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Like many Japanese animators, Mamoru Oshii came up through the ranks as a television writer and director. His work as chief director of the enduring hit series Urusei Yatsura earned him a chance to helm two Urusei Yatsura spin-off movies; the second, Beautiful Dreamer, took the generally comedic series off on a unprecedentedly philosophical and existential tack, setting the tone for the rest of his career. Oshii's subsequent movies—the surreal, near-silent anime feature Angel's Egg, two cinematic spin-offs of the fan-favorite anime TV series Patlabor, and the live-action films The Red Spectacles, Stray Dog, and Talking Head—all featured introspective, melancholy interludes in and among slapstick comedy or action. In 1995, Oshii directed Ghost In The Shell, one of the first anime films to receive wide distribution and major acclaim in America. Well before anime became a fixture on U.S. networks and in American video stores, Oshii's state-of-the-art animation and portentous, adult tone drew the attention of viewers and critics alike.
Since then, Oshii has directed only two films: the stylized live-action cyberpunk movie Avalon, which served as a Japanese answer to The Matrix, and now the animated film Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, which opens in America on Sept. 17. In connection with that sequel, Oshii spoke with The Onion A.V. Club through a translator, discussing his themes, his symbols, the differences between animation and live action, and his legacy for young animators.
The Onion: You've said in the past that you think interviews are a bad idea, and that you'd prefer not to meet with people whose work you admire. Why is that?
Mamoru Oshii: I don't think that just because a movie is satisfactory means that the person who makes it is satisfactory. One can make a wonderful movie but still not be a wonderful person. I have several moviemakers whom I highly respect, but I wouldn't hope to ever meet with them. In terms of interviews, it's probably not a good idea, because moviemakers tend not to tell the truth, even when asked a question.
O: Why is that?
MO: Because a lot of filmmakers tend to be liars.
O: Do you think that being a liar contributes to storytelling skill?
MO: It's definitely a must.
O: Is there anything that might be better learned from an artist than from his art?
MO: I do feel that there are things you can learn from an artist, but I think you need to be very close to that person, and to know that person fairly well, in order to acquire anything from them. I do have a teacher myself, and I have learned quite a lot from my teacher, but it's not how to make a film. It's more how to approach my life as a director, how to approach and how to lie to a producer.
O: The Ghost In The Shell movies deal closely with the question of what it means to be human in a technological society, which is a very common theme in anime. Why do you think that theme is so crucial to Japanese audiences?
MO: As well as Japanese animation, technology has a huge influence on Japanese society, and also Japanese novels. I think it's because before, people tended to think that ideology or religion were the things that actually changed people, but it's been proven that that's not the case. I think nowadays, technology has been proven to be the thing that's actually changing people. So in that sense, it's become a theme in Japanese culture.
O: What about that theme interests you personally?
MO: I think it's because I was always interested in technology. When personal computers came out, I was one of the first to pick one up and begin playing with it. My hobbies tend to be not about going fishing or hiking, but about playing on machines. Just like some people like helicopters and tanks and cars, I like technology a lot.
O: You've said that when you come up with a new idea for a film, the story comes first, and the last thing you decide is whether it should be animated or live-action. What determines that decision?
MO: It's really not the idea itself that makes me decide a film should be live-action or animation. It's more what motivated me to come up with the idea. If I really feel that I want to shoot live people and live backgrounds, then that movie will become live-action. If I don't have any particular actors I want to use, I'd probably consider animation for that project. Which medium I use doesn't really make that much difference to me.
O: There aren't things you can do in one medium that you can't, or wouldn't, do in the other?
MO: That all basically depends on the budget. Japanese animation tends to need high budgets. If I have a high budget for a movie, I usually make animation, but if the project has a low budget, then I would ask the producer to consider live action.
O: For a big-budget anime film that will be in theaters, is there more pressure to include a lot of action, or other specific elements which you might not be compelled to insert into a live-action film?
MO: [Laughs.] Yes, I do have huge pressure in terms of making my animation, because a lot of audiences and producers and companies are expecting me to make films with a lot of action. They all know that I'm very good at action scenes, but I tend to not use many, so they're all frustrated with me every time I make a movie. But I do that intentionally. Yes, if I do a movie with a bunch of action, it's going to be a lot more successful than the types of movies I'm making right now. The producers often say, "Instead of using all these philosophical phrases, why don't you change this into an action scene?" But I don't do that. I intend to continue to make these movies.
O: Which medium gives you more control over the final product?
MO: I do have more directorial control over animation, because it's like trial and error: If something doesn't work, you can always go back and change certain things. Whereas in live action, every day is a challenge, and you have to make decisions on an hourly basis. So in live action I have more freedom as a director, but in animation, I have more control over the final product.
O: Many of your films deal with the conflict between the past and the future, and the search for personal identity. Are these two ideas related for you?
MO: I think it's up to the critics to decide that. It's not my position to say.
O: Because your films deal with personal identity, they often seem very intimate. How much of your personal philosophy goes into your movies?
MO: Ever since I was a child, I always had insecurity or suspicions about my own personal identity. That's why I started going to a lot of movie theaters, because I felt more comfortable there than at school. Now, the search for a personal identity is becoming a common topic for young Japanese people, and it's a big theme in their own lives. But it's been a theme in my life, as well, ever since I was young.
O: Certain images repeat in many of your movies: flocks of birds, biblical quotes, your pet basset hound. Why repeat these same symbols from film to film?
MO: I think overall, making a movie is like putting a stamp on the world. Every time I make a movie, I feed in elements to make sure that it's my movie. I'm marking poles like a dog does. This is how I show my movies to the world.
O: Do you think these symbols take on more meaning as they're repeated from film to film? Isn't there a risk that repetition will dull their effect?
MO: Eventually, I think, by using these elements repeatedly, I add meaning to my final product. I'm still exploring how to express my feelings through these elements. I've always felt that in order to portray humans, you should not be shooting humans; you should be shooting something else. And what I've used is animals, which are very important in my films.
O: Do you have any interest in how foreign audiences perceive your work?
MO: Yes, I think so. I think foreign audiences tend to approach my work with more serious eyes.
O: You've been credited as a major influence on contemporary animators. Is there anything in particular you'd like them to learn from you?
MO: I would recommend that they not go into animation. It won't do them any good.
O: Why is that?
MO: You won't make money, it's hard, and you'll lose all your friends.
O: And yet you're still an animator.
MO: Well, I don't care whether I have any friends.