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What do you think of when you think of Anime? What strikes you most about it? Is it the characters, the stories? Or is it the spaces these characters and stories exist in? For me, it’s certainly the latter. Personally, I’ve always had an affinity for sci-fi cities, the imagined spaces that let the fantasy futures grow and nourish, or in some cases choke under pollution and die. When we start to imagine anything, isn’t the space one of the first things our minds start to build?


For us, this exhibition at The House Of Illustration, is a godsend. A brilliantly-curated look at the environments and settings of four of the best Anime films of the last two decades: Ghost In the Shell (1995), Patlabor The Movie (1989), Metropolis (2001) and Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence (2004).

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Once inside the exhibition, you get a selective look at the creation of the architecture of these films. It’s important to remember that in anime (and especially in anime as good as the ones featured) the architecture is not just a background for the characters to move against. It’s the place they live in. The place they contemplate their existence in. Their futures. What strikes you most of all is the clash between old and new. The images are images of places that are recognisable: Hong Kong, Japan… But these places are retrofitted, adjusted, modernised.

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And it’s not just the images, it’s the way they’re made, too. This exhibition is comprised of original hand-drawn animation. Wash backgrounds with acetate overlays and blank areas for moving parts (often water). Old-school technique for imagined futures. Techniques that are older than the people seeing them or, for that matter, the people making them.

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And it’s the clash that seeps outwards from the story. Quite often, these are tales of old lives and ways of living being cleared, swept away for new methods, new technologies and new spaces. They’re about how those things, the traditional and the progressive, exist together. They aren’t just Japanese stories. They’re stories about Japan. Despite the Ghost In The Shell’s nominal setting of Hong Kong (a place nearly all of its cityscapes are referenced from), you’ve no doubt you’re watching a possible Japanese future unfold.

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As we moved through exhibition we often heard the familiar theme from Ghost In The Shell: ‘Utai IV: Reawakening’ by Kenji Kawai. If you haven’t heard it, this is a serene, almost religious piece of score that only added to expansive mood and ideas presented in the displays. Further searching brought us to a small media room, where one scene from each of the films were playing. What was interesting about these scenes is that there was little or no action or even characters in them. In keeping with the exhibition they were the most contemplative scenes, the ones that best showcased the spaces the stories grew from.


And that was the impression we had as we stepped out into the sun after spending time in future cities. The stories grew from these spaces. They weren’t grafted onto a space or reverse-engineered to fit a bunch of action scenes the writers and directors had fashioned. The stories felt as if they were a result of the world not vice-versa. As we left the exhibition behind we had to wonder: as the city we live in becomes an increasingly sci-fi city, modern and advanced and its old-world nature recedes, what stories will grow from it?

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Please note that the exhibition features many original pieces of animation, some being seen for the first time. Since we don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that await you in The House of Illustration, we have illustrated this article with selected scenes from some of the original anime films mentioned, rather than actual pieces from the show. We hope this will best exemplify the mood and feel of the exhibition without ruining it for you.

The Anime Architecture: Backgrounds Of Japan Exhibition is at The House Of Illustration for a limited time until 10th September 2017 and you can book tickets here. You can also donate to the House Of Illustration using this link. We would like to thank The House Of Illustration for their support.

Orbital Comics has some the best manga available in the U.K. as well as an exclusive range of figures, phone charms and key-rings. Please drop by the store to see the full selection.

Julia & Paul.