by Samuel Tan
Angel’s Egg (1985), Mamoru Oshii
Following a boom in the 1980s, anime has continued to gain mainstream popularity in the West, spanning genres between sci-fi and ‘slice of life’. On the surface, it seems that the freedom of self-expression in fashion, music and lifestyle is so rich in its plurality that the individual has achieved precedence over the collective that once defined Japan, and indeed, many other Asian cultures. And while many turn to Japan as the holy grail of unique cultural phenomena that fascinate as somewhat foreign and exotic, and thus ‘individualistic’, there is hesitation to label them so.
The relationship between the anime film and architecture defines the parameters of this argument through a plethora of examples, particularly the sci-fi/dystopic sub-genre, where the will of the individual or a group of individuals is often portrayed against the monolith that is the urban entity. In a medium where story, character and place must be sharply defined without the luxury of long-form storytelling common in anime, the interaction between individual and architecture is of pinnacle importance in the establishment of ethos.
This fundamental device so deftly used by these filmmakers in the 80s and 90s seems to suggest a sense of ‘transcendent’ collectivism, not a direct foil of individualism, but a form of ideology where the many do not fear the plurality of one, something keenly urban and post-modern in nature. The collective may not be exalted, but neither is the individual. The following films outline various positions upon this ideological spectrum, and how architecture plays an indispensable role in elucidating such complex ideas, if it is not the very essence of this contemporary form of collectivism.
Part I: Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoru Oshii
In November 1995, Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii, was released in Japanese theatres, and would become a seminal film going on to inspire the likes of The Matrix, Avatar, and an uninspiring Western adaptation. Today, it has a cemented place in the Anime hall of fame, ranked alongside films like Akira and Spirited Away. But perhaps what sets Ghost in the Shell apart from the films in its periphery is its engagement in particularly lofty philosophical discourse, in a rampant dualism that dominates the film’s trajectory; between human and machine, man and city, mind and body, culminating in an existential question of identity: the individual vs the collective.
The film makes a persistent effort to depict the city not as an illustration of buildings, but as actual architecture, with attention given to the manipulation of space, materials and form to give rise to mood and atmosphere. The reality of its texture comes not from the artistic ability to render such frames, but adherence to a city inherently Japanese, yet inspired by Hong Kong, giving it a bricolage quality that comes across as a chaotic urban expanse familiar to the Japanese, but distinct in its untamed spirit.
This thread runs through the film, where characters are consistently depicted against this city they live in, subservient to it in an expression of the diminished importance of an individual in the context of the living urban organism. Essentially, there is the subject, and then there is context. No frame speaks louder to this point than one of the very first scenes in the movie, as Kusanagi awakens in a pitch-black room, her silhouette blacked out against the light flooding in that illuminates the city outside. The dualities discussed throughout the film become sharpened in these straightforward but beautiful scenes that juxtapose man and city.
In a 3-minute long sequence of shots throughout New Port City, we get our most detailed look of the city. Immediately, one is drawn to the stark contrast between the uncountable elements of the city, billboards of stark colours battling for attention, bridges sprawling over canals, buildings in completion and construction; there is no attempt on the film’s part to harmonise these elements. Yet, in the tension between them, harmony is achieved, in a realistic depiction that evokes a sense of ‘alteration’ of its real-life counterparts. Fundamentally, the film does not fall prey to gloss or indulging in visual spectacle.
A look at the 2017 remake illuminates the beauty of Oshii’s direction. Comparing this scene with its equivalent in the 2017 film, the anime film resists exchanging the representation of architecture for presentation, ie. the primary concern of the latter is that of space. Unlike its predecessor, the 2017 film relies on colour (in an analogous scheme of red, blue and purple hues), dynamic cinematography and the presentation of the object before the expression of space (holographic advertisements, futuristic cars etc).
The crux of Kusanagi’s existential crisis in both films parallels this difference between architecture and illustration of architecture, as a deviation in her conception of identity mirroring the existence or absence of ‘architecture’. In the 1995 film, what begins as a question of individual identity ends as a rumination of the question’s necessity, ‘all things change in a dynamic environment, your effort to remain as you are is what limits you’. It is both futile and hindering. We see the opposite in the 2017 film, a Major obsessed with a memory, or thought reliant conception of identity, in a permanent, solidified-state of identity that the film argues, cannot change. Comparing the rejection of Cartesian mind-body dualism in 1995 and the acceptance of it in 2017 reflects not only the values of the filmmakers behind the respective projects, but the superior sensitivity towards space in the anime, and the importance of environment in relation to individual, in taking precedence over the insulated persona.
