The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
While I sat there trying to digest the second installment of the Project Itoh film series, Studio 4°C's Harmony (note: it didn't sit well), I kept remembering a conversation I'd had with its director, Michael Arias, way back when he was involved in production and promotion of The Animatrix. Remember that one? The Animatrix was a rare bird, an anthology film tied to a Hollywood film, steered mostly by Japanese talent, which was both an artistic and commercial success.
Arias, when trying to explain how The Animatrix was conceived and what they were trying to accomplish with it, kept going back to a film he called Manie-Manie. He brightened considerably when I remembered the movie and its US name, Neo Tokyo; it was one of the first big anime anthology films.
Anthology films are an odd and weirdly persistent category. They tend not to be huge successes, simply because their overall quality usually depends on maintaining some sort of common strength between the segments. That can be hard to maintain when a mix of directors, artists, and performers are involved. The champion of anthology films in the west is probably Jim Jarmusch, whose Coffee and Cigarettes, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth are indie cinema touchstones. But there have been plenty of other notable cases, from New York Stories to Creepshow to Four Rooms. There are even western animated anthologies, like Heavy Metal. One of my favorite science fiction films of the 2000s, Impostor, struggled out of the wreckage of an aborted anthology film project. And of course, probably the ultimate expression of anthology filmmaking has got to be Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. I say that both facetiously and in all seriousness; it's weird and dumb, and in its best moments (i.e. the “Smooth Criminal” segment) virtuosic and breathtaking.
So who's the champion of anime anthology films? For my money, it's got to be Katsuhiro Otomo, though Studio 4°C founder and producer Eiko Tanaka is also strong as hell in that regard. Otomo's a pillar of the anime medium, and one that I maintain is still often underrated and overlooked, much like Yutaka Izubuchi. After all, we know all about Otomo's Akira and Izubuchi's recent Yamato 2199, but Izubuchi might be the single most influential mecha designer in the field (just look at how frequently his refined panzer cop “protect gear” design from Jin-Roh is swiped in western media alone) and way back in 1983, years before Akira, Otomo taught a master class in character design for animation in the crucial but weirdly forgettable Harmagedon.
Instead of discussing a few of the best anime anthology films, I'll take a look at each one. After all, there are only, like, nine or ten of them! 1987 is when it all started, which makes sense because that was when Japan's bubble economy was peaking, giving both corporations and consumers cash to spend on any number of foolhardy endeavors, like producing OVAs and buying OVAs. That year gave us both Neo Tokyo, which I contend is still a better title than Labyrinth Tales or Manie-Manie, and Robot Carnival. Katsuhiro Otomo was involved in both productions; for the former, at Mad House, he directed the third segment, The Order to Stop Construction, and for the latter, he chipped in the title sequence.
It's actually interesting to compare the two, because the briefer Neo Tokyo, supervised by Rintaro, opts to tie its segments together via a common storytelling thread, an introductory segment directed by Rintaro himself that serves to bind the others together. Robot Carnival is a little different. (Full disclosure: I wrote an appreciation of the film which you can find on Discotek's DVD release.) In that film, APPP founder and producer Kazufumi Nomura started with a simple common theme: shorts about robots.
In their own way, each of these anthologies would prove very influential. The former is what delivered Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Running Man to the world, both establishing him as a top anime action filmmaker and winning fans around the world. In North America, Running Man was delivered to most viewers via MTV's Liquid Television, itself an anthology TV series. Something about the way Liquid Television deployed its content really made it stick in the memory. When people say “Hey, remember that action segment from Liquid Television…” they're almost always either going to mean Running Man or Aeon Flux. (I'm the only one who remembers Invisible Hands and Dear Mum.) Over a decade later, director Takeshi Koike would cite it as an influence for his World Record segment in the film The Animatrix, and years after that, his Redline would complete the circle.
It's kind of a shame that Running Man is so ascendant, because the other major part of the film, Otomo's The Order to Stop Construction, is also really fantastic, an example of the director working at his “society in breakdown” best as a hapless salaryman is dispatched to a treacherous, robot-manned construction site and thwarted repeatedly by the machines meant to do his company's bidding. It's remarkable to think that Otomo got this done while also finishing up the Akira film and pitching in on Robot Carnival.
