Before I interviewed Mamoru Oshii, his publicist asked if I would need an interpreter. “He tends to mumble,” she explained. No, I didn’t need an interpreter, but I did turn the volume of my tape recorder on high, fortunately. Looking a decade younger than his 52 years, with a mane of unruly black hair, Oshii spoke rapidly in a croaky, whispery monotone, as though, after meeting the press nonstop for days, he was on the verge of vocal collapse. But for all his legendary shyness (it was the most eye-contactless interview I’ve ever had), his tumbles of words had the assurance and fluidity of one who has long been king of the rich imaginary domain that is “Innocence.”
Dolls are an important motif in “Innocence,” but the attitude toward them is quite different from that of a film like “Toy Story.” There is a sense that the dolls — especially the “gainoids” — have a human spirit, but at the same time are not quite human.
In “Toy Story” the dolls are just objects that humans bring to life, for their own amusement. Japanese have a different view: They think that dolls have a spirit. That’s why when they no longer have any use for a doll they just don’t throw it away in the trash. They would be afraid to do that; the doll might put a curse on them. So they take the doll to a priest, who performs a ceremony to appease its spirit.
I believe that myself, that dolls have a spirit. They’re not just objects to have fun with.
Also in “Toy Story,” the faces of the toys are extremely expressive — you can read their every thought. In “Innocence” the gainoids have these mysterious expressions — it’s hard to tell what they are thinking. They’re scary somehow [laughs].
Yes, they are a little strange [laughs]. In “Toy Story” the dolls move and talk like human beings. It’s hard to tell them from the human characters. But when you animate dolls that way, you lose what makes them special, their individual spirit. It’s a lot harder to animate dolls so they still look doll-like. That was the toughest part of the film for me.
The hero, Bateau, is a cyborg — halfway between a human and a doll or robot. The way you animate him reflects that quality. His movements are not quite human but not robotic either.
That’s true for not only him, but the other characters as well. Their movements are somewhat doll-like. Even their expressions are more doll-like than human.
The film uses the term “ghost” to describe the spirit that inhabits not just the dolls, but Bateau and the other characters. How does that relate to the Japanese concept of tamashi [spirit] and the Western concept of soul?
That’s a difficult question. A soul is not something someone can just show you. But if you believe in it enough, want to see it enough, it will appear.
In the West, people don’t believe animals have souls, do they? That’s not true in Japan, though. I myself believe that dogs and cats have souls — but that has nothing to do with a specific religion.
Children have similar feelings about dolls — if they love a doll enough, they feel that it’s alive. That feeling is universal. It’s not something they’re taught — they just feel it somehow. It’s not connected with any religious belief.
But your hero in “Innocence” is not a child, as is often the case with animation, but a middle-aged man. What was the reason for that?
Yes, it is an unusual choice [laughs]. Bateau is a reflection of my own thoughts and feelings. “Innocence” is a kind of autobiographical film in that way.
Your last animated film, 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell,” seems very prescient now, with its view of where the Internet was taking us. In “Innocence,” though, you seem to be looking backward. The film is set in the future, but it has a retro look — the cars, the buildings, the dolls.
Yes, I’m not trying to make science fiction. The film is set in the future, but it’s looking at present-day society. And as I said, there’s an autobiographical element as well. I’m looking back at some of the things I liked as a child — the 1950s cars and so on. Basically, I wanted to create a different world — not a future world.
“Ghost in the Shell” was about how technology was making humanity more machinelike. But this time your angle of approach is different.
Yes, back then I was concerned with how technology was changing human beings. In this film I’m more interested in human beings themselves.
In the film, the merging of the human and the machine causes problems. The gainoids experience their “human spirit” not as a blessing, but as a burden.
Yes, as soon as they realize they have a spirit, they start to think of suicide. They want to become fully human — but they can’t. That dilemma becomes unbearable for them. The humans who made them are to blame. They try to make a doll that is as human as possible — but they don’t think of the consequences.
“Ghost in the Shell” was very popular abroad. In fact, it probably did better abroad than it did in Japan.
Yes, I’m sorry about that [laughs].
When you were making “Innocence,” did you feel any pressure to cater to the foreign market? To make the film easier to understand for foreign fans?
No, I wasn’t thinking about anything like that while we were in production. My first concern was that the Japanese audience should see the film.
Actually, I wasn’t thinking about what the audience would and wouldn’t like. I was making the film for myself. I only know what I want to see. I have no idea what anyone else wants to see — that includes the Japanese audience — so there’s no point in trying to guess. Once you start doing that you end up with a boring film.
Dreamworks plans to release “Innocence” in the United States this fall, which means that it will be eligible for an Academy Award. Does that prospect excite you at all?
Yes, but more than winning an award, I want the film to be seen and remembered. I want people to want to see it again and again. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.
One reason that fans, both in Japan and abroad, see your films and those of other Japanese animators again and again is because they can become absorbed in those worlds in a way they can’t with a lot of Hollywood animation.
I enjoy making the world [of the film] as detailed as possible. I get absorbed in the finer points — like what the back of a bottle label looks like when you see it through the glass [demonstrates with a bottle of mineral water]. That’s very Japanese, I suppose. I want people to go back to the film again and again to pick up things they missed the first time.
I’m happier if 10,000 people see the film 10 times each than if 1 million people see it once. I’m not making it for the general public, but for a core group of fans — I hope it will make a big impression on them. If I can do that, I’m happy.
Anyway, I’m sure that “Innocence” has a good shot at an Academy Award nomination. Americans have never see anything like it.
I’d like that — going to the Academy Awards, but I don’t have a suit to wear [laughs].