• Anime architecture: Drawn from reality

    If architecture is the most important of the arts in life (you can walk past a gallery, turn a deaf ear to music but will find it hard to avoid buildings unless you live in a cave), it should occupy a similar status in simulations of life. Given the very particular relationship the Japanese have with their own built environment – much of the nation is forested or mountainous and so cities are repeatedly refined, modified and rebuilt within their boundaries, tradition and modernity constantly pulling against each other as this occurs – it comes as little surprise that a convincing built environment features strongly in animated films from that country, generically known as anime. The current exhibition at the House of Illustration peels apart the layers of background imagery behind four anime to show this; the immense care and attention it reveals is an absorbing delight.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 311, watercolour on paper 280 × 380mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    With all of anime, the backgrounds start as concepts, sketched in pencil and used to determine the initial look of the buildings, skylines, streets and rooms to be featured. Separately, image boards are employed to consider different lighting schemes, colour palettes and moods. Layouts – again in pencil – help determine where forms and objects will sit in the frame and the camera angles. Once approved by the director, all of these are combined in the actual backgrounds, painted in gouache or acrylic and mostly onto celluloid, that are laid on the rostrum camera and exposed to film. One interesting point is that these are usually slightly larger than the frame of the visible image to allow for zooms and pans. In this exhibition, many layouts are shown adjacent to their final backgrounds to allow comparison of the two.

    Copyright: 2017 Paul Grover

    That all four productions featured – Patlabor (1989), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Metropolis (2001) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) – are set in the future provides the most immediately eye-catching material, as might be expected, in the form of an intricate and high-rise architecture that has yet to appear in the Japan or Hong Kong of today. But the source material and screenplays of three films, at least, also incorporate multiple references to the past, requiring their visual artists to create the old as well as the new.

    This is seen to superb effect in Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor, whose very theme – as I have explored elsewhere – is the complex future as threat and the simple past as refuge. Hiromasa Ogura’s lush paintings for it beautifully convey the varied tonalities at the heart of the film, from the cloud-puffed blue sky over the police base and its waterside fields of green to the simple wooden homes being demolished for more concrete apartment blocks.

    Copyright: 2017 Paul Grover

    For the first Ghost in the Shell, also directed by Oshii, Ogura worked from Haruhiko Higami’s monochrome, reportage-style photographs taken on location in Hong Kong to craft the fictionalised version of that city seen in the finished film. A chance fogging of a camera lens one evening saw diffuse halos appear around lights in the developed photographs, effects that Ogura copied in his image boards and which were carried over to the ‘cinematography’ of the film’s night shots. The influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and, perhaps, Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting 'Nighthawks' in some of the completed backgrounds is unacknowledged here but surely present.

    Layout for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341, mounted on top of background illustration, pencil on printed paper 240 × 370mm

    Illustrator: Atsushi Takeuchi

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341, watercolour on paper 280 × 380mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    Elsewhere, Takashi Watabe's exquisite pencil layouts for Metropolis’s skyscrapers owe much to the great architectural visionary Hugh Ferriss and Fritz Lang’s original film of the same name. Watabe also worked on Ghost in the Shell 2. His drawings for the climactic tunnel battle exhibit an extraordinary density of line in rendering delicate and complicated networks of cables and pipes, and this time the architecture of Richard Rogers for Lloyd’s of London springs to mind as a possible inspiration.

    Only by seeing these small artworks (each not that much larger than A4) in person and close-to can one fully appreciate the detail, texture and colours involved, regardless of type or author. The atmospherics of a soft, aqueous horizon or aerial perspective; the precision of a tower block’s façade; fat water tanks on building roofs; hundreds of tiny dashes of yellow amidst blue signifying lit windows at night.

    All of this comes together in my favourite item in the exhibition, Ogura’s background for shot or cut 477 of Ghost in the Shell (1995). Executed as two sheets, a watercolour on paper and an acrylic on a cel, the one overlaid on the other and moved during filming to give a sense of depth yet suggesting this even when static, the work uses blues, purples, violets and green to portray a dense thicket of night-time skyscrapers in medium close-up. A wealth of detail – structure, fenestration, heating and ventilation plant – enliven the scene and allow one to lose oneself inside of it. It has a powerful dimensionality and realism well beyond its restricted materials.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 477, watercolour on paper and acrylic on transparent film 270 × 390mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    There is much to take away from this show, not least that some of the most startling sequences of Ghost in the Shell – the first animated film to extensively deploy computer-generated imagery – relied entirely on the talents of these artists to pull off, such as the fish-eye lens distortion of the museum roof that is in fact drawn into the original artwork. That the canals and bridges of Tokyo have also been used to symbolise dataflow is another.

    Representations of architecture in the widest sense are undergoing a renaissance lately, with the London Festival of Architecture in full swing this month, the RIBA opening its new gallery in Liverpool with a showing of plans built and unbuilt in that city over the decades and the announcement of next year’s National Gallery examination of Monet’s paintings of architecture. With only a regret that more interior, domestic spaces were not included, this ground-breaking show, shining a long-deserved light on an internationally-important cultural phenomenon, should be considered a vital part of that rebirth.

    ‘Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan’, curated by Stefan Riekeles in association with Les Jardins des Pilotes and Tchoban Foundation - Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin, continues at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, London N1C 4BH until 10 September 2017

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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