Without a doubt, Mamoru Oshii is one of the most acclaimed and important anime directors around. His entire career has pretty much been a nonstop train of landmark works. After directing a few episodes here and there of various late 70s anime, he got his big break as director of Urusei Yatsura, the legendary series that put Rumiko Takahashi as well as himself on the map. Oshii directed just over 100 episodes of the show and then did 2 movies, the second of which, Beautiful Dreamer, is largely seen as the ‘birth’ of his career, as it was the first work to feature his signature mind-bending style.
In between working on that immense series, he also directed the much lesser-known Dallos, which has the distinction of being the first OVA EVER. Oshii left studio Peirrot after Beauiful Dreamer, and kind of embarked on what could be called an epic journey of crossing paths with every big name in the fucking industry. First he directed the film Angel’s Egg with character designs by the legendary Yoshitaka Amano. Next, he began work with Hayao fucking Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to make a movie, but it fell through when the three couldn’t get along. He next directed the legendary Patlabor series and movies, and then also started work on his long-running multiple-media-spanning Kerberos franchise, which includes the classic Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade film. He even wrote a manga that was illustrated by Satoshi God Damn Kon!
And all of that is BEFORE creating his biggest work, Ghost in the Shell (based on a manga by legendary Masamune Shirow), which introduced anime to much of the world that hadn’t noticed it before, and is still largely considered one of the greatest anime of all time. Add on to that illustrious career a number of live-action films, novels, and his most recent masterpiece, The Sky Crawlers, and it can’t be said that Oshii hasn’t had one of the most important roles in the modern anime world.
…That’s all well and good, but let’s be honest. Oshii is a pretentious, artfag bastard. At least, that’s how I came to know him. Long before I’d ever actually read Oshii’s name, I was aware of the impact of his works. I’d only ever seen tiny bits and pieces of Ghost in the Shell, which my eldest cousin had watched at my house before, and all I remembered from it was learning how guns are reloaded and that it was confusing as all fuck. The next time I would encounter his work, years later, Funeral had found Patlabor 2 on TV, and insisted we watch it because ‘it was a classic’ and ‘it had giant robots’. The Gundam series I’d seen at the time had left me with mixed feelings about robots (G Gundam = win, Gundam Wing = uuuuuhhhh…) and Patlabor only didn’t ruin me to them because in the 30 minutes or so I was awake, not a single fucking one of them moved an inch.
I still might not have known just who he was, but I learned Mamoru Oshii’s name from buying Blood: Night of the Beasts, a novel (nothing light about it, this is a fucking NOVEL) based on the Blood franchise, which then was only an OVA and a manga. Now, I loved the movie Blood the Last Vampire because it was literally 45 minutes of insanely well-animated action. The novel, on the other hand, was about 2/3 conversation. That is, exactly 2 conversations, each of which feels like you must have been there, sitting and listening to the entire thing for hours on end. What is the book about? Nothing. The plot has no actual reason for existence; the real purpose of the book is for Oshii to spew philosophical bullshit, as well as a ton of other random bullshit, onto an unsuspecting reader, with no real purpose. I didn’t even know what to make of the thing at the tender age of 14, but I couldn’t get my local used media store to buy the fucker off of me. I think it’s still lying around my house, and no, I don’t intend to ‘try it again now that I’m older’.
I also would have seen some Stand Alone Complex around here. Yeah, it’s not Oshii, but it’s GitS, and since it bored the ever-loving shit out of me, I was sure I’d hate that, too.
Well, when I DID find out who Mamoru Oshii was, and the things he’d made, my first impression of him might have been ‘pretentious cunt’, only at this point my favorite anime were Evangelion and Lain and I was almost sure I’d be his biggest cocksucking fan if I saw any more of his work. I’d have my chance in early 2008 (I think?) when I watched Angel’s Egg.
Now, this is an important turning point. All I had of Oshii was impressions until then, and now I actually had honestly seen his work. My feelings were very mixed – Angel’s Egg is about 50 minutes long, and has maybe 10-15 lines of dialog in it. It’s a big, pretentious (yes I am using that word a lot, because it needs to stick), pointless film that positively reeks of wankery and self-interest. However, it’s also total eye-candy, captivating, and somehow interested me enough that I can honestly say ‘I liked it’. However, even though I liked it, I couldn’t agree with the way it had been done.
I had this striking feeling that Mamoru Oshii was pushing his audience away from him on purpose. His message seemed to be criticizing people, saying ‘why can’t people see my deep, important message?!’ and yet hiding that message out of view. A lot of people have this tendency to make something obtuse, and then tell the world that they are idiots if they don’t get it. However, the truth is that you have to do something that deserves peoples’ attention. I learned this the hard way, as I used to write my blog and ask ‘why won’t anyone read me?!’ even though I knew that it was because I wasn’t writing something people wanted to read. Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing to yourself, as long as you recognize that you are doing it, but if you are trying to reach an audience, then it’s up to you to make sure they care about what you have to say.
I almost kind of developed Oshii into an extension of my pin cushion, the band Dream Theater. In an interview I once read with Dream Theater, they made a comment about how there were other bands like them who were more popular than them in spite of the fact that, as they put it, ‘we are better than them’, and then remarked about how ‘people must just like shit’. The truth is that DT writes only what they want to hear, and judge others as inferior. I got that sort of sense from Angel’s Egg. But I really got it driven home by Ghost in the Shell.
