Anime has come a long, long way since the bad ol' days of the 1980's. If anything in today's anime landscape heralds the coming of anime as a legitimate mainstream artform, it's The Animatrix, a series of nine short films based on the Wachowski brothers' beloved sci-fi franchise, The Matrix. Although America's newest holy science fiction trilogy, thanks to underwhelming word-of-mouth regarding The Matrix Reloaded, is considered ‘spiritually wounded’ (to paraphrase Jeffrey Wells), these nine animated shorts need to be regarded for their importance in the grand scheme of things. Anime has never, ever had this much exposure before; here we have Hollywood's hottest writer-directors embracing what was once considered a cultish phenomenon, bringing it into the spotlight. Here we have a DVD that's being given a gigantic marketing push and is advertising the fact that some of the shorts are from the same people responsible for such fan favorites as Cowboy Bebop and Ninja Scroll. There has never been a media climate in America that would have tolerated this release; only now is this possible, and anime fans should celebrate the Wachowski's passion for anime.
That having been said, how do these nine films stack up? The Animatrix is, decidedly, a mixed bag of epic proportions. There are moments of beauty and clarity in this compilation that rival the finest moments in some of the medium's greatest films. There are also moments that are utterly disappointing and aimless, and teeter on the brink of dragging the rest of the films down. Each film must be judged on its own merits, however.
The Final Flight Of The Osiris
The first short on the disc is a collaboration between Square USA, the studio responsible for the disastrous
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and the Wachowski brothers. Intended to be the ‘most vital’ of the nine Animatrix shorts in regards to The Matrix Reloaded, the story follows the heroic and tragic fate of the crew of the Osiris as they race to warn Zion of animpending attack by the machines. The fate of the Osiris and Captain Thaddeus are mentioned several times by Jada Pinkett-Smith's character Niobe in The Matrix Reloaded and in the video game, Enter the Matrix. The short itself, being the centerpiece of the disc, is ironically also the most representative of the collection's quality: mixed. The opening 'They're flirting! They're fighting! They're flirting!' sequence is downright lame, playing out as though it were written by people who have seen a lot of romantic comedies but have never been in love. The action picks up from there, playing out like a montage of cut scenes from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, complete with voiceover work from someone who either is, or sounds a lot like, Steve Buscemi. That's not to say the short is bad (only the dialogue is: “Come git some!” “Lock and load!” “Let's rock!”), it's just not the most stunning thing on the planet and pales in comparison, from a storytelling standpoint, to the next two shorts on the disc. The Final Flight of the Osiris is important if you want to be clued in to the rather nebulous references to it in The Matrix Reloaded, but as a standalone short, it ultimately fails to please.
The Second Renaissance, Parts I & II
The next two shorts, directed by Mahiro Maeda and written by the Wachowski brothers, are the shining gems of The Animatrix and should not be missed by anyone interested in science-fiction, anime, cyberpunk or merely decent storytelling. These two shorts tell the story about what happened to humanity before the events of the first Matrix film, detailing how we became a power source for our captors. The narrative is told by a soothing electronic female voice, and the visuals are lush and captivating. The writing is absolute genius, told with a chilling yet compassionate clarity, gifting the narrator with a kind of programmed sympathy. The images on screen are shocking at times, to say the least. These are, far and away, the most violent and disturbing of the shorts included on the disc. They will no doubt have an impact on the viewer. Here is where the Wachowski's amazingly deep storyline is given a chance to truly shine. While the concept isn't entirely original (nothing is; the Wachowskis themselves have admitted to The Matrix being mostly a love letter to their myriad influences, such as Phillip K. Dick, Willam Gibson, and anime itself), it's presented in such a unique, beautiful, effective and captivating fashion that it's impossible not to fall in love with it. If you purchase The Animatrix, do it for these two shorts. The images contained herein are pure storytelling magic.
Another direct tie-in to The Matrix Reloaded, Kid's Story concerns itself with the obnoxious teenager who kept following Neo around once the crew of the Nebbuchandezzer landed at Zion. This short details his life before Neo opened his eyes to the Matrix, and his thrilling escape from the land of the perpetually hypnotized. The animation is unique, to say the least. Visually, Kid's Story is very dreamlike in appearance, realized as a moving sketch rather than a completed, solid animation. The narrative is fairly routine, but Kid's Story is another ‘good’ moment in The Animatrix. Competent storytelling is bolstered by a mature, almost experimental aesthetic, and it seems to be one of the few on this disc that truly attempts to work outside the typical anime mold. Plus, it's the only short Neo himself appears in, and the second for Carrie Ann-Moss' latex-clad Trinity. Kid's Story is, certainly, a highlight of the disc, whether or not you wanted Agent Smith to personally blow this obnoxious adolescent apart in the film.
Written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Program is, next to Peter Chung's Matriculated, the low point of the disc. Kawajiri is responsible for Ninja Scroll, which, like marijuana, is considered a ‘gateway drug’ (marijuana leading people to harder drugs, Ninja Scroll leading people to anime that doesn't stink.). Nobody ever accused Kawajiri of being a gifted storyteller, and his painfully routine (complete with another 'They're fighting! They're flirting! They're fighting!' sequence) entry in to The Animatrix seems labored. It's as if Kawajiri knew that lots of non-anime fans would be watching this and thus, he should make it as stereotypical as possible. Ninjas, samurai, super-powered badass independent women, random Japanese imagery, lots of pointless fighting, and some of the most unrealistic, ridiculous dialogue ever. The characters talk too much, tell eachother things they already know, and seem to have a discussion they've already had about a million times. The characters look like they were yanked straight out of Ninja Scroll. The animation is nice enough, provided you like Kawajiri's bulky, inelegant design sensibility. His Ninja Scroll TV series is a few big steps ahead of this junk; perhaps he took a screenwriting class between this production and that one.
