Thursday, March 26, 2015

Neo Tokyo

We arrive at our next Katsuhiro Otomo destination featured in a continued year long analysis of his contributions to the world of anime and science fiction. Neo Tokyo (1987), the fictional name given to the city in Otomo's Akira (1988), is the latest featuring a contribution from Otomo to the short story concept. The Neo Tokyo anthology features three short stories and actually marked Otomo's animating story debut outside of his acclaimed manga work.



The stories include Labyrinth Labyrinthos by anime master Rintaro (Metropolis, Harmagedon).



The bridge short is The Running Man by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Wicked City).



T
he collection concludes with Construction Cancellation Order by Katsuhiro Otomo with whom Rintaro had worked on Harmagedon (1983). Otomo provided character design work to Rintaro's direction.



It's fascinating to see the science fiction approach applied to the short story here in anime not unlike what writers were achieving on The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) nearly thirty years ago.

Interestingly, Otomo wasn't the only anime master getting busy in the world of the short story in 1987 both with his Robot Carnival (1987) and his first major anime contribution in Neo Tokyo.



Elsewhere in anime another creative force and would be master was on the rise and on the move. There was a creative enterprise running parallel to Otomo that same year. Next to Otomo, another anime master was in the making and establishing a name for himself. Director Mamoru Oshii, too, like Otomo, was generating a skilled reputation during the 1980s. Following his work on comedy Urusei Yatsura (1981-9184) and his own film Angel's Egg (1985) Oshii was tapped for a project called Twilight Q 2: Mystery Article File 538 (1987) or called, according to author Brian Ruh in Stray Dog Of Anime: The Films Of Mamoru Oshii (p.65), Twilight Q 2: Labyrinth Objects File 538, of which Oshii wrote and directed the project. The concept behind Twilight, like that aforementioned series The Twilight Zone, and much like the short story works Otomo had been collaborating upon, was essentially a production to tap new talent and lend them a vehicle for the short story film within science fiction. In fact, according to Ruh, the Twilight Q OVA was essentially an homage to both The Twilight Zone and kaiju science fiction classic (in Japan) Ultra Q (1966), both series recorded in black and white. Unfortunately only two films were ever made and the Twilight concept faded into the night.



Oshii's film followed Twilight Q: Time Knot Reflection (1987), directed by Tomomi Mochizuki. Mochizuki would helm Ocean Waves (a.k.a. I Can Hear The Sea) for Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli in 1993. It's also worth noting Mochizuki's work on the first Twilight Q even included character design work from Akemi Takada, music by Oshii partner Kenji Kawai and a story by Oshii partner Kazunori Ito (Gamera trilogy; 1995-99).



If anime fans think those names sound familiar it's beacause they would join forces with Mamoru Oshii for the long-running Patlabor franchise, Ghost In The Shell (1995) and Avalon (2001), to name a few or some combination thereof. In fact, Kawai joined forces with Mamoru Oshii on the second Twilight Q which led to a long and fruitful relationship to this day. Ito would finalize his long association with Oshii on Avalon.




It is ironic that both Oshii and Otomo were lending their significant talents to similar concepts in 1987 before really breaking out and becoming the masters of works they are known for today, Akira and Ghost In The Shell respectively.

The disconnect with short story form in 1987 clearly shelved any future work from Oshii in that arena and stalled Otomo from returning to the format until a third attempt in Memories (1995).



The next year Otomo would deliver Akira (1988), a film that would alter the way the world looked at Otomo and perceived anime in much the same way Ghost In The Shell (1995) changed perception on Oshii and reaffirmed the possibilities of anime.

Oshii followed his short story work most notably with the Patlabor OVA, TV Series and two films (1988-1993) along with the crucial Ghost In The Shell (1995).

But Otomo has remained committed and true to the short story format delivering for Robot Carnival (1987), Neo Tokyo (1987), Memories (1995) and Short Peace (2013).



With Robot Carnival Otomo certainly left a mark but as a director of anime it seemed a small contribution when compared to the game changer that was Akira a year later. We won't begin to go into his groundbreaking manga here.

This bridge, his work on Neo Tokyo, to a degree, was a little more substantive in the form of one of three stories forging the 50 minute film.

Neo Tokyo, like some of the very best and classic anime, of a seemingly by gone era, is becoming quite scarce itself. Check out the prices on Amazon. It's getting crazy out there for the classics.



Neo Tokyo was the brainchild of Studio Madhouse, founded in 1972, by director Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Osamu Dezaki and Masao Maruyama.

