Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Robot Carnival

We begin a proposed year long comprehensive look at the world of manga artist and director Katsuhiro Otomo with the anthology Robot Carnival (1987), which along with Otomo highlights a number of then rising talents.

Sadly, until a recent announcement on Feb 3rd by Discotek for 2015, there was no official release for this film. You would have had to resort to downloading measures or bootleggers to see it and that's a shame really for collectors of quality anime. It's also a relatively disheartening commentary when you consider Robot Carnival was listed as one of the essential films in Japanese anime in Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces by Brian Camp and Julie Davis. Seriously. Fortunately you will see an official release of this anthology this year and I'll be purchasing one to support the efforts of Discotek.

Robot Carnival (1987) arrived in eleven short story segments. The Opening (5 min)/ Ending/ Epilogue (7 min) is beautifully animated by Katsuhiro Otomo and Atsuko Fuskushima.

Then Franken's Gears (9 min) by Koji Morimoto (Magnetic Rose from Memories, Beyond for The Animatrix, and animator on Otomo's Akira) is followed by Deprive (7 min) by Hidetoshi Omori.

The special Presence (20 min) by Yasuomi Umetsu grounds the core of the collection.

Star Light Angel (9 min) by Hiroyuki Kitazume (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and an unfinished Yamato 25 project) and Cloud (11 min) by Mao Lamdo follow.

The hulking A Tale Of Two Robots - Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion (12 min) by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Akira, Mobile Suit Gundam, Roujin Z, Blood: The Last Vampire) is another major bright spot and even includes design work from Maeda Mahiro (Blue Submarine No.6).

Nightmare (10 min) by Takashi Nakamura (Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Akira, A Tree Of Palme) closes out the anthology of shorts.

So there is much on twirling, spinning display here at the Robot Carnival.

The very definition of a carnival is that of a public celebration or parade. There is even a circus-like aspect or atmosphere to the proceedings sometimes in a traditional sense brought to the streets as opened in Otomo's work.

Author Susan J. Napier refers to three key modes of expression in anime: The Apocalyptic, The Elegiac and The Festival (Anime From Akira To Princess Mononoke, p.12). It's clear that Robot Carnival easily falls within the latter, but is not exclusive and does not preclude entering the two former modes drawing on all aspects of Napier's hypothesis.

Writer, artist, director Otomo and the creative team behind Robot Carnival bring the spirit of that celebration to colorful life for fans of both anime and robots.

This is first evinced in the Opening through the curiosity factor of alien inhabitants on a faraway planet interested in discovering more about the arriving mecha and the celebratory atmosphere the machine brings with it to their quiet little town. But all is not as it seems, some villagers run in fear and even board up their homes particularly when a young boy warns them of an impending machine heading toward them. Yes, what arrives is a dueling combination of both wondrous beauty and destruction.

Given its production era, one can hardly expect the kind of psychological depth that would come to define the 1990s in anime and yet Robot Carnival still presents a good number of visual set pieces and concepts to thrill the mind following the stunning Opening sequence.

Akira (1988), which followed the next year, was indeed, incredibly, ahead of its time. But make no mistake about it, be assured, Otomo was indeed toying with themes of technology and forces run amok here in his opening salvo. He had something to say even here in these few short minutes and the message would inform his more gripping feature films this predates. Both Akira and Steamboy (2004)would build upon these ideas on a more epic scale.

While brief the introductory opening and closing animation by Katsuhiro Otomo is simply beautiful and does have something to say about technology without speaking a single word. The final frames of the film end where it began. Village folk are drawn and lured to a beautiful piece of carnival-like technology only to be ultimately destroyed by it. The End indeed.

Otomo the artist presents the kind of hand drawn animation that is so distinctively Otomo it invokes an immediately identifiable reaction to his name and would do so for years to come. It is the kind of trademark stamp that holds true for the classic American genius of say a Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics. All of the images on display are classic Otomo and beautifully rendered. Otomo is indeed a special artist and his work and designs are one of a kind. You can see his design contributions to something like Freedom Project (2007-08) of which he neither wrote or directed through some degree of questionable resignation, but his imprint remained a pronounced, profound influence on the OVA (Original Video Animation).