Animated by the ever-famous Studio Madhouse, responsible for such fan favorites as Card Captor Sakura and X, World Record is probably the least visually appealing short on the disc. Again written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it's also the short with the least tie-in to the whole Matrix concept. The story concerns a runner trying to break a world record; he runs so fast that eventually he awakens outside the Matrix, in his pod. He's being followed by agents the entire time, of course; agents with spectacularly bad hair. Everyone has gigantic flapping lips that never really come close to matching their speech; I understand anime has difficulty with lip-synch but this short is somewhat ridiculous. The awkward, ugly character designs, constant use of the fisheye lens, and hideous color palette make World Record possibly one of the most aesthetically disgusting anime productions ever made. The storyline is interesting enough, but seems out of place here. It's about The Matrix, but doesn't seem to have any real connection to the films or explain anything but to suggest that it's possible to exit the Matrix via means other than a computer. An interesting concept, but a horrible vehicle.
Utilizing the visual style found predominantly in Gainax's beloved oddity FLCL, Beyond is yet another high point of The Animatrix. Concerning a ‘haunted house’, which is essentially a run-down tenement where a few lines of Matrix code have gone screwy and caused a number of spatial anomalies, Beyond is playful and entertaining, moreso than almost all of the other shorts. The main character, who shares many of the same design sensibilities as FLCL's chaotic mistress Haruko, shines on screen as a sympathetic, if understandably undeveloped, heroine. Her quest to retrieve her cat leads her to the aforementioned house, which is also populated by a pack of mischievous kids who play around with the abilities granted to them by the Matrix. A few agents show up, there's a couple of nifty animation tricks, and in the end, Beyond is an entertaining and solid addition to the lineup. While not the most deep, involving or connected of the shorts, it does what World Record attempted to do (simply explore the concept of The Matrix rather than tie in to the films), except this time, it's a success.
A Detective Story
Clocking in right behind The Second Renaissance is A Detective Story, a short by Shinichiro Wantanabe, the man behind Sunrise's beloved anime classic Cowboy Bebop. Told in grainy black and white to invoke a noir-ish feel, the short tells the story of a PI on the trail of Trinity, the girl we all know is destined to fall in love with Neo (a dubious fate by anyone's measure; Keanu Reeves can't be that exciting to talk to after a few years). This exciting, atmospheric, beautifully designed and directed short is the second best thing on the disc, and is worth a look by anyone who loves noir film. There's a thrilling train sequence with some agents and a lovely twist ending that wraps up very nicely. As an added bonus, the storyline directly relates to one of the film's most important characters, and thus from a tie-in perspective boosts itself to the ranks of ‘not a complete waste of time’. Wantanabe is a gifted director and his talents shine here. Do not, under any circumstances, skip A Detective Story.
Like him or hate him, enough production companies seem to love Aeon Flux auteur Peter Chung enough to give him work until the end of time. Thus, we are ‘treated’ to Matriculated, Chung's hat in the Animatrix ring. Most people claim to absolutely despise Chung's character designs; Reign: The Obsession of Alexander was not and will never be a fan favorite, so why did the Wachowskis elect him to direct his own sequence? Regardless, the result is a hideous, nonsensical mishmash that makes less sense at the end than it did at the beginning. A group of rogue humans seem to have devised a way to send a robot into its own Matrix, creating a virtual world for the robot to exist in. Why did they do this? What's the purpose? It's never explained. We simply watch Chung's hideous new character designs writhe around and eventually get killed, their disgusting sinewy limbs ripped apart. Eventually the short turns into a kind of bad CG funhouse, with psychedelic colors and crazy characters coming in left and right (Strong Bad fans, feel free to title this short ‘Sweet Cuppin’ Cakes'; it makes about as much sense. An 'Eh, Steve!' appearance would have helped, though.). Yuck. I've seen landfills that were prettier and had better narrative direction. If you're not a completist, you can skip Matriculated and save yourself about 15 minutes worth of complaining to your friends about it.
The DVD also includes a wonderful documentary on anime and attempts to actually educate the public en masse about our most beloved art form. Every anime fan in the world should write the Wachowskis and Warner Home Video and thank them for taking the time to make people actually UNDERSTAND what anime is about. They are trying. This is the first attempt, and it is a huge milestone, something everyone needs to be thankful for. They explain the history and culture of anime in a concise and understandable fashion. If you want your friends and family to understand your hobby, make them watch the first two Matrix films and then get this DVD and watch this documentary together.
In all, The Animatrix is a landmark event for anime fans, one that should be remembered for a long time, not for its relative quality, but for what the release means to anime fandom. This is, perhaps, the most significant anime event since Spirited Away won the Oscar; 2003 is turning out to be a banner year for anime fans. Let's not waste it. Support fandom, support the Wachowskis, support your art form and purchase a copy of The Animatrix.