Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Animatrix

I got The Animatrix shortly after its release, back in 2003 – nine pieces of varying length that acknowledged what the Wachowski brothers had already made abundantly plain: that The Matrix was as cool as it was because it drew heavily from anime’s aesthetics. This was an homage. It was also several months before The Matrix Revolutions made the whole world realise that there was not going to be an impressive and satisfying end to this immensely popular franchise, and it was going to disappear into psychobabble and overwrought symbolism.

You could say it was anime that made The Matrix the incredible success it was – and ushered in an era of anime being more fashionable than ever before. On the other hand, you could also say it was anime that held it back from being what it so nearly was: the new Star Wars. Because that ending fitted right in with 90s and early-2000s anime storytelling. But it did not cross over to a mainstream audience, because not enough people wanted to trust the filmmakers when they promised depth in what looked like nonsense. It’s 2011 now, and I know far more about all the studios who worked on The Animatrix.

The Final Flight of the Osiris
First on the DVD is The Final Flight of the Osiris, a 10-minute CG story that Square Pictures gasped out before the debts from The Spirits Within consumed them. Like that film, what in freeze-frame looks like an impressive piece of work comparable to much of today’s CG work is in motion stiff and awkward. As is the writing - the best contemporary animation money could buy was used to render a scene where a man and woman, blindfolded, use advanced martial arts techniques to slowly strip one another. Back in reality, they discover Zion is in danger, and decide a message must be delivered within the Matrix. The girl makes the drop (later seen in the Enter the Matrix game), but the ship is overwhelmed.

It’s a mere snippet without much of a distinctive voice – and there isn’t really much to connect the viewer with the characters. It’s basically a showpiece for CG, a box ticked for saleability, and at heart is just a video game intro.

The Second Renaissance: Parts I&II
The main ‘meat’ of The Animatrix, The Second Renaissance is essentially a documentary told from the point of view of the machines that the main Cartesian twist of the first film reveals have taken over the planet. It begins in an almost twee post-Asimov manner, with little humanoid robots gaining the ability to at least claim to have desires and fears. Humans and robots clash, humans make mistakes on an absurd scale, the tone shifts first to purposely confounding juvenile expectations – as in the scene where a robot woman first has her clothes ripped, then her face, and ends up in an unsettling middle ground that is a complete opposition to the techno-erotic imagery of the likes of Ghost in the Shell. Throughout the second part, the image of a human being is systematically objectified, until one final image of a child reminds us briefly that we are considering real people, before the illusion gives way to the reality in a harrowing sequence that is by far the most striking and memorable part of this project.

The animation screamed Gonzo to me – but as a matter of fact what I was recognising was Maeda Mahiro’s style. In evidence is the animation-overlaid-on-static-pattern most famously used in the brilliant Gankutsuou, and those CG creations were very much like what he designed for Last Exile. In fact, though, the animation work was provided by Studio 4°C: their work here is possibly what made them able to go on to such strong and successful work in 2004-6.

Kid’s Story
Kid’s Story comes next, and is again animated by 4°C. While much of the line-art, pseudo-rotoscoping and mixed media brings to mind eccentric 4°C works like Mind Game, the overall aesthetic, pacing and use of music owes much more to director Watanabe Shin'ichirou, building on his Bebop work and pre-empting SamCham. It’s a basic story of a student who discovers hints of the Matrix online, gets a phone call from Neo telling him to run, so does. What it lacks in interesting storytelling or interesting characters, though, it makes up for in style and fast-paced but quirky, down-to-earth action.

This time when there was a strong Madhouse flavour, it was an accurate one. In fact, this one looks right out of Vampire Hunter D – Bloodlust, with an extra notch or two of stylisation. This is probably unsurprising given that it was written and directed by that film’s helmsman, Kawajiri Yoshiaki – with the character designer/animation director he had collaborated with there and in Ninja Scroll, too, Minowa Yutaka.

The melding of great, old-fashioned art, feudal aesthetics (in a ‘simulation’) and an interesting dilemma – what happens when one who knows about the Matrix wants to go back to ignorance with the robots’ help? – should make for a great short, but ultimately this one is sterile and predictable. No small part of this is down to the flat, lifeless voice acting.

World Record
Always my least favourite segment, this is another Madhouse effort, and it is ugly, disjointed and totally out-of-keeping with the tone of all the rest of the project, never mind the main films. I disliked the idea that a ‘kid’ who was contacted by Neo, escaped agents and has a near-death experience could escape from the Matrix by himself, but a guy who just pushed himself to extremes? As though that doesn’t happen all the time, all over the world? Directed by an in-betweener who years later would make the interesting and much less insipid Redline, it is ugly, its story is mawkish and the way the creators have obviously decided on certain little animated exaggerations thinking they’ll seem clever and unique only adds to the impression of it being juvenile, undeveloped and unnecessary.

This segment sees Studio 4°C’s founder and Outomo collaborator Morimoto Kouji step up to the plate, and all the stops are pulled out. Beautiful background art and extremely detailed animation pre-empt Steamboy while the quirky character design and great work with an imagined camera lay the groundwork for Tekkon Kinkreet, the former being one of the studio’s landmark collaborations (with Sunrise) and the latter being their most groundbreaking movie. The kids playing in the abandoned house are gloriously in the middle of the two films design-wise in a way that makes me very happy as a fan.

With a lovely tense mood that often rapidly changes, striking visual images with the glitches and an interpretation of the world of The Matrix that is highly individualistic yet still works very well with the established premise, it is by far the best of the experimental films. The voice acting is also generally speaking much better than in the other shorts.

A Detective Story
Watanabe’s second contribution is again full of mixed media, but this time to pastiche noir films. The anime flavour, though, is very 80s, largely thanks, I think, to animation director Nakazawa Kazuto, who made the very juvenile and ultraviolent Bubblegum Crisis spin-off Parasite Dolls. He would later go on to work as an animation director with Watanabe on SamCham. I like the look of this piece, and the general concept, but it’s just not very interesting story or consequential.

Nice final pose, though. An archetypal image for a pastiche. Very Watanabe. Yet also very Studio 4°C.

The writer/director behind the last segment is not known for anime, but by the Korean American Peter Chung, with DNA Productions. Most remember Chung primarily for Æon Flux, but I remember him for Phantom 2040, and ‘Baudelaire LIKES the Phantom’. He also had a hand in the design for The Rugrats. There’s something nice about the inclusion of this different flavour, not so familiar as Square’s. The CG is bad and some of the animation needs a lot more subtlety, but the Giger-derived backgrounds are great and the concept – making a robot empathise with the humans – is a lovely bit of reversal. The very American animation flits between immature and absolutely perfect, and there are gorgeous lighting effects here.

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