Otomo's bit in Robot Carnival is also classic Otomo (the movie's title graphic is actually revealed to be a massive land vehicle that wreaks havoc wherever it goes), but that movie is both more expansive (nine shorts total) and more varied in tone and style. Franken's Gears, directed by the incomparable Koji Morimoto, is probably the most technically accomplished of the film, but for my money the movie's twin pillars are Yasuomi Umetsu's Presence and Hiroyuki Kitazume's Starlight Angel. The former, a character study about a troubled man and his robot companion, is Umetsu at the height of his creative powers, right in the wake of his superb, lurid Megazone 23 Part 2; the latter is probably the best thing Kitazume ever did, which seems a bit tragic; after all, decades later, the guy is still working. But then you see it, and it really is brilliant stuff. Robot Carnival fared particularly well on the American repertory film circuit, where both critics and casual viewers flocked to it. To this audience of fresh faces, fare like Starlight Angel, with its heroic robot taking a beautiful girl on a magical trip through a theme park, must have seemed exactly like what anime ought to be.
The 90s would bring on another Otomo anthology film - Memories. This one's another tidy 3-segment package, led off by Magnetic Rose, a compelling, visually arresting piece of science fiction directed by the aforementioned Morimoto. Interestingly, this time the proceedings weren't anchored by Mad House, but by Studio 4°C. Otomo's still very much in the mix here with his Cannon Fodder, a scathing and uncomfortably humorous critique of war and militirization that depicts an entire society anchored around guns, cannons, and the idea of perpetually laying down fire on an unseen enemy. The best part, however, is the Mad House segment, a brief comedy by Tensai Okamura called Stink Bomb.
I get taken to task a lot for preferring Stink Bomb over Magnetic Rose. The former really is excellent, compelling stuff that also has the bonus feature of introducing the greater animation world to a young talent named Satoshi Kon, who had done what Otomo did and moved from manga to anime production, and who would both write the screenplay and provide setting and character artwork. But what raises Stink Bomb, an energetic action-comedy about a pencil-pusher who accidentally turns himself into a biological weapon, is just how great of a black comedy it is.
The segment has a moment of true magic - one that comes later for some viewers than for others - when you realize that the people collapsing senseless in the face of lab tech Tanaka's odor are in fact dead, so this dopey nerd, who desperately rushes back to Tokyo to get help, is the unwitting center of a mass casualty event. It's incredibly difficult to make a story that is both horrifying and hilarious, like Dr. Strangelove, but Okamura really pulls it off.
That brings is up to The Animatrix, which is probably the first film in this piece that most of you readers will remember seeing recently! It's gotten a bit more exposure than the other anthologies, simply because it was created as a marketing exercise, a direct-to-video tie-in for the extremely successful Matrix film trilogy. In this regard, it would prove exceptionally influential - to this day, direct-to-video sequels, prologues, and side-stories come for movies every season, and The Animatrix is the film that proved this approach would work.
That isn't to say that The Animatrix is a cynical cash-grab, either. Warner Bros. really got everything right on this release - its timing against the Matrix films' release was perfect, it was the kind of thing that home video shoppers wanted, and it's laden with talent and creativity from top to bottom. I viewed it in preparation for this column, and it still really holds up - Koike's World Record and Morimoto's (it's no accident you keep seeing this guy's name) Beyond are really compelling pieces on their own. If anything hasn't stood the test of time, it's Square Pictures' Final Flight of the Osiris, simply because its use of CG looks a bit dated.
The Animatrix was another anthology made with the help of Studio 4°C, so in its wake, maybe it was high time they embarked on an anthology picture of their own. We got that in 2007's Sweat Punch. Well, maybe it's not a “pure” anthology - it's built from shorts that were previously released, so it's more of a package deal. Of all the films I survey here, I'd venture that Sweat Punch is the most “Liquid TV” of the bunch - it's varied in style, a bit scattered in its storytelling, but still endearingly weird and fun. It's got a punk rock SF story from Osamu Kobayashi, a mecha tale that evokes nothing quite so much as An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and a bit with a boy's pet robot that plays kind of like a mirror universe Iron Giant.
