The Other Side of Animation: Robot Carnival Review

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Here we are with another anthology film. This specific anthology is known as Robot Carnival, a nine-animated short film experience that has an impressive pedigree behind the multiple directors of the shorts. For example, before making Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo worked on this film and the extremely hard-to-find Neo Tokyo. When I say a pedigree of Japanese animation directors who worked on some very famous anime in some way, shape, or form, I really mean it. You have the likes of Koji Morimoto (Memories: Magnetic Rose segment, Animatrix: Beyond segment, Catherine, First Squad), Atsuko Fukushima (Giovanni’s Island, Memories, Roujin Z),Manabu Òhashi (Metropolis, Neo Tokyo, The Dagger of Kamui, Barefoot Gen), Hidetoshi Òmori (Batman: Under the Red Hood, Princess Nine, Angel Cop),Yasuomi Umetsu (Lily C.A.T., Mezzo Forte, Sol Bianca: The Legacy), Hiroyuki Kitazume (Megazone 23, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ), Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Roujin Z, Blood: The Last Vampire, Black Magic M-66, Golden Boy), and Takashi Nakamura (Yatterman, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Akira, Tetsujin 28-go,A Tree of Palme, Harmony, Fantastic Children). The best part about all of these directors is that a lot of them had never directed anything before this project. For these directors’ first times, this is some really visually impressive animation. Does it have its flaws? Well, let’s take a look at these short films.

I’m going to talk about the shorts in order of when they appear, but will combine the opening, ending, and epilogue short in the first part of this section of the review. The Opening, Ending, and Epilogue shorts were all directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and Atsuko Fukushima. They tell of a deserted world that has had the unfortunate encounter with the infamous Robot Carnival, a titan-sized piece of machinery that was once a sign of excitement and joy, but now unintentionally causes mass destruction onto any innocent villages that happen to be in its way.

The second short is called Franken’s Gears, which is directed by Koji Morimoto. It’s the tale of a mad scientist spending a dark and stormy night to bring a massive robot to life. It’s basically a sci-fi version of Frankenstein.

The third short is called Deprive, which is directed by Hidetoshi Omori. This is one of the more anime/sci-fi intense stories. It’s about a massive alien robot invasion that has destroyed the world. One group of robotic foot soldiers has kidnapped an android’s human friend/companion, and the android ventures off to rescue her.

Up next is the fourth short, titled Presence, which is directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, and is one of two shorts in Robot Carnival that has dialogue in it. It’s the tale of a man who is obsessed with a female robot that he has created to make up for a lack of any close emotional ties with his family. One day the doctor realizes his robotic creation has developed a mind of her own, not as a result of anything that he intentionally did.

The fifth short is called Star Light Angel. This section is directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume, and is another short that is very anime-ish. It stars two girls who are having a great time at an amusement park, only to have heartbreak happen with one of the girls finding out that her boyfriend is dating her friend on the side. Upset by this, she runs to this virtual reality, and ends up making nightmarish creatures appear, but is then saved by a robot.

The sixth short is probably one of my favorites. It’s called Cloud, and is directed by Manabu Òhashi. It’s a story about an angel that brings a robot to life. It walks through the life and evolution of mankind, represented by the visuals in the background.

After Cloud, we have the seventh short titled Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion. This section is directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Basically, it’s a giant robot fight between one that is heavily inspired by Japan, and another robot that is inspired by the west. It’s a fun, goofy, and over-the-top brawl between the east and the west.

The final short before the bookend of the film, and quite possibly, my favorite sequence in the entire film, is called Chicken Man and Red Neck. It’s directed by Takashi Nakamura, and was inspired by two different Disney shorts, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Night on Bald Mountain. The story of this sequence is basically a giant, devil-like robot that comes out during the night in Tokyo, and brings forth a red cloaked robot named Red Neck. Red Neck then helps bring robots and machines to life for a night of havoc and partying, with only a single drunk human named Chicken Man awake during this whole night of chaos.

