Examining the cinematic depictions of a “dystopian cityscape” over the past century is likely to lead one to images of towering, faceless buildings, imposing monoliths bordered by congested, decaying streets that attest to the power imbalances, technological advancements, and complex socio-economic scenarios they portray on screen. Among the titles that come to mind when considering this niche within the science fiction genre, few beyond the scope of usual suspects such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) have exerted as much of an impact on the visual identity of futuristic urban realms as AKIRA. Released in Japan during the summer of 1988, the film, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and based on his manga of the same name, was a veritable tour de force in the arena of animation, and a defining moment in the international rise to prominence of anime as a storytelling medium and artform.
Credited with laying the groundwork for much of the medium’s aesthetic and thematic underpinnings in the years since, particularly with regards to the sub-genres of cyberpunk and dystopian fiction, AKIRA is set in the complex urban landscape of Neo-Tokyo – a massive metropolis located on a landfill in Tokyo Bay near the ruins of the former city of Tokyo. This urban design configuration was partly inspired by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange’s pioneering 1960 urban development proposal, A Plan for Tokyo, which envisioned Tokyo expanding across the water towards the neighbouring city of Chiba. Merging divergent urban milieus of old and new, organic and sterile, as well as futuristic and modern, the cityscape of Neo-Tokyo is now revered for its immaculate detail, immersive environments, and pivotal contribution to the film’s visual identity as well as that of science fiction anime as a whole.
Providing an in depth analysis of Neo-Tokyo’s urbanscape as well as a host of other iconic settings from anime films, Anime Architecture: Imagined Worlds and Endless Megacities, authored by Berlin-based curator Stefan Riekeles, is a compendium of background artworks from nine landmark anime titles over the last three decades. Published in 2020 by Les Jardins des Pilotes – a non-profit also based in Germany’s capital that focuses on the preservation of art – the book examines the urban environments that serve as backdrops for the narratives of these immensely influential stories to unfold. Riekeles is the founder of the Riekeles Gallery that is also based in Berlin, and his research for the publication involved the compilation of layouts, image boards, and production backgrounds from films by prominent directors such as Katsuhiro Otomo, Hideaki Anno, Mamoru Oshii, and Michael Arias during an era of predominantly hand-drawn, paper-based animation.
Diving into the processes, styles, and techniques used to render these instantly recognisable worlds on screen, the book traces the evolution of anime’s aesthetic from purely hand-drawn, paper and cel-based animation techniques, to the introduction of digital rendering environments and finally, 3D computer graphics. The list of films featured includes AKIRA, Patlabor and its sequel, Ghost in the Shell, Metropolis, Innocence, Tekkonkinkreet, and the first two movies from the Rebuild of Evangelion series. Its accompanying exhibition, also titled Anime Architecture, first premiered at the Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin in 2016. Having been displayed at several other locations across the world including the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens (a centre for Japanese art in the United States), the exhibition’s ongoing latest incarnation titled AKIRA – The Architecture of Neo-Tokyo is presently on display at the Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing. On view from June 4 – September 4, 2022, the exhibition showcases 59 production backgrounds, concept artworks, image boards, and layouts that were used to render the film’s setting on screen.
In a Zoom conversation with STIR, Stefan Riekeles recounts his research and journey in casting a spotlight on art directors and production designers such as Hiromasa Ogura, Takashi Watabe, Shinji Kimura, Shuichi Kusamori, and Toshiharu Mizutani, whose unmatched skills have expertly crafted some of anime’s most revered fictional settings.
Jerry Elengical: Could you tell us about the origins of the publication and the subsequent series of exhibitions accompanying it? How have you reinterpreted your findings after each showcase?
Stefan Riekeles: The exhibition AKIRA – The Architecture of Neo Tokyo and the book, Anime Architecture, which was published before the exhibition and now serves as a catalogue for it, stem from my experience researching and curating exhibitions of anime background art for the last decade. Anime Architecture is the outcome of this phase of my research. The first exhibition I staged on this subject was called Proto Anime Cut back in 2010. The book came out a year later in 2011 and is now sold out. From 2010-2017, we cut down the number of drawings on display, and slowly started focusing on architecture. Then, in 2017, we presented an exhibition in London at the House of Illustration that was already titled Anime Architecture. I came to understand that for the thematic focus, the narrower you get, the more excitement you can stir up!
