Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Video Backlog: “Robot Carnival”

Publisher: Eastern Star (Discotek, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles
Length: 90 minutes
Production Date: 1987
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

An omnibus OVA, as it sounds, “Robot Carnival” contains nine shorts about robots. The opening and closing segments tell the story of a giant decrepit monolithic carrier which ploughs through the desert taking out a small village. Once a giant circus-like attraction, it is now a forgotten relic with its automated robots unintentionally killing, wounding and destroying anything in their path rather than original purpose of entertaining. But its time is coming to an end. "Franken's Gears" is the retelling of "Frankenstein", though this time the Doctor builds a robot, which mimics him a little too closely. "Deprive" is a rather conventional sci-fi story where a young girl is kidnapped by an invading band of robots. Her own personal servant robot goes on a quest to rescue her. In "Presence" a man married with children feeds his complex about women into the creation of a very human like girl. However the creation proves to be a little too human as she develops a conscience of her own which disturbs him.

"Star Light Angel" is a light shoujo-esqe story of two girls enjoying a day at a robot themed amusement park. When one of them introduces the other to her new boyfriend, she realises that he has been dating both of them. The other girl runs off, dropping a necklace that her boyfriend gave her. However a robot, who is smitten with her, decides to return it to her. Possibly the oddest film of the lot, "Cloud", is an arty abstract piece which follows a young robot boy walking through scenery of clouds, apparently an allegory for the history of mankind. "Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner's Invasion" is about a mad foreign scientist trying to invade Japan during the mid-19th century in his giant robot. A group of local teens use their own wooden robot (actually constructed for a town parade) to defend the city. However the battle is slow and becomes absurd due to the technological constraints of the time. In the final film, "Chicken Man and Red Neck", at night in Tokyo when everyone is asleep, the city taken over by various strange looking robots and machines. A drunken man awakens to find these machines everywhere and is chased down by one of the robots who seems to be a lookout for the machines.

While some consider the 1970's as the golden age of Japanese animation, the 1980's saw some real milestones and a number of more experimental and avant-garde anime being made mostly due to the bubble economy in Japan. The early 1980's also saw the birth of the direct to video anime or OVA (Original Video Animation). Despite some claiming "Robot Carnival" is a theatrical feature (though it was screened on the independent cinema circuit in the US in 1990), in Japan it was an OVA release. Though like many OVA releases of the period, I suspect it may have had a very limited theatrical release after its initial video release. Japanese movie programmes for the film do exist.

The film itself is a real surprise. Instead of using well known anime directors, most had only experience as key animators and character designers. The biggest name here is Katsuhiro Otomo of "Akira" fame. His contribution, the opening and closing segments, are great bookends to the rest of the film. As with a lot of his work, there is a lot of black humour with the juxtaposition of the horror and terror of the Robot Carnival machine mowing down an entire village, and the joy and fun that the carnival is supposed to and did bring in as seen in its previous working life. Some versions of the film only credit Otomo, while others also correctly credit Atsuko Fukushima as co-director. She is probably most famous for being a key animator on  "Kiki's Delivery Service", but also went on to direct the opening segment of another omnibus film Studio 4°C's "Genius Party". Speaking of Studio 4°C staff, one of their most famous staff members, Koji Morimoto, directs "Franken's Gears". He was director for the films "Fly! Peek the Whale" (released in the UK in the mid 1990's), the "Magnetic Rose" segment of "Memories" and the brilliant short film "Noiseman Sound Insect". Probably the biggest name other than Otomo here is Yasuomi Umetsu who is most (in)famous for his girls, guns and sex OVAs such as "Kite" and "Mezzo Forte". However he was also a very in demand character designer in the 1990's for a number of OVAs such as "Gatchaman" and "Casshan". His segment, "Presence", is probably the most beloved of all by fans. One of only two segments with any dialogue, it follows the story of a family fan who secretly builds a human like girl, but then rejects her when she becomes too human. It’s quite thought provoking, sad and even a little creepy at points.

While most of the films in the film are mostly experimental, they have a certain look to them which is very much like anime of that period. But Mao Lamdo's odd "Could" sticks out like a sore thumb. Based on his own picture book, "Snow and the Young Boy", the entire segment is nearly all black and white and mostly focuses on a young robot boy walking along while clouds and wild weather swirl behind him. The film is meant to be allegory of the history of humankind. Most reviewers seem to find this segment the most boring, which is fair enough. While it really doesn't seem to belong in this group of shorts at all and would probably work better as a separate animation aimed at the arthouse crowd rather, I found it rather interesting even if I didn’t get the subtext upon the first viewing. "Deprive" by Hideotoshi Ohmori is also one not liked by fans. However I don't mind this segment. The passing of time has aged it substantially, but I guess I'm sucker for 1980's animation, and this segment pretty much has all of the stereotypical elements of sci-fi anime of the mid 1980's. More liked however is Takashi Nakamura's " Chicken Man and Red Neck", based upon the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence from Disney's "Fantasia". Anime fans would be familiar with Nakamura's works such as "Fantastic Children" and "A Tree of Palme", both of which he created, designed and directed.

