Film | Wide Angle

Anime's aging but active artists: Mamoru Oshii on his latest project, 'Vladlove'

by Roland Kelts

Contributing Writer

Writer and director Mamoru Oshii is best known for creating sci-fi thrillers that challenge orthodoxy with their philosophical musings and provocative, often nutty, imagery. His most famous film, the 1995 anime epic “Ghost in the Shell,” features a stone-cold cyborg heroine who dives nude off a skyscraper and is memorably dismembered by a tank.

But at a Tokyo press conference last week to introduce his latest project, a 12-episode slapstick comedy series titled “Vladlove,” all Oshii wanted to talk about was girls. Real ones. And a vampire named Mai.

“This time I wanted to take on a girl-meets-girl story,” he said. “The main characters are five schoolgirls. There won’t be any hot guys.”

Oshii is the series’ creator and chief director, working with fellow anime veteran Junji Nishimura (“Ranma ½”). Financed by Ichigo Animation, a newly formed subsidiary of a real estate and clean energy company, it premieres on TV and streaming platforms in spring 2020.

With a combined age of 130 years, the two men slouched atop stools on either side of a small stage in the basement of Akiba Cultures Zone, a six-story mall in Akihabara that sells anime-related merchandise. They presented a slide show of character sketches, during which Oshii jokingly admitted that he didn’t know anything about high school girls and had to ask younger people what they were like.

BlooDye, a female idol-pop group whose singers are all four decades younger than the directors, performed the show’s forgettable opening song before a series of photo shoots including Ichigo Animation’s Yutaka Nakanishi. No questions were taken, and many of the reporters grilled staffers in the lobby afterward for more information.

It was hard not to see the entire affair as a symbol of what’s wrong, and potentially right, with the current state of Japan’s anime industry. Like the rest of the country, its elders are aging fast. Skilled young talent is scant in Japan, and for employees under 40 or so, long hours and low wages have always been the norm. Studios are relying upon a thinning crop of seniors like Oshii, 67; Nishimura, 63; and Hayao Miyazaki, 78, all of whom are old enough to consider putting down their pens for good.

Yet the “Cool Japan” image of anime that the government is trying to promote internationally is youthful, energetic, kawaii and bouncy — like the characters in “Vladlove” and the idols in BlooDye, who were also announced as the show’s “official ambassadors.”

Still, the increased financial investments in anime properties, and the rise of single-company investors over the sclerotic production committee system, offer hope that the business of making animation in Japan is becoming more streamlined and mature.

Ichigo Inc., sensing anime’s global appeal, purchased the Akiba Cultures Zone building last September and launched Ichigo Animation in April. Oshii’s series is its first venture.

“Being the sole investor lets us give greater voice to the directors and creators,” Nakanishi said a few days later. “This allows them more creative freedom compared to traditional joint investment projects.”

Greater freedom for quality artists is good news — if there are enough of them around to use it.