Mamoru Oshii: Career Beginnings

As far as Japanese directors go, Mamoru Oshii is probably the most acclaimed and revered alive. He has won awards from film academies in his home country to France, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. Oshii has been nominated for the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or for his animated films: two awards more prestigious than even the American Oscar and more important when deciding if a film is a masterwork that holds a place of importance in cinema history. Oshii has helped to mentor and influence some of the greatest modern Japanese directors including Kenji Kamiyama and the now-deceased Satoshi Kon.

He is a filmmaker of both philosophical anime, and of science fiction and surreal live-action films who finds his influence in the domain of the greatest of all directors to ever grace the medium: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Melville. And he recognizes the importance of Science Fiction films like This Spaceship Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner as at least fundamental to the grammar of the medium as Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. If all this were not enough, his career has given us the first OVA in Dallos, the greatest anime head-trip in Angel’s Egg, an enduring cross-media science fiction work in the Kerberos Saga, and arguably the greatest animated film ever made in Blade Runner’s only true spiritual successor: Ghost in the Shell. 

Over the next four months or so, I will reviewing and analyzing the career of Oshii on this blog, and I had planned to begin with an essay on his first feature-length film Urusei Yatsura: Only You. However, Oshii’s career began long before this film’s release in 1983 and that narrative is an integral part in understanding how he developed into the filmmaker we know, love, and admire today.

Unlike another father of modern Japanese animation, Isao Takahata (who studied French Literature at University, could not animate to dying day, and only lucked into a directing job with Toei that spring-boarded him to an illustrious career of his own), Mamoru Oshii was always a cinephile with an interest in directing films one day. As a youth, his father exposed him to tons of films by European arthouse directors. At Tokyo Gakugei University, Oshii continued to explore his interests in filmmaking and consumed at much as possible. He must of trained as an artist there as after graduating in 1976, he managed to gain a job as an animator for Tatsunoko Productions, which was just over a decade old at the time and had previously scored a big hit with its animated TV series Speed Racer. 

While at Tatsunoko, Oshii worked primarily as a storyboard artist and episode director, while occasionally penning an episode as a writer for many of the Studio’s productions. From 1977 until his departure from the studio in 1980, Oshii worked in some capacity on the following shows: Ippatsu Kanta-kun, Yatterman, Gachaman, Majokko Tickle, and Zenderman. However, the money must have been good or Oshii must have enjoyed working there as he returned on three subsequent occasions between 1980 and 1987 to work on the series Dashu Kappei, Gyakuten! Ippatsuman, and Zillion. One can consider this time spent with Tatsunoko as a period of development for Oshii as he learned the ins and outs of the production process of anime from many different vantage points and built up a highlight reel or resume for himself that he could later refer to in order to promote himself as a director deserving of the helm of series director or head director on a film.

At Tatsunoko, the head director of the studio’s most popular productions like Speed Racer and Gatchaman was Hisayuki Toriumi. Toriumi took Oshii under his wing while at Tatsunoko and when the former made the move to Studio Pierrot in 1980, so too did his protege Mamoru Oshii. There, they worked together on the World Masterpiece Theatre-like Wonderful Adventures of Nils anime for which Oshii storyboarded 11 episodes and directed 18 out of series total of 52 episodes. And later, Toriumi helped Oshii write the script of his OVA series Dallos. During their time together at Pierrot, it seems that Oshii began to come into his own as a director and after Dallos in 1983, the two never worked together again despite Toriumi continuing on as a director of animation until 2001. Toriumi’s career past this split include classic OVAs and Films like Area 88, Lily C.A.T., Like the Clouds Like the Wind, Baoh, and Sohyryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings. 

For a time, Oshii’s work at Pierrot remained relegated to occasional jobs as a storyboard artist and episode director. From 1980-84, he worked on the following shows for Pierrot: Rescueman, Yattodetaman, Belle and Sebastien, Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, Miss Machiko, and Mrs. Pepper Pot. Most important, however, was Oshii’s work on the exceedingly popular Urusei Yatsura from 1981-84. On this TV anime adaptation of a classic Rumiko Takahashi manga, Oshii created storyboards for 21 episodes, directed 24 episodes personally, and served as the series head director for the first 106 episodes of its run (more than half of its final total run). The anime was so popular that it later spawned 12 independent OVA episodes and 6 feature-length films. On the first two films, Oshii was given the opportunity to direct. It is through Urusei Yatsura that Oshii began to helm big productions as a director, and particularly through the series’ second film Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer that he began to be known as a director interested primarily in the Surreal, the Philosophical, and in how these modes of operation relate to Science Fiction and Fantasy.

From this point forward, Oshii’s work would continue on through production houses like Studio Deen, Headgear, and Production I.G.. He would begin work on his Kerberos Saga through live action films, animated films, and manga, eventually settling on the former (live-action filmmaking) as his favorite way to create narratives. But in every new venture throughout his life, Oshii has given his all to make the production artful, thoughtful, and ultimately, consumable media made to satisfy more than the Society of the Spectacle, but transformative media crafted to satisfy the intellect. This is just the first chapter in my investigation into the career of Mamoru Oshii. I hope you’ll tag along with me.



Cody Ward

[Next up: Urusei Yatsura: Only You]

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