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Oshii Mamoru: Dreaming of the Futures Past

Written by Andrew Symons Tell a Friend

Whether it be the "virtual" realities of Avalon, the cyberpunk future of Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor's grounded near-future of a giant robot workforce, the work of Japanese animation director Oshii Mamoru reveals an obsession with alternate universes. Oshii's intricate, living worlds externally reflect the impact of cyborgs or mechanized labor, but also explore the inner life of their inhabitants, their dreams and their aspirations. Still, Oshii never loses sight of the need to entertain and his films are full of spectacular chases, visceral combat, or riveting suspense and intrigue. Oshii's work is like a psychotherapy session aboard a roller-coaster.

Oshii Mamoru was born in Tokyo in 1950. One of his first memories was going to see the classic science fiction film This Island Earth. A passion for sci-fi, an involvement with the student protest movement in Japan in the sixties, and an interest in the Bible and mythology would inform much of his work. Oshii has returned to these themes again and again, each time approaching them from a different perspective.

Oshii's first work was as chief director on the first 104 episodes of the television series Urusei Yatsura. Based on Takashi Rumiko's romantic comedy manga, the story centers around a romantic triangle involving sex-obsessed high-schooler Ataru, his girl-next-door girlfriend Shinobu, and the princess Lum, who is infatuated with Ataru. The situation is complicated by the fact that Lum is an alien prone to dramatic mood swings, and frequently targets the object of her disaffection with lightning bolts. Oshii went on to direct the first two feature films in the series, Urusei Yatsura: Only You (1983) and Beautiful Dreamer (1984). While both films stuck closely to the Urusei Yatsura formula, Beautiful Dreamer reflected Oshii's interest with characters caught in a fantasy world of wish fulfillment. However, the appearance of incongruous elements in the world (including a tank and a Harrier Jump Jet!), begins cause to concerns amongst the cast of characters. Working within the boundaries of another creator's work, Oshii began to explore the landscape where dreams, desires, and reality meet.

Originally produced as a toy tie-in, Dallos (1983) is a science-fiction tale about a war of independence between miners on the moon and an oppressive Earth Government. This fairly standard story, directed by Oshii, has the honor of being the first anime to be released direct to video, a trend that would become an industry standard.

His next feature, Angel's Egg, was certainly a change of tempo. Collaborating with fantasy illustrator Yoshitaka Amano (best known for his character designs in the Final Fantasy video games and the Vampire Hunter D anime), Oshii produced a piece heavy on beautiful but melancholy imagery. Angel's Egg features a small girl carrying a giant egg who finds herself in what appears to be a deserted European town. She meets a soldier carrying a cross-like weapon and watches fisherman ineffectually attempt to catch the fish that swim across the surface of the town's buildings. The inscrutable story, heavy with symbolism, seems designed to draw an emotional, rather than intellectual response from its audience.

The first seven part Patlabor series (1989) is a more down-to-earth work from Oshii. Set in a familiar modern day world subtly altered by manned mechanical robots (or "labors") which are designed to carry out heavy duty construction tasks, Patlabor focuses on a police unit assigned to combat labor crime with its own mechs, called "Patlabors". Instead of bright-eyed young things saving the universe, the protagonists of Patlabor are more interested in growing tomatoes than stopping a drunken labor driver, while their commander, the wily Captain Goto, battles police bureaucracy and budget cuts. In the memorable finale of the first episode the unit finally takes delivery of its robot suits.

In two subsequent Patlabor features, Oshii looks at larger themes of the price of progress and politics. Patlabor: The Movie (1990) commences with the suicide of a genius programmer working on the Babylon project at a Labor manufacturing plant called the Ark. The Patlabor unit is drawn into a conspiracy of biblical portions. Set in a world only one step removed from our own, Patlabor: The Movie is a mystery littered with biblical portents that touches on the momentum of technology and construction blindly replacing the old structures.

Patlabor 2 (1993) turns its attention to the role of the Japanese Defense Force. The super-perceptive Goto must reunite the original unit when a disgruntled Japanese mecha pilot sets in motion a plan that may cause Japan to be placed under martial law. Here Oshii explores the contradictory role of the Japanese military working with NATO, the presence of U.S. bases in Japan, and the slippery slope towards martial law. An edge-of-your-seat political thriller, Patlabor 2 remains one of Oshii's most outstanding films.

The third movie in the series, Patlabor WXIII (2002) features a showdown between a super-sized mutant and a couple of morose detectives at the Japanese Budokan stadium (the seeming venue of choice for live concert recordings by Western artists, including Ozzy Osborne and Cheap Trick). Oshii was not involved in the project and the original cast is relegated to the cheap seats.