It is this that Ghost in the Shell primarily seeks to impart on the viewer, that the identity of an individual is not determined introvertedly, but via its relationship with its surrounding elements, of which architecture comprises a sizeable portion. Kusanagi’s journey resembles that of urban praxis, acting upon the complex organism in a ceaseless change of transitory and translational phases, from a singular element to an interlaced system.
Part II: The Anthology
Magnetic Rose (1995), Koji Morimoto
The system, however, ranges in scale and likewise, the depiction of the individual shifts. The anthology film is diverse in this respect of representation, with films focusing on single individuals, a small group of characters, or even no characters at all. A constant remains however, in an incomplete mode of characterisation, that maintains a gap between the knowledge of the audience and that of the characters’ histories. In other words, the thematic discourse is less dependent on individual personas than it is on action and interaction.
Part of the triple-billed film ‘Memories’, Magnetic Rose directed by Koji Morimoto details an SOS response gone wrong, taking place in a derelict space station. Internally, however, the station takes on a beaux-arts aesthetic, styled to be opulent and ostentatious. Functionally, Magnetic Rose is an example of architecture as character, literarily Gothic in nature, borrowing from canon such as The Castle of Otranto, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Picture of Dorian Gray; the personification of the inanimate.
Material plays a large role in Magnetic Rose, signifying the station’s varying states of disrepair. A major motif is the literal veneer of luxury peeling away to reveal rusted steel workings, signifying the characters’ descent into the sinister truth of the space they traverse. The film’s dialectic with reality vs fiction is expressed through the transformation of setting, that deals with the authenticity of material in its architecture. What is veritable is considered unsightly, and therefore, hidden behind marble, gold and stucco. What is visible, is then, fiction.
Where in the Gothic, setting can be defined by objects, atmosphere, and pathetic fallacy, Magnetic Rose engages in architectural ideas to present the sense of place as objective, altered deliberately in the realisation of pretence. More importantly, the history and personalities of our protagonists are revealed through their interactions with space. In their first direct encounter with the intelligence behind the space station, the character Miguel activates a hologram that transforms a decaying cistern into a bright garden. The trickery fools him, and we see in that desperation, folly and a tendency for beguilement. The environment as character acts upon Miguel, and through the transformation of space, reveals the individual.
In this sense, while Magnetic Rose does not engage in the identity-focused discourse of Ghost in the Shell, it elucidates the filmmaking philosophy, where a story relies on architecture to carry its characters, and to characterise them. Priorities place the individual beneath the vitality of environment, and like Ghost in the Shell, looks to the interchange as crucial.
In a varied exploration of such an idea, Running Man, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri and part of the anthology film ‘Neo Tokyo’, set in a dystopic city, focusing on a racing circuit called the ‘Death Circus’. It is an intense depiction of obsession that borders insanity, and what that does to the individual.
Zack Hugh, individual in question, is a racer, and remains undefeated due to telekinetic powers that allow him to win all his races. In the film, we see him lose control of this power, in his fervour for competition. This takes place on the track, as Zack is surrounded by both spectators and the city they live in. The use of his power affects destruction in each instance we see in the film, yet the environment remains undisturbed. While he manipulates objects, individuals, and even himself, he remains unable to affect the city, or even his immediate place. In the wake of his destruction, the track remains intact, his residence, the grandstands, all unscathed by his exertion of power.
There is in this a threshold across which Zack is unable to traverse, limited in his efficacy as an individual entity. Personified, this is seen in the dichotomy between performer and spectator, the mass of people (the collective) in fascination of an individual of extraordinary ability but removed from him. The concentric circles of the track that end in the ring of spectators physically disconnected to the track realises this idea visually, and spatially. Zack, an aberration of society, has no power over the greater whole.
The exploration of the power dynamics between an individual with an irrefragable ability to manipulate what is around him, and the city’s resistance of that destructive force recalls Kusanagi sitting against the window, in a more literal expression of the subservience of the individual to the city. While Magnetic Rose suggests that space can shape us, or at the very least, reveal what is underneath, Running Man posits that a single individual’s will and power is insufficient in affecting space. In either case, the value and power of the individual is diminished in favour of context; a cautionary tale, artistic dialogue or propaganda, its purpose is largely ambiguous.
