A Philosophical Talk with Legendary Director Mamoru Oshii by Global Anime

AbraxasNovember 3, 2021

Note: ANN is excited to publish a recently discovered interview between Mamoru Oshii and our reporter, Richard Eisenbeis, from 2017.

A while back, I was able to sit down with Mamoru Oshii, director of groundbreaking anime films such as Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor. One topic we covered was how he defines himself and what he does.

“I would usually describe myself as a movie director – It’s not that I’m a sort of celebrity or an entertainer. How could I put it? I’m not even an artist.”

In Oshii’s mind, the difference between what he does and “art” is that art is for the sake of a single patron – or perhaps for the sake of art itself – while he simply appeals to people at large.

“Part of what artists do has to withstand the test of time. I suppose you could call it ‘universality.’ People who live by entertainment generally live in the moment.”

But what about being defined as a celebrity?

“I’m not a celebrity so I don’t sell [my image]. I only sell my skills. So it’s not like I get paid for my face or body or looks. I work through my skills. But what’s different between me and your normal craftsman is that I don’t make something physical or concrete. I make something that has neither shape nor shadow.

“So, you could say it’s similar to a stage performance actor, but as a result, you can make mass-produced copies [of what I’ve created]. That’s the difference between what I do and what a stage actor or a dancer does. I don’t make a performance, but something that is copied. So, it’s somewhat similar to a manufacturing producer,”

How about ‘creator?’

“I hate being called a creator or author or things like that. I’m not the original creator of what I do. Even if I wrote a story and made the script, I don’t consider the work of a movie director to be original.

And it’s not like I’d be making it by myself. If we are talking about an animation project, I’d be typically working with a staff counting 500 or 1,000 people to make it. And I’m not even drawing a single picture of it.

An illustrator does everything by themselves and a manga artist may use assistants, but generally draws everything. […] I think that the word ‘creator’ best describes people like them.”

But if a director doesn’t create, what is a director in Oshii’s view?

“There’s a word in Japanese – geinosha – but I’m not sure if it can be translated into English properly.

It’s used to indicate somebody who possesses specific “skills” rather than being an “artist”. A geinosha is somebody who is selling their skill. I think in English it might be something closer to a bard.

Geinosha is a term that can also include martial artists in its meaning. [In fact,] they all used to be called geisha. When you hear the word geisha, most people nowadays would immediately think of geisha girls, but back then, people like Miyamoto Musashi – [now known as] swordsmen or samurai – were all called geisha because they lived by their gei, or skill.

In Japan, being a master at some specific skill was not just about receiving money against the skill you could provide. It also involved a dimension of spiritual seeking through the act of mastering that very same skill.

So, I’m not a celebrity, an entertainer, or an artist. [But] in Japanese, the words for all of these contain the word gei: they’re all bards. At least, this is how I see it.”

But what connects all geinosha together?

“They all work using the sum of what it means to be human. It’s not so much a question of ability as it is the specific nature of each individual becoming an important component of their work. Their understanding of humanity will make the difference.”

Oshii feels that capturing this sense of humanity is especially hard for young directors.

“Movie directors need to age to ripen. It takes time. That’s why looking back at all the stuff I made before I was fifty, I think, ‘That’s no good.’ It’s ‘green writing,’ so to speak – work that was done in youth.

You can’t make a movie that will move an older adult unless you’re past fifty. It’s because a director works with the sum of his human experience. Not just his skills. Not just his directing touch. You can’t move people unless you have the proper knowledge of what people are. In that way, I think it’s different from art.”

Stay tuned for more of our interview with Mamoru Oshii and his work on Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer next week.  

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