But my favorite bit of Sweat Punch is its opener, Prof. Dan Petory's Blues, a zany musical affair featuring a burned-out academic using a hand puppet to explain his bizarre scientific theories about UFOs and weather. Ideally, segments in anthology films like this need to do a good job of combining mood and narrative, and Petory's Blues gets the job done. One of the best things about these anthology films is getting to experience anime that doesn't really feel like anime, and Sweat Punch is jammed with that kind of stuff.
Warner Bros.' Batman: Gotham Knight is interesting to look back on. This anthology was released just as anime crashed up against the rocks as a cultural force in North America; it was fascinating and dismaying to see “anime's top creators!” hastily scrubbed off of all of the marketing materials shortly before release. Of course, “top creators” is relative - the film had established talents like Toshiyuki Kubooka and Hiroshi Morioka directing its segments, but not bigger names like Morimoto or Otomo. It's actually good stuff - it has a wide variety of styles, but still tells a coherent story about Batman's struggle against some of his villains. This is another trend-setter, too - a film tie-in that helped lead the charge towards Warner and DC creating their own animated OVAs, timed to coincide with Warners' superhero movies. I quite like the DC animation OVAs in general, they're cool projects that tend to be half-decent or better, although they've diminished in quality somewhat since the producers opted to start using Moi Animation instead of the artistically superior Telecom Animated Films as their animation unit.
The one dangling talking point in Gotham Knight is a segment called Deadshot. It's particularly striking - the DVD release uses artwork from it - a product of Mad House directed by one of their top action guys. You won't find his name on it, though. I got curious about this, so I went after the executive producer, Gregory Noveck, on twitter for some answers. He pinged me back, but never explained the story in detail. (I don't blame him for this, it's kinda weird to circle back and ask about this stuff a decade later. Which is why I do it all the time!) I eventually got the details from an insider, and typically, it's both more interesting and more mundane than you'd expect. One big thing that looks different: the Japanese DVD cover, which focuses on Bruce Wayne instead of Batman.
By this point, we were in the mid-2000s, and Otomo's films of old were long in the rearview mirror. Someone had to definitively step in, right? Anthologies needed a new standard bearer, and that was Studio 4°C. It made perfect sense - the studio was already renowned for their commitment to experimentation, they'd contributed to anthologies since Memories, and their Sweat Punch was already on the market. So they pressed ahead with another anime anthology, Genius Party.
I absolutely love the first Genius Party's sense of creativity. It's got a segment where a guy chases his own ghost around. It has rocks giving birth to birds, it has a tremendous fart joke, and it has a jaw-dropping dystopian callback to Phoenix 2772. But its best part is Shanghai Dragon, a segment early in the film directed by Shoji Kawamori. I laud these films for being “un” anime, but Shangai Dragon is extremely anime, with its depiction of time-travelers and an alien invasion. But delightfully, the subject of the invasion is a slow-witted Chinese kid, an orphaned 5-year-old who somehow stumbles on and activates a device that makes thoughts into reality. Just for the heck of it, Kawamori slips in a near-perfect countermove to the fabled “Itano circus” missile shower.
What Genius Party lacks is a coherent thematic or stylistic tendency. This isn't a problem in the first film - there's simply too much talent on display - but Genius Party Beyond is noticeably softer, with segments that feel more like ambitious technical exercises than strong pieces of storytelling. The SF story Toujin Kit is kind of impressively bleak, but the clear standout is Wanwa the Doggy, by auteur animator Shinya Ohira. Here, he unleashes the raging id of a small child, depicting the adventure of a kid and his dog as if it was a stream-of-consciousness Little Golden Book. It's good stuff. If you're in the US, you can watch the Genius Party films on Netflix and judge for yourself.
