Director Spotlight: The Animated Works of Mamoru Oshii

Dallos (1983)

Dallos is more famous as a trivia answer to "What was the first OVA ever made?", but taken on its own merits it's an interesting yet flawed work. Co-directed by Mamoru Oshii and Hisayuki Toriyumi, Dallos was conceptualized as a work that could possibly compete with Mobile Suit Gundam--a political space opera of sorts. It never reaches those lofty heights, mostly due to thin characterization and rushed pacing, but it entertains several nuanced ideas and explores the battle between a corrupt government and a subjugated working class.

In this universe Earth has depleted most of its natural resources and 
mining colonies have been set up on the moon. These colonists are ruled over harshly by the Earth government and are not given much consideration outside of their ability to work. The first generation took the treatment lying down, but the younger people are tired of being treated like dirt and plan uprisings and "terrorist" attacks. Most of Dallos is seen from the viewpoint of a young man named Shun who lives on the lunar colonies and gets caught up in the struggles. He hasn't decided what side he will align with, and most of the runtime is focused on him feeling his way through the political intrigue and propaganda.

The animation quality is quite good, especially the space battle sequences and the mechanical design. One of the positives of the OVA format is more money available for lavish production values as well as the ability to have adult themes due to not having to appeal to network censorship. Dallos isn't particularly violent but it does have a few gruesome moments. The biggest issue is that the story feels incredibly rushed with details left out. There are four episodes but the last one ends on a sort of cliffhanger and is unsatisfactory for those looking for closure. Despite this, the narrative remains compelling and is a precursor to Oshii's more complex philosophical musings in his later work.

Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer is where Oshii really started to show his style and began his penchant for ignoring large swaths of whatever source material he was adapting to do his own thing. In fact, his vision for this film was so different it almost didn’t get approved and after it came out reception was mixed from fans who didn’t like how much he deviated. 

In Beautiful Dreamer, it starts out like a normal day in Tomobiki with the cast getting ready for a school festival. The normal zany antics ensue but as the day winds down and everyone goes home, Ataru has a feeling of foreboding. Something is off but he can’t put his finger on it. The next day everyone is back at school to get ready for the festival...but wasn’t it supposed to be happening that day? Why does it seem like they are perpetually getting ready for an event that never happens? The answer is far more existential than anyone could ever imagine.


The main premise of Beautiful Dreamer is that the town of Tomobiki is trapped in some sort of time loop with the same day happening over and over again. Once the characters figure this out, they learn to live with the situation. For reasons they discover later, they cannot leave the town but fortunately they are provided with food and shelter. The tone of this portion of the film is apocalyptic with the cast throwing away all pretense and just enjoying the lack of focus. It’s an interesting take on the idea that when you are on a long running anime series (Urusei Yatsura was on season two when this film came out) you are essentially “trapped” in the expectations of the story and the character traits and without the shackles of narrative you can be free. There is a lot of philosophical musing on the concept of time being relative and how perception can affect reality. Urusei Yatsura is usually a fast paced show and Oshii purposely slows it down with long monologues and slow pans. 

Oshii applies dream logic liberally to this film and uses his trademark attention to visual storytelling to enhance the surreal atmosphere. He is fond of visual motifs like: reflections, water, recursive images, mirrors, and playing around with space and time. Essentially, he deconstructs Urusei Yatsura into its base elements placing the characters into increasingly surreal situations and completely decimating the lore in the process. It is, of course, temporary but it can be jarring if one is used to the show having a certain tone. This became one of Oshii’s trademarks wherein he would put his own spin on whatever source material he was adapting.

Although one could argue that everyone in the film is “out of character” they still retain all their relationships from the show and interact with each other in the same way despite the strange circumstances. Instead of the focus being on the humorous alien hijinks and love triangles it’s more about people stopping what they are doing to really enjoy life and free time. Perhaps people get hung up on the myriad of small issues and fail to see the bigger picture. This is illustrated in the film when they take a jet to leave the town only to find out that Tomobiki is located on the back of a giant turtle and that their universe is far smaller than they thought. Tomobiki only exists within the confines of the anime series and the veil has been lifted. This veers right into existential horror but Oshii reels it back in at the end, not one to torture the fans too much. 

Time has been kind to Beautiful Dreamer and it has been reevaluated as a masterpiece and an early indication of Oshii’s unique perspective.

