Sunday, October 4, 2015

Video Backlog: “Memories”

Publisher: Siren Visual (Australia)
Format: Region B Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 113 minutes
Production Date: 1995
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

“Memories” is a three part omnibus film based on three different one shot manga by Katsuhiro Otomo (of “Akira” fame). The first story is called "Magnetic Rose". By the last decade of the 21st century, man has conquered space and left debris of old space craft littered across the universe. As a result, salvage companies comb the far reaches of space taking anything of value from old disused satellites and other junked spacecraft. We follow one of these salvage ships, the Corona, and its crew; the captain Ivanov, navigator and computer expert Aoshima, second in command and engineer Heinz, and womanising second engineer Miguel. After disposing of a disused satellite and rejecting a final job from head office, the crew of Corona prepares to head back to civilisation for a well-earned break. However a S.O.S. message derails their plans. This is no ordinary S.O.S. Someone seems to be broadcasting Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly”. Unfortunately the message is coming from an area called Sargasso, nicknamed the graveyard of space, which is full of highly volatile magnetic storms. Despite Aoshima reminding the crew that the computer has no anti-magnetic shielding and Miguel voicing his displeasure of having to go rescue someone, Ivanov knows by law they must answer the rescue call and makes the decision to do so.

The Corona traces the point of transmission and discovers what seems to be hundreds of junked spacecraft in pieces. At the centre of this space junkyard is an oddly shaped wreck. Miguel and Heinz fly to the airlock of the wrecked vessel in their small shuttle craft. Fearing that the transmission could by a trap set by pirates, Miguel and Heinz have their guns drawn at all times. The spacecraft seems to be quite old but seems to have fresh oxygen aboard. The pair exit the elevator after the last airlock and utterly surprised to discover what seems to be an opulent European interior with massive chandeliers and what seems to be a large painting of the owner, a dark European woman in a red dress. Miguel spots what he thinks is a woman with a parasol on a grassy hill in the distance. Thinking it is a survivor he runs after her but ends up running through a hologram and into the wall behind it. Heinz laughs at him, but the pair is put on alert again when a cherub-like servant robot comes up to them stating that dinner is ready. The pair follow the robot into a dining room where they discover a sumptuous meal which actually turns out to fake. In fact most of the items inside the ship seem to be pale imitations of the real thing or in various states of decay.

In another room they discover large collections of trophies and awards and a small hologram of the ship’s owner Eva Friedel. They discover she was an opera diva that was popular nearly one hundred years ago. Eventually she lost her voice and became a dancer but felt unfulfilled. Tragically her fiancé, Carlo Rambaldi, was murdered only a few weeks before they were due to get married. Miguel discovers that the source of the S.O.S. transmission is moving. The two decide to split up to track it down and to find any possible survivors. The pair are soon drawn into a hallucinatory world seemingly controlled by Eva Friedel, but is in fact the ship’s computer who has seemingly taken on her personality. While Miguel is taken in by this world, Heinz refuses to be trapped and struggles to escape its clutches. Outside a magnetic storm is kicking up and the crew of the Corona must decide to wait for their crewmates or abandon them and save themselves.

In the second segment, “Stink Bomb”, Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals lab technician Nobuo Tanaka is having a hard time battling his flu. Despite having a flu shot at the medical centre and taking practically every flu tablet on the market, he still can’t shake it. A work colleague advises Nobuo that a new fever medicine has been developed by the company and a sample is on the section chief’s desk and he should try it to see if it works. Later that day Nobuo visits the section chief’s office to hand him a report. He’s not there, but Nobuo notices what he thinks are the sample fever tables his colleague mentioned. Thinking he has nothing to lose, he takes one and decides to rest in the visitors’ room. Later in the afternoon the section chef races into labs in a panicked state desperate to discover who took one of the sample pills. Upon being advised that it was Nobuo and that he hasn’t left the building, he races off to find him. Meanwhile the staff begin to detect a strange smell but cannot decipher what exactly it is.

Nobuo wakes the next morning a little anxious that he slept right though the afternoon and into the night. It’s almost time for staff to be coming into work, but there isn’t any sign of movement. Nobuo passes the reception desk to find the receptionist seemingly asleep. When he tries to wake her she slumps to floor, apparently dead for a number of hours. He tries to find others to help him, but can only find dead or seemingly unconscious colleagues everywhere. He calls the emergency telephone number for an ambulance. Afterwards he discovers the section chief slumped over near the biological contamination alarm which he apparently disabled before his death. Nobuo is baffled as to why the chief has done this and cautiously decides to reactivate it. The alarm immediately triggers and a bank of TV monitors turn on to show several panicked men in suits from Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals trying to figure out what is going on. One of them, Kyoichi Nirasaki who is head of new medicine development, takes control and questions Nobuo about what tripped the alarm. Confused about the incident and alarmed about the local authorities finding about the research, he orders Nobuo to gather up the data and sample of a new type of secretly developed medicine and take them from his current location near Kofu in Yamanashi prefecture to the company’s headquarters in Tokyo, about 140 km away. He is ordered to tell no one he is from the company and leave before the authorities arrive.

Nobuo realises the medicine in question is same he took the previous day. On his way to the train station via a bicycle he discovers dead animals everywhere and strangely plants in full bloom, seemingly attempting to reproduce as they die, even though it’s still winter. He later discovers several car accidents with the drivers dead, including the ambulance he called for. The city Kofu is the same. In Tokyo at the Self Defence Force headquarters, Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals president Kamata as well as Nirasaki are called in to explain what is going on. The drug in question was made for the Self Defence Force under the orders of the minister to counter effect biological weapons but had unintended side effects which the company was researching. The army soon reports that the epicentre of the disaster seems to be moving, something which makes no sense until Nirasaki explains that Nobuo is bringing documentation and samples of the drug to Tokyo. It dawns on everyone that Nobuo is the cause of the biological contamination. This is confirmed by soldiers evacuating a panicked population and the fact everyone else is dead in the affected areas except Nobuo. Somehow the combination of the drug as well as the flu medication in his body has made Nobuo a walking biological bomb. The decision is made to try to kill him, but he is now emitting a yellow cloud gas and no one can get close to him due to the toxicity and pungent smell of the gas. With Tokyo in panic and seemingly conventional weapons malfunctioning due to the gas, they have to somehow stop him reaching Tokyo.

