The Mike Toole Show
Cool Runnings 2049
by Mike Toole,
There was a brief period of time in the early 2000s when anime was cool. It wasn't just cool with dorks like me and you, the true tastemakers, but also cool with the general entertainment-consuming public in North America. Anime movies like Metropolis and Spirited Away were getting nationwide theatrical releases, Gundam toys were at Toys R Us, and the medium was all over TV airwaves, from Saturday mornings to late nights. Big ideas and big bucks were getting thrown around, and for both fans and creators, there was a crackle of excitement in the air. It didn't last, of course—nothing does. By the mid-2000s, mainstream entertainment channels had moved on, a wave of mediocre shows saturated the market, and the big DVD bust got underway.
But these things are always cyclical, right? Now, in 2017, anime is cool again. It's back, baby! Wanna know how I know this? It's because of a little thing called Blade Runner: Blackout 2022.
Blackout 2022 is a lark, a 15-minute bridge between the original Blade Runner film, a movie widely disparaged on its release in 1982 that would go on to become one of the most influential movies of all time, and its sequel, which is set for release in a week or so. There's been some moaning and groaning about the prospect of a sequel to a movie like Blade Runner; after all, if they can make a sequel to any old classic film, when will they stop? Does this mean we'll end up with Lawrence of Arabia 2 and Casablanca 2? But I kinda love it when weird sequels and reboots like this come up, simply because I don't think anything oughta be sacrosanct. Also, the long trend of unwanted reboots and sequels is busily eating itself thanks to bad box office performances (somehow, the half-billion dollars in global takings that Transformers 5 earned wasn't enough for investors!), and if Blade Runner 2049 doesn't pan out, it'll hasten the end of the cycle and we can move on.
I'm digging on Blackout 2022 because it does the one thing that many of these big media east-west collaborations fail to do: it utilizes high-level talent, and it shows. Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe both writes and directs this brief action piece, which is all about how the original Blade Runner's dreary shithole of a future is drawn out and perpetuated for its sequel. He's backed by an all-star team of animators, including legends like Mitsuo Iso and Hiroyuki Okiura, and a character from the original film, voiced by their original actor, even has a little appearance. The result is a little piece of animated dynamite, the perfect tonic to last month's perplexing, absurd Neo Yokio.
This isn't the first time that a big Hollywood film property has leveraged Japanese animation talent to expand its reach. In 2008, a new animated TV series directed by one of the medium's great legends debuted, and it was based on a high-octane action/sci-fi film from 2006 that… was widely panned and flopped badly at the box office. I'm speaking of Ultraviolet Code 044, based on Kurt Wimmer's 2006 Milla Jovovich vehicle Ultraviolet. This was an incredibly weird piece of work, being based on a mediocre movie by a schlocky film director, but it was directed by the legendary Osamu Dezaki, with frequent collaborator Akio Sugino in tow. It could've been good!
After having seen this series, I will contend that it's at least better than its source film, a wretchedly incoherent thing with a heroine racing against time to save the world before she inevitably dies, the little kid that she has to race against time to save before he inevitably dies, and a scheming bad guy who works to enact his nefarious plans before he inevitably dies. She's fighting people with a disease that turns them into vampires, but then she finds out that maybe the anti-vampire people are the bad guys… yeah, skip it. The TV series takes a few building blocks—a blood-borne disease, cool sharp swords, and a character that looks like Milla Jovovich—and moves off in its own direction.
In Ultraviolet Code 044, you can forget Neo Yokio; the story here takes place in Neo Tokio, a vast, glittering city floating in space. Heroine 044 is a clone of Milla Jovovich's character from the original (her name was Violet, get it?!), employed by the city's government to hunt down people infected with the Phage virus, which makes them stronger but also vampires. This guarantees that there's at least one cool sword fight per episode, along with all of Dezaki's usual visual tricks, like split screens, glowing light, triple-takes, and that cool “harmony” thing he does when the screen freezes and turns into a painting. Anyway, 044's government handlers are obvious bad guys, so she inevitably ends up forming an uneasy partnership and romance with Luka, a young leader in the Phage group.
In Japan, Ultraviolet Code 044 was positioned as a 10th anniversary exclusive series for Animax, Sony's cable TV anime station, but in the west, it kinda landed with a thud, quietly appearing on streaming services like Crackle and only going to print-on-demand DVD, along with a bunch of other orphaned Sony anime TV series like Viper's Creed and Kurozuka. The dub features mid-2000s big-in-Japan rocker Becca, who does a perfectly solid job as 044, along with turning in the OP and ED songs. I'd direct you to go check it out on Hulu, at least as a curiosity, but it's not there anymore. Remember, folks, that these streaming services are not archives—they're channels, and the shows on channels inevitably get canceled and replaced. So save everything!
To really understand Blade Runner: Blackout 2022 and what it means to have anime be cool again, you gotta go all the way back to 2003, when Spirited Away was in theaters and the long-awaited sequel to The Matrix was about to premiere. To tie in with their blockbuster sequel, the Wachowskis had a cool idea—they'd get together a group of nine animators, with one vision. Yep, just like Robot Carnival, these animated visionaries would team up and make a thematically linked anthology movie, only this time it was all about the world of The Matrix.