The credentials for Madhouse are indeed impressive including the recruitment of the late, great master Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress) who sadly has since passed from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The Studio Madhouse stamp is behind a number of favorites - too many to count, but include The Animatrix (2003), Battle Angel (1993), Rintaro's The Dagger Of Kamui (1985) and Metropolis (2001), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Memories' Stink Bomb (1995), Kon's Millennium Actress (2001) and Perfect Blue (1997), Demon City Shinjuko (1988), Redline (2009), Summer Wars (2009), WXIII: Patlabor The Movie 3 (2001) and Wicked City (1987) among many others. And apart from backing all of the works by Satoshi Kon, Madhouse has even worked with Studio Ghibli on a number of Hayao Miyazaki's projects.




Today we take a closer inspection of the three stories that comprise Neo Tokyo.

Rintaro's Labyrinth Labyrinthos (11 min). Rintaro, the man behind the stunning Metropolis and Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999 is unquestionably an expressive animator and a legitimate master of his craft. The animation here is gorgeous as one would expect nothing less from Rintaro. Rintaro indeed channels one of his mentors, Osamu Tezuka, with whom he worked on Kimba The White Lion (1965-1967). Tezuka would pass away in 1989, two years after Neo Tokyo. Rintaro's Metropolis was in many respects a tribute to the late anime master.



Rintaro's short delivers a slight if fantastical world through the eyes of a young girl, Cicero, and her nervous cat, beautifully animated here. The musical score begins with an elegance but spirals into a twisty eclectic, if perhaps indulgent piece. While the child and cat are expertly animated the short left me a bit nonplussed. It was inconsequential to me and certainly never reaches the heights of something as profoundly beautiful as his full-length Metropolis. Though I know some fans who consider his whimsical fantasy work here the best component of the anthology.

The two most impressive science fiction pieces follow. Yoshiaki Kawajiri's The Running Man (15 min) literally blows you away. Yoshiaki has created a number of incredible works including Program and World Record two shorts for The Animatrix (2003). He directed Lensman: Secret Of The Lens (1984), the dark city of Wicked City (1987), Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000) and what some might consider his masterpiece, Ninja Scroll (1993), a picture influenced by The Dagger Of Kamui. For geeks like me it's worth noting he was a key animator on the influential Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) as well as Otomo's Stink Bomb on Memories (1995), Metropolis (2001) and the wild adrenaline rush that is Redline (2009). While not considered a master in name recognition among the likes of Otomo and Oshii, for me, veteran animator Kawajiri certainly deserves a spot among the very best.



Interestingly too, one can't help but feel a tinge of inspiration from The Running Man for the film that would one day become Redline. The Running Man short pulses and revs around a future world of intense, high octane, deadly arena racing whereby drivers or pilots are literally connected to their future vehicles. The short centers on race space car driver Zach Hugh who is so immersed in the sport he has seemingly transcended reality. The brutally violent race, popular with the masses, is dubbed Deus Ex and takes Hugh on a path of self-destruction. He is completely connected to racing and the dreary, singular minded race emphasizes his disconnect with humanity in this cold, vicious noir future. Hugh is visually depicted to be a monster, the consequence of this harsh world. This is a tight, effective short and delivers the kind of information one enjoys in short story leaving us with questions and wanting more.



Just as the world began to take notice of artists like Otomo and Oshii, Kawajiri's The Running Man gave him the much needed recognition and exposure that opened the doors to creating the critically heralded and to some disturbing but ambitious Wicked City horror noir the same year. There was indeed a cinematic quality to the aforementioned film that few films attempted before Akira save for Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise (1987), also the same year as Wicked City.

The Running Man racing aesthetic certainly tips its cap to the feature length film Kawajiri would one day animate for, Redline. The short here truly captures the "redlining" vibe of the high energy race world and does so within a neon-lit future Tokyo reminiscent of Ridley Scott's 2019 Los Angeles-based Blade Runner (1982). There is indeed a nourish tribute to that classic here. And that makes sense as Kawajiri likes things dark, in tone that is, while his animation is nothing short of visually dazzling and spectacular. In fact, as racers make their way in futuristic rocket cars many meet a number of grisly deaths along the way to the point of the truly grotesque. There is no shortage of hand drawn explosions and no one does explosions better than the Japanese in anime particularly before the advent of digital animation. It's actually breathtaking.



The Running Man segment has very little dialogue and the music selected to accompany the imagery is near perfect with an almost elegiac quality. Even the narration ends on a sobering, final footnote to the end of a race car legend while making a rather insightful commentary on the nature of man's relish for partaking in blood sports.