On the topic of the publication, an editor from Thames and Hudson, Darren Wall, wanted the first book, but rights issues and licensing made it very difficult. He asked Thames and Hudson whether they could reprint it or publish a new book. They reached out to me with these questions and I immediately said, “No, we need to publish a new book.” In the 10 years since the first publication, I understood what was missing from that attempt. Chief among them was the fact we didn’t have any AKIRA drawings. This is ‘THE’ movie if you talk about architecture and science fiction. So in 2019, I started researching, went to the studios in Tokyo again, and finally located the drawings for AKIRA which allowed us to publish the book.
Jerry: Since AKIRA is often regarded as the first anime film to make a huge impression overseas, what aspects of its animation style and worldbuilding made it so instrumental in the worldwide propagation of this medium?
Stefan: When it was released in 1988 in Japan, most productions were TV animation. There were other features produced for the cinema, like the work of Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli or the Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. But compared to now, very few features were produced for the cinema screen, and even fewer depicted architecture in such detail. The reason we are staging this exhibition almost 35 years later is that AKIRA is still a pinnacle in the rendering of a cityscape. I think the backdrops are some of the main reasons why AKIRA is still so popular today. Arguably, the narrative might be a bit confusing for some viewers – both for those who have not read the manga and those who have – because it’s a different story. It might also appear a bit cryptic initially. That’s not directing criticism towards the creators because the director Katsuhiro Otomo deliberately went for a feature that would work on a visual level first as a narration of a cityscape, with a plot to somehow bind it together. The idea wasn’t to have a totally convincing story, but to produce a movie that was visually overwhelming. It was a defining moment in Japanese animation because it’s so detailed and had this big production machinery which could market it overseas and establish this thing called ‘anime.’ So it was two things coming together: a big budget and great artists, at a time when the world was ready for it with VHS distribution and worldwide networks.
Jerry: The layering and contrast between older and newer parts of cities are recurring themes throughout this publication. In AKIRA, how have they been merged conceptually, aesthetically, and technically?
Stefan: The big difference among all these other movies in the book and AKIRA is that for Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, Metropolis, or Evangelion even, you can draw a map of the city. Neo-Tokyo in AKIRA doesn’t have a map. If you take the locations and try to draw one, it would be totally arbitrary. There is no grid or underlying structure, it’s entirely for the façade, the impression. Whatever looked good in a particular shot, or was needed to dramatise the city was illustrated. That’s great in a way because you can achieve a rendering of a city that is more impressive than if you had to consider whether something was in the right location or what would be in the background at a certain angle. This makes filmmaking very complicated. Being realistic on a topological level and just working on a first impression gives the artists a lot of freedom to express their dystopian vision. The layering of the city – with older parts and new buildings – is essentially like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner(1982). If you combine these two, you get Neo-Tokyo. It’s not a blunt homage to these two films but they had no desire to hide their inspiration. It’s very open.
Jerry: While Hideaki Anno’s Tokyo-3 is a mechanised battlefield framing the action of massive combatants, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Neo-Tokyo depicts lived-in environments with miniscule inhabitants. How did this divergence in scale and function come about from the manner in which the two cities were conceptualised, despite their origins stemming from similar scenarios of cataclysmic destruction?
Stefan: I think the difference between Tokyo-3 and Neo-Tokyo stems from their original creators – Katsuhiro Otomo and Hideaki Anno. They have totally different approaches to filmmaking and how they produce animation. It’s worlds apart. Otomo’s work comes from pencil on paper. He’s a mangaka in the first place, a visual storyteller, and everything he does is drawn. You can put in speech bubbles and all kinds of things, but first you have to draw – that’s how you tell the story. That’s also how his team works. These are draughtsmen, painters, and then of course animators, but they all primarily rely on pencils and brushes.
