This Week: Robot Carnival and Neo Tokyo
My birthday was Monday (hence the lack of a post then), so outside of maintaining currently airing shows I just wanted to watch Cool Old Stuff I Like with any time that actually went to anime this particular week.
If you enjoy Walt Disney’s Fantasia, love orchestral and/or 1980’s synth music, and creative visions of machines and androids, you will adore Robot Carnival.
Much like Fantasia, I think writing about the whole experience in a singular blob is a bit cumbersome, so it is a better option for me to run down my thoughts on the pieces individually.
Opening (Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Otomo): Getting us situated, a young boy finds a flyer of the titular Robot Carnival in the vast desert wasteland. A darkly humorous short, it gives us our initial bookend as the entertainment machine quite literally blows its way into town, and spares no expense. While a small piece, there are a number of grandstanding bits of detail work here that exist merely to show off and get us into the right visual state.
Franken’s Gears (Koji Morimoto): A classic but elaborately animated story to get things underway, which I think is entirely appropriate. As the name would imply, this is essentially a Frankenstein tale, but with an elderly scientist attempting to give life to a machine over an organic being. It does not really pull any surprises in where the narrative ends up, but, this is a place for lots of animators to play with crazy lighting, wires, shards of broken nonsense and all of the other inane things one would want in a scientist’s laboratory and it all looks fantastic. Our good doctor is himself also of the highly expressive variety, and is a joy to watch finagle around and react to everything.
Deprive (Hidetoshi Omori): A shonen anime boiled down to its barest minimum essentials. Thunderous Music. Big Bad. Explosions. Girl In Danger. Speedlines. Punch Bad Dudes. Key Moment Stillframes. That is not me denigrating it either, but rather complementing it for executing on the genre conventions so well in such a short time frame to tell a complete and airtight story in just a few minutes, all without anyone needing to say a word to each other. The heroic or villainous grandstanding and all the associated things one would think they would be saying is pretty much all processed by what the visuals and music are up to. A very enjoyable and fun short.
Presence (Yasuomi Umetsu): The first of two sections that have real genuine spoken dialogue. The fluidity of animation and the raw number of frames in play here is absolutely mind-boggling, especially when accounting for all the different textures and such they want to throw on top of that.
This short deals in the ideas of the uncanny valley, machines becoming too lifelike, and that sort of thing. But to drive it all home it uses so much aggressive realism of motion, the flow of fabrics and colors, and so on that it actually aims to trigger identical responses in the viewer as that of the main character, that everything looks “off” because it has exceeded the normal bounds of what is and is not considered realistic and intended. It’s a labor intensive but very well realized visual effort, and placed in the lineup at the midpoint to great effect, though I honestly think it would have been stronger without the dialogue.
Star Light Angel (Hiroyuki Kitazume): The shoujo amusement park anime love story. It is the kind of short that really benefits from a second viewing, as once one knows the whole story it does take on an entirely different flavor during the repeat, which shows a lot of care to the direction and storyboard progression taken here. This has an exuberant amount of “80’s” pumping through it, from the synthesizer music to the character archetypes to the laser show and robot visuals, but it isn’t jarring or aggressive in the least bit. It is a warm blanket of appreciation for what can be done with them and wrapped up around the heart of a young girl, and I’m honestly amazed that Kitazume didn’t launch much of a larger Director seat career.
A lot of folks wrangle about what short is the “best” in this collection. I won’t make that particular call given all the parameters, but, I have watched Star Light Angel more than any of the other pieces.
Cloud (Mao Lamdo): The most traditionally “artsy” part of the program. An eternally living robot trudges through the history of the universe, walking in the lower left corner of a framed screen while the backgrounds shift and move to depict various developments over time and the history of man, with some representations for a history that is for now only a potential future. It is all done in a rather sketch-like style, and makes for a relaxed and methodically paced entry after the sweeping whirlwind affairs of the previous piece. The most minimally animated part of the schedule, it aims to give weight and impact to what it selects for purpose.
A Tale of Two Robots—Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion (Hiroyuki Kitakubo): The second and last piece with traditional dialogue. This is the most “cartoony” segment here, even going so far as to pretend it is an episode of something larger and comes complete with a dastardly Snidely Whiplash villain up against a group of kids and teens with gumption. There is an extensive amount of slapstick in play as their two wooden robots try to defeat each other over the historically flavored city, and if you enjoy things like older Hanna-Barbera cartoons or classic animation shenanigans in general you will feel right at home here.
