Old School
Robot Carnival

by Mike Crandol, Mar 9th 2003
Last month we took a look at Giant Robo and anime's obsession with robots. Nothing says action quite like supercharged metal warriors duking it out for the future of mankind, eh? But Japan's mecha mythology is not limited solely to crusades for justice and deeds of derring-do. Way back in 1987 a small anime house known as Studio A.P.P.P. undertook an unusual endeavor. Assembling some of the top talents in the industry, borrowing a page from Walt Disney and taking a huge artistic gamble, A.P.P.P. gave the world Robot Carnival, and elevated the robo-mythos to the realm of fine art.

Anime's answer to “Fantasia”, the program consists of eight unrelated animated segments, each directed by a different anime master and employing a wide variety of artistic styles. Their tone also varies wildly from piece to piece: abstract expressionism, cartoonish comedy, somber tragedy, biting satire, gothic horror, and even your standard sci-fi action-adventure….all of these and more are touched upon during a breathtaking 90 minutes that adds up to a glorious celebration of anime's potential please the eye, stimulate the brain, and touch the heart. And like it's inspiration, Robot Carnival does all of this almost exclusively without the aid of spoken dialogue, conveying its power through purely visual and musical means. Where Disney had Leopold Stokowski, much of Robot Carnival's music is provided by Jo Hisashi, the great composer who has supplied the scores to almost all the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

The order of the film's segments varies in each of its releases. When Streamline Pictures first brought it to the west in the early 90s there was some reshuffling done in an attempt to better pace the film. The Streamline and subsequent Best Film and Video VHS release bumps the excellent “Franken's Gears” further back in the order, a dubious choice since this moves Robot Carnival's weakest pieces to the fore. Nonetheless, as this is the version that hit American shores, this is order in which we will examine the film.

The show starts out with a brilliant title sequence courtesy of Katsuhiro Otomo, one of only a handful of animated projects he has personally directed. Like his masterpiece, Akira, the opening of Robot Carnival is a fully-animated effort featuring Disney-quality artwork. In this short Terry Gilliam-esque piece, a primitive agrarian village is trampled and decimated by none other than the movie's title logo. A gargantuan “Robot Carnival” marquee on tank treads that resembles a Jawa transport careens through the town, demolishing the homes of the terrified residents and any people unfortunate enough to be in the way. Festive music plays and fireworks spew forth from the behemoth, as do countless exploding robot ballerinas, all apparently in the interest of spreading good cheer. The ensuing chaos is only a side effect of a misguided attempt to bring joy to the masses, and after the village is utterly destroyed the logo continues on its merry way in search of more unfortunate souls. Though brief, this is possibly Otomo's most enjoyable animated work, with a deliciously black sense of humor and a thought-provoking punch line.

From there, the North American version of the film moves on to “Starlight Angel”, directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume. This is pure fluff, and if parallels are drawn to Disney's Fantasia this is the equivalent of that movie's saccharine “Pastoral Symphony”. Two stereotypical saucer-eyed anime girls at a futuristic theme park encounter a gangly robot that falls in love with the younger of the pair, and takes her on magical journey through some kind of bizarre metallic dimension of happiness. The animation is of average quality and is not enough to merit sitting through such a sickeningly sweet display, and matters are not helped by goofy synthesizer theme music that sounds just like the intro to the old NES Final Fantasy game. This is easily the weakest of Robot Carnival's offerings.

Mao Lamdo's “Cloud” is the most abstract segment. There is no plot, only a small android child walking forever in place against the wind as clouds roll by. A sunny day gives way to a fierce thunderstorm, but the little robot continues his solemn march. Eventually the storm passes and the sun returns to greet the steadfast trooper. Like “Starlight Angel”, “Cloud” suffers from uninspired music and animation. As the protagonist marches on, the clouds morph to assume various shapes, but there is no actual animation during the transitions; the cloud-formations merely fade in an out. It makes for somewhat tedious viewing but delivers an uplifting message about the value of perseverance.

The last of Robot Carnival's more humdrum installments is known simply as “Deprive”, directed by Hidetoshi Ohmori. A derivative sci-fi action set-piece, it is nonetheless the only piece that shows robots doing what robots do best: shooting lasers and battling for the destiny of the human race. The cyborg protagonist has a lot of the Terminator in him, and his dystopian future world owes much to the filmmaking of James Cameron and Ridley Scott. The standard rescue of a damsel-in-distress from an evil warlord and his robotic henchmen is nothing to get excited about, but this fast-paced shoot-'em-up is more entertaining than "Starlight Angel" or "Cloud".

With Koujio Morimoto's “Franken's Gears” we get our first real glimpse of the film's potential. The future director of the acclaimed “Magnetic Rose” sequence of “Memories”, Morimoto crafts a delightfully macabre retake on the famous scene in “Frankenstein” when the mad scientist gives his creation life. However this creature appears to be more machine than flesh and blood. But when the doctor shows more affection for the tools that breathed life into the monster than the monster itself, the creature demonstrates a very human emotional reaction. Fairly dripping with atmosphere, the richly detailed backgrounds evoke a classic horror film mood. No lavish animation trick was spared for this production, and like the title sequence, the character animation is incredible, but is accompanied by loads of effects animation and multiplane camera shots. It's somewhat light on plot, but visually it is one of anime's richest accomplishments to date.

