Buried Treasure
Robot Carnival

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 26th 2006



It's long been said in anime fandom that new fans tend to ignore anything made more than a few years before they caught the otaku bug. I don't think that's quite fair - even the newest anime fans still see Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop.

But that's two shows. And there are thousands of anime, and hundreds domestically released in some way. Some of it is garbage, and there's very little of it that one can honestly say that not seeing it would be "missing out." But, if you look closely, there are little treasures, both polished and unpolished, here and there, strewn about the history of the art form. And I can honestly say that missing them would be a true shame.

So, combining my museum curator instincts with my obsession for collecting obscure media, I present to you my selections of anime masterworks of decades past. It's my hope that this column will help you discover some classics that you otherwise never would have seen.

For various reasons, some of these shows will not be easy to find. Some are long since discontinued in the US market, others were never released. A couple will be so rare that you might need to dig into used LD bins in Akihabara to find them. I realize most people won't do that, but it's my hope that you check out a few of these. And just to make life easier for you, I'll occasionally toss in something commonly available. (Just, overlooked.)

Years ago, when anime fandom was but another zit on the face of the comic book scene, videos of our favorite shows were very hard to get, and very expensive. Finding a show that was truly a classic was like finding a treasure, one we had to snap up quickly, for who knew if we would ever have another opportunity. To generations who never got to experience such a pleasure, I hope I can persuade you to join me. Anime tastes better when you have to work for it.


TODAY'S TREASURE: ROBOT CARNIVAL




"Opening"


For our first voyage into the rare and wonderous, I can think of no more deserving a title than Robot Carnival, a high-budget anthology film from 1987. The roster of talent behind the film reads like a who's-who of anime:

Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy)

Yasuomi Umetsu (Kite, Mezzo DSA)

Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Blood: The Last Vampire, Golden Boy)

Koji Morimoto (Animatrix, Memories: Magnetic Rose)

Hidetoshi Omori (Gundam Seed, Dan Doh!!)

Hiroyuki Kitazume (Gundam: Char's Counterattack, Armitage III)

Takashi Nakamura (Fantastic Children, A Tree of Palme)

Together with fine artist Mao Lamdo, these artists were considered the rising stars of anime, and were asked to each direct a stand-alone short film that would become a segment of a feature. The only limitation for them was that their film, in some way, must incorporate robots.

The centerpiece of the film is the soundtrack (which was domestically released by JVC in 1995). Composed by Jo Hisaishi (Miyazaki's go-to music dude), the soundtrack takes the project's high-tech theme to heart, and opts for an entirely electronic presentation. While this does date the music, it lends a further feeling of surrealism to the project. The 80's was perhaps the only decade where entirely electronic music could still truly be considered "high-art".

Many in the anime industry (in Japan) refer to the 80's as the golden age of anime, and this film is a shining example of why. Here is a film that is, more or less, pure unmarketable art. With a huge budget. And complete creative freedom for a bunch of twenty-somethings. This is the sort of excess that Japan's bubble economy could afford in those days, and probably will never be able to again.

"Starlight Angel"

To really understand HOW high-budget this film is, one must only notice the ridiculously intricate artwork, the obsessive attention to detail, and the smoothness of the animation - which is mostly animated on 1's, or full 24-frames per second. That's something even Studio Ghibli doesn't afford itself. It's a marvel, by today's standards, that no computers were used in its animation process. The added human touch gives it a warmth that we don't see in even the best work being done today.

But what is most interesting is the content itself. What would a young, hard-working artist create from scratch, if given a chance? The results are a somewhat bizarre mish-mash. The easily dismissed episodes from Kitazume ("Starlight Angel") and Omori ("Deprive") take anime clichés and set them to poppy music, MTV style, with only occasional regard to continuity or logic. "Starlight Angel" involves a Cute Girl getting her heart broken at a robot-themed amusement park, only to land in the heroic arms of one of the park's mascots… and together they fight a big mean monster from nowhere! "Deprive" is a testosterone-laden dude saves girl from androgynous villain story. While neither will ever be considered good storytelling, the quality of the animation and music keep them interesting.

Really, the true gems of the collection are the ones that make telling a story their focal point. "Opening and Ending," directed by Otomo with animator Atsuko Fukushima, is probably some of his best tongue-in-cheek satire. In a third world desert country, a village gets word that "Robot Carnival" is coming. Thrust into a panic, the people there take cover. The Robot Carnival is a gigantic cacophony of robotic entertainment and gleeful destruction. Happy spinning ballerinas flutter to the ground, greeting onlookers before detonating and sending said onlookers into the stratosphere. Tank treads reduce the shanty town below it to dust. Had this been made recently, one would think it a political metaphor.

