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Takashi Watabe (c) 2004 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA IG, ITNDDTD

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan

7 June 2017 Will Rathbone

Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan is a collection of concept sketches, background designs and paintings from four of Japanese cinema’s most iconic movies: Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Patlabor: The Movie and Metropolis. For anyone remotely interested in anime this exhibition is a must-see. For those who aren’t it’s a great introduction to the genre, and the detailed artworks are astonishing in their quality and precision.

Anime is a Japanese genre of hand-drawn or computer-animated films and television shows. The most popular studio creating these films, and probably the most well known on these shores, is Studio Ghibli. Spirited Away, their 2001 masterpiece, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and catapulted the studio into the limelight. The genre has since grown steadily in popularity, moving out of the niche market and into the collective consciousness of the wider public. With Ghost in the Shell being remade into a Hollywood action movie starring Scarlett Johansson, Kings Cross’ House of Illustration have picked a good time to stage this exhibition.
 
The exhibition begins by introducing the initial stages of anime – concept designs, image boards, layouts and the final backgrounds over which the character animations are then layered. Think of the painted backgrounds in early Disney films, and how they look different from the animations themselves, and you have the right idea. Each film is then examined in turn before a short film featuring excerpts from three of the films closes the exhibition. The four supremely talented illustrators/artists who feature predominantly are Hiromasa Ogura, Mamoru Oshii, Atsushi Takeuchi and Takashi Watabe.

Image Credit: Hiromasa Ogura © 1995 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd

The level of detail involved in making these four iconic movies is striking. Ogura’s Background for cut 102/107 of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is an example of the beautifully detailed cityscapes that litter this exhibition. Its partner-drawing, Layout for cut 102/107 of ‘Ghost in the Shell’, is by an unknown artist. Side by side, you see the level of thought and meticulous detail that has been given to this fictional high-rise. It’s a thing of beauty, and the fact that the second artist went unrecorded is strangely touching – as though the cold, gleaming towers they sketched have swallowed them up. Startlingly, the curator of the exhibition, Stefan Riekeles, had to work incredibly hard to rescue a lot of these drawings. Thousands of them are produced for each movie – a lot of which don’t make the final cut and, as you can imagine, take up a lot of space. Riekeles visited Tokyo and the studios where these films were made, and found the artworks boxed up in corners, waiting to be destroyed. He made it his mission to rescue and exhibit as much as he could.
 
The four movies are set in imagined conurbations – future dystopian megacities based on real-life Asian cities like Tokyo – in a style known as ‘real-kei’. The themes are surprisingly prescient considering some are over 20 years old – Ghost in the Shell (2005) deals with an interconnected world threatened by hackers, and asks how we can remain individuals in such a place, whilst Patlabor (1989) responds to the growing threat of ruthless property developers in large cities. They explore concerns that affect many in society today, and may go some way to explaining the rise in popularity of the genre.
 
The ultramodern aesthetic makes for some beautiful artwork. Ogura’s mastery of light in Ghost in the Shell is stunning – gleaming skyscrapers reflecting sunlight in Cut 311, neon signs reflected in puddles of rain in Cut 341, the rain-soaked interior of Cut 530 – all these images produce a palpably dark, moody atmosphere.

Image Credit: Hiromasa Ogura © 1995 Shirow Masamune, KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd

 
The influence of location photography is of further interest. The abandoned waterways of Tokyo’s canals, as photographed by Haruhiko Higami, and Ogura’s accidental light halos – caused by the humidity of the night – both went on to influence the style of the films.
 
Elsewhere, the ‘layouts’ foster an appreciation of the directorial role in creating these movies. A top-down sketch of a street by Watabe, Concept design for scene 10 of ‘Metropolis’, includes numbered camera symbols that relate to the ‘cuts’ featured elsewhere in the room. The concept sketches for each cut, when viewed in relation to this plan, help to give a sense of scale to the director’s vision.  

Image Credit: Paul Grover

Small details give fascinating insights into the creative process – the Dog stamp that director Mamoru Oshii used to signal his approval; the translation of a note from Oshii to Watabe, concerning the opening sequence of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, which asks for more development of the belly, as opposed to the brain, of a character because “this is the centre of the body (as in Chinese Tradition)”. Seeing notes written in Japanese script is also a joy – the detail in every character epitomises a natural predilection for detail.
 
Hand-drawn animation is a dying art – the vast majority of Tokyo’s anime is becoming more and more digitalised. Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan pays homage to the incredible artists involved in these seminal films, and preserves the works themselves. It’s compulsory viewing for anyone with an interest in anime, or animation in general, and serves as a fantastic introduction for anyone eager to learn more.
 
Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan is at House of Illustration, King’s Cross, until September 10. Tickets are £7.50 and include entry to the other temporary exhibitions – Nous Vous: Three Men in a Boat and Quentin Blake: The Life of Birds.
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