The Animatrix, as it was called, was both an artistic and a commercial success, one that boomed on home video charts in the US and even got theatrical release in much of the rest of the world. It showcased both legends like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Koji Morimoto and emerging talents like Takeshi Koike and Andy Jones. (Scoff if you want to, but Jones is now known as Andrew R. Jones, animation supervisor on blockbuster films like The Jungle Book.) The movie occupies this weird sweet spot where seemingly everyone involved was just perfectly in sync—it hangs together really well, and complements the original Matrix movie better than either of its eventual sequels would.
In The Animatrix, we get to see Final Flight of the Osiris, a fluffy but extravagantly pretty short that expertly uses the cutting-edge animation tools developed for that weird CG Final Fantasy movie to link the first and second Matrix movies together. From there, it's on to Mahiro Maeda's Second Renaissance (split into two parts only because of an earlier release plan that was scrapped, so I guess this movie is actually about eight animators with one vision). Maeda's work is nakedly dystopian and apocalyptic, telling the tale of humanity's creation and oppression of robots, the long cycle of conflict that happens when the robots successfully create their own society alongside humankind's, and their eventual takeover of the planet. It's fascinatingly evocative and creepy, starting with a single robot's rebellion (anyone else notice that the robot's designation was B166ER?!) before snowballing into the near-total eradication of the human race. Maeda's had a really impressive career, but this might be the most interesting thing he's ever done.
The Animatrix also has not one but two Shinichiro Watanabe-directed shorts, so I guess it's actually seven animators with one vision. My bad. One of those shorts, Detective Story, has visuals by Kazuto Nakazawa, who'd sneak some cool Hollywood anime in later in the decade by directing that one bit of Kill Bill that was animated. The other one, Kid's Story, feels a bit Masaaki Yuasa-esque, mainly because one of Yuasa's merry men, Shinya Ohira, provides animation direction. Interestingly, both shorts use notes from the Wachowskis for their stories, but are largely written by Watanabe. This is true of the majority of The Animatrix; there's no weird directives or script notes from Warner Bros. present, just pure talent on show.
The rest of the film's shorts—Yoshiaki Kawajiri's fine Program and Koji Morimoto's astounding Beyond—are first-rate, but something about both World Record and Matriculated really stand out. The former, directed by Takeshi Koike, is remarkably stylish and distinctive for its time, but if you stack it up next to his later films like Redline and Lupin the 3rd: Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone, it all makes sense. Its themes echo Kawajiri's old short The Running Man, and for good reason—Kawajiri wrote both shorts! You may also notice that the main character's coach, Tom, looks like a certain actor. I love weird cameos like these.
Matriculated, courtesy of Peter Chung, strikes me as the most outstanding short in the collection. I used to tip Morimoto's piece, but looking back, Chung's offering isn't just impressive for his unique style, but in its marked difference in tone and message than the other shorts. Here, his sinewy, muscular heroine battles the robot occupation—not to kill, but to capture, and hopefully persuade her prey away from the antagonists' forces.
In researching this column, I obviously went back and re-watched The Animatrix, because I don't think I'd seen it since the mid-2000s. I also went back and re-read my 2003 interview with Michael Arias, (don't forget part 2) who'd go on to direct his own anime films, Tekkonkinkreet and Harmony. It's kind of amazing, in retrospect—Arias both foresaw the medium's sagging fortunes in the later 2000s, and talked of the Wachowskis' early desire to premiere the movie online, via streaming. They didn't do it, because there was no platform and no way to monetize their production. That's certainly changed, hasn't it? I think that The Animatrix delivered the most out of any of the Matrix sequels, and that the Wachowskis need to make more anime, now that there are many different ways to sell it. If they want to do a kickstarter for an anime sequel to Jupiter Ascending, I'm in, baby!
It's also worth mentioning that specifically because of The Animatrix's success, Universal nakedly tried copying the whole “animated tie-in” approach, mostly as a marketing exercise. It yielded mixed results. Peter Chung was enlisted to direct Dark Fury, which is a perfectly fun and satisfying bridge between Vin Diesel's breakout Pitch Black and his grand, ridiculous Warhammer 40k fanfic Chronicles of Riddick. But they also produced a dreary, awful OVA tie-in for Van Helsing, the first of many sad, fruitless attempts by the studio to create a Universal Monsters movie franchise.
It wasn't just Universal, either. In the later 2000s, Warner Bros. were having some success producing and releasing stuff direct-to-video, including Lost Boys sequels and new stand-alone DC Comics cartoons. Sensing an opportunity, they timed their release of The Dark Knight to coincide with a new Batman movie—one featuring several Japanese directors, with their shorts linked by theme and story. One key difference: by the time this Batman release, Gotham Knight, happened, anime wasn't cool anymore; the film's directors and origins as anime aren't mentioned in the marketing materials. Nevertheless, both the US and Japanese versions of Gotham Knight take some obvious steps to tie it up to the Christopher Nolan movie.
Yep, while the US release played up Kawajiri's take on Batman (I'm still not allowed to explain why he took his name off the movie), the Japanese cover is all about handsome Christian Bale-resembling Bruce Wayne. It's good to see this synergy re-emerging with fare like Blade Runner Blackout 2022, and in doing so proving to the world that anime is cool again. I'm hoping that, as a result of this new collaboration, we get a anime version of grizzled, grouchy old Harrison Ford out of the deal. So here's the big question: how long will anime stay cool?
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