For Robot Carnival being a first-time project for some of these big names in animation, it’s interesting to see what they came up with. It’s like giving a first-time animator/director the funding to make a short film about whatever they want. What would they come up with? What kind of story would they want to tell? Of course, some of the shorts lean more on 80s anime-style themes, and look like Deprive and Star Light Angel, which look like anime from the time, but then you see some truly outstanding anime that I personally never saw during that period of time of the anime scene. Segments like Cloud and Chicken Man and Red Neck are prime examples. To me, anything from Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar, and anime in general, is at its best when they have a story to tell, and not cynically make the film/show just because some higher-up execs want to sell a lot of merchandise or try way too hard to appeal to the average Joe. I don’t like anime that is blatant fan-service, or tries to cater to one crowd. When you use the medium of anime/animation to tell a story, and give the viewer an experience they can all get into, then everyone wins. Cloud is just experimental for anime, and Chicken Man and Red Neck is just an intense, but crazy ride that is a joy to watch. Some of the other shorts can also be emotionally gripping, like Presence, where you see the surprise, fear, joy, and sadness throughout the entire short when the inventor realizes his creation has gained life in a way he was not prepared for. I know there are probably some underlying tones and themes with a couple of the shorts like how Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion is themed around Japanese World War II propaganda, with the west invading the east, but in the end, it’s fun to see a creative giant robot fight.

To me, the animation is amazing throughout the entire film. This was impressive-looking visuals from 1987, a few years before Akira changed the face with how anime is, well, animated. It’s all very expressive, and it shows why anime from the 80s to the 90s was so cool. Anime these days is very paint-by-numbers, clean, and very predictable looking. Anime during the 80s and 90s had much more varied-looking male and female characters. I think one character out of the entire anthology that is a good example of this Chicken Man. He was very expressive, kind of goofy-looking, and was probably inspired by the movement and mannerisms of Ichabod Crane from Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. His response to everything that goes on around him is complimented by the great musical score and the really creative visuals. Of course, Cloud might be the most visually interesting, since it’s basically something so anti-anime that it looks like it could fit right in with the original Fantasia. I know I talk about a few of the shorts in more detail than others, but that doesn’t mean that shorts like Franken Gears, Deprive, or Star Light Angel shouldn’t be commended for being fun and interesting, since they both look like something ripped right out of the 80s, with a huge slice of 80s music cheese, and not to mention Deprive’s villain, who has one of the goofiest hairstyles I have ever seen.

If I had to pick a major complaint with the anthology, it is, of course, the problem with most anthology films, in that some shorts won’t be as good as others. Granted, it’s not as bad as Halo Legends, but I don’t know anyone who said that Star Light Angel and Deprive were the best shorts on the disc. I also found the English dub part during Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion to be slightly stereotypical for the Japanese side of the short’s conflict. It almost sounds like Mickey Rooney’s character from Breakfast at Tiffany’s stereotype. Granted, I purchased the older DVD version from Vscape Enterprise, but now Robot Carnival is owned by Discotek Media, and I can’t find a way to know if the Discotek Media version is just the same dub or not. If you do watch this short, just watch it in the Japanese dub with English subtitles, since the short is unique with the west speaking English, and the east speaking Japanese.

Robot Carnival is a fun and visually exciting experience. I can’t recommend this anthology film enough for not only anime fans, but fans of movies and animation should make sure to obtain this movie. Like I said above, there are two versions of the DVD to find. You can get the Vscape Enterprise version, which just has the English dub, Japanese dub, English subtitles, and the theatrical trailer. It’s a region 0 DVD. It’s probably the version you will find the most on Ebay. Oh, and it’s an import, and thankfully, not a bootleg. However, if you would rather have a nicer more prestigious-looking cover for your DVD box, and a more official American release version, then go get the Discotek media version. I am personally probably going to do that in the future. Unfortunately, depending on which one you get, the DVD itself lacks content, which is a really big disappointment, since I would have loved to have seen the individual directors talk about their inspiration for each of the shorts. It’s amazing to know that this film came out a few years before the groundbreaking Akira, but has been unfortunately forgotten by the mass movie-going public. Again, if you want to see some of the best animation/anime that the 80s could offer, and love animation, you owe it to yourself to own this movie. Well, we are getting close to the 20th animation review. If you want to see me review either Delgo, Cool World, or Triplets of Belleville, make sure to put a comment below the article, send me a message on my Facebook, or send me an email. For now, we need another movie to pass the time. How about we talk about the first mainstream Spanish-animated film with The Book of Life? Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

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