Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Robot Carnival (aka: Robotto Kânibaru)

(1987) Written and directed by Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Ôtomo (“Coming Soon” and “See You Again”), Hiroyuki Kitakubo (“A Tale of Two Robots”), Hiroyuki Kitazume (“Starlight Angel”), Kôji Morimoto (“Franken’s Gears”), Takashi Nakamura (“Nightmare”), Yasuomi Umetsu (“Presence”), Mao Lamdo (aka: Manabu Ôhashi) (“Cloud”), Hidetoshi Ômori (“Deprive”); Starring: Kôji Moritsugu, Yayoi Maki, Keiko Hanagata; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“You believe that you know your desires and dreams better than anyone? Why shouldn’t I believe the same thing? You didn’t create yourself any more than I did.” – The Girl (from the segment “Presence”)

After watching Akira, My Neighbor Totoro and Robot Carnival in the early ‘90s, I was never the same again. This trio of films re-defined my views of anime, reinforcing the medium’s limitless potential as an art form. The marriage of compelling themes, complex characters and dynamic artwork had no parallel with animation from the States. The feeling that I was watching something familiar, yet unfamiliar, has kept me coming back for more for the past 25 years. For those unaccustomed to the odd, sometimes bewildering world of anime, I can’t think of a better place to start, than with the aforementioned titles. Of the three movies, Robot Carnival might be the best “sampler” for the uninitiated, showcasing many of the good, bad and questionable elements of Japanese animation.

Robot Carnival is an omnibus of nine stories, reflecting wildly different animation styles and themes. The introductory and end segments, “Coming Soon” and “See You Again,” co-directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Akira) and Atsuko Fukushima, bracket the other stories. The film opens on an audacious note. The title, envisioned as a mechanized juggernaut, flattens a village and leaves a wake of destruction in its path.  The end segment picks up where the beginning left off, providing a fitting, nihilistic conclusion to the proceedings.
Isaku Fujita, Joe Hisaishi (of Studio Ghibli fame) and Masahisa Takeichi provide the memorable score. Mirroring the rest of the film, the score is an eclectic mix of musical styles, incorporating ’80s synth with lush symphonic sounds.  

“Franken’s Gears,” directed by Kôji Morimoto, tells an atmospheric, Frankenstein-esque tale about an elderly absent-minded inventor who brings his gargantuan robot to life through electricity. As you can likely ascertain by the title, things don’t end well for the creator or his creation. The visual style presents a contrast between meticulously rendered scenes and intentionally rough, unfinished-looking sequences.

The best segment, “Presence,” directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, is set in a richly imagined steampunk universe and packs an emotional punch. The contemplative, heartbreaking story concerns an inventor who creates a female android companion, and becomes haunted by the ghost of regret. Umetsu prompts us to consider the nature of what makes us or (by extension) our creations human, while compelling us to reach our own conclusions. It’s heady stuff, which could easily have been expanded into a distinct feature film. It’s almost unfortunate that “Presence” is so good, because the other stories never quite reach the same level of brilliance.

Another standout, “A Tale of Two Robots,” (aka: “Meiji-Era Civilization Machine Saga”) is mostly played for laughs, with its lively animation, amusing characters, and quaint technology. Meiji-era Japan provides the backdrop for a clash between two enormous turn-of-the-century mechas. A brash, maniacal American invader attempts to single-handedly conquer Japan with his mechanized creation, but a ragtag bunch of villagers (and their giant robot) stand to oppose his imperialistic ambitions. The story can be enjoyed on different levels. At the surface, it’s a fun little romp. On another level it could be seen as a metaphor for Japanese society’s struggle between isolation and openness, or a culture clash between individualism and collectivism. Whichever interpretation you choose to subscribe to, there’s something undeniably cathartic about watching two giant robots beat the crap out of each other.

The penultimate story, “Nightmare” (aka: “Chicken Man and Red Neck”) recalls the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Instead of demons, a scourge of robotic monstrosities terrorizes a modern metropolis. One timid citizen, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ichabod Crane in Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad*, makes a hasty retreat via scooter (instead of escaping on horseback).

* According to Anime News Network’s trivia page, this was a deliberate choice.

On the negative side, a few segments never quite mesh. When some people think of anime, the scenario in “Deprive” might be the first to spring to mind, with its stereotypical super-powered cyborg hero who fights alien oppressors. Another segment, “Starlight Angel,” tells a saccharine story of teen love and angst, set in an amusement park that IN NO WAY RESEMBLES Disneyland.* While this puff piece is far from essential viewing, fans of Akira (which appeared the following year) might want to watch for a couple of blink-and-you-miss-it cameos of characters from that seminal film. One near miss is “Cloud,” a bold piece by Mao Lamdo (aka: Manabu Ôhashi). It’s lovely to look at, with its abstract depiction of a childlike robot undergoing a Pinocchio-like transformation, but a bit dull.

* If you overlook the general park layout, castle in the center, Space Mountain-like coaster, rocket ride… Okay, who am I fooling? I’m sure the filmmakers just narrowly avoided a lawsuit.

While one film couldn’t possibly encompass the breadth and diversity of anime, Robot Carnival is a good start for those unfamiliar with the art form. Even if a few of the segments miss their mark, open-minded film fans should find much to like in this multi-faceted approach to old sci-fi tropes, which rewards on repeat viewings. It’s an excellent overview of Japanese animation that connoisseurs and novices (or anyone in between) can appreciate.

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