"A Strange Tale of Meiji Machines: Episode of the Red Haired Man's Invasion" is by far the funniest segment of the film.

"Presence"
With a tone somewhere in between a giant robot movie, a world-war II Japanese propaganda film, and a Meiji-era period piece, the short pits a group of teenagers and their wooden robot (made for a festival) against an crackpot invader from the West and his battle robot. However, this being the late 1800's, technology isn't quite ready for giant robots - so as the battle progresses, things just get more and more ridiculous.

Which brings us to Umetsu's "Presence," which is at once haunting and powerful. A toymaker in what looks like a small British town (except with an exceptional number of cyborgs among its population) who retreats daily from his sterile, "perfect" life and his work-obsessed wife to create a playmate for himself. The playmate, who he's crafted to look like a beautiful girl, soon responds to her master's obvious loneliness by admitting that she, too, has such feelings. But the man is disturbed, fearful on a number of levels, and cuts her life short. The regret he carries for this action will last the rest of his life.

The detail in "Presence" will take your breath away. Umetsu's attention to little things, like wrinkles in clothing, reflections in silverwear, and hand motion are at perhaps their most obvious in this piece. The mood is delicate and unforgettable.


"Franken's Gear"


Somewhere in the middle between forgettable and classic are Nakamura's "Chicken Man and Red Neck," a surreal look at the invasion and destruction of Tokyo by its machines seen through the eyes of a freaked out Ichabod Crane type, and Morimoto's "Franken's Gear," a stunning visual account of a mad scientist's attempt to create new life.


Finally, we have Lamdo's "Cloud", which is really the only true piece of modern art in the bunch. It's a quiet, melancholy look at a young innocent robot as he trudges through life (as represented by pencil sketches in the background). More of an experience than a narrative film, Cloud is undeniably beautiful, and is the one piece that can truly be said to work the musical score to its fullest potential.

When I was a teenager, I must admit, I fast-forwarded through "Cloud," unable to appreciate its mood and quiet, cheerful outlook on life. I'm grateful to be able to enjoy it now.

You'll notice I didn't mention the obvious comparison to Fantasia. Although a few segments (namely "Chicken Man")

"Cloud"
seem to have drawn from Disney inspiration, it's really selling most of these segments short, as they go far beyond the slightly amusing storytelling and visual fireworks that Fantasia was famous for. "Franken's Gear" draws on German expressionism of the silent era, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while "Starlight Angel" goes for the sense of fashionable fairy tale love seen in the music video for A-ha's "Take On Me." Other pop culture influences, some obvious and some mentioned in interviews, include Madonna, the 1984 film Streets of Fire (a HUGE hit in Japan) and the Japanese pop megastar Seiko Matsuda, who started the whole über-cute idol craze.

Unfortunately, Robot Carnival is quite difficult to appreciate fully, due to the releases its been given over the years. Streamline Pictures released it in 1991 to a limited number of theaters, then to VHS and a poorly mastered (but bilingual) laserdisc. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, this edition rearranged the films and eliminated a large chunk of Katsuhiro Otomo's tongue-in-cheek ending. Worse, the dubbed version of "Presence" is crammed with so much pretentious, poorly-written film school dialogue that it becomes embarrassing to watch. "Strange Tale of Meiji Machines" (retitled "A Tale of Two Robots") got an amusing intentionally-bad Godzilla-style dub, featuring a much improved British madman and bad Japanese accents on everyone else.

The possibility of an American DVD release seems to dwindle by the day. Producer A.P.P.P.'s seemingly stillborn US division, SuperTechnoArts, announced an inclination to re-release the film many years ago, but their current status is questionable.

In the mean time, one would do well to track down a used copy on VHS or import DVD.

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.


How to get it:

US RELEASE: Streamline Pictures' dubbed/edited VHS version has been out of print for years, but you may still be able to find it used on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.

IMPORT: A very nice Japanese DVD with the Streamline dub and closed captions for the dub (but no real English subtitles) was released in 1999 (including a limited edition version with 104-page booklet), and is now out of print. Used copies are commonly available online through places like Amazon.co.jp and Yahoo Auctions (Japan). Catalog number BIBA-1268

Screenshots ©A.P.P.P. All rights reserved.

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