2010 would bring us more Studio 4°C goodness in the form of Halo Legends, another exciting mass media tie-in based on the popular video game tie-in. Halo's franchise management company, 343 Industries, were a lot more happy to embrace the “hey kids, look! anime!” angle than Warner Bros. had been with Gotham Knight, but there was one problem - the whole “anime's top creators!” angle was even less evident here. Oh sure, the segments were still created by Studio 4°C and Toei and Bones, but the shorts were mostly produced by junior talent rather than top names. That's something I often notice with these east-west joints-- the Marvel anime produced by Mad House around this time had that problem-- and it always bugs me. Why can't we get a Guardians of Galaxy anime tie-in directed by Akiyuki Simbo?!
My biggest problem with Halo Legends is that it looks like crap. Alright, that's actually unfair - the film looks OK, but its 2D stylings don't mesh well with the smooth, crisp 3D aesthetic of the games. It also isn't as thematically coherent as the Batman anime. Really, it's only going to be of interest if you're into the Halo mythology. I think that it's interesting product, but something of a missed opportunity for both 343 Industries and Studio 4°C. Perplexingly, it seems to have dropped off of most streaming services; for a while, you couldn't escape the damn thing.
I admire Studio 4°C for their willingness to experiment, and what they achieved with the Genius Party films-- hell, I admire them for their work on that Thundercats reboot, which was way better than it had any right to be-- but how long could they remain the standard-bearer for anthologies? In 2013, Otomo finally answered back with a new film of his own: Short Peace.
Short Peace ain't perfect - somewhat surprisingly, Otomo's own entry, Combustible, is the weakest segment in this anthology - but it's still a big dose of the kind of magic I expect from films like this, packed with visual and narrative surprises. The introductory segment immediately harkens back to Neo Tokyo, with a little girl getting herself into trouble, before launching into a charming tale of the world's most practical exorcist, an 18th-century handyman who frees the troubled spirits inhabiting broken household goods by simply repairing the stuff. Otomo's Combustible, another period piece about a doomed romantic couple whose life literally goes up in flames (twist: he's a firefighter) is visually striking, but conventional. Gambo, a tale of a girl who enlists the help of a strangely friendly lost polar bear to battle a demon, is both adorable and relentlessly brutal.
What caps Short Peace off magnificently is Farewell to Weapons, a segment based on an old Otomo manga and directed by Hajime Katoki, the mecha designer who made Gundam cool again. (Gundam was still cool, he just modernized it.) Katoki's vision of Otomo's manga is terrifying and hilarious-- it's a tale of futuristic warfare in a bombed-out Tokyo, as heavily armored human fighters square off against relentless automated weapons platforms. What's chilling about this story is how similar modern warfare already is to what Otomo and Katoki depict; just like in the story, we already have drones, and remote control vehicles, and gun cameras, and airstrikes driven by laser pointers. Fittingly, the story starts with a full unit ready for combat, and ends with a freaked-out last survivor waving a warhead at an indifferent robot enemy. Note to anime creators: please adapt more 80s SF manga for current TV and film projects!
Short Peace also boasts one additional segment - a video game! Leave it to Otomo to get creative. I would've given the game, a platformer called Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day, a whirl, but I don't have a Playstation 3. Happily, we live in a world of You Tube walkthroughs, so I was still able to sample it that way. With Short Peace, Otomo reclaims the title of anthology anime champ, to the point that I had to double-check his bona fides to make sure he wasn't somehow involved in the production of Genius Party, too.
I hope we see more short-form anime anthologies like Short Peace, and Genius Party, and Neo Tokyo. These projects provide creators with alternative means to tell stories, which is necessary; way back in the 1970s, Osamu Tezuka noticed how prevalent cheap, goofy TV anime was getting, and fearing this form taking over entirely, he started pumping out ambitious short films left and right. I'm glad that creators continue to follow his example, and it's paid off-- after revisiting these films, I have to point out one thing: Running Man might be the single most influential eleven minutes of Japanese animation in the entire medium. Agree? Disagree? Seek the film out and try it for yourself, and talk about your favorite anime anthology in the comments.
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