Sunday, 17 January 2016

Architecture in Anime: It's use as a visual storytelling device among other things

Architecture is something I've been passionate about for a very long time. Since i was a wee lad in my southern African nation of origin (not South Africa) reading about what cool buildings were being constructed around the world in glossy magazines in fact. It's the art form that has the most impact on even the most casual observer as we interact with architecture every waking moment of our lives. Architecture for me is the design of buildings, structures, objects or spaces for a specific purpose. Be it simply for shelter, for a client, for oneself or for the art of it, you are very calculated in the way you approach designing something like this as you think about every single variable and try to account for as many different types of uses as possible. Most architects like their work to be flexible so it can be used for more than even the specific use they had in mind as you never know what the future holds for any building.

As much of an animation fanatic as i am, architecture is the art i chose to study in the end. There's several reasons why that's the case but to put it simply, I just love architecture. I've recently become more interested in analysing architectural essays by many great architects but never really read much discussion about architecture and its uses in other mediums of expression. Specifically in storytelling mediums such as film and animation. You tend to find more writing of that nature from individuals who are in those fields than from architects themselves. So here's a little analysis of architectures use in the medium of animation from someone that's kinda passionate about both.

So let's start off with my first observations on this. When you start watching a new animated show there are usually specific ways in which a show will use architecture as a visual storytelling device to establish what kind of world we are in. If it's a fantasy show, you see a lot of medieval castles and if its a sci-fi show you see a lot of lights and skyscrapers with more post-modernist architectural features you find are common in buildings that were designed with computer software. This is an easy way to establish what you can expect from the show in terms of feel. Architecture is most noticeable in animated shows when it's used to do this, establish the setting. Here's a great establishing shot from the first episode of Liden Films' The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

With many eras having a recognisable architectural style this is a really easy way to get the viewer accommodated to the kinds of things to expect visually, however, it’s what a director does with this that really shows you how high their power level is. It’s all well and good to have a couple shots of a futuristic city but it’s how you choose to use the spaces the characters traverse to serve the story that really matters. Architecture is usually just the background of a scene and not generally the main focus so you have to use techniques to make that space that you have now established something that feels convincing as a place. Lets take a look at a couple of examples. If you're looking for a good example of architecture in an animated work, look no further than Akira.

Wonderful shot from Akira

The character animation in that movie is already top notch but in that film the architecture is as much a character as any of the people that populate it. Architecture serves to show you what mountains of expository dialogue can't. You get an idea of the state of the setting with the various places we get to see in the movie and the various states of disrepair that then inform the feelings of the characters. The design is also not too futuristic as to make no sense for the way it influences the characters. Its also visually interesting in the way that things are framed and lit to help tell the story. Everything about the architecture in the movie is designed in service of the narrative and the art director Toshiharu Mizutani and background staff did a fantastic job pulling this off. A lot of shots consist of the characters on the ground and you being able to see towering skyscrapers in the distance that show the disconnect between the characters we follow and the affluent people we never see that they are rebelling against. Showing this distance visually by showing the scale of the world the characters live in to the otherworldly scale of the affluent worked fantastically. 

If you want an incredibly awful example of use of architecture in animation (a recent one too) look no further than The Asterisk War. In this show we start of with no bearings as to what the hell is even going on with not much in the way of establishing shots until later on in the first episode. When we do get establishing shots, we are told we're in the future after some nondescript event occurred that lead to humanity living on this one huge island. It being the future however, the only visual elements that would make you assume this are the technology and abnormal clothing, for a city  100 years into the future, much of the architecture looks no more advanced than buildings you'll find around the most developed parts in the world architecturally right now. That's the first thing that meddled with my suspension of disbelief.

Building that doesn't really look moreso futuristic than what we see today.

That show however has many other problems than just this. The most glaring being we are told about places outside of the visually uninteresting school multiple times but never actually get to see them and therefore never get a grasp as to what the world is like outside of the space we traverse every episode. The thing about cities that I've come to learn is that you can intuit a lot about them by what architecture you find. Seeing older parts of the city you find out what kinds of buildings were deemed best for the population at the given time and get an idea of how populated it was and how much it has grown with what now surrounds the older parts of the city. You can also intuit from which point a city developed out from by doing analysis of this kind. Without seeing any of this and seeing some of the less affluent areas we just don't get an idea of the history of this world besides having to trust the storytellers that this is definitely how this setting was and is.

A cacophony of incomprehensible buildings smashed together to appear futuristic.