Hideaki Anno is a filmmaker with a movie camera. The way he thinks about producing anime is as if he’s filming a set. He’s not drawing a story or a set, he’s filming it. It’s already built by somebody to suit his needs and those of the camera. He’s not looking at it through the panels of a comic book. The second thing is the way they built the city. Otomo draws each brick and window that he wants to destroy. On the other hand, Hideaki Anno builds a three-dimensional set. Even in Rebuild of Evangelion, it was actually built in 3DCG by somebody other than him. He gave layout instructions and directions but it was built by a team. Then once he says, “Ignite,” the bomb explodes, and the thing is destroyed. Perhaps the only one who could mediate between them is Mamoru Oshii – which is why he’s a central figure in the book. He does both, relying on the draughtsmanship of his team, without drawing himself. He’s a cameraman, but doesn’t have a background in tokusatsu like Anno. All of them have very different ideas on the construction and destruction of a city. Oshii focuses on realistic depiction and works within the discourse of urbanism to question: “How should cities be built? How should they be taken down? What can we learn from these transformations?” That’s his thing.
Jerry: Mechanical and electrical transmission systems are often featured in incredible detail, notably in Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion series. Why are these elements so central to the identities of the cityscapes portrayed in these films?
Stefan: I think it’s important to state that there is a very big fascination for what was termed infrastructure. ‘Infra’ means below. So the hidden and unseen. All these artists share the idea that the cables and pipes and train rails and power generators make the city come alive. It’s like an organism. To render this idea of the city as an organism, the easiest method is to show the veins and arteries of the cityscape and highlight them. In science fiction, this is a very important technique: to juxtapose the human organism with this big machinic organism that an urban structure is. If you are a human with your own veins and arteries, opposed to a big city with its own veins and arteries, the conflict is clear. It’s like a second organism that you inhabit, which might not be so benevolent because it has its own plans and ideas. If the sewer system is broken or spills out its contents, it draws parallels to cutting veins or arteries. This will cause pain and eventually havoc, which makes it all very dramatic when the city might eventually stumble down and ‘die.’
Jerry: Neo-Tokyo’s infrastructure has been depicted as the circulation system for an organism in its own way. This fusion of the organic and inorganic alongside cycles of destruction and reconstruction, drawing parallels to postwar Japan, are common threads throughout the publication. How did the work of Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists influence this line of thought?
Stefan: Metabolism – the architectural movement – stipulates that the city is evolving like an organism. But the Metabolists initially didn’t keep infrastructure outside buildings, that came later. As for destruction and reconstruction, it’s a very important motif. You have to take things down to build anew, and even that will not last forever. When the Metabolists established their design ideas, the actual cycle was not realised, only conceptualised. These ideas have been ever-present in Japan because of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka. Many architects realised their ideas at a test scale in the Expo pavilions. This was during the formative years of a lot of these artists, and the movement itself was very popular in the discourse on Japan’s architecture as these crazy plans and drawings were published widely, not just for an expert audience. Then Blade Runner took this and crafted an image of Los Angeles with a Japanese or Asian flavour to it. The big Hollywood machine then disseminated it throughout the world.
Jerry: Artists such as Shuichi Kusamori featured in the book employ extensive detailing to bring their worlds to life while others such as Hiromasa Ogura prefer cleaner layouts. How do both these approaches yield different forms of realism in the environments they portray?
Stefan: That’s part of the reason why I am doing this research, to find traces of each artist’s signature style. Kusamori and Ogura worked together on Ghost in the Shell and it surprised me to find that you can have completely different styles of rendering backdrops, even in one scene. You wouldn’t recognise it in the final movie unless you play it frame by frame. Otherwise, the action is too fast and you have characters in the foreground, which hide the backdrops. They are really an individual artist’s choices. “How do we render a certain building or a certain façade? How do we paint the windows? What kind of decay are we showing and how?” In the age of paper-based cell animation, it all adds to the aesthetic gamut that you have in a movie. When all these things are combined together, you can somehow feel there were many people involved and many styles sneaking in because such a completely different rendering of a scene wouldn’t exist in a digital production environment since the artists are using the same brushes and similar levels of detailing.
Jerry: Scale is a huge factor in how futuristic cities showcase the advancement of building methods. How has this been uniquely translated through illustration and framing in some of the films?
Stefan: AKIRA takes the most extreme approach to the matter of scale – the highest buildings in Neo Tokyo are meant to be 1000 floors high. If you take the new part of New Port City from Ghost in the Shell, they are meant to be around 300 storeys. We currently have buildings in Tokyo that are above 50 floors, so it’s not difficult to imagine 300 but still quite a stretch to imagine 1000. This also reflects in the drawings and paintings. To achieve this sense of scale, you need a low structure or a human for comparison since we can’t estimate if it is beyond what we know. This makes it necessary to differentiate between background and foreground layers. In the last layer at the back, you need very small windows and details to emphasise the difference in scale and you have to paint each detail down to the finest lines with a very thin brush, which is a lot of work. Building Neo-Tokyo in AKIRA was very expensive.
