Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Neo Tokyo
Continuing my look at the non-Akira works of famed anime director Katsuhiro Otomo, today we enter the beguiling, disturbing and bizarre Neo Tokyo, the second of two anime anthologies he contributed segments to in 1987 — the first was Robot Carnival. Whereas Robot Carnival comprised of nine short films, Neo-Tokyo contains only three separate stories, much like the later Memories, not apparently linked by any overarching theme.
Based on the short story collection Meikyu Monogatari (Labyrinth Tales) by Taku Mayumura, each of Neo Tokyo’s three segments is written and directed by a legend of Japanese animation, from the aforementioned Otomo, to Rintaro, and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Each brings their own marked, peculiar sensibilities to their short films, each singularly striking in their own way.
Known also by the title Manie Manie in Japan, it was only later renamed to Neo Tokyo for its Western release. I wonder if this was to capitalise on its Otomo/Akira connections? I also recall reading somewhere that originally the film was to have a fourth segment, but that its director passed away or something. A prolonged Google search brought up no confirmation. If anyone has any information about this, please do leave a comment to protect my sanity! Anyway, let’s focus on the segments that do exist.
Labyrinth Labyrinthos (dir. Rintaro)
Co-director of studio Madhouse (who produced Neo Tokyo), Rintaro’s real name is Shigeyuki Hayashi, and his anime resume is voluminous. He’s perhaps best known in the West as director of the 1978 Space Pirate Captain Harlock TV series, two Galaxy Express 999 movies (1979, 1981), Harmagedon (1983, character design by Katsuhiro Otomo), X (1996, movie version) and Metropolis (2011, screenplay by Katsuhiro Otomo). Here, he lends his skills to depicting a deeply surreal, dreamlike piece about a little girl and her cat exploring a strange world, meeting weird apparitions.
The little girl, Sachi, must only be around five years of age, and we view everything through her perspective. At the beginning of the short we hear a tiny amount of dialogue from her mother, but the rest is wordless — an increasingly bizarre game of hide-and seek between Sachi and her pet cat Cicerone as they journey through unsettling dreamscapes set to classical music, including excerpts from the opera Carmen. Full of unsettling, dark imagery, Sachi herself never seems frightened — merely curious at the constant parade of men with red glowing eyes, circus carriages teetering on tall spindly legs, and strange, grinning clowns. Cicerone, however, gets to freak out at an invisible dog, detectable only by its floating collar.
There isn’t much of a story to this, the focus is on visual opulence and truly phantasmagorical imagery. In aesthetics, its red, black, and grey/blue otherwordliness looks nothing like anything else labelled “anime”. The animation itself is buttery smooth, loose, expressive and plays with perspective and form, like a heady mashup of 1950s Walt Disney, the Fleischer Brothers and MC Escher. The animators flex constantly, with characters moving into and out of the screen via extreme angles, sometimes even the background is set into full, hand-drawn motion.
Cicerone and the clown are the most overtly cartoony aspects, whereas Sachi herself moves and emotes exactly like you would expect a small child with boundless energy and unquenchable curiosity to. Although Sachi’s surroundings are deeply unsettling, she seems utterly unperturbed, and this is no disconcerting morality tale. She follows the clown into a darkened circus tent, but isn’t molested or abducted. No, he just shows her a cinema screen, and the movie segues discordantly into the next ultraviolent short, definitely unsuitable for a little girl. The monster.
Running Man (dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
Another director famous in the West, Yoshiaki Kawajiri is renowned for his dark, violent works Wicked City (1987), Demon City Shinjuku (1988), Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990), Ninja Scroll (1993), Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000) and X (2001, TV version). His character designs have a very distinctive, clean-lined, chiseled, and high-contrast look, like anime made with terrifying Greek gods. Men are very manly, built like brick shithouses, perpetually scowling/growling/grimacing/screaming. Women aren’t often prominent. Kawajiri’s films are disturbing and graphic, and Running Man is no different — it’s a jarring change in tone from the meandering, delirious whimsy of Labyrinth Labyrinthos.
An almost hilariously hardboiled journalist (think Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe) narrates this story of terrifyingly intense race car driver Zack Hugh (I say race car, but it’s some kind of futuristic hoverthingy), who has survived race after race at the “Death Circus”, a perpendicular spiral track where life is cheap and death comes easy. (I’ll stop the noir cliches now, honest…) Our unnamed narrator witnesses Zack’s final, spectacular race, filled with explosions and the violent deaths of his competitors, intercut with scenes of Zack overusing his powerful telekinesis skills during training.
Running Man’s futuristic track is very reminiscent of Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm’s (Battle Angel Alita) Motorball, and I wonder if it was an influence on the manga (first published in 1990, three years after Neo Tokyo). It’s hard to believe this was hand-drawn. The smooth motion of the track and the incredible, fluid movement of the vehicles is nothing short of remarkable, and this section demonstrates some of the most over-the-top, intricate and incendiary explosions ever committed to cel animation.
