By Lee Brimmicombe-Wood.
If you were hoping for Anime Architecture at the House of Illustration to show a futurists’ view of architecture, you’ll be disappointed. It’s the subtitle, Backgrounds of Japan, where the show’s true focus lies. This is not an exhibition of design, but rather of scenery, highlighting the background illustrator’s craft. It is built around the works of Production I.G, showcasing production materials from Patlabor: The Movie (1989), Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Metropolis (2001).
The exhibition is organised roughly in the order of production process, beginning with Haruhiko Higami’s photographic reference. Higami, a protégé of director Mamoru Oshii, seems to have pioneered the role of the ‘concept photographer’. A step beyond the mere provision of photo reference, Higami deploys his camera to compose scenes and spaces within the movie narrative, whether it’s the canal montage of Patlabor 2, or the hybrid old/new Hong Kong cityscapes of Ghost in the Shell. These images are shot in stark monochrome for the benefit of the colour designer.
The next step in production is the layouts of backgrounds. Takashi Watabe is a major star here, having worked on titles from Akira (1988) through to the reboot of Evangelion. What’s striking about his work is not just his set design, but the selection of camera angles and the use of single and two-point perspective. Although these days Watabe uses computer models to compose his backgrounds, the exhibit has many examples of his hand-drawn layouts. Watabe is a fine draughtsman, his worlds composed of ruled lines in mechanical pencil where structural masses pop out from areas of shaded detail. These are the closest things to architectural drawings, particularly when we examine the deco stylings of his backgrounds for Metropolis. The Metropolis project also shows us Watabe’s construction of a backdrop for a multi-plane camera, in which the canyons of a skyscraper cityscape are arranged and move to create a sense of depth. Sadly, the exhibit shows us the layout components but not the composed scene.
The final stage of the process is the background painting, which is represented by the work of the designer and painter Hiromasa Ogura. When one considers that these works were intended to be shown on the big screen, it’s striking how small the paintings are. Ogura’s backdrops are exemplars of the miniaturist’s art, created in gouache and with fine detailing layered over areas of wash. Many pieces hare are taken from the languid night-time montages of Ghost in the Shell, and are lit in blues and purples, with light dry brushstrokes generating the glows around light sources. There’s little futurism in many of these scenes, except maybe for washed-out hints of glass-tower cityscapes in the distance. Rather, the Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor scenes are strikingly contemporary, using Haruhiko Higami’s photos to create scenes of weathered housing and decayed structures, in some cases to be held in long, contemplative shots with little or no animation.
These are backgrounds working harder than they ever have before, not only to be a frame for the character action but to tell stories in and of themselves. Mamoru Oshii is absent as an artist from this exhibition, but his fingerprints are everywhere, in the form of his dog stamp used to approve layouts and other art. The exhibition seems to suggest this use of scenery as a movie character is a modern innovation, with Oshii as the pioneer. Though one would imagine that Akira and Wings of Honneamise (1987), both of which Takashi Watabe worked on, were there long before.
A looping video shows some of these the backgrounds as they appeared in the movies. Oddly, the loop shows a scene from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2008) not referenced anywhere else in the exhibition, that incorporates extensive use of computer-generated backgrounds. This may be the elephant in the room. The use of CGI backdrops gives far more flexibility in lighting, the selection of camera angles and even permits tracking cameras. Old-school painted scenes, such as those of Ogura’s, represent a fading pre-digital craft. For an exhibition of such craftsmanship, the Anime Architecture show, though small, is worth the visit.
Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan is at the House of Illustration until 10th September.