…Even though I did enjoy Ghost in the Shell. I thought that once again the pacing was terrible, and the whole thing was a vehicle for pretentious asshattery, but I did like it. However, one of my friends who is a GiTS fanatic had mentioned to me how on the DVD commentary, Oshii talks about how he ‘didn’t really want people to like the film so much.’ In other words, he had gone and put out something that was total cocksucking with no intent of anyone liking it, in spite of obviously marketing it to an extent with insanely great animation, awesome fights, and letting it become the stuff of legend. At this point, in spite of my general enjoyment of his works, Oshii began to make me rage just a bit.
That began to change through a gradual series of events. The first actually was the experience of watching The Sky Crawlers. Around 20 minutes into the movie (that I stupidly watched while low on sleep, so it felt about 5 hours long) I declared to an awakening Funeral that it was ‘the usual pretentious Oshii bullshit’, but by the film’s end, I had changed my mind. It still had pacing issues – it still seemed more interested in being gaudy than being interesting. And yet… I actually felt that I had watched a movie with a purpose. I began to read up on it a little, and the novel it’s based on, and I actually felt that this wasn’t a movie made in Oshii’s personal interest. There was surely a message in this movie, but it wasn’t just Oshii’s little pet philosophy being crammed down your throats, but something real. An actual message that I found important and, after some rewatches, would effect me very greatly.
For the first time, I felt like Oshii had created a film that, while definitively ‘his’, was not also ‘only for him’, but meant to be viewed and to be enjoyed and to be explored. And then it was in my research of this film that I stumbled upon an interview with Oshii about his work as screenwriter on this new Miyamoto Musashi film that came out last year (did this ever get DVD released and subbed? Anyone know?) that blew my mind. In particular, I was stricken by his answer to the last question:
The business of being a director is all about lies…and the trick to it is how are you going to deceive them? I really love making up lies, and if I can spur talk on just how far is the movie true, then it’s fantastic. I always say that when it seems as if you’re having a laugh at something, you’re actually serious about it. I said that lies are usually made with a straight face.
This quote was a total game-changer for me, because it shattered that image of a man who took himself and his views way too seriously. Suddenly, I didn’t see a guy who was forcing an obtuse view onto a philosophical story – no, the obtuse view IS the story. The reason you can’t get a grasp of things is because just maybe, that isn’t the point. I had assumed that Oshii was trying to give the viewer sort of a ‘long road to a short destination’ – an overwrought movie in the effort of making a simple point, when the truth is that Oshii really does care about the movie. To put it simply, it wasn’t that the talkative scenes in GitS and Angel’s Egg were the only ones that mattered to Oshii as I might have guessed – all of it was meant to create a story that simply housed that point.
And the nail that finally drove me further into Oshii’s heart was watching Twilight Q, a 2-episode 1987 OVA that was supposed to feature many different directors, but was canceled, and at least left us with Oshii’s ep, File 538. What I think really sets this ep apart is that it is definitively Oshii – all of his style, plot, philosophical stuff, slow pace – however, it is also comical, unserious, and even admits at the end that maybe it isn’t correct. This OVA does not try to cram anything down the viewers throat – it merely presents the viewer with ideas, and at the end shows us how these ideas could either be very right or very wrong. When I looked at this OVA, including the write-up Justin Sevakis gave it in ANN’s Buried Treasure column, as well as that quote above, it seemed to me that I was wrong about Oshii. He is a director, not just a blowhard.
And my turned-around suspicions were, I feel, confirmed, when I watched the bonus features of The Sky Crawlers. For hours, I not only watched Oshii talk about his film, but watched him work at every aspect of his job. For once, I got to get into Oshii’s head. I saw a really cool guy – a guy I’d even want to hang out with! He interested me, and the way he looked at his film interested me. I did not see a man full of pretension and self-affection, but instead a man who just wanted to tell a story his own way. As I said many paragraphs before, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do things your own way, as long as you recognize that you are going to alienate people. (Similar to how I think it’s okay to dislike a show, but to at least recognize why others might like it.)
It’s easy to think Oshii is pretentious just by watching his films, because they almost present themselves that way, but I think it is more just a consequence inherent in the storytelling techniques that Oshii uses. And I’m also not saying that him not being pretentious suddenly means everything he did is good. That Blood book was still stupid, Angel’s Egg is still boring as all hell, I’m willing to believe what Sevakis said about the unwieldy live-action flick The Red Spectacles, and being a decent guy doesn’t magically fix Ghost in the Shell’s pacing issues. However, what I think is important, and the point of my saying all this, is that we shouldn’t hold it against him. Unlike my former self, don’t dislike the guy just for doing some bad movies or making some bad decisions here and there in his good ones.
I’ve been meaning to do a post about ‘not missing the good in an artist for the bad’. I really like the Bloody Kisses album by the band Type O Negative. All of the rest of their alums are total shit, but that doesn’t mean that Bloody Kisses can’t be one of my favorite albums. Funeral is pretty bad about this, where he’ll disown a whole band just because they release a new album that he doesn’t like. For a while, he was saying that even though he loves all of his prior works, he ‘wasn’t really a Tarantino fan’ becauase Death Proof sucked so hard – then Inglourious came out and shut him the fuck up, and now he’s a total fanboy again.
I used to let my perception of Oshii and the negative parts of his films override the fact that I enjoyed them. Now I’m quite proud to have seen The Sky Crawlers 3 times, to admit liking Twilight Q, GitS, and Angel’s Egg, and to have Oshii as one of my favorite directors.