The opening of Robot Carnival literally sparks and ignites the imagination and one can imagine a full film in his world but we are merely teased by the celebration or carnival on display. Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly from the post-apocalyptic mind of Akira creator Otomo, a village is laid to waste by the passing machinery that welcomed the robot carnival. Otomo's opening images and his final frames that close Robot Carnival can easily be assessed as a cautionary tale to technology and the way it infiltrates our lives as it does here to a simple, agrarian-like, unsophisticated society and lays it to waste. This carnival literally rolls into town with a carnival of destruction but mesmerizes with its celebration. Ishiro Honda offered similar cautionary messages in his Godzilla film series. Hayao Miyazaki offers thematic continuity in his. Robot Carnival does here for Otomo offering a glimpse of things to come for this new master animator.

Stylistically, generally, Robot Carnival prefers the moving image set to an audio soundtrack over the spoken word. So stories are sometimes a little abstract, surreal and generally left to interpretation by the artist. For fans of animation it is a treat to experience and behold the visual wonder of it all.

Franken's Gears, an obvious homage and update to a science fiction classic, and Nightmare are meticulously crafted and strikingly animated pieces by Morimoto and Nakamura respectively. They are also complemented by two of the strongest musical selections from its dated electronic soundtrack. They are first rate visual spectacles with Nightmare being particularly twisted and fantastical in its imagery. Even if not among my favorites on the anthology the selections are hand drawn beauties. Nevertheless, we will have another look at Morimoto when we reach his contribution on Memories as well as The Animatrix (2003). We also hope to give a look at Nakamura's A Tree Of Palme (2002) one day. Along with Kitakubo, these are two impressive talents.

Deprive recounts a robot invasion. The story is realized through the eyes of a loyal warrior and Earth robot relentlessly pursuing its mission to save an Earth girl from the enemy. It's like an anime j-pop song come to life.

Star Light Angel is a true shojo special about two young girlfriends who visit a Robot fun park. Again, a fully visual pop art experience. The animation here, too, is a delight. It's vibrant, colorful and, like Deprive, yielding from a vintage era of animation circa Gunbuster (1988). There's a flight of fancy about the whole thing and a bit of a mind trip too. Watching with alcohol may improve the experience.

Cloud is the most inconsequential for me and is a bit like animated art rather than animation. But that's not the problem. It is simply a bit too uninteresting and uninvolving visually for my tastes. This is likely the most unusual of the stories expressed on Robot Carnival. Though the hypnotic music is positively seductive and entrancing, admittedly, the animation for the Avant-garde Cloud is largely not my cup of tea. It's a bit like a moving poem if you enjoy poetry. One might think it out of place, call it inconsequential and discount it but this is a varied carnival of robots after all.

This brings us to the two most significant contributions to Robot Carnival.

A Tale Of Two Robots- Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion captures the pervading sense of xenophobia of the Japanese, as an insular island nation, toward foreigners potentially settling in Japan, a country strengthened by its adherence to a homogenous society. This is highlighted by the English-speaking invader and further underscored by the use of Japan's rising sun at the end of the selection as it beats back a representation of American power and/or economic power. Camp and Davis refer to it as "a clash of cultures." Still, this is less a symbol connected to World War II than an economic reflection of changing times and the influence of global culture particularly the commercial influence of the United States on foreign countries. Though, actually, there appears a real distaste for both immigration from abroad and emigration from within Japan internally.