Angel's Egg (1985)

Angel's Egg is unlike any of his other films, as it is a delicate and haunting piece of art, mysterious and cryptic with Oshii himself even claiming he doesn't know what the film is about. The story follows the travels of a young waif-like girl with flowing white hair who carries around a giant egg. The world she inhabits seems to have been ravaged by an unknown apocalyptic event, and the streets are lined with rubble. While out scavenging the girl meets a young man who appears to be a soldier. Initially she is frightened of him but as they travel together she begins to trust him. On the surface the narrative seems straightforward, but as the film progresses things become more and more strange. There is absolutely no exposition given by either character and when they do have conversations they are just as enigmatic as the visuals.

The characters are not meant to feel like real people, they are more the personification of ideas made flesh. The young girl, with her arms cradled protectively around the egg could represent life, or rather the potential of life, as an egg is symbolic of a life that has yet to be born. The girl seems to sustain herself on nothing but water, which she drinks from a large glass flask that she carries around with her. Water is also associated with life, humans (and animals) are mostly comprised of water, and it is the foundation of all life on earth. The soldier she travels with could symbolize death and war as he is never seen without his gun. One could also see him as a Jesus-like figure, as the way he carries his cross-shaped gun on his back invokes the imagery of Christ carrying his cross to his Crucifixion. Biblical references come up often in Angel's Egg with lots of Christian symbolism and talk about the story of Noah's Ark.

Melancholy hangs over this film like a shroud, the world is in the shadow of some great curse and its inhabitants are just ghosts wandering around without a purpose. Only the girl and the soldier feel real, and perhaps they are the only two beings left alive, trying to find meaning where there is none. It is said that Oshii lost his faith in Christianity right before making Angel's Egg so you could read the film as him trying to make sense out of a world without the structure that is afforded by religion. One of the most disconcerting aspects of losing one's faith is the existential crisis that can come from realizing that there is no higher power looking after you and that the world is chaos.

The aesthetic feels vaguely Victorian, teetering on steampunk. This is thanks to Amano's incredibly intricate art style which permeates every facet of the film. There have been quite a few animated films and anime series that Amano has done the designs for, but I have always felt that Angel's Egg captured his ornate art nouveau inspired style the best. Every frame of this film is gorgeous. Equally as gorgeous is the score for the film provided by none other than Yoko Kanno who is a master at creating soundscapes with evocative and memorable leitmotivs. She uses a lot of choral music, bells, and atonal piano pieces in the score which lends a church-like atmosphere.

When Angel's Egg was first released in Japan it wasn't popular with the critics and it's no surprise as the film is very hard to piece together as a cohesive narrative. Once you let go of the idea of a three act narrative structure and just take each scene as it comes and let it wash over you, it becomes much more lyrical and emotional. This wasn't the first time Oshii played around with surreal elements, in 1984 he directed a movie spin-off of the Urusei Yatsura series called Beautiful Dreamer that essentially inserted the characters from the show into a dream world where time is looping back onto itself. This probably was easier for people to understand because they had the framework of the well known characters to ground them to the story. Angel's Egg has no such anchors for the audience.

For those who have a high tolerance for the abstract, Angel's Egg is a must-see film. It is bursting with creative imagery, alluring music, and can be interpreted in numerous ways.

Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993) 

"The farther away from the slaughter, the more optimism replaced reality."

This is Oshii's second movie set in the Patlabor universe and whereas the first one was more in line with the lighthearted feel of the OVA series (which Oshii also worked on as part of the collaborative outfit HEADGEAR) the second film is much slower and contemplative. The main premise is that in the future giant robots called Labors are used in construction type work. In order to keep the Labors from being misused, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police utilizes Patrol Labors or "Patlabor" to combat Labor-related crime. Most of Patlabor is centered around Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2 and the various officers who work in that department.

Patlabor 2 deals with a domestic terrorist who is using attacks on Tokyo to instill fear into the populace. The catalyst involves a missile attack that takes out the Yokohama Bay Bridge and the remaining Section 2 members Kiichi Goto and Shinobu Nagumo investigate who could be behind the attacks. Oshii deftly mixes a police procedural with political intrigue to create a compelling and dense narrative. 

