The 1995 animated cyberpunk film Ghost in the Shell is a touchstone of Japanese animated cinema, and one of two movies (the other being Akira) that crossed over and stoked interest in cyberpunk anime in the U.S. Set in the fictional Japanese “New Port City” in 2029, Ghost in the Shell succeeded thanks to a level of realism and fine detail Americans hadn’t seen in many animated films. The backgrounds, in particular, created an overcrowded urban landscape, with signage everywhere and a dingy gray palette.
The backgrounds aren’t necessarily “backgrounds” — they are very deliberately used on their own to set the mood in Ghost in the Shell. Often the cityscapes linger on the screen with few, if any, signs of human life, while mournful music plays.
The visionary who gave Ghost in the Shell its look was art director Hirosama Ogura. And the city that inspired him wasn’t Tokyo, but Hong Kong. “The story of Ghost in the Shell goes from this deteriorating urban landscape towards these high-rise buildings,” he told the Guardian. “So we had that in mind based on what we saw in Hong Kong. We really wanted to capture that feel. … When we made the film, Tokyo didn’t have so many high-rises at all. That didn’t exist back then, but if you went to Hong Kong … to actually have a visceral image you could work with, you actually had to go there.”
Ogura’s Ghost in the Shell background paintings, done by hand with pencils and watercolor, were recognized for the art they are in “Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan,” an exhibition that opened in 2017 at London’s House of Illustration, and traveled to Australia and the U.S.