Although overly dark in palette and tone, the searingly bright conflagrations as Zack psychokinetically destroys his opponents’ vehicles are spectacular. Zack himself displays a quite incredible face game as his powers threaten to overwhelm his body, as his teeth clench, his eyes roll back in his head, and blood spews from every orifice. It’s… visceral, to say the least.
Lacking in substance, it’s a dark and dirty showcase of cool animation, which is exactly what it’s going for. There’s fast racing, detonating fireballs, squelching body horror and screaming, manly men. Essentially it’s everything Yoshiaki Kawajiri loves in anime, distilled down to a pure fifteen minutes of concentrated insanity. Unlike the first section, this part really isn’t suitable for kids, and I’m glad I never watched it with my 11-year-old son.
Construction Cancellation Order (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
Otomo’s section is probably the most highly regarded of all three, and it’s easy to see why. Again, like with his contributions to Robot Carnival, this is Otomo in humour mode, though as is common to his works, there’s an underlying, serious philosophical theme. Japanese salaryman Tsutomu Sugioka is sent by his employer to an unstable banana republic in South America to shut down the autonomous Facility 444 run by robots. Otomo takes pains to illustrate the chaotic and dangerous surrounding jungle environment. Everything is covered in water, dirt and vegetation. The facility itself is visibly crumbling beneath the onslaught of nature, and Tsutomu’s transport abandons him to the whims of the facility’s malfunctioning overseer robot 444–1.
An absurdist cautionary tale about the dangers of over-automation, the facility’s head robot prioritises the progression of his work (further construction and repair of the facility) as of paramount importance, and nothing must stand in the way of this prime directive, least of all an upstart fleshy human. Other (very expensive) robots are sacrificed by 444–1 in his drive for efficiency and productivity. To his horror and frustration, due to his insistence on stopping production, Tsutomu is imprisoned in his office and brought trays of “food” by his robot tormentor that become progressively less edible as each day passes, eventually devolving into bits and pieces of rusted metal.
444–1 is both comedic and scary — although he’s slow, juddery and eccentric, his dedication to his work renders him capable of maiming and even killing human beings. Part Terminator, part unsteady elderly old man, he evokes conflicting feelings of frustration and amusement mixed with a kind of existential dread. He really does represent a totally alien kind of “intelligence”, one so singlemindedly resolute on a single goal, that no amount of logic or adverse occurrences will alter his path. See the game Universal Paperclips for a more recent, extreme, interactive (and existentially horrifying) examination of this concept.
Otomo’s character designs, as always, are very distinctive, and fitting with the rest of Neo Tokyo, not exactly anime standard. Tsutomu isn’t a typical anime protagonist — he’s a white-collar company man, here to do a job that his superiors have fundamentally misjudged, yet he’s left to get on with it. Faced with lunacy and unthinkingly idiotic automatons at every turn, it’s hardly surprising that he loses his cool. Any “little” person who has every felt like an irrelevant cog in a massive corporate machine that grinds inviduality into dust should empathise with him. Even 35 years on, Otomo’s short hasn’t lost its sharply satirical edge.
It’s a shame that the ending stops short of Tsutomo’s implied pyrrhic revenge on the titanic machine intelligence at the heart of the facility’s malfunction, it’s left to the viewer’s imagination to imagine how the story truly ends. Like any good corporate satire, it of course concludes with tragic mistimed communication of new orders. In a way, Tsutomu himself comes to mirror the singleminded destructive impulse of his robot tormentors. Construction Cancellation Order is the most coherent, least “arty” short of the whole film, and therefore is more accessible to any viewer.
We briefly return to the circus and little Sachi, who, despite becoming surrounded by weird misshapen monstrosities, joins in the merry dance of the circus-thingies. Embracing each other, she and the apparently friendly clown dance off into places and realms unknown.
It’s an uneven trio of short films, that apart from sharing an original short story author, really have little connection to one another artistically or thematically. Each one is a labour of love, full of arresting imagery and incredibly skilled animation. Only Otomo’s short works as a story, while the other two are more technical showcases that evoke a particular mood or concept.
While not as varied as Robot Carnival, nor as long as Memories, Neo Tokyo is definitely worth seeking out to watch at least once, as a great example of what truly talented creators can achieve when left to their own devices. It’s almost impossible to track down the 2004 Region 1 DVD from ADV Films now, and it’s not streaming anywhere either, which means curious viewers must find… other… means by which to experience this. It’s a shame, as it makes a fantastic companion piece to Robot Carnival. Maybe one day Crunchyroll, HIDIVE or even RetroCrush could pick it up? Please?
Next time, I’ll be back with a look at Katsuhiro Otomo’s other big movie, Steamboy. See you then!
Directed by: Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Katsuhiro Otomo
Written by: Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Katsuhiro Ōtomo
Based on: Meikyū Monogatari by Taku Mayumura
Production: Project Team Argos, Madhouse
Japanese home video premiere: October 10, 1987
Japanese cinematic release: April 15, 1989
US NTSC VHS release: 1993 (Streamline Pictures)
US NTSC Region 1 DVD release: September 14, 2004 (ADV)
Runtime: 50 minutes
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
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