Mamoru Oshii's Greatest Scene
Plus: global animation news, Hayao Miyazaki on plot structure.
Welcome back! We’ve brought you an exciting issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter today. Here’s the plan:
1 — breaking down scene 20 from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.
2 — the animation newsbits of the week.
3 — Hayao Miyazaki on the plot structure kishōtenketsu.
Just dropping in? We publish Sundays and Thursdays. You can sign up for free to receive our Sunday issues in your inbox, every week:
With that said, here we go!
1. Innocence, scene 20
It’s safe to call Mamoru Oshii a famous director. At this point, who hasn’t seen Ghost in the Shell? While it fell through the cracks in Japan, his 1995 cult hit helped to spread anime across the globe. For that reason alone, Oshii’s place is secure.
Still, even if you know Oshii for that film (or Angel’s Egg, or Patlabor), it’s not the whole story. He’s made a lot of movies since the ‘80s. Most are obscure, and many are confusing, anti-commercial, live-action affairs. His demented comedy The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (2006) feels like outsider art.
Oshii makes movies for himself — filling them with coded meanings and his own personal interests, especially basset hounds. It’s often unclear what he’s saying with a film unless you’ve seen him explain it in interviews. “I only know what I want to see,” he once said. “I have no idea what anyone else wants to see.”
At the time, he was talking about Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), the follow-up to his biggest success. Did people’s expectations intimidate him? “No, because I was so ready not to meet their expectations,” Oshii explained. Reviews were mixed.
And yet this bizarre experiment in cyberpunk, which has gone unwatched by so many Ghost in the Shell fans, happens to contain the greatest scene that Oshii’s ever crafted.
We set out to write this article months ago. This moment from Innocence is something special, and it really resonated with people when we shared it on Twitter. We wanted to understand why and how Oshii made it. That led us on a quest involving hundreds of dollars and multiple rare, Japanese books. We hope you’ll enjoy the result.
Today, we bring you a first-of-its-kind look into the making of Innocence, scene 20.
To begin, let’s get one thing clear: nothing happens in scene 20.
Oshii is famous for explosive violence and philosophical dialogue. Innocence is full of both. But scene 20 is a breathing spot that feels almost out of place — the plot stops. No one speaks. It starts suddenly, around 27 minutes in. Protagonist Batou, a cyborg special agent investigating a murder, returns to rest at his apartment. He takes care of his pet basset hound and opens a beer. That’s it.
Yet it’s so much more, and Oshii knew it. “This scene 20 is […] one of the things that I wanted to do,” he wrote in his storyboard commentary. “Possibly, it may be what I wanted to do most.”
This sequence delivers, in 2 minutes and 49 seconds, a closely-studied moment of everyday life. It’s full of warmth and tenderness — and it ties deeply into Oshii’s personal life. He’s called Innocence almost “autobiographical,” and Batou a “reflection of [his] own thoughts and feelings.” That comes through most clearly in scene 20.
As Oshii wrote in his notes, “A single man has come home, so he’ll prepare his dog’s meal, drink beer and say, ‘Good grief.’ ” It’s the most mundane thing in the world, and that’s the challenge. Only the little things propel scene 20 — there’s no plot, no action to keep your focus. It’s about details.
We see those details when the dog leans over Batou’s shoulder at the tub (a sign of “begging,” according to Oshii). We see them when the dog pushes its food bowl across the floor while eating, and when Batou lifts its ears out of the bowl — a motion so specific and gentle, it’s touching. As Oshii recalled, “It’s a cut that even Skywalker Sound’s staff highly praised.”
Like with the rest of Innocence, Oshii storyboarded that moment himself. You can feel the power of lived experience in it. In his notes, Oshii put it matter-of-factly: a basset hound’s ears will get “soppy” if they aren’t lifted, so you have to lift them.
Oshii himself is a devoted basset hound owner — he sees something beautiful and profound in them. Asked in 2004 about his biggest creative influence, he replied, “My beloved Gabriel, my pet basset hound.” Batou’s dog is modeled on Gabriel. In fact, the storyboard notes explain that the dog in Innocence is named Gabriel C. “This means ‘clone’ of the Gabriel of the Oshii residence,” the notes tell us.
As Oshii once summed it up, “This movie is about me and my dog.”
