by Daryl Surat,

Robot Carnival


Robot Carnival Blu-ray
In the 1980s, nine up-and-coming Japanese animators were each given the chance to create a short animated work with “robots” as the general theme. Unlike the numerous other robot-themed anime of the era, these were to be created without giving any consideration to commercial viability, merchandise sales, or what any of the other animators would be doing. The result is what is commonly referred to as “anime's Fantasia”: an incredibly high-quality anthology collection of visually disparate stories ranging in tone from the surreal to the absurd. Universally understandable due to the near-complete lack of spoken dialogue, and now given a high-definition restoration, this masterpiece remains just as captivating over 30 years later.

Many classic anime fans refer to a “golden age” of Japanese animation that roughly coincided with the peak of Japan's bubble economy from the 1980s through early 1990s, and perhaps no single title sums up that ideal more succinctly than 1987's Robot Carnival. Effectively an animation festival style compilation of short films, Robot Carnival features contributions from several individuals who have since become renowned as all-time greats. Comparisons to Fantasia are thus slightly inaccurate, since Fantasia was largely the work of well-established talents. However, both are film anthologies that strove to elevate animation artistically but became financial flops upon release, so for simplicity's sake I'll continue using the analogy! It helps that one of the segments is a direct homage to Fantasia's “Night on Bald Mountain.”

Within the span of about 90 minutes, the nine segments of Robot Carnival provide a diverse display of art styles, narrative tones, and genres that demonstrate Japanese animation's viability as an artistic medium for storytelling. (Note: explosions can be storytelling.) The only commonality they share is having something to do with robots and—with one exception—music by Joe Hisaishi, now best known for composing the music for Hayao Miyazaki's films. The opening credits and “Deprive” are action-packed spectacles in mayhem and destruction. The storybook-like “Cloud” and the hyper-detailed “Presence” are slower and more quietly contemplative. Even the comedy-based segments have variety, as “Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture” (aka “A Tale of Two Robots”) is broad and wacky while “Franken's Gears” and the ending opt for a more darkly humorous and satirical approach. “Star Light Angel” is a whimsical fairytale in an amusement park, whereas “Chicken Man & Red Neck”—well, there's a reason the Streamline Pictures release elected to rename it “Nightmare.”

Discotek Media knows that longtime fans of Robot Carnival were perfectly happy with their earlier DVD release. So for this new Blu-Ray edition, they've produced what is undeniably the greatest edition of Robot Carnival to exist, and since it's region-free, everyone will be able to verify this claim. A widescreen, high-definition restoration was created from the original film materials, and it's never looked better. In addition to now-standard fare such as English or Japanese audio options (note that only two segments have dialogue anyway) and a reversible cover sleeve with different art, you can elect to watch the segments in the original Japanese order or the order they were presented in America when released by Streamline Pictures in the 1990s—not just for their laserdisc/VHS release, but their theatrical release as well! Per the Japanese producers, the presentation order is arbitrary, so this option is purely to satiate otaku nostalgia. Each short includes liner notes detailing behind the scenes anecdotes, a director profile, brief comparison examples of storyboard to screen, along with an art gallery consisting of model sheets, character designs, layouts, and the like. The supplemental features don't stop there, as trailers and photo galleries galore are also provided, including high-resolution scans of rare promotional items such as booklets, posters, the box art for each previous home video release, and other marketing materials such as advertisements, press kits, payphone cards, collectible cards, resin kits, enamel pins, and apparel. (See kids, once upon a time there were phones stationed in public areas that you had to pay to use…)

This is the sort of care that only the most diehard of supernerds could provide. On that note, a newly produced documentary is also included: “The Memory of Robot Carnival: A Look Back at the History of the Classic Anthology,” narrated by Anime News Network's own Mike Toole and written/directed/edited/produced by Anime News Network's own Justin Sevakis! Featuring an interview with Streamline Pictures co-founder and animation historian Jerry Beck, who these days is the editor of the exceptional, it offers not only insight into the animation's production, but a glimpse back at what it took to get anime into American theaters, store shelves, and airwaves roughly a quarter century ago. One thing that hasn't changed is seeing that the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle panned Robot Carnival at the time; these days he's the one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes saying In This Corner of the World is bad.

Speaking as someone who's bought Robot Carnival multiple times over the decades, owns the soundtrack CD and the “Masters of Animation” trading cards, there is no doubt in my mind that this Blu-Ray release is the definitive edition. Newer fans may find it a curiosity though, as the character designs and synthesizer music might turn you away unless you have an affinity for the 1980's aesthetic. While most consider “Presence” the best, please join me, a truly enlightened scholar, in hailing “Star Light Angel” as the greatest standout of Robot Carnival, for it not only embodies the greatness of the “Take on Me” vibe of the 1980's, but it also reiterates a lesson that 21st century anime fans would do well to remember, which is “never put your trust in Char Aznable lookalikes, for their inherent Char-ness will make them definitely betray you.”

Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : B-
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A

+ An unprecedented animation tour de force from a team of young artists given creative autonomy to do whatever they wanted entirely for the sake of itself
Segments are hit-or-miss with so much disparity in tone and visuals

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Production Info:
Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Hiroyuki Kitazume
Mao Lamdo
Koji Morimoto
Takashi Nakamura
Hidetoshi Oomori
Katsuhiro Otomo
Yasuomi Umetsu
Hiroyuki Kitazume
Mao Lamdo
Takashi Nakamura
Katsuhiro Otomo
Yasuomi Umetsu
Storyboard: Katsuhiro Otomo
Isaku Fujita
Joe Hisaishi
Masahisa Takeichi
Character Design:
Atsuko Fukushima
Hiroyuki Kitazume
Mao Lamdo
Koji Morimoto
Takashi Nakamura
Hidetoshi Oomori
Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Yasuomi Umetsu
Yuji Ikehata
Mao Lamdo
Kenji Matsumoto
Hiroshi Sasaki
Yuji Sawai
Yui Shimazaki
Akira Yamakawa
Nizo Yamamoto
Animation Director: Yasuomi Umetsu
Sound Director: Yasunori Honda
Director of Photography: Toshiaki Morita
Producer: Kazufumi Nomura

Full encyclopedia details about
Robot Carnival (OAV)

Release information about
Robot Carnival - Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray)

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