Interview: Mamoru Oshii

Ghost in the Shell

There’s a relatively short list of people who are widely recognized as some of the most important storytellers of our time when it comes to blending thoughtful science fiction filmmaking and animation.  With a retrospective starting today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in downtown Toronto, Techno/Human: The Films of Mamoru Oshii (running from July 12th through July 25th) showcases five animated classics from one of the most underrated filmmakers of our time.

The first filmmaker to ever have anime film be excepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival with the sequel to his seminal Ghost In The Shell, Oshii is a rare kind of filmmaker. He makes visually stunning and thematically important films that get more adventurous as he progresses though his career.  He pushes boundaries and challenges his audiences at every turn, so getting to see him in person is not only a fan’s delight, but a rare treat.

Mamoru Oshii - F2The two highlight events of this retrospective have the director on hand to introduce and talk about his films.  His most recent film, The Sky Crawlers, is a stunning moral tale of genetic ally engineered pilots fighting a corporately funded war. It will undoubtedly look amazing on the big screen when it screens at the Lightbox this Sunday, July 13th at 6:15 PM.  However the big ticket event is tonight as Mamoru Oshii introduces his seminal science fiction, steam punk classic, Ghost In The Shell, followed by a special In Conversation session Saturday night at 9:00pm.

A surprise smash hit at the time in North America in 1995 when it was initially released, it’s a film that without which we wouldn’t have the Matrix Trilogy and a variety of other efforts that have come in its wake. That film and Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 epic Akira made Japanese anime mainstream for North American audiences without compromising smart storytelling, and if you want a chance to catch the original Ghost the way it was meant to be seen before the release of the 25th anniversary Blu-Ray in September, now’s your chance.

In advance of his appearance tonight, I got the chance to talk to this groundbreaking filmmaker via e-mail. He didn’t have much time to talk, but I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes while he is hard at work on post-production for his next project.  I asked about his influences, his philosophical bent, and how he ultimately wants to be remembered on the global stage.

Dork Shelf: You’ve noted that films from the likes of Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Tartovsky and Chris Marker have served as in influence in your career, how have their works influenced your work in the world of animation?

Mamoru Oshii: I used to watch their films back when I was a student and before I became director, but now that I’ve learned what’s in their thoughts and what went into making all these films, I no longer watch them.

DS: What is it about anime and manga that allows you tell stories in a way that you may not be able to pull off and be successful with shooting in live action?

MO: Not much is different. If anything, animation allows you to express things more logically, as opposed to live action where it’s easier to express emotional feelings.

DS: Are there Manga’s that North American audiences may have never heard of that could make for interesting film projects?

MO: I’m certain there are lots out there, but now I don’t read a lot of comic books anymore. I’m not even sure what’s out there now.

DS: Ghost in the Shell is obviously an incredibly seminal film for many people and many reasons. Were you prepared for the initial reaction to the film, particularly in North America and how it influenced so many other filmmakers?

MO: I never imagined it would become such a huge hit in North America.

DS: Ghost in the Shell is often referred to as one of the greater science-fiction films of our time and is mentioned in the same breath as films like 2001 and Solaris.  What science fiction works do you find have been the most influential in your life and career?

MO: Blade Runner. This film made me believe firmly about what a movie could be and what it could do.

DS: Do you feel that there is any reason more directors and storytellers haven’t tackled motifs and ideas in the science fiction genre through the use of animation?

MO: Nothing is impossible in animation as long as there is enough money to do it. However, there is always a limit to what you can achieve in terms of drama. But the possibilities are endless when it comes to what you want to do in the picture as long as you have a limitless budget. It just boils down to the question of the money being recouped. As for me, someone who often failed to make commercially successful movies, many producers have stopped investing too much money into my projects because they anticipate it taking too long for the film to pay them back.

DS: So many of your films not only focus on the use of imagery more than anything but they also maintain a very dark and even introspective and philosophical tone.  Has this been due to your extensive work in Manga and how has that ultimately influenced your filmmaking style?

MO: It’s not like I like philosophy or that I’m specialized in that genre or that I’m some kind of philosopher. Human relationships or drama ultimately comes down to philosophy no matter what you do. It is something you cannot bypass when creating a story that deals with real people or characters. I read a lot of philosophy books for that reason, but lately I’m a lot more interested by classic literature.

DS: As one of the primary faces in North America for not only Japanese animation but also for Manga, how do feel, coming to North America to be able to discuss your works with audiences and see how they are appreciated outside of your home country?

MO: It has good and bad sides. Producers expect more out of me than they would out of other directors. They stopped offering me simple projects that you can almost make in your sleep, but instead they offer me something a lot more complex and challenging. The good part is that it has gotten easier to do overseas projects because of the relationships I have earned through my past works that did well outside of my own country.

DS: As an artist who works in different mediums on a regular basis, how do you ultimately wanted to be remembered in the global artistic community?

MO: As a conscious filmmaker.

For a full list of films screening, showtimes, tickets, and more information, head to the TIFF Bell Lightbox website.