Like you’d expect from an Oshii film, there’s also an opaque symbol involved here. “By the way,” we read in the notes, “Gabriel is one of the four archangels along with Michael, Raphael and Uriel.”
The mix of personal references and unexplained symbols is an Oshii staple, and the effect is often to confuse the viewer. That doesn’t happen in scene 20. The reason, above all, is that Oshii’s love overwhelms everything else.
In his notes on scene 20, Oshii focuses again and again on Gabriel C’s face. He mentions the “loveliness beyond description” of a “hopeless-looking, puppy-eyed” expression, which would cause him to “probably forgive you even after you push the launch button of a nuclear missile.” Another is like “a philosopher’s appearance” — a face that “looks like it shouldered on its own body the anguish throughout the world.”
Writing about the final shot in scene 20, where Gabriel C falls asleep on Batou’s lap, Oshii remarked:
My interest in why a basset’s sleeping face looks so sad, and what kind of dreams it is having, has not been exhausted, but, for now, cute or lovely, this exists precisely as an angel’s sleeping face; and it exists also as an occasion of supreme bliss for basset owners around the world.
Here, that language of angels returns. Innocence is a cold and alien film — Gabriel C is the one reprieve. When Batou returns to his apartment, he enters a space of peace. You feel relieved, too. “Without the existence of the dog that the protagonist keeps in his apartment, that world really would have been too inhuman,” Oshii said.
Despite Oshii’s love for Gabriel, though, scene 20 isn’t idealized. What strikes you is its down-to-earth realism. Oshii wrote that he didn’t respect people’s desire for “hassle-free pets, hassle-free toilets and pet food that doesn’t smell.” You feel the textures, scents and discomforts of real life as you watch.
When Batou walks in, his first realization is that he’s “stepped on a poo” at the door, per the storyboards. They call for a facial expression where “anger and resignation are muddled … like [Batou is] miserable and growing weak.”
Scene 20 doesn’t gloss over the hardships of owning a basset hound. As Oshii pointed out, these animals have health issues. Batou puts an assortment of pills into Gabriel C’s food bowl — “calcium, minerals and such … all sorts of supplements, too,” Oshii wrote. He painted Gabriel C as both an angelic presence and an intensely embodied one.
We sense all of this in scene 20, even if we don’t understand it. The emotions and real-world detail are there — you don’t need to grasp the sequence logically. They’re in Batou’s caring touch, in the way he kicks back with his beer. In the details of Gabriel C’s face, and in the quiet music box in the background. Oshii once said that Innocence might be his “most emotional movie ever,” and this moment is a good argument for it.
It was also the culmination of a dream for Oshii. He’d been obsessed with trying to capture the mystery and wonder of basset hounds in animation. (“In my eyes, the ultimate subject remains the dog,” he’d said a few years before.) Oshii wrote in his notes that scene 20 finally got there:
It’s hard to draw a basset. He’s probably fed up with it, though, the animator. It’s much harder than drawing an ordinary dog. It’s a mass of unique gestures and movements. But I accomplished my own desire, or rather (laughs), I presented a basset like a basset. It’s not an ordinary dog; it’s specifically a basset. The results are greatly satisfying. It’s a considerable thing that animators have matured up to that point.
[…] For the first time, it worked out well in anime, and I was able to be satisfied. Since the time of Patlabor 2, I’ve shown bassets over and over again endlessly, and at last. It’s something like a barometer. […] This is, now, a fine thing that can be boasted of to the world. It is good to call it a brilliant achievement. Really. It’s no joke.
The animator usually attributed with the magic of scene 20 is Toshiyuki Inoue.1 He’s seen in Japan as one of the industry’s best — noted for Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, Magnetic Rose and more. His fellow animator Tetsuya Nishio once said that “the basset hound Inoue-san drew in Innocence was a wonderful thing.”
In the final form of scene 20, Oshii’s vision from the storyboards levels up. His boards look like rough doodles, but the actual character animation is almost frighteningly real. Its naturalism envelops you. Plus, although it follows the boards, the animation adds and refines a number of details, like the new moment where Batou tastes Gabriel C’s food to check for temperature.
Building from the storyboards to that final result required the layout stage, something central to Oshii’s process (as shown by Matteo Watzky’s recent write-up on Patlabor 2). It’s here that scene 20 first got the hyperreal look that’s in the film.
