A Berlin exhibition explored how Japanese artists brought the tenements and shadows of the near-future city to cinematic life. John Jervis got lost in the meticulous, hand-drawn detail
Urban backdrops, from Gotham to Mega City One, have long played a potent role in Western comics and their big-screen spin-offs. But it was in Japanese anime, in the decade or so after Akira (1988), that the city reached its peak as an actor in near-future fantasies. Two films in particular – Patlabor (1989) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) – lay strong claim to this pinnacle, and they also provided many of the highlights of a wonderful show at the Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin, which ended last month.
Limited in size by venue and by the difficulty of obtaining exhibits (most came direct from the artists – anime studios can be both destructive and protective), the show still gathered an impressive selection of settings (in which the scene is sketched in pencil to define architecture, landscape and moving elements); artboards (which establish colour palettes, often at multiple times of day); layouts (precise drawings specifying the position of all aspects of the scene, including camera angles); and, most gloriously, the actual backgrounds used in the films, often layered with additional imagery on celluloid film that can be shifted during scenes to enhance perspective and movement.
The shaded pencil layouts by Atsushi Takeuchi and backgrounds in ink and gouache by Hiromasa Ogura for Ghost in the Shell – a film about a part-cyborg future – are each about a foot across, and each is captivating in its own right. In place of the standard New York-based megalopolis, they depict in meticulous detail an ‘old city’ of waterways and cobbles, based on Hong Kong. Highways lit by neon criss-cross above and an island of sleek modern skyscrapers rise across the harbour but, as in Hong Kong, real life, and a far greater depth of colour, character and credibility, reside in the shadows below.
Many locations are drawn directly from particular Hong Kong streets, some still recognisable, others now swept away, including Kowloon Walled City, photographed on a scouting trip for the film just prior to its demolition in 1993. Squat tong lau and mid-rise Hong Kong tenements of the 1950s and 60s, with their balconies, window grills and cheap air-con units, and their weathered claddings of bill posters and bamboo scaffolding, are depicted with an eerie, expressive painterliness. Hong Kong’s famed neon signage hangs over the streetscapes, reflected in pools of dank water, providing an additional depth that draws the eye into the scene, often with distorted perspectives to accentuate the effect.
If the visuals for Patlabor do not quite reach these heights, their application is perhaps even bolder. The layouts by Takashi Watabe and the backgrounds (by Hiromasa Ogura again) are plain yet evocative. In one renowned scene, drawing on director Mamoru Oshii’s explorations of the canals around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, two podgy detectives explore a ruined quarter that is in the midst of being cleared by robotic ‘Labors’ for redevelopment. Shots are long and silent, lingering to an almost ridiculous extent to allow the viewer’s gaze to roam across the architecture. As the pair make their way through drained channels of abandoned bikes, fridges and bedsteads, the remnants of diverse traditional buildings rise around them – a mess of corrugated iron, broken glass and decaying rafters, with the ghosts of previous structures and lives imprinted on their derelict walls. Effete new towers can be glimpsed beyond.
In some respects, the exhibition dodged the digital bullet, exposing only the handcrafted elements of these films, but such is the skill of execution (and the speed of subsequent digital innovation) that these conventional parts have dated better in any case. Nor did it explore foregrounds in much detail – these seemed a crude intrusion when encountered afterwards.
Yet it was a perfect opportunity to learn about a highly collaborative and highly specialised process, and also to engage with work produced and shown at speed, which was never intended for such display. One obvious lesson would seem to be that high modernism, in cinema as in life, remains firmly established in its role as the encapsulation of the sterile, inhumane and domineering. Another is that the richness of the battered, various and organic offers a far more effective means of constructing a plausible future.
Anime Architecture, Museum for Architectural Drawing, took place at the Tchoban Foundation, Berlin, from 23 July to 16 October 2016
Images: © 1995 Shirow Masamune / Kodansha, Bandai Visual, Manga Entertainment Ltd; © 2004 Shirow Masamune / Kodansha, IG, ITNDDTD