ANIME ARCHITECTURE: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities
Thames & Hudson
What does the 1988 blockbuster Akira, usually cited as the anime movie that kick-started Western audiences’ interest in the art form, have in common with George Orwell’s 1984 and The Simpsons? All three are cultural touchstones that in hindsight appear to have “predicted” the future with uncanny precision. Surveillance is a fact of life and inescapable to a degree that Orwell had imagined, while the American pathologies parodied on The Simpsons ended up forecasting a President Trump. But as any good satirist will tell you, prophecy is nothing but riding current trends to their logical conclusions.
So it is in Akira, whose over-the-top urban setting, along with those of seven other films, is lovingly analyzed in last year’s ANIME ARCHITECTURE. Themes of capitalistic decadence, climate breakdown, runaway technology, and hyper-militarized governments pervade these cityscapes—bleak but beguiling parables for our own fractious world, though not every work included is explicitly dystopian.
This entropic trajectory mostly remains at the level of subtext, however. What interests author Stefan Riekeles more is the monumental effort of world-building, which he locates in the production (i.e., pre-filming) process. Many of the films in his survey were made before the widespread adoption of CGI, beginning with Akira and concluding with the first two entries of the Rebuild of Evangelion series (2007 and 2009, respectively). Painstaking hand drafting and painting steadily give way to 3D-assisted imagineering. Riekeles doesn’t get waylaid by the paper-/digital-based distinction, though—he notes cursorily that a matte painter today grasps “a digital brush”—but he does insist on cinematic scope. He is persnickety about this framing, as it distinguishes his “background artworks” from the simple, ill-defined backdrops typically created for television on a limited budget.
In his introduction, Riekeles isolates the various stages of production design and singles out the art director as a sort of prime mover. It’s his concept sketches (Riekeles’s account is devoid of women) that galvanize a team of draftsmen, artists, and technicians into action. A collaborative back-and-forth ensues, with the aim of translating spatial ideas and metropolitan moods into convincing, pliable environments in which to stage the action of the film. Pencil sketches are elaborated until the city alleyways, elevated train lines, and endless skyscrapers they depict reach a physicality and tactility expected of film. In the next stage, color, light, shadow, and other cinematographic touches are added to create “image boards,” over which characters, objects, and optical effects will later be laid. Alongside this process, hand-drawn “layouts” are prepared with the backgrounds in mind so as to coordinate camera pans across “cuts”—shots in animation-speak. This is where anime approaches the realm of live-action film, and Riekeles quotes the great director Mamoru Oshii as saying that the success of the first Patlabor film partly rested on avoiding “the typical camera angles and framing used in ordinary animation.”
It’s all a mammoth task, which ANIME ARCHITECTURE documents through a wealth of progress drawings leading to gigantic matte paintings. As tiny cels, or celluloid frames, pan over the paintings, they invariably pass over entire sections of a megacity. This book shines a light on those overlooked corners; the necessities of filming, Riekeles laments, typically deprive the viewer of the chance to inspect these backgrounds fully.
A simple-enough goal, perhaps, but also a logistical nightmare; as any American anime fan knows, the genre is plagued by licensing issues that have kept a great number of series from making the jump stateside (through official channels, anyway). Artists employed by Kodansha, Studio 4°C, and other Japanese animation studios give up all the rights to their work, only the final versions of which are retained and stored away. The commercial imperative, Riekeles writes, prevents the studios from seeing the value of concept sketches, layouts, and image boards, which are simply tossed out, and those that are salvaged can be difficult to track down. Riekeles faced a delta of content streams to follow. All in all, assembling the materials took ten years, during which time Riekeles repeatedly traveled to Japan to visit private collections as well as interview critics, anime historians, and legendary figures such as Oshii, director of 1995’s influential Ghost in the Shell and its 2004 sequel Innocence, as well as the Patlabor series; Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator and artist of Akira; and Shinji Kimura, art director of Tekkonkinkreet (2006), just to name a few. In the front acknowledgment, Riekeles thanks no fewer than ten separate rights holders who helped bring the project to life—a minor miracle.