Interesting on an animation level too is the utilization of two early era anime mecha for the battle. The robot creations are made of hand carved wood and iron even pre-dating the popularized steam punk ethic within the genre later at the heart of Otomo's Steamboy. Certainly the creations suggest a kind of historical lineage to today's wildly popular mecha that are complete with lasers and all manner of sophisticated technological weaponry. These mecha are worked not by a single pilot, but teams of people hand cranking gears and using human legs to move mecha arms and legs. Offensive weaponry amounts to cannons as the robots battle in the spirit of boats battling on the open ocean during the Napoleonic era. The hulking mech are more like coal-powered antiques than the kind of mech normally associated with anime that seem to operate with unlimited power. It's a highly imaginative and creative short with some entertaining banter between characters of the variety found in the Patlabor TV series. It effectively works as a humorous commentary on Japan's fascination with technology and equally its concern over the impact of it on traditional Japanese culture and its sacred lands. This is a theme often ascribed to director Hayao Miyazaki's (Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Princess Mononoke) works.  It's also fitting to see hand drawn animation, not computer animation, powering a short like this one. This segment is easily the second best contribution to the anthology as Kitakubo positively deconstructs giant robot expectations with a bit of fun and political spearing.

The first honor belongs to Presence. Both are the only short stories to use the spoken word to influence their narratives.

The segment that offers the largest contribution to Robot Carnival is the tremendously affecting and special Presence. It plays as a coherent short film and is the most satisfying of the shorts. The tale surrounds an effeminate male inventor, toy maker and collector who has built a female robot in secrecy to compensate for his own familial disconnect.

This is perhaps one of the earliest anime stories to touch upon the robot ghost or consciousness (pre-dating Ghost In The Shell) that I can recall that works on such a strong, sophisticated emotional level. Questions of free will and existence and the desire to experience love demonstrate there is a consciousness or presence developing within the man's creation. His creation, to the man's surprise, informs him "I want to experience love" and "what is the purpose of my existence?," which forces a very unexpected reaction in the man. The man has lived a life without love, has yearned for it but has had difficulty understanding how to love. Without giving too much away the story ends jumping forward in time on a symbolic and emotionally satisfying note.

The man's experience and feeling is one many of us encounter including lost love and unfulfilled desire. I was moved by the short film's intimacy and its odd balance between the uncomfortable and the beautiful.

Presence is a real, strange beauty at that. It oddly channels something of a tribute to the otaku in all of us, that part of us that loves to collect and create and model, through this inventor who is also a collector and young boy at heart.

Umetsu employs some splendid visual touches too paralleling the later older man with the dusty broken down toy shop. The film essentially suggests, inanimate or not, do we not at least project love and life into those things which we love. And if we do, does that not give the object life in our eyes? I swear some of my imported toys have come to life too.

The animation by Umetsu is particularly fluid, vivid, lovely and striking throughout the segment. Though as a character designer Umetsu is not a favorite. In fact, he would later handle character designs on the Gatchaman OVA (1994) of which I am not particularly fond. You can spot Umetsu's trademark style in that OVA here, but Presence is a genuinely bittersweet highlight on the Robot Carnival anthology. It genuinely resonates after seeing it. This is the kind of story an anime fan like myself truly savors. I was impressed by its visual and psychological detail and acuity. Presence makes admission to the Robot Carnival worth it alone - a beautiful experience.

Just to further complement the theme of Presence, it's worth noting many stories have since come and gone that connect with the question of life and existence both in anime and live action film. Some great examples that mine these self-aware and ghost concepts include Blade Runner (1982), Electric Dreams (1984), Short Circuit (1986), Ghost In The Shell (1995), The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Animatrix (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), Moon (2009), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Robot Stories (2003), I, Robot (2004), Innocence: Ghost In The Shell 2 (2004), Her (2013), Oblivion (2013), Automata (2014), Ex-Machina (2015) and Chappie (2015). There are indeed others. The theme of humanity endlessly fascinate us.

On the scoring front, a character unto itself here, Robot Carnival, whilst a bit dated, and despite its imperfections and shortcomings that I alluded to earlier, isn't terrible with its 1980s electronica-based delights. It has its heart in all the right places and certainly the compositions are fitting though I can imagine all sorts of selections new and old that I would love to adapt to Robot Carnival a la Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis pop/rock adaptation in 1984. Even Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind is the musical product of a period suffering from those early era keyboards. Funny enough and standing to reason, composer Joe Hisaishi figures prominently on both. Still, there is far worse even today and contemporary J-pop queens can be downright irritating to the ear. A lot of anime could benefit a great deal from a proper composer. Kenji Kawai (Patlabor, Ghost In The Shell) is a fine example, but Hisaishi ranks up there as one of the best and Robot Carnival mostly benefits from his input. Sadly, there's just not enough of them out there.

