Skip to main content

Table of Contents


Chapter One. An Introduction to Oshii

Mamoru Oshii is a filmmaker who exemplifies the breadth and complexities of modern Japanese cinema like none other. As a director, Oshii has made the majority of his complex and intelligent films in anime (Japanese animation). The term “anime” does not denote any particular style or content; it simply means animation from Japan. While anime has been gaining a broader audience in recent years, some critics still dismiss the medium as frivolous or lacking in depth based on a limited understanding of anime’s breadth. For example, Donald Richie, noted critic of Japanese film, has said that “the reason anime are so fast, and so violent, [is that] they have to make themselves apprehendable through splash alone.”1 Although Richie’s statement may be true of some popular anime programs (keeping in mind Theodore Sturgeon’s maxim that “ninety percent of everything is crud”), Oshii’s deeply complex films directly contradict such a generalization. Despite conceding that many animated Japanese films serve merely as lightweight entertainment, in his book Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, Alex Kerr writes that anime is the “one bright spot in [the] otherwise gloomy picture” of modern Japanese cinema.2 Animation as a medium possesses much more artistic and creative potential than many critics and casual viewers appreciate; Oshii tries to make his films fulfill this grand potential of anime cinema, with a certain amount of success. Along with Academy Award-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), Mamoru Oshii is at the forefront of this cinematic movement.

Chapter Two. Urusei Yatsura(1981–84)

Throughout the late 1970s, Mamoru Oshii worked in the anime industry, mainly drawing storyboards for various television series. After starting his career at Tatsunoko Productions, Oshii followed his mentor, Hisayuki Toriumi, to Studio Pierrot where he began to hone his skills at directing animation. While there, Oshii worked on a number of shows, most notably Nils’s Mysterious Journey. An adaptation of a Swedish fairy tale, Nils is a tale of a young boy’s quest for identity that features geese as the boy’s traveling companions. It is noteworthy that Oshii was involved in a retelling of this tale at the beginning of his career; the story of Nils also has been cited as an early influence by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Ōe.1 As Susan J. Napier states, “Just as the young Ōe would grow up to commingle the Western Other in both his art and his life, so Nils seems happier among the alien geese than with humans.”2 Perhaps, like Ōe, Oshii could see something of himself in Nils and his quest.

Chapter Three. Angel’s Egg (1985)

In 1984 Oshii left the staff ofUrusei Yatsura and the employ of Studio Pierrot to begin working on his own projects. Oshii’s departure not only marked the beginning of a new phase in his career, it also served as the impetus for his former colleagues to create the popular animated film Project A-ko (1986). Yūji Moriyama, director of animation and storyboard artist on Project A-ko, stated: “The crew [of Project A-ko] consisted mainly of people who had worked on Urusei Yatsura. Initially, that TV series was directed by Mamoru Oshii, but he stepped down along the way. His defection demoralized the crew and left us utterly unmotivated. We were ready to move on to something more interesting, something we could really sink our teeth into. Those of us who shared that sentiment got together and brainstormed. And this film is the culmination of all our ideas”1

Chapter Four. Twilight Q 2: Labyrinth Objects File 538 (1987)

In the second and final episode in the Twilight Q OVA series, Twilight Q 2: Labyrinth Objects File 538 (Twilight Q 2: Meikyū Bukken File 538), Oshii gives viewers a glimpse of a world where fiction and reality flow seamlessly into each other. The Twilight Q OVA series originally was intended to highlight the stories and talents of up-and-coming anime directors through a series of unconnected, imaginative short stories, but the project lasted only two episodes. The title of the series can be read as an homage to two influential television shows: The Twilight Zone and Ultra Q, a mid-1960s’ series that was a cross between a Japanese version of The Outer Limits-style science fiction and a Toho monster film. Although the anime series was in color, the allusion to these two black-and-white television programs is indicative of the sense of noir and mystery aimed for in Twilight Q.

Chapter Five. Mobile Police Patlabor (1988–93)

Mamoru Oshii’s involvement in the Mobile Police Patlabor series of OVAs, television episodes, and films may seem out of place when compared to his previous work. Prior to Patlabor, Oshii’s films had been science fiction comedies and meditations on the nature of dreams and reality. Patlabor was his first foray into the mecha subgenre of Japanese animation. Mecha films and shows place an emphasis on mechanical elements, especially robots and giant mechanical suits. Much of the early classic Japanese animation had emphasized mecha, and its lineage can be traced from Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) and Tetsujin 28-go (Gigantor) in the 1960s, Mazinger Z and Mobile Suit Gundam in the 1970s, Superdimensional Fortress Macross in the 1980s, and Neon Genesis Evangelion in the 1990s. Beginning in 1989, the Patlabor series can be situated within the giant robot theme in Japanese animation. However, like all good mecha anime, Patlabor overcomes the limitations of its genre. It is not merely a show about giant robots, but serves as a basis from which to explore history, politics, and culture. Oshii said of his work, “In retrospect, Patlabor for me was a major film in many ways, and I think it became my turning point. I know I am what I am today because of Patlabor.”1

Chapter Six. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Although Oshii’s reputation as a visionary director continued to grow through the early 1990s, he was still unmistakably a part of the commercial anime industry. Specifically, he worked closely with the company Bandai, whose various subsidiaries produce video games, toys, and animation. Oshii had been working on another anime project for Bandai between the two Patlabor films, but the company suddenly canceled it. Said Oshii, “I was so upset that I asked Bandai if I could direct something else, and they said ‘Do whatever you want.’”1 With Bandai’s blessing, Oshii directed Talking Head (1992), his personal meditation on the art and industry of film and animation. Although the film sometimes is billed as a mix of live action and anime, the animation does not occupy very much screen time (and only a very small bit of animation at the beginning is in what has come to be accepted as the anime style). Like Oshii’s other live action films before Avalon (The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops, which are discussed briefly in chapter 7), the style of Talking Head is very different from that of his animated films. Talking Head takes on an obvious staged form, drawing from both Japanese and Western styles, with most of the action taking place as if in a play. In true Oshii fashion, the end reveals that most of the film’s events had been dreamed by the main character.

