Designing anime megalopolises: Exhibition unpacks the dystopian, ultramodern world of Japanese animation

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Background for <i>Ghost in the Shell</i> (1995), cut 477. Gouache on paper and acrylic on transparent film, 270 × 390 mm. Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura.

Background for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 477. Gouache on paper and acrylic on transparent film, 270 × 390 mm. Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura. Image: copyright 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

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Background for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341. Watercolour on paper, 280 × 380 mm. Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura.

Background for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341. Watercolour on paper, 280 × 380 mm. Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura. Image: copyright 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

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Concept Design for <i>Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence</i> (2004). Pencil on paper, 176 x 250mm. Illustrator: Takashi Watabe.

Concept Design for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Pencil on paper, 176 x 250mm. Illustrator: Takashi Watabe. Image: copyright 2004 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA · IG, ITNDDTD

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Display from the exhibition installed at the House of Illustration in London, 2017.

Display from the exhibition installed at the House of Illustration in London, 2017. Image: Gianni Plescia

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The cold, neon-lit towers of a number of futuristic cyberpunk megalopolises will arrive in Sydney in June, in an exhibition that examines the architectural world-building process in a number of acclaimed anime films.

Display from the exhibition installed at the House of Illustration in London, 2017. Image:  Gianni Plescia

Anime Architecture comprises a rare showing of original artworks from a number of film productions, including Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor: the Movie and Metropolis, by a storied list of animators including Mamoru Oshii, Hiromasa Ogura and Atsushi Takeuchi. While these films are beloved principally for telling action-packed stories about oversized robots, the exhibition concentrates on the evocative background illustrations on which they take place.

Berlin-based curator Stefan Riekeles said that the idea for the exhibition was a by-product of other research he had been conducting on Japanese animation studios. During studio visits in Tokyo, Riekeles was “astonished” by the quality of the drawings, thousands of which are stored in boxes and are almost never exhibited publicly.

“From the beginning I was fascinated by the background illustrations,” he said. “These works present large parts of the worldview of the film. Some are worked out in great detail yet each one is only visible for a few seconds.”

Background for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341. Watercolour on paper, 280 × 380 mm. Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura.  Image:  copyright 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA · BANDAI VISUAL · MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

Riekeles said that convincing the animators that the background artworks were worthy of attention was a challenge, recalling a conversation with Hiromasa Ogura, who was the art director for Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell.

“I considered his illustrations to be works of art. However, when I approached him with the idea to present these illustrations in an exhibition, he was reluctant at first. He said that these works are only by-products and that the only real artwork is the final movie. It took us quite a while and several late-night meetings in bars to convince him and the other artists of the exhibition that the works would also work on the wall of a museum.” 

Riekeles said that the exhibition aims to unpack for the visitor the process of “constructing” the background artworks. “These worlds, often dystopian, ultramodern imaginings of real Asian megacities, are created by teams of artists, each taking specialized roles.”

The process begins with concept designs, before a separate artist defines “camera angles” and the spatial positioning of objects and structures within a frame, which can be thought of as an architectural process around which a sequence is built.

Concept Design for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). Pencil on paper, 176 x 250mm. Illustrator: Takashi Watabe. Image:  copyright 2004 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA · IG, ITNDDTD

Riekeles pointed to concept and layout designer Takashi Watanabe, a frequent Oshii collaborator, as the “architect” of his films.

“His highly detailed designs of buildings are fundamental to the believability of future scenarios in science fiction anime.”

Most of the films were release in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the Japanese economic bubble and the background artworks reflect the “form-obsessed buildings,” with “an excess of materials and ornament” that defined Japanese architecture at the time.

Riekeles said that an architecturally minded audience might appreciate that the “artists presented in this exhibition belong to a generation that reached its peak at the time when anime was still almost exclusively drawn by hand.”

Anime Architecture opens on 1 June at the Japan Foundation Gallery in Chippendale and closes on 11 August.


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