The world of Patlabor feels claustrophobic with the characters often surrounded by dilapidated urban landscapes full of various shades of grey. Often the only color or organic nature that is seen is on advertisements and billboards showcasing vacation getaways at exotic locales, and one wonders if anyone is ever able to get away from Tokyo to see them. These characters exist inside dark rooms with glowing monitors and only escape long enough to travel on gridlocked highways to get from place to place. Many of Oshii's quirks start rearing their heads here: use of fish-eye perspective and long interludes where he showcases the environment with only the soundtrack backing it.

Oshii's vision of the future is prescient with the tech not too far off from our modern world, less flashy and more utilitarian, a direct contrast to the opulent neon cyberpunk envisioned by many in the '80s. One could speculate that the economic bubble that crashed in the early '90s in Japan perhaps soured Oshii's outlook on the future. 

The Tokyo in Patlabor 2 is one that has stagnated, a techo-purgatory created by occupation and unwillingness to take a stand. They are at peace but at what cost? It feels a bit unkind to the younger generation, implying that they have perhaps gone soft, weakened by living in peace. This film is anti-war but also anti-isolationism, a critique on how lifeless a country can become if it does not innovate or interact with other cultures. Just as real life often progresses from happiness in one’s youth to bittersweet revelations as one ages, so do the characters in Patlabor  

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.
--The Puppet Master

If someone asked you to describe yourself where would you start? Would you start listing your physical attributes? Perhaps talk about things you love to do, or personality traits that you have? But, what is a person? After you die and your body disintegrates into the earth all that is left is the memories of the people left in your wake. After they pass away then you are no more. What if you could upload your consciousness, your ghost, into a different body--one that is infinitely more durable? Are you still you? That is the existential question posed in the classic cyberpunk anime feature film Ghost in the Shell (based on a manga by Masmune Shirow.)

Ghost in the Shell takes place in a post-WWIII Japan in a place called New Port City. Computers have proliferated almost every aspect of society and cybernetics run rampant. The narrative centers around Major Mokoto Kusanagi, who works for Public Security Section 9, a local police force. Major is a synthetic "full-body prosthesis" augmented-cybernetic human. Only her mind is original, everything else on her body is a replacement or a "shell'. She has been tasked to find an illusive hacker known only as The Puppet Master.

The setting for this film is absolutely dripping in the cyberpunk aesthetic. Although the setting is Japan, the streets and city are modeled after Hong Kong. Cyberpunk is characterized by its mixture of high technology with a degenerated society and populous. The world Major inhabits has all these technological wonders but most people are still marginalized and poor. There is a dichotomy between the shimmering neon lights of the affluent parts of the city and the dirty and grimy underbelly that seethes beneath. Director Mamoru Oshii paints a melancholy picture where no one is truly happy, though that doesn't stop them from trying to grasp what little comforts they can.

Production I.G provided the animation for this film and its a mixture of traditional cel animation and computer graphics. The CG used is quite subtle and makes for some interesting effects (one such effect being Major's thermal optical camouflage). There are several breathtaking action scenes which oscillate between graceful slow-motion stunts and quick brutal takedowns. The Wachowskis took a lot of notes from this flick for their breakout hit The Matrix (1999). The beginning scene where Major does a nude backwards swan dive off the top of a building is one of the most iconic sequences in all of anime.

Kenji Kawai's music score is absolutely beautiful and haunting. The main theme of the film, which utilizes a traditional Japanese choir, echoes and surrounds the viewer, maybe even speaking directly to their ghost. One of the things that sets Ghost in the Shell apart from other sci-fi anime movies is the fact that it isn't afraid to have extended quiet sequences that just focus on scenery. Kawai's music sets the mood perfectly and allows the viewers to just drift off into the concrete vistas and ponder what has come before and what may happen in the future. This is all punctuated by a constant, pressing drum beat that propels the story forward to its explosive finale.

In this future, identity and gender have become almost meaningless as one can have whatever cyborg body they prefer. Major looks rather androgynous and she does not feel shame about displaying her naked body (she has to get nude for her optical camo to work). Her indifference to social mores is telling as she does not feel a connection to her physical body anymore. I feel like this has a parallel in the way Japanese society works in real life, as they focus much more on the group than the individual. They are taught that the greater good of Japan takes precedence over the needs of the individual. So I can see how Major represents the repressed needs of people to breakout from their roles that they are forced into. Major even says at one point: "I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries."

Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of transhumanism-themed science fiction and should be on the list of anyone who enjoys complex narratives as well as incredible action.

—Michelle Kisner