Part III: Akira
Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo
Conversely, a film often thought to be explicit in its themes and message is 1988’s Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Considered the film that triggered the global proliferation of Japanese pop culture, Akira convinced audiences that animation is not simply for children, paving the way for the complex storytelling as seen in the likes of Ghost in the Shell, Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop.
Set in a city called Neo-Tokyo, after the destruction of the original city, the film’s connection to architecture is immediately visible in its depiction of a dense, dystopic, cyberpunk city, differing from the previous films in its authoritative and utterly oppressive nature. Beyond this, though, the transition between different modes of space is perhaps the more abstruse engagement of architectural thinking in Akira, driving the film in an esoteric manner.
Much literature points to Akira being a story of youth and rebellion, and the corruption of authority, poising it to be a film that encourages individualism, in praise of the power one can hold over the whole as seen in Tetsuo, and the spirit of Kaneda and company. Arguably, the film’s message is more nuanced than an unequivocal endorsement. It refuses to romanticise the destruction caused by Tetsuo, nor the brashness of Kaneda, and the affects of their actions are up to interpretation.
It is in this destruction, and the events leading up to the destruction, that Akira engages different modes of space, beginning with a standard urban model, to one of decomposition, at the mercy of assimilation, to non-space, and finally, a mode that is programmatically tabula rasa.
At the beginning of its third act, the film depicts Tetsuo’s destructive influence on Neo-Tokyo, and in his desperation, the beginning of the loss of his humanity. Destruction turns into assimilation as Tetsuo, no longer in control of his power, begins to consume the city around him, affixing all forms of matter to himself as his physical body grows, grotesque. These scenes outline the dehumanisation of Tetsuo in an inverse relationship with the city; the more Tetsuo loses, the more he consumes, the less remains of the city.
Otomo portrays this process as disturbing, through body horror, death and cataclysm, as the individual who has risen up in selfishness and narcissism faces the consequences of such self-seclusion and arrogance. In other words, the individualistic imperative behind Tetsuo’s actions leads directly to his downfall. The engagement of architecture as a device is in its function as a scapegoat for Tetsuo; the significance of the moment is his loss of humanity, but the representation of this is done allegorically through the flux in spatial mode.
At this point, Kaneda and Tetsuo’s are thrust into non-space, as Tetsuo is removed from physical reality, pulled into the extra-dimensional by Akira. This spatial limbo acts as a punctuation, exchanging Tetsuo’s calamitous and violent destruction for a blinding, all-consuming form more inclined to the idea of removal, mirroring the original destruction of Tokyo. The pause is the threshold Tetsuo crosses where his humanity (or lack of it) is exchanged for something entirely different, manifesting as the metaphorical rebirth of Tetsuo and the physical rebirth of Neo-Tokyo.
We see a similar sequence of birth in the opening of Ghost in the Shell, employing the digital as non-space, where Kusanagi begins her formation, before she transitions to liquid (uninhabitable space), and finally, a standard programmed space. In both cases, non-space is employed as the juncture between states of humanity and something completely different. In Tetsuo’s case, he recedes from humanity into a higher being, and for Kusanagi, the digital into somewhat human. Aptly, Tetsuo’s world is a blank white, and Kusanagi’s, black.
The final scenes of Akira depict Kaneda and gang riding off into the ruins of Neo-Tokyo, a blank slate in all but physical structure. This is the mode of tabula rasa, that awaits the rebirth of the city. The characters seem rather pleased with themselves, but only devastation is left in juxtaposition to the rebellious spirit. Akira poses a difficult question, as it pegs a collective rebellion and an individual simultaneously responsible for the state of Neo-Tokyo at the end of the film, in the value and importance of either.
This weighted view on the interaction between seemingly opposing entities is perhaps what defines a possible ‘transcendental’ collectivism. The film portrays the individual as both powerless and omnipotent at the same time, in Kaneda’s inability to save Tetsuo via sentiment, and the espers Tetsuo and Akira. This is the importance of the city, and thus architecture, in Akira’s conception of the individual-collectivist dialogue, a conduit through which a diversity of individuals may form a collective unapologetic for its plurality.
The intersection between identity, power, space and transformation plots itself on Akira, as the culmination of Tetsuo’s journey. As with Running Man, there is a limit to individuals with power. As with Magnetic Rose, individuals are defined by the metamorphosis of space. As with Ghost in the Shell, the question of identity is unimportant in relation to choice. As Akira closes and he gains control of his power, creating a new universe, he simply says ‘I am Tetsuo.’