With this the world really starts to feel less engrossing and with the staging being fairly bland, even the space we are stuck with never impresses with how its framed. This is something that has never been a problem in the Ghost in the Shell franchise which isn't even set as far in the future as The Asterisk War but works splendidly because of the talents of all the art directors who worked on that franchise  (Hiromasa Ogura in particular but also Yusuke Takeda and Kazuki Higashiji) who understand how to design and use Architecture for visual storytelling purposes properly. I'm not trying to be too mean to the art director on Asterisk War (Yukihiro Watanabe) since this was his 2nd major role as art director and the director is more to blame for making a poor use of the setting. Even when you contrast the works of Ogura and Takeda, you see that even though Takeda's View of that world is cleaner, it's far more well realised than what we see in Asterisk War. In Ogura's interpretation, its very much a decaying cyberpunk future with many clashing styles that you can assume were attempts at revitalising the city in certain ways that just didn't pan out. Its like the culmination of many different inhabitants in a given space changed its feel.

 In Takeda's version of the Ghost in the Shell world, it's a lived in but still pristine looking future. His work in Ghost in the Shell Arise is more of my frame of reference in this case because that's the most recent thing Takeda worked on that I've seen. This is most likely because Arise is more of a prequel series so none of the decay has set in yet so when you see parts of the world in Arise that look Dilapidated you can see that its going to eventually spread to other areas as the places that look clean probably won't stay that way as happens with most architectural development schemes.

The Ghost in the shell franchise as a whole is tough to beat when it comes to top notch art direction though so i can't fault a generic light novel anime like Asterisk War for not living up to it.

Now lets briefly look at another aspect to consider about spaces when designed for animation. The objects in the scene (set dressing) are another thing that adds to a space. You have your space and now you have to populate it. What you choose to populate that space with has to serve the story first and foremost. If you have a scene set at a castle exterior for example, the first thing would generally have to do is to establish this space in relation to the rest of the city you have designed for your story.

Another establishing shot from Arslan #1.

 Once that is done you can populate it with what needs to be there. If the character is coming through the castle gates you need to know with what they are to traverse the space. Are they gonna walk, come through by cart or carriage etc. Once that is set up then you populate it with the items you expect to be there. For this precedents are generally used in a similar way architects use them when looking at examples of what they wanna go for in a design. When these items are decided upon you have your environment setup and decide how the character is to traverse the space. This is then where framing and lighting become key, you chose what to focus on and how to light it and design your sequence around that. There are lots of different ways that you can frame a single area that you've designed and for an easy example let's look at a scene from Arslan that uses many cuts to show a single space. 

Breaking it down like this you can intuit that there are just as many things to take into account when approaching Architecture in animation as there is when designing something that will physically be constructed. With animation however the main advantage is that you aren't limited by the fact that the thing has to actually stand up. You can design it to fit your narrative and it can look however you wish.

The Kaname residence from Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

In my opinion i don't think a lot of anime take advantage of this fact. Not many anime productions do anything interesting with the looks of the shows in terms of architectural style. For the most part the style tends to be pretty much early modernist style buildings which aren't too interesting to look at to me because they often don't look too unique. When shows don't have a high school setting some have castles and cities with the castles leaning towards a more romanesque look than the gothic style which disappoints me often. With how complicated gothic architecture can be  depict convincingly though i kind of understand. In terms of cities depending on the genre it'll either just be post-modern style buildings being prevalent like in Madoka or simpler modern style architecture and you can really tell the budget depending on how well realised the architectural scheme employed is. With Asterisk War its fairly obvious that they were constrained in certain ways but there are still ways they could have gotten around that and they chose the least interesting of the potential options. Stand Alone Complex has a fairly well implemented post-modernist style going on courtesy of Takeda. The 80s cyberpunk stuff all has the same run down modernist style that Blade Runner employed so iconically but that stuff always feels derivative to me. The main show of that era that didn't make that style look so boring to me was Bubblegum Crisis.

In Kill La Kill with the tone of the show being over the top anyway, the decision to use preposterously ridiculous designs for places like the school make sense because in that world you can kinda see it and not be bothered by it as its a visual signifier that yeah, this shit will get nuts.

Going back to Madoka Magica however, for me something that threw me for a loop when watching the movies versions was how all of a sudden the aesthetically pleasing post-modern style was thrown out in favour of some ill conceived Gothic schemes. Why a school would be designed using this style in that specific place makes no sense to me other than they just wanted it to look cool which kind of rips you out of the story if things like this bother you.