In animation it’s not the paint and the paper that are the expensive part, it’s labour and time. Something like New Port City or even Tokyo in Patlabor is reasonably priced by comparison. The artists needed around two days for the backdrops in Ghost in the Shell. But in AKIRA, for the centrepiece, they took weeks maybe. The only exception may be the first backdrop, which is really outstanding because it was produced in two and a half days and nights by Toshiharu Mizutani, the art director.
Jerry: Blending architectural styles is a common theme throughout most of the films. What are some of the styles and movements that are most associated with the cyberpunk, mecha, and dieselpunk genres in anime?
Stefan: When we talk about volume, scale, and built mass, it’s the Metabolist movement. For ornamentation and more detailed structures it’s Art Nouveau and Art Deco, if you take Metropolis for example. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence displayed something we call ‘Asian Gothic’ because the buildings depicted on-screen have a lot of Gothic elements, like the Duomo di Milano and other icons. But Art Nouveau and Art Deco are very pertinent, even Tekkonkinkreet owes a lot to them. AKIRA of course bears references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which had a lot of influence from the artists of that time who were expressionists neglecting or affirming the ideas of Art Deco. Still, I think the Metabolists are the most important influence because they shaped the way we talk about megastructures and built volume. All these cities are ‘mega’ except Takaramachi from Tekkonkinkreet which is decidedly small and built on Kichijōji and Shimokitazawa in Tokyo.
Jerry: What are some landmark developments in the evolution of animation techniques over the past three decades covered in the book that have led us to the cinematic urban landscapes we see on screen today?
Stefan: The book starts in 1988 with AKIRA, followed immediately by Patlabor in 1989. The idea was to produce a book on paper, which shows works that exist on paper, to highlight this phase of animation, through paper-based work: concept drawings and layouts, which are still done by many artists on paper, because it’s very fast and efficient. This would be among the last phases, before it goes to the 3D department, which is the case with Evangelion and parts of Tekkonkinkreet. For me, this focus is important because I consider myself half exhibition maker and half author. I need things to put on the wall. I still believe in the aura of the original artwork. Naturally, I am focusing on these productions, but what you can see through this process and evolution over time is that the paper gets emptied out. Now there are more areas in the background paintings that are inserted later with 3D. So they become more like fragments of a 3D environment, whereas in earlier productions you would still have the complete scene on one tableau. Nowadays, if background artists paint with poster colour on paper, they are drawing pieces for a digital collage.
Jerry: What insights did you gain while interviewing some of Japan’s most lauded animators and art directors and how did you recreate their individual processes in the book and accompanying exhibitions?
Stefan: The most impressive idea I gained from this whole project is that all of these artists and creators are very humble and diligent. Although the works they create are so well known throughout the world and immediately recognisable, nobody knows their faces or names. The directors are somehow known, but if it comes to the production designers, any coverage of their work is very marginal. We are changing it with this publication and exhibitions, bringing these people who are in the background, making backgrounds to the fore. This is also quite a big undertaking for them personally because they are not used to the spotlight. They are of a generation that is now in their 60s or 70s. It’s not the excitement of youth anymore. These people already had very illustrious careers. It took a long time to convince them and get to know each other so that we could start publishing and exhibiting their pieces. So the most rewarding thing is that with our work, we can actually build tunnels or bridges into the background world – the scene of background painters in the industry to shed light on their work and celebrate what they have done.
Jerry: After the conclusion of this exhibition, what’s NEXT on the horizon – both for you and for Anime Architecture as a publication and exhibition?
Stefan: The immediate next phase is that we are preparing an exhibition for the Museum of Architecture, Kanazawa in Japan, where we will probably show parts from all the movies. Now for me personally, I would like to do something with landscapes, green paintings, mountains, trees, meadows, something idyllic, nostalgic, and nature oriented after all these concrete utopias. I am currently developing ideas and plotting the process of how this could be done. That’s my wish for the future.
AKIRA – The Architecture of Neo-Tokyo is on view at the Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing till September 4, 2022.