as truly magnificent. I think this is a good example, but throughout Oshii’s career you can find him creating and developing the best new tech for making digital and cg for film.
Avalon is.. hard to describe. Rotoscoped? Cell animated live action? The visual presentation is un-matched, and I could never tell if it was super interesting or extraordinarily boring. Either way, highly recommend you take a look.
James Cameron stated at one point that Avalon was “the most artistic, beautiful and stylish sci-fi film”, also praised Ghost in the Shell stating it was “the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.” Another nod to Oshii’s devotion to the visual side of the medium.
The Imporant Pieces
Oshii has a pretty decent career of work you can watch. Avalon, Kerberos Saga, Ani Kuri 15, Assault Girls, Sky Crawlers, and Patlabor 2, are all recommended viewing depending on your taste of the day, Ani Kuri in particular if you’re an anime fan, having been the launching point for Satoshi Kon, and many other great artists.
While those are all entertaining, now we get to the *must see* portion of his work.
After a life changing event, which Oshii will not talk about, he left Perriot to go to Studio DEEN and make a crazy OVA. A shout of ambevolence to religion, a crushing inspection of life and meaning, Angel’s Egg might be the worst, or most life changing, thing you’ll see for some time. Oshii apparently lost his religion right before making this, and has stated that even he doesn’t know what the film is about.
Featuring heavy use of water, long panoramic shots, high metaphor, and a dark, depressive world. It communicates through every pixel of the art, and every motion of the camera, barely giving you a ledge to stand upon at the end. His clearest style of direction and tone. Oshii made a masterpiece of inspection with a film about as queit and contemplative as one can be.
I’ve seen people come at it from every angle. A rejection of faith, an insulting jab to christianity, a calling towards god, a finding of one’s faith, it can go anywhere depending on what you bring to the film. Personally, I think Oshii wanted to communicate the lie of a present and worthwile god, but the reality of a power above us.
Find some time to watch it, and let me know what kind of film you watched.
I’m going to crunch these films together, because we have all seen them. If you haven’t, realize the error of your ways. Second only to Akira, and before the other series Cowboy Bebop, Evangellion, and Dragonball, as the pillars of anime. GitS is a series that is must see.
The orignal and 2.0 share virtually the same story, with slight edits and an update to the cg and digital effects to match with Innocence, that can also stand alone as a film. Others have done GitS: SAC, Laughing Man, Arise, and the other shared universe stories that can be interesting, and celebrate the genius of the original films.
Based on the Moble Armored Riot Police manga (Part of the Patlabor series), Oshii took a unique view to the work. Seemingly flipping the narrative of his Kerberos Saga, based on the idea of fighting society and being crushed by it. GitS explores the question of merging with this society, technology, and protection vs rebellion. “What is true for the group is also true for the individual” as our main lady would say. Beyond this, the series explores questions of reality, identity, religion, and intelligence.
The Japanese equivalent to Blade Runner, and just as masterful in the delivery. GitS is not only a great film(s), with solid characters, plot, execution, but the film inspired so much of our entertainment today. Ignoring GitS fan fiction series The Matrix, the introduction of Japanese Sci-Fi style had huge implications on almost every Sci-Fi film that came after it.
Mamoru Oshii is a visual… visionary. His works are all amazing to see and often you can find some of the most soul touching commentaries. GitS is one of the greatest films of all time and Oshii’s other works can all be put firmly in the “Exceptional” catagory. Not one of his films has ever felt weak, or un-original, and the visual mastery brings a depth to each story that few could ever hope to accomplish with mere words.
Whether it be Anime, Live Action, or this new Digital Live style used in his more recent stuff, Oshii delivers in a way that no one else in the business can.