Within the world of animation and the subculture of anime, Akira and Ghost in the Shell stand apart as iconic and highly influential. Released in the late 1980s, both animated films featured dystopian cyberpunk themes filtered through the Japanese lens of manga comics. Much like the proto-cyberpunk film Blade Runner and comic The Incal, Akira and Ghost in the Shell influenced a new generation of manga comics and films, while introducing a particularly distinct type of urban architecture in the process.
Fittingly, anime’s various cityscapes and structures are currently getting celebrated and explored in Anime Architecture, an exhibition that runs until October 16th at The Museum of Architectural Drawing in Berlin. Curated by Stefan Riekeles and Nadejda Bartels, the exhibition features original drawings from a number of iconic Japanese animated films.
Riekeles tells The Creators Project that Anime Architecture is the outcome of long period of research within the realm of Japanese animation. He and his colleague David d'Heilly launched this endeavor back in 2007 when they began visiting animation artists in their Tokyo studios.
“First I was impressed by the amount of work that is necessary to produce a few seconds of animated films,” Riekeles says. “In the studios we saw piles of boxes filled with drawings. Then I was astonished by the quality of the drawings: thousands and thousands of great drawings in cardboard boxes. We were sure that other people wanted to see these, too. And so we decided that we have to show at least a few of them in an exhibition.”
The next major task was to find the criteria for selection. From the very beginning, Riekeles was fascinated with the background illustrations, which he says present large parts of the films’ worldviews. While each background is worked out in painstaking detail, they occupy only fleeting moments of screen time.
For Riekeles, the backgrounds in the films Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell were particularly beautiful. Hiromasa Ogura, the art director on these films, was the artist responsible for these backgrounds.
“I would say he put in more of his soul into these illustrations than it was actually requested by the production office,” Riekeles says, who considers them to be works of art. But when he approached Ogura about presenting these illustrations in an exhibition, he found a reluctant artist.
“He said that these works are only byproducts and that the only real artwork is the final movie,” says Riekeles. “It took us quite awhile 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.”
Riekeles says the important thing to understand is that anime is a “totally urban architecture” with experiences of people living in big cities. He points to the manga comic Astro Boy as having a unique and recognizable urban architecture during its print run from 1952 to 1968, though its style is more fantastically cartoonish.
For the development of a more realistic style urban architecture, Riekeles points to Wings of Honneamise and Neon Genesis Evangelion as being far more critical. These works, however, didn’t make their way out of Japan at first.
“Akira and Ghost in the Shell became internationally well-known almost immediately,” Riekeles explains. “Therefore these films shaped the idea of the ‘Japanese’ city that is Tokyo much more. Also the production budgets for these films were higher than the average at that time, which means more effort was put into details.”
Riekeles describes the anime style of urban architecture in Ghost in the Shell (based on the manga by Masumune Shirow) as “exotic.” This is a word that Mamoru Oshii, the director of the film, used in describing the worldview of Ghost in the Shell.
“In the 1990s, Asia—especially the growth of China—stimulated a large discourse about the future of large cities,” Riekeles says. “In the visual arts it was the exhibition Cities on the Move by Hou Hanru and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in which David d'Heilly actually took part, which captured these ideas best. Ghost in the Shell reflects this mood in its story and visual language.”
“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,” he adds. “The artists were looking for an expression of a crowded space.”
Anime artists found their blueprint, according to Riekeles, in Hong Kong. The international city, with its epic skyscrapers, was exotic enough for a Japanese audience, helping to evoke a feeling of alienation and “strangeness but familiar enough to relate their daily life to”.
Oshii partially set the film version of Ghost in the Shell in Hong Kong, and well as in a fictional so-called "New City." Riekeles says that New City represents the future, while the real Hong Kong figures as the past.
Over 20 years on, it’s taken for granted that Tokyo has the look of a cyberpunk or anime film. And with other cities like Shanghai, with its shantytowns and illuminated, high-tech areas, it’s probably safe to say that cityscapes imagined by the likes of Oshii, William Gibson, Hiromasa Ogura, Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira), and others are becoming standard, in a way. We are even seeing it in cities like Los Angeles’ Downtown area, with all of its futuristic modernity, mere minutes from the infamous Skid Row.
Riekeles, for his part, sees an interesting “semantic loop” between anime’s cityscapes and contemporary architecture concerning the film Tokyo Scanner. Produced for the Cities of the World exhibition, it explores the sprawling mega-complex of Roppongi Hills, one of the largest urban development projects in Tokyo at the turn of the millennium, with its central element being the 54-story Mori Tower.
Roppongi Hills cost over $4 billion and was built on a 27-acre site. The site itself was bought over a period of 14 years from more than 400 landowners, some of whom had lived in traditional wooden houses.
“Built by the Mori Building Corporation, the mega-complex houses offices, apartments, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, a museum, a hotel, a large TV studio, an outdoor theatre and parks,” says Riekeles. “The film was supervised by Mamoru Oshii.”
“The movie blends the cinematic vision of the director with real estate projects of the company,” Riekeles goes on to say. “He thus highlights the close connection between technology, urban visions and the fantasy world of anime films, for the designs of which the artist often draws directly on current reality.”
Riekeles points out that today’s construction materials and production methods also make it increasingly possible to erect buildings that in the past could only exist as drawings or computer-generated fictions. Architects are surely aware of the fictional cyberpunk cityscapes of Blade Runner and The Incal. And while they aren’t trying to duplicate these fictional structures, there seems to be an influence in futuristic designs and even the sprawl of large modern complexes.
In all of the cases of which Riekeles is aware, however, anime borrows from the built world, not the other way round. In other words, the real world is building as if it were constructing a fantasy, but not one of a strictly anime tone. But in the works of Anime Architecture, the fantasy is being pulled from the real world.
It’s possible that in the future, architects will continue to blur the lines between the real and the unreal. It may not look exactly like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Wings of Honneamise, but indeed like something beyond these wonders of imagination.