The layout artists turned Oshii’s sketches into drawings that resemble finished shots, guiding the animation. His fun doodles of Gabriel C became realistic drafts. According to sequence director Mizuho Nishikubo, Oshii’s boards focus mostly on the big picture — the type of lens, the position of the camera. Layout fills in the visual specifics.
When Batou scrapes food into Gabriel C’s bowl in scene 20, Oshii wrote that he wanted the shot to have “presence, as though it were cut off with a camera rather than being a pictorially well-arranged composition.” Per his notes: “working in a somewhat narrow kitchen … Big Batou is charming.” The direction is detailed, but the visual detail in his boards is vague — even the texture of Gabriel C’s food isn’t clear.
That’s where the layouts came in. The team applied the same detail to the drawings, and to the stuff in Batou’s apartment, that we see in Oshii’s direction. That stuff was crucial to the sense of everyday life that Oshii wanted in all parts of scene 20. As he wrote:
… the designs of accessories that are directly linked to a sense of life, like home appliances and tableware, doorknobs and shower handles, are important direction-wise, [but] they have continuously been treated with neglect in anime for a long time […] for the purpose of building a character with a sense of presence and a worldview full of persuasiveness, it is one of the processes that cannot be avoided and passed. This time, I placed emphasis on it, including experiments like inviting the live-action art director Yōhei Taneda to the staff.
And so Batou drinks beer labeled “Daniyan” — Oshii’s nickname for his pet dog, Daniel. He handles a box of dog food that features Oshii’s “beloved daughter Gab” on the cover. The 3D shots of a mechanical basset hound, animated by American artist Justin Leach, are based on a real “basset automaton” that Oshii got during production. He loved it so much that he added it to Innocence late in the process.
Once again, it’s the details. With scene 20, it’s always the details — whether it’s Oshii’s observation of his own pets, or the specificity of the motion, or the sense of place. All of it expresses his care, and all of it builds to a sequence that casts a spell on you from the second it starts.
There’s no flash in scene 20. It’s restrained, from Oshii’s boards to the layouts and final shots. Rather than flash, it has something much more important: weight. The weight of Oshii’s experiences, his feelings and, above all, his love for Gabriel.
While promoting Innocence, Oshii once remarked, “Sometimes, I imagine eliminating all human interaction and spending the rest of my life at home in Atami, relaxing and soaking in a hot spring.” It was a fantasy of a life beyond the stress and chaos of the anime industry.
With scene 20, Oshii and his staff turned that fantasy into a powerful reality. In the middle of this strange film, they compressed life into 2 minutes and 49 seconds. The result is Oshii’s greatest moment — and a high-water mark for realist animation:
The research for this article couldn’t have happened without animation historian Toadette, who helped us by translating long sections from the books Methods – From Layouts of Innocence and 2501: Innocence Storyboard Collection. We’re very grateful.
French animation school Gobelins has opened its two-week Summer School program to applicants. The course will run from July 4–15.
The Japanese feature Poupelle of Chimney Town, by Studio 4°C, is now available to rent on YouTube.
Things are still looking bad for the Russian film industry. There are reports of box-office declines “up to 50% in Moscow and up to 85% depending on the region” between February and March. One distributor spoke about paying to play pulled foreign films, so that it’s done “legally, even without [their] consent.”
Cartoon Brew, the major American animation site, is up for sale. This follows its recent appointment of Jamie Lang as editor-in-chief.
Japan’s voice-acting industry is in trouble. Remote work has made it hard for young talents to rise — established actors get most of the jobs, and they have fewer opportunities to meet and train newcomers.
In Morocco, the animation studio Artcoustic is working with several other Casablancan companies to produce two animated shows for TV — a big deal.
In America, union organizer Rachel Gitlevich (Titmouse) met with President Biden at the White House, and Shadowmachine’s Los Angeles production staff joined The Animation Guild. (Meanwhile, the union at Canada’s Oasis Animation got a lot bigger.)
We hope you’re enjoying today’s issue so far! Thanks for reading.
The last section is for members (paying subscribers). Below, we look into Hayao Miyazaki’s thoughts on kishōtenketsu, a traditional Japanese plot structure based on development and change. Famously, it doesn’t require a “central conflict.”
Miyazaki has discussed kishōtenketsu several times in his career — both as something he’s used, and as something he’s come to reject. Although we’ve written about this topic before, we’re bringing new details today.
Members, read on. We’ll see everyone else in the next issue!