With the West hungry for more anime in the wake of Otomo Katushiro's Akira, the release of Ghost in the Shell (1995) was timely, and proved to be Oshii's international breakthrough. It features incredible vertiginous opening, action set pieces, various cyberpunk trappings (cyborgs, prosthetic enhancements, VR plug-ins), and a landscape of decaying slums contrasting with endlessly rising skyscrapers of glass and steel. It also doesn't hurt that the cyborg female lead, Major Kusanagi, risks catching a robotic cold with one of the smallest government issue uniforms ever devised! Oshii uses Shirow Masamune's manga as an avenue to explore the effects of technological enhancement, and also what it means to be human. When a sentient computer known as the Puppet Master begins possessing cyborgs and people, Section 9 and its field team leader Major Kusanagi are called in. Oshii has his cyborg heroine question her own consciousness and soul (or ghost) when confronted with the possibility of becoming the next stage of evolution. Ghost in the Shell's full-leaded finale features a fight between Kusanagi and a tank, and has more ordinance and shell casings than some world wars. In the process, the evolutionary ladder is literally (and figuratively) obliterated.

Stepping back from directing, Oshii subsequently worked on two projects: scripting Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999), and serving as the originator of Blood: The Last Vampire(2000). Jin-Roh is an alternate vision of sixties Japan where it is implied (though never stated) that Germany won the Second World War. A paramilitary police force known as the Capitol Police Organisation is established to combat terrorism. The iconic fascistic armor worn by the Capitol Police features German-style helmets, gas masks, and ember red eyes, creating a truly formidable and frightening image. A member of the Capitol Police, Fuse becomes involved with the sister of a member of the terrorist organization The Sect. The film is set against a backdrop of bureaucratic machinations by the competing local police and the Capitol Police, each jockeying for the authority to control the city's streets. Director Okiura Hiroyuki, an animator on Ghost in the Shell and Otomo's Memories (Okiura would go on to work on Metropolis, and also direct the Cowboy Bebop movie) brings a superb naturalism and believability to the art design. Jin-Roh displays Oshii's ability to create a fully realised world, and is a cautionary tale of a Japan that could have been.

Blood: The Last Vampire shares a sixties setting with Jin-Roh but little else. Relying heavily on digital animation, Blood is a visual feast. Director Kitakubo Hiroyuki cut his teeth on the digital effects on Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira, and also directed Roujin Z. This is a brutal tale where darkness dominates, the anemic pallor of the characters borders on ugly, and the vampires are literal monsters. The remorseless vampire killing machine Saya is voiced by the famous Japanese actress Kudoh Youki, known in the west for her work in Mystery Train, Heaven's Burning, and Snow Falling on Cedars. In her "cute" school uniform, Saya and her samurai sword would sit Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill Volume 1 on her backside. Little plot or explanation exists in Blood but it is interesting that Oshii places his bestial vampires in a U.S. Air Force base just prior to the commencement of the Vietnam War. Though only forty-five minutes in length, Blood is a visceral and bloody ride.

Oshii also took time out to script Mini Pato. This hilarious parody of the Patlabor series uses computer technology to create a unique "digital puppet theatre". Oshii pokes fun at himself (especially his fascination with the minutiae of military hardware) and the series as the Patlabor cast, represented by two dimensional puppets on sticks, give the viewer an overview of guns, the history of giant robots, and how a police unit may be involved in a covert take-away food scam.

Having dabbled with conventional filmmaking in three shorts (The Red Spectacles, Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops, and Talking Head), Oshii moved away from anime for his next feature, the live-action Avalon (2001). Filmed in Poland, Avalon uses sepia tone to capture the essence of a decaying Communist world where the only escape is an online war game called Avalon. The heroine, Ash, is a master of Avalon, and seeks access to a secret level called "Special A". Oshii's use of CG effects to create the elements of the game is spectacular. In-game explosions are frozen, then panned around to show them as two dimensions, and characters "die" by shattering into millions of polygon fragments. Using different color-grades to establish each of his realities, Oshii creates doubts as to which is the "real" world. If you find your finger hovering over the rewind at certain points, then you aren't alone. Avalon looks at human dissatisfaction and a yearning for fulfillment through change.

Oshii's latest work brings him back to the world Major Kusanagi, with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Two members of Section 9, the cybernetically-enhanced Batou and his partner Togusa, investigate human murders at the hands of "sexadroid" robots, but the investigation uncovers far more than the two expect. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence revisits many of the themes of the first film. Its seamless combination of digital and hand animation creates an experience of immense detail and beauty. With Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Oshii once again displays an unerring capacity to create new worlds and explore the dreams and aspirations of those who live within them. And like life, it doesn't always make complete sense.

Published March 18, 2005

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