Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Robot Carnival
Back in 2019, I reviewed anime anthology Memories, as its “Magnetic rose” segment was one of the first commercially available works of famed (and much-missed) director Satoshi Kon. Memories was overseen by Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo, who has long pushed the unusual cinematic anime anthology movie form. In addition to 1995's Memories, he worked on both of 1987’s Robot Carnival and Neo Tokyo, plus the later Short Peace (released in 2013, sharing a blu-ray disc with PS3 game Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day).
These anthology movies aren’t discussed often in today’s anime fandom, so I thought it would be fun to go back to look at them from a modern viewpoint, especially as some have never been available to me previously in the UK. During research for my old anime streaming article, I found to my unexpected delight that Robot Carnival was available to stream on Crunchyroll. Not so with Neo Tokyo — used DVDs for that are on Amazon US for $400. Um… no.
Robot Carnival was conceived as a short film showcase anthology for eight different anime directors, animated by studio A.P.P.P. (also responsible for Cream Lemon, Project A-ko and Roujin Z). The shorts vary greatly in length, tone and subject matter, unified only by the theme “robots”. As befitting a showcase, it’s full of weird imagery, bizarre concepts and super-detailed, intimidatingly impressive animation. Let’s go through each of the nine segments as they appear.
Opening (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
The bizarre opening sequence features Otomo’s off-the-wall humour that isn’t always prevalent in some of his more serious works. In this framing device, a desert village populated by subsistence folk is thrown into panic by the appearance of the movie’s mechanised title card, an enormous mobile Robot Carnival. It can’t help but be reminiscent of The Crimson Permanent Assurance segment of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (released in 1983, four years prior to Robot Carnival).
This mechanical monstrosity is populated by whimsical fairground robots who proceed to lauch missiles like fireworks, crush the village beneath enormous, indifferent tractor treads and self-detonate before unuspecting villagers. It’s very strange, and darkly comic to see what may be inferred to be the last surviving remnants of humanity terrorised by the autonomous, callous and inhuman military-industrial-entertainment complex. It sets a skewed, unpredictable tone for the movie — absolutely anything could happen next.
Franken’s Gears (dir. Koji Morimoto)
Koji Morimoto is co-founder of Studio 4°C, and worked as an animator for Otomo on Akira, plus directed segments of the other anthology films Memories, Mind Game, Short Peace and The Animatrix. Franken’s Gears is a very short segment, told without dialogue, about a Victor Frankenstein-esque mad scientist who brings a monstrous robot to life with the use of lightning, and his accidental comeuppance.
There isn’t much substance to it, but it has some very nice animation of gears, pulleys and laboratory destruction. The mad scientist guy carries around what I think might be supposed to be a globe of the world on his back, perhaps this signifies his desire to conquer the world with robots or something? It’s not very clear. It’s also almost monochromatic, set in a dank stone laboratory, depicted mostly in dark greys and blacks, a significant contrast to the opener’s bright colours and demented explosions.
Deprive (dir. Hidetoshi Omori)
Deprive is like a trippy 80’s prog rock/electronica instrumental music video, again with no dialogue. It’s a supremely cheesy slice of old-style sci-fi where a city is invaded by alien robots, a random girl is stolen away because reasons, and her lover must take up arms to rescue her. Obviously he’s a robot, because this is an equal opportunities movie with no judgement about interspecies romance, no Futurama-style persecution of Robosexuals here.
Anyway, he inexplicably dons a human disguise and proceeds to terminator-ise his way through armies of evil robots before facing the comedically effeminate final boss alien (with the most prominent eyeshadow this side of David Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King), in order to rescue his squishy lady love. Sweet, but again, insubstantial. Watching it now, it almost seems like a parody of overly-serious yet ridiculous action anime.
Presence (dir. Yasuomi Umetsu, best known as director/writer of Kite.)
Significantly longer in duration than the previous segments, Presence is a haunting, melancholy and vague story about a man who, starved of affection as a youth, builds himself a female automaton doll as an adult, unbeknownst to his family. His wife pays him little attention — she’s ambitious and career focused — so he seeks emotional attachment elsewhere, in his workshop full of clockwork toys. When the unnamed doll begins to display a mind and desires of her own, asks him for a name, and demands he pays attention to her as her own being, he snaps and breaks her.