The final segment, “Cannon Fodder”, revolves around a young boy who lives in a militaristic society. The society is literally walled in with just about every single aspect of the citizen’s lives revolving around the military and a war against an unseen enemy. The film also follows the life of the boy’s family; a mother which works in munitions factory and the father who is a munitions loader for giant cannon. While the local media report that they are succeeding in the battle and the war will soon be over, it is clear that some of the citizens are apathetic to the cause. The father of the family is latter reprimanded due to the fact his unit botched a cannon loading. His young son has dreams of being a prestigious officer who fires the large cannons with much pomp and ceremony and definitely doesn’t want to be a cannon loader like his father.

I think I first discovered “Memories” via the manga anthology of the same name which was published in 1995 by Random House (an Australian reprint of the 1994 Mandarin Books UK version which was in turn compiled from single issue comics published by Marvel imprint Epic Comics in 1992). I recall the only story from the film in the anthology was the "Magnetic Rose" story and the other two didn’t appear. The original anthology called “Memories of Her...” was published in 1990 and contains far more material than its English translated counterparts. The film version was apparently conceived as a set of OVAs, but in 1995 eventually was upgraded into a theatrical feature. Then in 1996 or 1997, the local anime club ran the film which was taped off the Japanese laserdisc which had English subtitles via closed captions. I loved the film when I saw it and searched out for a fansubbed copy as soon as I could.

All three segments are really interesting films. “Magnetic Rose” was directed by Koji Morimoto, the founder of Studio 4°C who also did the animation. He’s not the best known director but has directed the "Franken's Gears" segment of “Robot Carnival”, “Noiseman Sound Insect”, the “Beyond” segment of “The Animatrix “ and “First Squad”. The script was written by Satoshi Kon who adds a sub plot involving Heinz and his deceased daughter which beefs up the original story. It’s unsurprising that this segment of the film is the one that’s always considered the best in the film by critics and fans alike. The animation is stunning (though some of the CG looks dated), it’s highly suspenseful and has a fantastic soundtrack by Yoko Kanno (incorporating previously published music by Maria Callas). It’s really hard to fault this segment at all.

The “Stink Bomb” segment was directed by Tensai Okamura  who’s most famous for also directing “Blue Exorcist” and “Wolf's Rain”. Over the years I’ve really come to love this segment and I think finally it’s become my favourite in the anthology. Nobuo is such a gormless, hapless idiot who never, ever figures out he is the cause of the disaster. Add in some amazingly detailed animation including some completely over the top military sequences animated by Madhouse. I do love Otomo’s dark humour and here it is really dark and exceptionally humorous. His character designs are great too. He does plain and ugly characters just brilliantly. It’s fantastic farce where not only the military are portrayed as complete nitwits who can’t even kill one man despite what firepower they throw at him (not exactly their fault, but…), but the pharmaceutical company who end up nearly destroying a country due to a single pill. The music is great too with a weird mix of ska, military marches and brooding sting quartet with some additional brass.

“Cannon Fodder”, directed by Otomo himself, is probably the least successful of the trio. However it’s still a great film. It’s far less frantic than the other two and also less realistic looking. From start to finish it’s just one long continuous tracking shot (though there’s a few cheats along the way) as it follows one day in the life of a family who live in a militaristic society. At times it reminded me of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, especially the scenes of the citizens heading off to work. The music in this segment is also quite interesting with a strange collection of instruments being used such as a Jew’s harp and accordion along with synthesisers. The biggest letdown of “Cannon Fodder” is the CG done by Studio 4°C who did all of the animation in this segment. It does look dated, especially with its use of mapping. In particular items on wall which should be 3D end up looking very 2D as the camera makes its way through a hallway. At the very least the story is quite thought provoking and the end of the film implies that everyone knows there is no enemy.

Siren’s Blu-ray of the film is quite stunning. It has never looked this good in English. In fact the resolution is so good it shows that the effects in "Magnetic Rose" were rather low-res and muddy (well compared to modern day effects). This is probably to be expected as it’s a 20 year old film and the CG effects do show their age. However the cel animation looks brilliant and clear. You can even read the documents on the table in military briefing room in “Stink Bomb”, one of which seems to be a Majestic 12 manual! The disc also comes with a terrible looking trailer (4:3 letterboxed) and a making of featurette which includes interviews with the directors and all of the pilot films, though I think some parts of the pilot films were cobbled together for the featurette. Both of these extras are direct ports from the original laserdisc and DVD versions. I still have the original Bandai Visual DVD set I bought back in 1999 of this film. It came in LD sized packaging with a reproduction theatrical programme (and English subtitles on the disc of course). I really don’t think I can sell that or junk it. It’s too nice to lose.

It’s really weird to think that this film is only available in English on Blu-ray in Australia. I really don’t understand why more of a fuss has been kicked up over its release here. Maybe that’s due to the fact it previously hasn’t had a decent release in English (sub only DVD from Sony in the US back in 2004). This film deserves to be seen and appreciated by more anime fans. I just adore the film and find it far superior to Otomo’s more recent omnibus anime film “Short Peace”. 9 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Nothing.

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