The first entry in the book, on the making of Akira, sets the groundwork for all that follows. In one of his longest analyses, Riekeles lays bare how much the Western conception of cyberpunk—and its fountainhead, Blade Runner (1982)—has fed into the overly intricate cityscapes that form the basis of anime’s sci-fi canon. Director Ridley Scott and concept artist Syd Mead’s neo-noir mash-up of Hong Kong, Italian futurist architecture, and postindustrial japonaiserie would directly influence Akira’s grimy, neon-soaked ambiance, as would Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. After Blade Runner, no other film casts as great a shadow over the hyper-striated worlds gathered in ANIME ARCHITECTURE, with at least two productions—Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga of the same name and a 2001 film reimagining of that work—paying direct homage to Lang’s impressionistic masterpiece.
But Riekeles also detects the influence of real-world architects, singling out the work of Kenzo Tange, the Pritzker Prize-winning modernist and godfather to the Metabolist movement. Akira is set in a Neo-Tokyo moored in Tokyo Bay, an urbanistic mise-en-scène taken straight from Tange’s A Plan for Tokyo, 1960 proposal, only arrived at from the fallout of a different world war. (Neo-Tokyo was built after the titular demiurge Akira sparked World War III with a burst of psychic energy that destroyed the original Tokyo in 1988, then leveled at the film’s climax by the rampaging Tetsuo; the latter’s wiping the slate clean and ending a perverse over-accumulation of wealth is pretty unsubtle as an analogy.) Shades of Paul Rudolph’s unbuilt LOMEX megastructure crop up as well, in the ever-present sky highways that ring Neo-Tokyo that are crammed with housing underneath, creating solid infill below typically isolated infrastructure. As “the nerve centers and neuralgic points of these megacities, of the modern city,” infrastructure, Riekeles writes, takes on a narrative role in many anime films.
It’s interesting that Riekeles chose to follow his study of Akira with a deep dive into both Patlabor movies (1989 and 1993). While it makes sense chronologically, Oshii’s films offer a more down-to-earth, slice-of-life look into a near-future Tokyo, conceived by the filmmakers as a logical evolution of the city and thus reliant on extensive location scouting and natural light and shadow tests. The creative team behind 1995’s Ghost in the Shell followed a similar “realism” in order to believably render Hong Kong’s spiritual successor, the 2029 Japanese capital of New Port City. The movie nails the interplay of tradition and a frenetic new world struggling to burst forward. Pollution hangs over New Port City, resulting in ambient light that reinforces the liminal, dreamlike spaces depicted on-screen; it’s a trick used to great effect in Blade Runner. Three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 would draw heavily from both Ghost in the Shell movies and 2001’s Metropolis for its own even-dingier aesthetic (the world really goes to shit in those intervening years).
The only stumbling block of Riekeles’s collection is its format. As a book about anime’s overlooked aspects and processes, ANIME ARCHITECTURE is, well, constrained by that fact. Arranged in the typical vertical coffee-table book ratio of 8.8-inches-by-11.4-inches, the finer details of the collected background paintings, sketches, and concept and process drawings can sometimes be hard to make out. In order to faithfully reproduce materials created for a wide-screen format, images are often shrunk to fit on a single page (barring some nicer full-bleed reproductions) or, worse, stretched to full size across both pages, condemning the middle of a highly technical and detailed drawing to the dreaded spine crack. A more horizontally aligned volume would have been appreciated.
Still, that’s not a deal-breaker. ANIME ARCHITECTURE is a valuable resource for anime, film, and video game aficionados, who will likely marvel at the chains of influence linking their favorite media. For architects, the book contains not only a repository of magnificent megastructures but valuable insight into the hard, iterative work of world-building. Even the anarchic conglomerations of Neo-Tokyo need a plan.
AN uses affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of the links above, AN may receive a commission or portion of the sale.