Finally, we finish with Katsuhiro Otomo's Construction Cancellation Order (18 min). Otomo once again mines the concept of humanity's over reliance on technology something with which he hinted to in Robot Carnival as well as his early manga work such as the incomplete Fireball (1979). Here, his short story serves as a "Bradbury-esque allegory" as the DVD cover describes it.



Otomo takes us into the heart of a third world jungle republic where mankind has created a new city, dubbed Project 44, that is now decaying, overgrowing and ordered shut down by the rebel republic faction that has taken over. Unfortunately, the project manager has disappeared and the robotic world of Project 44 continues to operate despite orders to shut down. Tsutomu Sugioka is tasked with returning to the site and determine the fate of the manager and the construction work, with which the company has lost contact.

Otomo's imagination is truly vivid here and runs wild in the segment with his typically exquisite animating style. Spewing pipes and sprawling buildings are decaying and overrun with vegetation. Nature is taking back the nightmare of the technological man. The juxtaposition is clear. One man, graced with Otomo's uniqiue character design work, heads into the heart of Otomo's heart of darkness to determine what can be salvaged if anything at all. The man arrives on site to a robot carnival of its own as robots refuse to divert from their original programming. The fate of the sole superintendent and the project remains in their inhuman, seemingly unstoppable hands.



Robot Carnival's introduction and epilogue, despite the brevity of Otomo's contributions there, were surprisingly coherent visually. There was indeed a logical story told in image. Construction Cancellation Order is even more articulate in this manner and effective in its parable of technology unleashed a recurring theme in Otomo's world.

Construction Cancellation Order captures the idea of robots like Wall-E (2008) that continue to function beyond their creator's presence. They are programmed to complete a given mission and continue to do so long after anyone is around to monitor them, but without any of the charm and sweetness of Wall-E. Like a construction zone this is a dangerous place populated by unyielding technology.

Otomo essentially paints an unsettling and ominous technological nightmare. While it may not be a complete story or one that feels entirely satisfying as some would have, like The Running Man, there is some stellar animation here along with some interesting concepts and enough of a short that presents the viewer with ideas to ponder after the viewing experience. Further, it may be interesting to know and makes sense that Takashi Nakamura had a hand in animating this segment with Otomo. Nakamura provided the story Nightmare for Robot Carnival and would work with Otomo on Akira. The final shot and image of the short here is positively Nakamura.



Neo Tokyo concludes with additional animation from Rintaro closing out the package.

Neo Tokyo may not offer the variety or be nearly as enchanting as Robot Carnival thanks to a much darker edge, still it does have its two standouts in The Running Man and Construction Cancellation Order. It's a toss up for which one takes the prize in this second anthology collection we've analyzed next to Robot Carnival.



As much as I loved Otomo's opening and closing animation in Robot Carnival, Yasuomi Umetsu's Presence was the clear standout with Hiroyuki Kitakubo's contribution as the runner up in A Tale Of Two Robots - Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion. For me, The Running Man, by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, may slightly edge out Otomo's Construction Cancellation Order otherwise they cross the finish line together, but the two entries offer thoughtful, visually compelling works of substance.

Is Neo Tokyo worth your time? If you are a fan of anime there is absolutely no doubt about it. There is something extraordinary and creative that yields from the minds of artists like Rintaro, Kawajiri and Otomo and, in the case of Neo Tokyo, you need to be open to the experimental nature of their beautiful works with two artists in their infancy here. Shorts like this, by their very brevity, make it difficult to compete with an entrée like Akira, but it is fascinating to see where these greats were prior to some major film contributions in anime.



Whereby Robot Carnival was alluring, enchanting and accessible by a wider audience, Neo Tokyo is a much edgier and darker anime thematically on technology and is inherently less accessible by a much younger audience. Still, it's easy to see why both Robot Carnival and Neo Tokyo land spots in Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. Anime fans with a keen eye for quality work would be wise to seek this one out for their collections. It's certainly a worthy entry in any animation collection.

Regarding Otomo, his contribution was greater and once again another sign of bigger and better things to come.



A word of note: American writer/producer/director Carl Macek (1951-2010) had a hand in the English assessment of Neo Tokyo. Macek had a long and successful run adapting a number of anime productions over the years. He successfully brought Macross to life here in the states as Robotech. His work was as notable as Sandy Frank delivering Gatchaman to the states as Battle Of The Planets. The late Macek played an important role in delivering English dubs of Macross, Neo Tokyo, Wicked City, Akira and Robot Carnival among other important anime productions to us here in America.