My own personal guilty pleasure and favourite from this film would have to be the "Star Light Angel" segment. This was directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume who at the time was most famous for being the character designer for "Gundam ZZ". In fact the two-timing boyfriend of the two female leads looks an awful lot like Char Aznable. Apparently there a few of cameos of characters he designed for other anime in the segment, however the only one I picked up was the incredibly blatant Tetsuo Shima and Akira cameo (from "Akira", obviously not designed by Kitazume), who walk right up to the camera. According to the soundtrack liner notes, the segment is inspired by A-ha's "Take on Me" music video. Though I think it's much cheesier than that. It's so 1980's and so happy, fun and bursting full of colour. Rounding out the collection is "Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner's Invasion " which supposedly a parody of WWII propaganda films of the 1940's. Like most of the directors here, Hiroyuki Kitakubo who directed the segment, has had quite an amazing carer. He helped with animation on "Urusei Yatsura" when he was only 15, was director on the first OVA in the infamous "Cream Lemon" series, and directed "Blood: the Last Vampire" and "Roujin Z". Another big name, Yoshiyuki Sadamato (of Evangelion fame) provides the character designs for the segment. Besides "Presence", this is the only other segment to include dialogue. Streamline, who produced the English dub, were criticised by some fans who claimed that the accents for the Japanese characters were slightly racist.

The quality of the production on all segments is quite amazing for a direct to video production. Almost all of the shots in each segment are animated at 24 frames per second, the same as big budget Disney films. In most anime you're lucky if you get 8 frames per second of animation. Almost every shot is incredibly fluid and detailed. The subject matter, while reasonable commercial for most of its length, isn't exactly what you'd equate with box office success especially when you view the entire film from start to finish. A lot of the films are rather abstract and even quite arty. You have to wonder why and how this film got the green light. However projects such as this weren't so uncommon in the 1980's. Films such as "Angel's Egg", "Labyrinth Tales (aka Manie-Manie or Neo Tokyo)" and others were being made and sat alongside more commercial fare. The entire soundtrack for the film is also a highlight. Joe Hisaishi, who has scored all of Hayao Miyazaki's films, wrote the music for all of the segments except "Cloud". Though all synthesiser based, the music is quite amazing and fits all of the pieces quite well and gives the entire film a coherency.

While the old Streamline pictures versions had some segments reordered (according to Carl Macek this was due to the fact there would be fewer reels for the US 35mm prints, something which he never explained until 2010, the changed order baffling anime fans for years). That version also omitted some of the closing credit animation/stills (as to remove the kanji credits, the Japanese end credits do appear as a bonus on the US Laserdisc). For the first time, in English language versions at least, the Eastern Star/Discotek version restores these parts as well having proper translated English subtitles (the out of print Korean and Japanese DVD versions only had “dubtitles”).

Unlike the Korean and Japanese DVD versions, this version is anamorphic widescreen, a first for this film. The original film was shot in open matte format, but unfortunately all DVD releases have been cropped for vista format (i.e. 16:9). Actually I’m pretty amazed at how Eastern Star/Discotek has handled the video, especially as it’s been sourced from poor composite video masters. It looks pretty darn amazing considering. Unfortunately like all DVD versions so far, a small segment at the end of "Presence", where the picture fades to black and the flapping of wings can be heard for 30 seconds afterward, is missing. Not sure why this is the case. I suspect it’s an error from the original mastering of the 2001 Japanese DVD which has carried on to all other versions.

"Robot Carnival" is an amazing film from an era of Japanese animation which we will probably never see the likes of again. Even though one or two of the shorts might be of lesser quality, the film as a whole package is pretty astounding. Besides Studio 4°C's small output, there are very few experimental films or even regular anime made now days that hasn't been thoroughly market researched and has planned otaku themed merchandise as a tie in. Also the animation quality in this film is absolutely amazing, even though filming artefacts are apparent throughout the film. In 2001 when Japanese studio A.P.P.P. made its debut into the US market with the label Super Techno Arts, it sourced ideas from American anime fans about which directors it should use for a planned sequel to the original film. Unfortunately it was never realised which I think is a real shame. While the Eastern Star/Discotek version doesn’t have the 100 page booklets about the making of the film like the old Japanese and Korean DVD versions, it’s still a worthwhile purchase as the video and subtitles are far superior to those versions. 8 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Seven series, 18 movies, five OVAs also waiting for second parts for two shows to be released before viewing them.

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