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Anime Architecture: the epic illustrated backdrops of Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Metropolis

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When Akira came out in 1988, Japanese anime was heralded globally for its epic illustrated worlds depicting dystopian megacities and urban sprawl. In 1995 Ghost in the Shell made the same impact, and is said to have influenced major Hollywood productions such as The Matrix and Avatar.

Now, an exhibition at the House of Illustration is showcasing the backdrops to these and many other anime classics, bringing to the UK for the first time watercolour paintings by Hiromasa Ogura, pencil drawings by Takashi Watabe and other important works. Ahead of the exhibition, we spoke to curator Stefan Riekeles about its scope and why backgrounds deserve to be celebrated.

What era does the exhibition encompass, and what are the landmark pieces?

The artists in this exhibition belong to a generation that reached its peak when anime was still almost exclusively drawn by hand. Although nowadays they use computer animation in all areas of production, their most important tools still include the layout table, paper, pencil and paintbrush.

My favourite piece is the background illustration for Ghost in the Shell cut 477. I like it because it shows clearly the ambivalent status of these illustrations. On the one hand these are paintings, on the other they are set decoration, made for the animation camera. The background illustrations depict urban environments in a way that appeals to the eye of the camera first. The image is layered: you have background, middleground and foreground, sometimes even more layers. By moving the layers independently in front of the camera it’s possible to generate effects of depth. It looks as if the camera is panning or moving into the background. So the illustrations possess a physical structure of their own. I call this the architecture of the image.

Why do you think the backgrounds ought to be celebrated?

From the beginning of my research in the realm of anime I was fascinated by the background illustrations. Some are worked out in great detail yet each one is only visible for a few seconds. In Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell they were realised by a very passionate man, Hiromasa Ogura, an art director and his crew. I considered his illustrations to be works of art, but when I approached him with the idea to present these illustrations in an exhibition, he was reluctant at first. He said that these works are only by-products and that the only real artwork is the final film. It took us quite a while and several late-night meetings in bars to convince him that his works would also work on the wall of a museum, not only in front of the camera.

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Hiromasa Ogura: background illustration for Ghost in the Shell cut 334
© 1995 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment

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Takashi Watabe: concept design for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
© 2004 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, IG, ITNDDTD

What impact have these illustrations made aesthetically to films and animation since they came out?

These days we can see the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell at the cinema. I think it’s a great moment to have a look at the original artwork which laid the foundation for this. The world of Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, is “exotic”. That is a strange word and I’m only referring to it here because Mamoru Oshii, the director of the anime used it to describe the world-view of Ghost in the Shell. This film, released 1995, was the continuation of Oshii’s reflection of the Asian mega-city, which he started with Patlabor in 1989 and continued after Ghost in the Shell with Ghost in the Shell: Innocence in 2004. Patlabor is set in a realistic urban depiction of Tokyo. Innocence is located in a purely fictional Asian world. The world of Ghost in the Shell is a hybrid of these poles.

The idea was to evoke a feeling of submerging into the deep levels of the city, where a flood of information overflows the human senses and a lot of noise surrounds the people. The artists were looking for an expression of a crowded space. They found a blueprint for such a place in Hong Kong, which is exotic enough for a Japanese audience to evoke a feeling of alienation and strangeness but familiar enough to relate their daily life to. The film is set partially in Hong Kong of the 90s and partially in a fictional, so called “new city”. The new city represents the future while the real Hong Kong figures as the past. It is fascinating to see, how the artists integrated both concepts in their illustrations.

What range of artwork does the show cover?

In the exhibition we have some photographs, many coloured illustrations on paper, more pencil drawings on paper and three film excerpts. Most come from the production design department, whose job it is to draft a universe for the director. In the development stage the film architect, as the production designer is sometimes called, will try to provide a set in different camera perspectives so that a whole scene can be accommodated there. In Japanese the expression sekai-kan (which can be literally translated as “world view”) is used to describe the production design’s function of creating worlds. To make a story convincing and to make characters into identification figures, the drawn and painted architecture has to support the world in the film – it must be credible in narrative terms. The exhibition takes a slice through the scenery and gives an insight into the construction and statics of prototype anime worlds.

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan opens 26 May-10 September 2017 at House of Illustration, London.

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Hiromasa Ogura: Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell cut 311
© 1995 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment

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Hiromasa Ogura: Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell cut 341
© 1995 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment

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Atsushi Takeuchi: Layout for Ghost in the Shell cut 341
© 1995 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment

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Layout for Ghost in the Shell cut 311, illustrator unknown
© 1995 Shirow Masamune, Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment