Rambling and other animals. But mostly rambling.

The Mamoru Oshii method. Or at least, some of it.


Mamoru Oshii makes… unusual anime, and I think this has always been the case. The first thing he directed was Angel’s Egg, and that is the farthest thing from normal there is. His other signature works, Urusei Yatsura 2, Patlabor 2, the Ghost in the Shell films, The Sky Crawlers, Jinroh, all share what has been called a distinct ‘personality’, which stems from his unusual directing method and the way he plays with silence and darkness. What I’m going to be focusing on here is the way he approaches three of these films: Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2 and Jinroh: The Wolf Brigade. I haven’t seen The Sky Crawlers yet, but I’ll be sure to dedicate a separate post for that which, odds are, will be laced with redundant hyperlinks to this one. For the most part this post will be a series of points of the things Oshii tends to put in his cyberpunk-tinged works.

Basically, Oshii’s style intrigues me. I want to ramble about it.

But anyway, back to the topic. Method. And probably the most noticeable thing about these three films is that they all start out with…

1. A Technology of the Times

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For Ghost, it is a visual sequence detailing cyborg-production. In Patlabor, it is a visual sequence with showing Labors being calibrated. Jinroh is probably the only outlier here, in that it contains more than just a technology and has the entire setting’s narrative in one huge, verbal infodump.

I’ve probably spewed enough words already on these technological tidbits; they form the backbone of any scifi narrative -scifi is science fiction after all- but then, I’ve also probably spewed words on how these tidbits are an integral part of a fantasy world too; Yamato 2199 does 50% of the Earth’s backstory through architecture and introducing new technologies, leaving the rest to the viewers’ imaginations. In fact, If I list down every science fiction anime I can find on my MAL, I will have an equally long list of its major, centre-stage technological advances. ‘The device that changed the world‘, if you will. This device, mind you, does not necessarily have to exist in the real world.

U.C. Gundam has space colonies, Shinsekai Yori has psychics, Dennou Coil has virtual reality glasses, Appleseed has bioroids, Gundam 00 has the solar power generation system, Code Geass has Knightmares, Evangelion has Evangelions(ORLY?), Kaiba has memory digitization, Pale Cocoon was too vague with its reveal for me to be able to figure out what it was, Ghost in the Shell has memory digitization, Infinite Stratos does not exist, Steins;Gate has D-mail and eventually time travel, Planetes has space travel, Yamato 2199 has spaceships and pew pew pew cannons, Hoshi no Koe has space travel, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita… uh…
Jintai, Planetes and Appleseed are actually exceptions here, since they don’t really have a device that changed the world as much as they have a ‘historical course of action that changed the world‘. With Gundam Unicorn, U.C. Gundam is now part of this list of exceptions. I can’t really say which one is the better written alternative, but I think I skew towards the latter, though the real thing to note here is that if you think about it, alternate history stories are actually just scifi IN THE PAST.

This is doubly true of fantasy, though in a different way; fantasy has to establish a reason for why the status quo we are shown in the beginning of the story exists. Fantasy has to have this, and it skews towards the ‘historical course of action that changed the world‘ approach, with the ‘technology that changed the world‘ usually being a creation mythos, or simply not relevant. While the invention/discovery of steel wan no doubt important in Skyrim, it doesn’t need to be shown.
That said, fantasy often has technologies or powers that take center stage. Fullmetal Alchemist has alchemy, Toaru Hikuushi e no Koiuta and Toaru Hikuushi e no Tsuioku have P L E I N S, Shingeki no Kyojin has 3D manoeuvre gear and titans, and wait what was the topic again?
Big tangent. Shit. tl;dr Mamoru Oshii puts scifi in his scifi.

2. Confused Motivations

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This is the thing that really clashes with the common science fiction approach. Generally, science fiction provides reasons for characters to do what they do, by providing the technology that changed the world or history that changes the world. Commander Shepard is basically just a tool of Mass Effect fields; he exists to travel in space, and give relevance to the Mass Effect drives, so that the viewer is ultimately explained what they are. If Commander Shepard was a normal civilian, Mass Effect drives did not need to exist. Odds are they wouldn’t. The existence of Mass Effect drives requires Shepard to be a soldier or sailor; technology determines motivation.

To some degree this is very true of Oshii’s films, but the characters that inhabit them are beings independent of the background. Well, that’s not really true; it’s actually that their motivations frequently conflict with the roles required of them by their jobs, which are usually products of the world-changing technology. Goto doesn’t believe that his superiors pass down the best possible orders. Neither does he, for that matter, understand what he is guarding as a policeman, as evidenced by his response to Arakawa’s inquiry into what he protects. He refers to the present as an unjust peace, not a just one. Major Mokoto Kusanagi is not a policewoman at heart either; her motivation is entirely curiosity, and even a desire to, well, bodyswap. Fuse stops and asks his targets “Why?“, as they prepare to pull the bomb-triggers. Oshii characterises through contradiction.