Thats kind of the downside from my perspective with this approach. You can design whatever you want in theory but it also does have to make sense. So yeah, You still have to design it as it will need to be looked at and framed at many different angles but it can look however you want (in theory). In anime its the art directors job to focus on backgrounds and look for precedents and decide what the look of the architecture will be in the end. Since art directors are mainly artists and not always designers, in some anime you can get by using simple real life precedents. In school based shows for example you can use a single location and a few surrounding locations and you'll be painting that day in day out. You only have to focus on how things are framed and lit mostly and it's easy to figure out the objects that will populate the space to give it texture but with a completely new location you need an art director that's also a good designer in general. Someone that can use precedents very well and also incorporate them into something new. I'd say a good example of these kinds of art directors would be people like Thomas Romain (whose art book showcases this quite splendidly) and as i mentioned before Hiromasa Ogura (He does this Marvellously in most of his projects such as using Hong Kong for Ghost in the Shell). After watching Shirobako i realised this was a more widespread practice than i initially anticipated but it still takes someone with actual talent to use those precedents to help tell a story effectively.

Basquash background by Thomas Romain.
Oban Star Racers Background by Thomas Romain.

Unless you are using a real life setting you have to be extremely creative with what types of aesthetics you want to use and have to make it make sense in terms of the story so choices like precedents are really key. For the last section now we'll look at some animators that make really good use of the settings in which the characters they animate inhabit. To start off let's look at the Background Animation MAD i did awhile back.

Let's start off with Yuichiro Sueyoshi. In anime there are a lot of times when the characters aren't overtly interacting with the space around them but when they do you can get some of the best sequences ever put together. Sueyoshi is excellent at animating characters interacting with space and it helps that Sueyoshi is an excellent background animator. There's being good at animating a character interacting with a space and then there's being able to animate the character and the space at the same time which is what takes Sueyoshi to the next level. In the scenes in the MAD, Sueyoshi's scenes are from a baby's perspective so the wild perspective changes make sense there but animating.

Continuing with perennial great, Yutaka Nakamura (Yutapon for short). Yutapon is an animator that's basically an all round talented dude. He's great at animating generally anything he gets assigned.  In the Utena scenes you see in the MAD you see that Yutapon can animate some slow atmospheric scenes adeptly as well as the fast action he's known for.

Next there's Norimitsu Suzuki who is by far my favourite background animator. The scene from the Star Driver ED in particular shows that Suzuki is excellent at drawing whole buildings rotating. The skill it takes to achieve such a feat is insurmountable. Suzuki is one of the best there is when it comes to background animation but his speciality feels like its more still characters than them overtly interacting with the space as the background usually rotates around the characters.

Yoh Yoshinari is good with background animation in the same vein as Suzuki though in his work there's more interaction between the characters and the spaces.

Hironori Tanaka is one animator who i think excels because of the way that he animates characters and their spacial traversal. A lot of his best work involves a lot of spacial traversal with my favourite example being this very effective and emotional example from Toradora.

In general though I'd say most animators of note are able to depict characters traversing spaces very well. One recent very well done example of characters traversing and interacting with space in a great action sequence is Yoshimichi Kameda's work in One Punch Man #1.

This scene involves characters popping in and out of the ground, changing of space several times, background animation, various angles and lots more. Its one of the better recent examples of interaction with a space I've seen and its very well handled so as to not loose your sense of geography of the scene. We'll end it there for now though. I may write more on this subject as my views on it get clearer but that's all i have to say on this for now.

This was a bitch to write because i had so many disparate thoughts to get into a coherent piece. This subject is very interesting to me though and no doubt some of you so here's some more informative pieces on it i stumbled upon that you can also take a look at to get a clearer picture of architectures use in not just animation but in most media. Thanks for reading and i hope you keep reading my future stuff.

Further Reading
  1. Architecture Related Posts by The Infinite Zenith
  2. Spaces and Visions in Japanese Animation Exhibition by HMKV (Hartware MedienKunstVerein)
  3. 4 Lessons Pixar Films Can Teach Us About Architecture by Anastasia Sekalias and Kathryn H. Anthony
  4. Art and Architecture of Texhnolyze by Ha Neul Seom
  5. What It’s Like to Be an Architectural Consultant for Assassin’s Creed II by Manuel Saga
  6. Through the Lens: When Hollywood Designs Prisons by Charlotte Neilson
  7. Architecture of Deus Ex: Human Revolution Youtube Series


  1. This is one hell of an article. Loved every aspect of it.

    Mind-boggling topic indeed. Anime and Architecture - both being two of the few (main) influences I have in my life. Looking forward for more (':

    1. Thank you so much. I'm in the process of writing a few new pieces for this blog that'll be done soon but my follow up to this will definitely be the first one i finish. Thanks for taking the time to read. 🙏