Robot Carnival is an interesting collection of robot shorts and thematically is a smartly-connected collection of ideas and concepts especially for sci-fi fans. One can't help but appreciate the sheer artistry at work here too. Robot Carnival, like carnivals themselves, was clearly a labor of love for these artists. The artists, animators and composers, have created a visual experience and a celebration for the senses to be appreciated. Some might see the collection as non-essential, but there is a devastating wit and thematic consistency that makes the anthology a keeper. Presence and the visual theme of robots alone dictate ownership by the science fiction anime fan. Presence is a fine example anime coalescing on all fronts. It can be a thing of beauty to behold. But even on the whole Robot Carnival was a dazzling anthology, and still is, worth celebrating in any library of anime.

The retro-ish Robot Carnival has a way of bringing you back thanks to the love and care of the kind of painstaking animation on display here by human hands. Fortunately treasures like this carnival of robot tales exist for those willing to take a risk beyond the latest anime flavor of the moment.

A thank you to El Vox for first covering this collection.

Robot Carnival anthology includes:
Opening/Ending/ Epilogue (Katsuhiro Otomo/ Atsuko Fuskushima)
Franken's Gears (Koji Morimoto)
Deprive (Hidetoshi Omori)
Presence (Yasuomi Umetsu)
Star Light Angel (Hiroyuki Kitazume)
Cloud (Mao Lamdo)
A Tale Of Two Robots - Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion (Hiroyuki Kitakubo)
Nightmare (Takashi Nakamura)


El Vox said...

Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree, and you did a great job of reviewing it. You made me want to revisit my old VHS tape of Robot Carnival that I taped off the SF Channel many moons ago. Odd that it contains so many good shorts and so many of the now renown artist in anime, yet remains still fairly obscure. It's still one of my favorite anime, and perhaps, that's because it's one of the earlier anime films that seduced me to the medium. However, I also feel, it's because it's just done so well too.

Oddly I've never thought to look for this on DVD. I hope if they release this it comes out on regular DVD as well, otherwise I'll have to pop for the blu-ray and wait until I get the player to watch it.

By the way, recently I picked up the Evangelion 1.11 You Are Not Alone DVD. I really love the design to the whole disc. I'll probably eventually get 2.22 as well. They are good ones.

SFF said...

Thank you El Vox.

Yes I had to get an unofficial DVD version of Robot Carnival which is too bad, but I had to see this.

Discotek will be releasing it on DVD this year and I suspect it will not be on Blu Ray.

But Discotek has been doing some good work. I wish I knew before taking all of these images but oh well.

I really enjoyed Evangelion 1.11. A lot of fans didn't care much for it because it felt like mostly a rehash of the series. But I like the subtle differences and the alternate take of the animation from the series. It really worked for me.

The second film really takes the franchise in a new direction. I wasn't sure I really liked it as much and yet most fans like it more. I have to give it another try and plan to once the third film is released if it ever gets released.

Thanks for writing.

Roman J. Martel said...

Wow great coverage of a forgotten gem. I've only seen the last half of this collection, but man did it stay with me. For some reason it was nearly impossible to find when I started watching anime in earnest. Glad to hear a DVD release is finally coming out. This certainly deserves it.

I did not know Hisaishi did the music. Not that I remember it too much, but you don't hear about his non-Miyazaki work too often,

Glad to hear you are tackling Otomo this year. His work is certainly worth checking out. "Akira" for sure, but I'm curious to read your thoughts on "Rojin Z" one of the oddest anime features of its era.

SFF said...

Thank you Roman.

Yes, I know what you mean about Hisaishi. He's definitely Miyazaki's go to guy.

A ha Roujin Z. Well, truth be told, I hadn't planned on it, but I will see if I can work that one in too. Thanks for the suggestion Roman. Sounds like it's worth adding to our inspection of Otomo's output as a writer.

Anonymous said...

"Nightmare" seems to have inspired Animatrix where the robots rebel