3. Moral Vacuums

Now, the reason I don’t call them moral grey areas is because of the previous point; Oshii’s characters are confused people. They do not understand why they work, and the degree of emotional muteness they show usually signals a degree of apathy towards something or another. One question I have never, never, never, heard answered in an Oshii film is ‘why do we do this?’. Patlabor came close, but only answered that question with a big, gaping void.

While we gladly reap the benefits of war, we distance ourselves from it, banishing it to a realm beyond the monitor, forgetting… no… pretending to forget that we ourselves are on the rear lines of battle.
– Arakawa, Patlabor 2: The Movie

In a way this is terribly representative; grand causes are really not all that part of everyday life, or at least not nearly as much as everyday life is a part of everyday life. Even the fact that I can use the phrase ‘everyday life’ as if it were synonymous to ‘the slog of everyday life’, is indicative of its prevalence in the modern world. We do what we do because that’s our job. We need the money. We need to act in line with social expectations.  I need cereal. I need to walk to school and back. Reality is in the little things. Motivations are really less important than routine.

Implicit in this is an incompatibility, and a resulting disconnect of work, and the causes that it requires you to hold, and your personal motivations – the motivations you end up holding because of your work. Fuse, Mokoto Kusanagi and Shinobu Nagumo are all products of their times, but they’re imperfect, accidental products. They get the job done, usually, but they don’t love it. They don’t hate it either. Its just there. Often, it’s unsavoury, and characters like Arakawa distance themselves from it precisely because of that, yet they still do it for a living.

4. That one visual metaphor that shows up everywhere

The one in Jinroh was unmissable – clearly wolves. Ghost had mannequins. Patlabor is an exception in that it had many, and did not get hung up on just one image, but rather had cold cityscapes, old bridges, hawks, tanks and doves. Presumably a consequence of setting a film in an already developed setting.

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This one is a purely visual thing. Many directors use what have come to be known as ‘pillow shots’, to control pacing and atmosphere. I recall the first place I noticed this was Evangelion, where the show kept going to shots of electric cables and pylons, which I have since developed a fondness for. Oshii does that too, but with more thematic direction. The cutaways exist, but all revolve around a handful of visual props, which lie at the thematic heart of whatever the movie is trying to go. Take Ghost in the Shell; its major theme was posthumanism, and the picture it uses as a ‘pillow’ is a mannequin – the most primitive form of cyborg. The link there is a bit shallow, but its there. Just a stylistic touch Oshii likes.

The most directed use of this was Patlabor, and while this doesn’t fall under pillow shots or visual metaphors, it bears mention nonetheless.


Man, how awesome is that? I wish I could have seen tanks walking to school.

I could follow this up with more, but I don’t think I’ll end up doing so. I’ll have to rewatch the movies, but I am damn sure I will shove Oshii into any post about action scenes. Oshii does marvellous action scenes.
I could also do a post on Angel’s Egg. Oh, and the first Patlabor Movie.

Oh, there was also this scene in Patlabor 2 where this bridge from the first film of Kara no Kyoukai gets destroyed. I derived an inordinate amount of satisfaction from having noticed that. I wonder what that bridge is. It looks old enough to have seen a fair bit of history.


2 responses

  1. Very very good post, though I’ve not seen Angel’s Egg, and my last time seeing Jin Roh was years and years ago when I was like 12 and had no idea what was going on except a cool gunfight in the beginning.

    Ever see the chronological sequels to Jin Roh, but in real time prequels to Jin Roh, The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog? Very very good movies. Stray Dog is actually very very slow paced compared to what the trailer makes it out to be, though.

    April 25, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    • Oh balls I did not see this comment. Sorry for the late reply, and all.

      I also ought to add something about the combat in Oshii films, because that stuff seems to have a life of its own. Its uncompromising, visceral, and the best part? Random. Completely and utterly random.
      Now I don’t mean random in terms of construction; they’re actually very careful about keeping the environment in mind when framing the action, I mean in terms of storytelling. A lot of Oshii’s twists show up in combat situations, you see them in Patlabor 2, Ghost in the Shell, Jin-roh to an extent only, but there nontheless. Its pretty much the only breed of action scene where I cannot tell who is going to get out alive simply by guessing it from the story structure, the way you can in, say, Sidonia, Yamato 2199 or Unicorn Gundam, and I’ve no idea how he does it, save concentrating the twists in the fights. I’ll need to do another watch of them to get a feel for it…

      …which could be the perfect excuse to try out these two films of which you speak…

      May 28, 2014 at 5:16 pm

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