Nightmare [AKA: Chicken Man and Red Neck] (Takashi Nakamura): The final “real” segment of the film, and the one most directly inspired by Fantasia (the “Night on Bald Mountain” section in particular, with some clear visual nods to aspects of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as well). As the sendoff, this is the part with numerous extravagantly designed machines of all creative shapes and sizes running about with lushly fluid animation and booming music. This is the segment that, were you a small child, is the one most geared towards giving a powerful conclusion for mom and dad while also likely scaring the ever-loving daylights out of you as you see the robots do their partying, all while a lone drunken man attempts to escape the hellish situation. It’s a strong way to end, while at the same time giving further tonal difference and variety in the event one was not sold on any of the earlier shorts somehow.
Ending and Epilogue (Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Otomo): We return to the titular Robot Carnival machine, now stuck on a sand dune in a vast and desolate wasteland. As it continues to attempt to chug along and push forwards over the obstacle, it remembers where it has been and how far it has come over the years in bringing joy to millions. This process proceeds up to and through the credits, complete with a post credits sequence wrapping up its story. In closing the book on the film, these bits offer a nice sense of catharsis and conclusion for all ages, particularly after the last short.
Neo Tokyo (Manie-Manie: Meikyuu Monogatari)
A compilation film adapting a few of Taku Mayumura’s short stories from a larger collection, this production allowed new experimental techniques and gave personnel at all levels opportunities to step into different production roles in a controlled and focused environment where steadier hands ran other things.
As with Robot Carnival, I think breaking these pieces up is the best way for me to deliver some short thoughts on them.
Labyrinth labyrinthos (Rintaro):
Rintaro has this tendency to either be amazingly on his game with soaring send-up’s and showmanship in the art of cinema, or instead buried under a pile of collapsed ideas that became far too much to juggle. In that respect, his work here acting as both the framing device for the other two shorts and featuring a big top carnival is thoroughly appropriate in more ways than one. This piece opts to use an elastic, elongated style of consistently shifting shapes and textures to show the lead characters, a young girl and her cat, an experience of fantasy and otherworldly geometries.
Shadows flow like liquids, cardboard cutouts live like people, leashes move with invisible dogs, that sort of thing. It is an enjoyable short though (as well as the final part where these characters return to bookend the film with another bit), with minimal dialogue and consistently enchanting visual flair. Probably my overall favorite of the three on display.
Running Man (Yoshiaki Kawajiri):
If you enjoy the more recent Redline, but have not seen this short film, you really do owe it to yourself to at least check out the Running Man segment. Zach Hugh, the multi-title winning main character of the short, is essentially what Machinehead is making an homage to, as I do not find their similarities coincidental. The entirety of Redline pays respect to this whole aspect of anime from a different era that Running Man at least in part represented. This segment received independent air time in part of MTV’s Liquid Television animation showcase show, and for many kids and teens in the USA would become their introduction experience to Really Awesomely Cool Japanese Cartoons in the 1990’s (Kawajiri productions had that effect on people, especially in regards to video rental store culture).
Dealing in an auto race and a racer’s desperate push to win, Kawajiri gets to focus less on delivering much of a narrative and instead focus on directing detailed machines, the overall motion and sensation of speeds, and attractively lush uses of lights and color. He’s pretty much always had a sense of what he is and is not good at, even at this stage of his career, and one can’t really fault the guy at all for that sense of consistency in vision.
The Order to Stop Construction [AKA: Construction Cancellation Order] (Katsuhiro Ōtomo):
My least favorite part of the movie, but that does not mean it is bad. I really do only mean least favorite. It is gorgeously animated in the number of machines rumbling about in stuttering, choppy ways, which is certainly a colossal task to perform and lovely to watch the result of.
The narrative is essentially a representation of Japanese business culture, as a middle manager attempts to perform a shutdown of a mechanized industrial operation, the gears and personnel of which are far from his actual tangible and immediate command. It is a well executed narrative piece in the space permitted, and contains the most dialogue, which sort of makes it jarring compared to the minimally talky opening piece and the middle section going for voiceovers rather than much of any verbal character interaction, but I can understand the progression choice.
It’s a really swell little piece on its own, so I don’t want to sell it short. This is the Director of Akira before Akira was a released movie, and you’ll notice Katsuhiro Otomo had positions in the Robot Carnival opening and closing segments as well. What could have been a more cold and drone shutdown story instead has a lovely Amazon style aesthetic and an eye for color use and animating small and seemingly inconsequential things just because it reinforces the whole package.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.