“Presence”, directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, is widely regarded as the strongest of the film's segments. It is certainly the most fully realized and the most touching, but its muddled moral prevents it from being the great work of art that some proclaim. At 15 minutes this is Robot Carnival's longest segment, and one of only two that feature spoken dialogue. In a futuristic Europe that resembles something out of H.G. Wells, a young inventor secretly constructs an android in the image of a beautiful girl. But upon her completion he is frightened of her uncanny lifelike quality. When she begins to exhibit emotions and to see through to her creator's own inner psyche, he destroys her. Years later the inventor, now an old man, is haunted by visions of the android girl. While emotionally moving, the piece never makes it clear just what the girl represents to her creator. The old man appears to regret his earlier actions, but he is not afraid of the ghostly visitor, and does not seem to fear punishment for past sins. “Presence” is also weighed down by some awkward artwork. The unnamed android is a beautiful vision, but the male characters feature a grotesque design that makes them decidedly unappealing. The quality of animation is good but not up to par with “Franken's Gears” or the title sequence. In the end, “Presence” is a strong work of animation, but fails to live up to the hype.

Despite its goofy tone and limited animation, “A Tale of Two Robots” is truly Robot Carnival's most impressive accomplishment. This masterful satire, subtitled “Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion!”, was directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, since then the most prolific of Robot Carnival's directors. Later Kitakubo's efforts include the excellent Roujin Z and Blood: The Last Vampire. “Tale of Two Robots'” 19th century backdrop presents us with Japan's historic first Giant Robot battle, a hilarious steampunk parody of the genre and a clever sendup of Meiji Restoration-era fears and sentiments regarding contact with the outside world. When “the celebration of the construction of the new harbor” is threatened for no particular reason by “strange foreigner” Johnathan Jameson and his giant wooden robot, the locals band together in their own steam-powered robot to fight back. A seminal sentai group, the operators consist of a hotheaded leader, his spunky girlfriend, the dimwitted lug and the shrimpy smart kid. The two hulking creations barely move and do more damage to the town than to each other. There are tons of brilliant little visual touches; for example, when a tsunami topples both of the mechanical monstrosities, a floating kanji appears over the leader's head, which is mirrored by a letter “A” overtop of Jameson's equally surprised face. Marginally victorious, the hometown heroes strike a gallant pose as the sun sets behind them in a perfect recreation of the Japanese flag. These hilarious antics are made even more sidesplitting by Streamline's inspired English dub, which is atrociously bad….on purpose. The rushed, monotone, and obviously phony Japanese accents are a dead-on spoof of the horrendous dubbing found in old Kung-Fu flicks and early anime imports. The artistic license taken with the dub would be inappropriate for most productions, but the chop-socky dialect is a perfect fit for “Tale of Two Robots'” self-mocking, uber-patriotic tone.

The film's final piece is also its most blatant homage to its forerunner, “”Fantasia”. Known as “Chicken Man and Red Neck” in its native country, the North American release gives Takashi Nakamura's ghoulish robot fantasy the simple yet descriptive title “Nightmare”. It takes obvious inspiration from two of Disney's animated classics, the “Night on Bald Mountain” finale of Fantasia as well as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. As night falls on a bustling Japanese metropolis a mechanical version of Bald Mountain's demon Chernabog calls forth an army of misshapen robotic minions, who cover the city in a profane dance of worship to their overlord. The sole human witness to the evil spectacle is an Ichabod Crane-ish drunk; in his desperate attempt to escape the possessed city on his little motorscooter he is pursued, Headless Horseman style, by a red-cloaked robot that resembles "Mystery Science Theater's" Crow. The chase eventually leads to the clutches of the master robot himself, but dawn's approach sends the mechanical wraiths back whence they came, and our hero is left to wonder if it were all an alcohol-induced dream…until he notices the telltale destruction which still covers the cityscape. “Nightmare's” animation is even better than “Franken's Gears'” or the title sequence's, which is to say it is among the very best to ever come out of Japan. Like its Disney muses, the sequence is thoroughly creepy yet possessed of a wry sense of humor. This show-stopping number is better than the more highly acclaimed “Presence” and is every bit as enjoyable as “Tale of Two Robots”, and Robot Carnival goes out with a tremendous bang.

It also goes out with a literal bang, as Otomo returns for a short epilogue in which his monstrous title logo hits a speedbump and falls to pieces. A chunk of debris is picked up by a nomadic wanderer who unwaringly takes it home to his family….to say any more would give away the punchline.

So ends one of anime's most ambitious and artistically successful projects to date. Sensing its potential, Streamline Pictures made this one of their premiere anime imports in 1992. The following year saw a dubious reissue of the film by Best Film and Video; both releases are long out of print and are highly sought after by collectors. The Streamline version has all but vanished from the collectors market, and when the rare copy pops up on eBay it often sells for upwards of $50. The Best Film release is not so scarce and can be purchased at Half.com for $29.95, however take note this version is recorded in SLP format and has poor picture quality.

Don't despair; the long wait for a DVD release may soon be over. Though they have been talking about a release since 2001, Super Techno Arts stated in a press release early this year that the film would see the light of DVD before the end of 2003. As anyone who follows the anime industry knows, this is hardly a guarantee, but with any luck the Robot Carnival will be coming to your town again real soon. Better take cover.

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