Chapter Seven. Jin-Roh (2000) and BLood the Last Vampire (2000)

Following the success ofGhost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii took a break from directing to focus his energies on other film projects. During this time, he became involved in two films in which he did not serve as director, but was nonetheless a major creative force. The two films, Jin-Roh and Blood the Last Vampire, are fascinating companion pieces because they are nearly polar opposites in terms of approach and style.

Chapter Eight. Avalon (2000)

After a five-year hiatus, Oshii returned to feature directing in 2000 with the film Avalon. Through his new film, Oshii would revisit many of the characteristic visual themes he had been working on in Ghost in the Shell, but this time he would move away from animation and conduct his film in the realm of live action.

Chapter Nine. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Following the success of the originalGhost in the Shell in 1995, further animated explorations in the franchise began in October 2002 when the series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex began airing on Japanese television. Directed by Kenji Kamiyama, who had made his directorial debut with MiniPato a year earlier, the series delved deeper into the world of Section 9, yet it took place in a different narrative universe. In many respects the television series was closer to Masamune Shirow’s original manga than Oshii’s film adaptation. Rather than the pan-Asian Hong Kong-influenced aesthetics of the film, the setting for Stand Alone Complex was undoubtedly Japan. In twenty-six episodes, the series took Shirow’s original ideas for the Ghost in the Shell manga and incorporated them with other contributions from the staff, including staff writer Jun’ichi Fujisaku, who had previously worked on Blood the Last Vampire and who would go on to write a series of novels based in the Stand Alone Complex universe. In early 2004, a second series of the Ghost in the Shell television series began airing, again directed by Kamiyama. This time around it was called 2nd Gig and featured contributions from Oshii, who contributed to the overall structure and was credited with “story concept.” Although Oshii was now popularly associated with Ghost in the Shell, he had not wanted to interfere with what Kamiyama was doing until specifically asked to contribute by Production I.G’s cofounder Mitsuhisa Ishikawa.1

Chapter Ten. The Sky Crawlers (2008)

Following the grand animated experiment that was Innocence, Mamoru Oshii took on a number of varied projects. He served as supervisor for the television series Windy Tales (Fujin monogatari, 2004–2005), which was created by Production I.G based on the winning submission for the Anime Plan Grand Prix contest. In addition, he served as planning assistant for the series Blood+ (2005–2006), a continuation of the ideas that he helped begin in Blood the Last Vampire. He also designed the marking on the nose of an American B-29 that appeared in the live-action film Lorelei: Witch of the Pacific Ocean (Rōrerai, 2005). This film about the quest of a top-secret Japanese submarine to stop a third atomic bombing on Japan at the end of World War II was directed by Shinji Higuchi, one of the founders of the animation studio Gainax. The two had previously worked together on two liveaction films—the giant monster film The Eight-Headed Giant Serpent Strikes Back (Yamata no orochi no gyakushū, 1985), for which Higuchi handled the special effects and Oshii was credited with “equipment cooperation,” as well as Remnant 6 (Uchū kamotsusen Remunanto 6, 1996). They would go on to work together on Assault Girls, for which Higuchi was credited with the key art design. Oshii also was responsible for an installation at the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan, called “Open Your Mind” This multimedia installation used sculpture and video screens in order to create an immersive event, the aim of which was to “have visitors think anew about the recovery of the Earth while experiencing the wonder of nature and the environment.”1

Chapter Eleven. Assault Girls (2009)

As we have seen, there are common themes and images that run throughout Mamoru Oshii’s films. However, until now I have not discussed the specific world-building that ties together many of Oshii’s films. Part of the reason for this is that some of these works do not fit neatly into the structure of this book, and quite a few are not easily available in English. A discussion of Assault Girls presents a perfect opportunity to illustrate the many connections that exist among some of Oshii’s works I have only glancingly touched upon.

Chapter Twelve. Conclusion

Oshii’s Tokyo As Anime-Ic City

In 2004, Patrick Macias, an American commentator on Japanese popular culture, published a book called Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo. In it, he takes the reader on a tour of the varieties of anime, manga, toys, games, and music that can be found in Japan’s capital city. In the introduction, Macias asserts that although the anime industry might be receding from the growth it saw in the 1990s, at the time of the book’s publication, the influence of associated otaku (or geek) culture was in fact in the rise. He writes, “The more you look around in Japan, the more anime influence you are likely to see. That’s because anime is literally everywhere and has transformed Tokyo into an Anime City. And daily life there is stranger, more exciting, and more vital than any anime I’ve ever seen.”1 Of course, such assertions must be taken with a grain of salt, as Macias is attempting to provide an enticing perspective for the reader to purchase his book. On another level, though, Macias is indicating that media products like anime have seeped from the screens and into our lives and the geographies around us. In Macias’s view, the prevalence of anime, manga, and related popular culture has somehow changed Tokyo itself into an anime city. I want to wrap up my exploration of Oshii’s films by exploring this slippage from the screen to perceptions of the world around us.


Additional information