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A Look at Redline with Takeshi Koike

by Roland Kelts,

There are many things that can be said about the 21st Century anime industry in the face of increasing economic uncertainty, and chief among them is that it has become risk-averse: Cute girls doing cute things, shonen heroes' journeys aplenty and enough fanservice-laden romantic comedies to flesh out a feast, all doing reliable business. While all that comfort food can be tasty and satisfying, when's the last time you got excited about an anime title that felt new and challenging--where the artistry on display made you feel like you were experiencing something special for the first time?

Some of the biggest buzz around anime in Japan over the past few years has been generated by the latest big-bang feature release from Madhouse productions. It's called Redline, and fans from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Europe who saw its debut screenings over the past year are issuing giddy yawps of approval, online and off. Having finished its theatrical run in New York City, Redline will be released in North America on DVD and Blu Ray on January 17.

Author and seasoned anime aficionado Tim Maughan sums up the bulk of the critical responses in a single unvarnished line: “Redline looks like nothing you've seen before.”

Five years ago, the staff at Madhouse, one of Japan's most adventurous animation studios, sat me down in a screening room in their west Tokyo headquarters. The walls shook to a techno beat as a sequence of spasmodic images blazed across the screen: long sleek race cars burning rubber past elaborate robots and animal-faced aliens; mechanical ships soaring, bursting into flames and smashing into skyscrapers—and, most memorably, contorting humanoid faces with bulging eyes and curdled lips, grimacing and shrieking. The action ended as abruptly as it began: with a slashing crimson silhouette of a drag racer and a thin red band bearing what was then the working title, Redline.

The five-minute trailer soon appeared on the Internet and at successive Tokyo International Anime Festivals. Curiosity swelled. After six years in development, five in production, Redline had its world premiere in the summer of 2009 at the prestigious Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland—beneath the stars and balconies of the Piazza Grande, a 10,000-capacity open-air screening venue in the city's historic central square.

Makoto Murata, a producer at Tohokushinsha, Redline’s global distributor, told me a few days later that the experience was thrilling. “The Locarno screening was a great success. The audio-visual quality of the Piazza Grande was far superior to what one would expect from an enormous outdoor system, and we were all very pleased we decided to premiere the film there.”

which was set for a theatrical release in Japan the following April, is one of a growing list of 21st century Japanese-produced anime features – like Afro Samurai and the omnibus collections, the Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knight – that deliberately target Western audiences. “We really want non-Japanese to see and appreciate this work,” says Takeshi Koike, Redline’s director and chief animator in Tohokushinsha's Tokyo headquarters. “We were thinking of people who don't normally enjoy anime or know anything about it when we came up with the ideas.”

Koike, 42, is among the few still-youthful animation directors in a rapidly aging stable of artists. His work first garnered worldwide attention in the Animatrix’s “World Record”—a dizzying account of an African American Olympic sprinter whose desire to break records leads him to destroy his muscles in a surreal, Matrix-inspired climax.

“I like the idea of finding out who's the fastest and strongest, and it's what I want to do when I make art,” he explains. “I was watching [American sprinter] Maurice Green in the Sydney Olympics. In real time, the athletes look so beautiful and perfect. But when you slow down the footage and watch it scene by scene, you see the extreme expressions on their faces, and sometimes,” he laughs, “they're quite ugly.”

Ugliness is subjective, of course. To veteran film director, screenwriter and illustrator Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea), Koike is “simply the best animator alive in Japan today, bar none.”

Ishii and Koike began collaborating over a decade ago on the edgy, underground film, Party 7. Ishii was immediately drawn to Koike's distinctive style and skills, which he describes as a next-generation cross between the action-oriented bravura of the late Yoshinori Kanada (Galaxy Express 999) and the meticulous design and artistry of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll). “I want to work with him every chance I get,” Ishii tells me. “He's the only animator who's able to realize and execute what I want to express.”

What Ishii wanted to express in his script for Redline is a story that speaks to the hinterlands—specifically, to rural North Americans. Several years ago he stayed with a friend in the flatlands of the American Southwest and discovered a phenomenon jarring enough for a Tokyo urbanite to record. Unlike residents of New York or Los Angeles, rural Americans spent their weekend hours lovingly washing, polishing, and endlessly tinkering with … their cars.

“I call them car ‘maniacs,’ he says, laughing. “They're really in love with their automobiles, so I wanted to create a story that featured really cool cars and fast action. I wanted to make an animated film that wouldn't necessarily be for urban Americans, who already know about anime, but would be attractive to those people in the countryside.”

The result is a film that piles hybrid upon hybrid—a racing movie that blasts into sci-fi apocalypse, as a corrupt alien government seeks to destroy the drivers who dare to compete on their planet. The action is relentless, yet the imagery is packed with sudden close-ups of anatomical grotesqueries—like Lucian Freud on acid, or, if you view Redline as a kind of meta-anime, an anime about the stylized thrills of anime itself, Speed Racer on speed.

At the still center of all this heady overdrive is, improbably, a kind of love story. The very human JP, the story's protagonist, is a “regular, average racing car guy with greased back hair,” says Koike. “He's no one special, but he wants to win. And then he falls in love.” The object of his affection is Sonoshee, a childhood flame who has grown into a cute, well-endowed blond babe and a fearless competitor with a penchant for speed. As the two lovers join forces near the film's explosive, universe-expanding climax, Koike and Ishii take the term “finish line” literally—reminding us along the way that anime can still be one helluva ride.

Roland Kelts will be joining musicians Keiko Matsui and Akiko Yano in addition to writer Ian Buruma at The Global Salon: Cities in Japan this Thursday, January 19th, at The Greene Space in New York City.

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