If you were to pick out the areas in which anime excels, building immersive new worlds would certainly be near the top of the list — just think of the fantastical settings of Studio Ghibli movies, such as the mysterious bathhouse in 2001’s “Spirited Away,” or the overwhelming sense of entropy that emanates from the urban fabric of Neo-Tokyo in 1988’s “Akira.”
The painstaking work put into the backgrounds of those films is as crucial as the character outlines and musical scores, yet, by design, there is rarely much focus on them, either by the artists or the viewers. Aiming to change that is Stefan Riekeles’ recently released book titled “Anime Architecture: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities.” In it, the Berlin-based author puts a spotlight on the artwork that informs the ambience of franchises such as “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Patlabor” and the aforementioned “Akira.”
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Despite its title, the book only ever touches on real-world architectural influences in passing. “Anime Architecture” is primarily concerned with what these backgrounds tell us about anime production and the moods and themes they express, for example, how the way “Akira” director Katsuhiro Otomo seems to revel in the decay of Neo-Tokyo could be an expression of his grounding in 1960s counterculture radicalism.
As interesting as these insights are, the main appeal of the book is the opportunity it offers to pore over the details of the artworks in question. One background from “Akira,” in which a street scene is seen from a first-person perspective, is shot out of focus with the camera bobbing and swaying to reflect the character’s injured state. On screen for only a matter of seconds, most of the scene’s details can go unnoticed even after several viewings, but “Anime Architecture” encourages readers to take it all in: the revellers in a nearby bar, the goods in a shop window, the skyscrapers that loom in the distance.
“I didn’t recognize them as such beautiful works when I just saw the movies,” Riekeles tells The Japan Times. “If you’re watching a movie and you come out of the cinema and you think, ‘Oh, the background was great,’ that’s a failure — the movie didn’t work because you are not supposed to look at the background, you are supposed to follow the story.”
The book’s approach stems largely from Riekeles’ work with exhibitions — he describes himself as a curator first, an author second — and the preoccupations of “Anime Architecture” make more sense when you understand its roots in the exhibition “Proto Anime Cut,” which traveled across Europe from 2011 to 2013.
“You can show characters sketches and such, I have done this, but you cannot grasp the story,” Riekeles says. “But what people can immediately access in an exhibition when they have the originals in front of them is the world in which the story takes place.”
Many of the works in the book are shown as they were produced — images aren’t cropped, and various production notes and details are often visible at the edges. Earlier iterations of the backgrounds, meanwhile, often feature notes from the director, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process for making these films.
What this unretouched approach also does is reinforce the old-school way in which the movies were made — those featured in the book span the years 1988 (“Akira”) to 2009 (the second of the “Rebuild of Evangelion” films).
“It’s equally interesting for me to look at the piece and figure out why it has been done like this in that kind of medium,” Riekeles says. “The thing with these pieces is that the world they are describing is a future world where everything is supposedly digital, but these pieces are all drawn on paper. … The only means to describe the future, the technologically advanced future, was a quite traditional craftsmanship.
“This contrast between what we see and how it was done, how the image was constructed, struck me as very interesting. That’s also why the focus of this project is in that area — when the media shifted from traditional animation to digital animation.”
For someone whose familiarity with anime largely begins and ends with the hand-drawn classics that broke through into wider Western consciousness in the 1990s — many of which feature in the book — the gloss and dynamic camera movements of a digitally animated movie or series from 2020 can come as something of a shock.
Although not overly concerned with the pros and cons of the shift away from work done by hand, “Anime Architecture” nonetheless sheds light on the relationship between creativity and the production process at that time.
Take, for instance, two backgrounds featured in a scene from “Ghost in the Shell” where the protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, chases a hacker through a crowded market. Each background was drawn by one of two artists — Hiromasa Ogura and Shuichi Kusamori. Despite taking in the same setting from the same angle, the difference between the two is marked; Kusamori’s detailed illustration contrasting with Ogura’s flatter textures.
“For me, this is beautiful because we can understand that within the rigid framework of anime production, there is, of course, an artistic freedom,” Riekeles says. “You can also frame it as a limitation of the capabilities and the know-how of the artists, but every artist has his or her unique way of expression.
“In CG that’s really hard to achieve. It’s much harder to achieve such an individual style — it’s only possible on the top level.”
Although the book broadly draws on movies from sci-fi, some of the highlights — “Akira,” the two “Ghost in the Shell” films and “Metropolis” — are specifically from, or adjacent to, cyberpunk. Although it arguably never really went away, the gritty sci-fi subgenre has had something of a revival of late — “Blade Runner,” which was released in 1982 and pioneered the cyberpunk aesthetic in film, got a sequel in 2017, and this year’s most-anticipated video game, Cyberpunk 2077, is literally named after it. Looking through “Anime Architecture” allows you to reacquaint yourself with the movies and settings that helped solidify the genre’s tropes over 25 years ago.
“These (works) are so interesting now because the digital world we’re living in is kind of fleeing us — it’s so intangible that even digital natives, once they understand that there exists a substrate, something they can touch, or look at on the wall at least, it’s spellbinding somehow,” Riekeles says. “For me, the cyberpunk fascination is because it’s so dirty. It’s rough. It’s a visual antithesis to the Apple world.”
“Anime Architecture: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities” is available for purchase now. For more information, visit anime-architecture.org, or follow Stefan Riekeles on Twitter: @reallyriekeles.
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