a white face with white hair fanned out in every direction
An image from Angel's Egg. Courtesy Facets

There was a time when I would talk to people in the U.S. about anime and I’d get one of two responses: either a slightly orientalizing over-enthusiasm, or a blank stare, usually followed by the suggestion that surely animation was for children and not serious moviegoing adults. Thankfully, that era is behind us. From all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films streaming on HBO Max to English-language live-action adaptations of shows like Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, anime has entered the cinematic mainstream. 

If there’s one quibble I have, it’s that in the U.S., with a few exceptions, it’s hard to watch anime on the big screen, where the animation has a chance to become so vivid it almost swallows its viewer. (I write this from Tokyo now, with imminent plans to see Masaaki Yuasa’s most recent film Inu-Oh at a movie theater tomorrow night.) But this month, Chicago filmgoers are lucky enough to experience not one but four genre-defining anime classics on the silver screen as part of Anime Auteurs, a series put on by Facets. 

To begin with is a Mamoru Oshii double feature, starting with his seminal 1995 film masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. A tightly wound sci-fi thriller, the film follows the story of a government agent named Major Motoko Kusanagi. It’s 2029 and she is trailing something or someone known as “the Puppet Master” that infects humans with a computer virus. In a way, this may be both the most straightforward and the most subtle of the offerings. Oshii uses the archetypal mystery to ask questions about the nature of life—who is alive and who gets to decide? Here is a film that not only changed the course of anime but altered film as a whole; viewers may recognize sequences in the film that inspired live action classics like the Wachowski sisters’ Matrix trilogy. (In Japanese with subtitles, 83 min.)

Following Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is a lesser known film called Angel’s Egg. A collaboration with Yoshitaka Amano, this film sharply contrasts the narrative drive of Ghost in the Shell, dwelling instead in imagistic meditation. Awash in blue, gray, and creamy off-white, in a way the plot of this film is timeless and simple: girl meets boy. Of course, one must then factor in the foggy decrepit future setting, the mysterious egg the girl is protecting, and the questionable motives of the boy she comes across. There is also very, very little dialogue, a feature which in other films may cause confusion but in this one allows the viewer’s own imagination to roam free within the frame. (In Japanese with subtitles, 71 min.)

Of all the films on display at Facets, Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game is the only film I do not have prior viewing experience or a screener for, so I can’t say much except that the trailer looks incredible. (And if you’ve seen Japan Sinks: 2020 on Netflix, he directed that, so you may have an idea of the kind of precise, devastating work he’s capable of.) Mind Game also takes a simple premise—a feckless man has a crush on his childhood sweetheart—and turns it inside out. In this case, the man dies, which catalyzes a series of metaphysical transformations which Mind Game illustrates by employing several sharply contrasting types of animation. (In Japanese with subtitles, 103 min.) 

Anime Auteurs screening series
​​Ghost in the Shell: Friday, June 3, 7:30 PM
Angel’s Egg: Friday, June 3, 9:30 PM
Mind Game: Friday, June 17, 7 PM
Paprika: Thursday, June 30, 7 PM
Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton
; $12 general admission, $10 Facets members; facets.org/programs/anime-auteurs

Finally, there’s Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a poignant, heart-expanding mind-whirling film that follows a psychoanalyst who uses a device called a DC Mini to enter her clients’ dreams. There, she transforms into her alter ego known as Paprika, who must act to stop a group of terrorists who are making people go insane by twisting their dreamscapes. (If the story sounds familiar, it may be because Christopher Nolan’s Inception was inspired by and/or borrows heavily from Kon’s film.) Ambitious, fast-paced, endlessly entertaining, and thought-provoking in equal measure, Paprika helps elucidate the boundary between reality and fantasy, asking us to think deeply about the moments in our day-to-day life that are rooted in our subconscious. The film is especially bittersweet when considering it was Kon’s last full-length feature before his sudden death from pancreatic cancer, acting as a fabulist taste into what the future of animation may have held if only he had been with us for longer. (In Japanese with subtitles, 90 min.)

Taken together, Oshii, Yuasa, and Kon’s work all showcase how cutting edge animation can be, precisely because it is not bound by the dreary laws of physics. Here, in these hand- and digitally drawn worlds, timelines overlap, worlds warp, and dreams become reality. Perhaps it’s the singular power of animation and anime that, because it is not bound by the particulars of the everyday, it can ask fundamental questions of our existence through fantastic universes and provocative stories.