As an examination of arrested emotional development and the abused becoming the abuser, it’s got more depth than the previous segments, though its message becomes increasingly opaque as time marches on, and the man ages. He apparently hallucinates the doll exploding in front of him on one occasion, despite subsequently confirming she still lies broken and discarded on his workshop floor. The ending is ambiguous but somehow hopeful. It’s best viewed as a mood piece with some stunningly beautiful design and fabric animation work, with imagery that persists long in the mind.
Star Light Angel (dir. Hiroyuki Kitazume— Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, Moldiver)
One of the most achingly 80’s segments, this follows a hair-ribboned teenage girl at a robot theme park who runs off in distress when she discovers her boyfriend has been two-timing her with her blonde-bunchied best friend. She finds herself plonked by slightly creepy robot arms onto a fairground ride/VR experience/hallucination where she proceeds to fly around the amusement park accompanied by one of the robot employees who fights off a massive and deranged mecha. There are lots of anguished tears, but once more no dialogue. The soundtrack comprises super-cheesy 80’s J-pop ballads.
It’s pure, colourful, dumb, bubblegum fun, and the climactic mecha fight really shows off the strengths of detailed 2D cel animation when it comes to depicting creative and engaging action sequences. There’s a fun twist regarding the helpful robot’s identity. Much like with the earlier Deprive segment, there are strong music video vibes here, which is fitting, as apparently the video for A-ha’s Take On Me was a major inspiration.
Cloud (dir. Manabu Ohashi — as Mao Lamdo)
So, uh… Yeah. I don’t know what to make of this segment. Essentially a monochromatic lithograph slide show in motion set to soothing music, I imagine it’s probably meant to signify something profound… but honestly it’s kind of boring. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is so soporific, though perhaps that’s deliberate. A small robot boy trudges across the landscape, while behind him the clouds morph and change, sometimes taking the shape of people or objects. There’s a knight fighting a dragon, what looks like Olympian gods and cherubs, a lightning storm, a mushroom cloud…
Yes, it’s pretty, but I haven’t a clue what any of it means. It looks like an overly obtuse art school project. There isn’t a narrative that I can identify. It’s my least favourite segment because clearly I’m an uneducated Philistine who wants my cartoons to be exciting and full of boobs and fast cars, or something.
Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion (dir. Hiroyuki Kitakubo — Golden Boy, Roujin Z and Blood: The Last Vampire.)
From ponderous vagueness to unhinged slapstick, I experienced significant tonal whiplash between this short and the last. A comedic period piece, set in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), it features enormous wooden mecha battling it out in an altogether fragile town. Robot Carnival’s second mad scientist seems bent on destroying the town with his enormous lumber robot, and he’s portrayed as an unwelcome, invading Westerner. The subbed version has the Japanese characters obviously speaking Japanese, while the invader screams his threats in English so he is subtitled in Japanese, and none of the other characters understand him.
The English dub is kind of problematic in that all the characters speak English, however the Japanese characters are portrayed with terrible “mock oriental accents”. There’s not a chance in hell this would fly today, and it makes it more excruciating to watch than it should. With designs courtesy of Evangelion’s Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the characters looks like they could easily fit in a Meiji-period-set Royal Space Force — The Wings of Honneamise, although they over-emote and shout far more than their more serious movie counterparts.
Strange Tales is fun but very silly. At one point the mad scientist runs out of batteries so must power his mecha with a bicycle! I also expect there are lots of little historical references that flew over my head as I watched it, though not the incredibly on-the-nose “Rising Sun” imagery at victory’s end (hilariously identified instead to be a setting sun by the only sensible character, a hot-headed female).
Chicken Man and Red Neck (dir. Takashi Nakamura — Fantastic Children, Harmony)
This one is a full-blown delirious nightmare sequence like something ripped from Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain, but instead of demons it features misshapen, convulsing robots. A hapless, drunken salaryman awakens from his nap in an alleyway staircase to find night-time Tokyo overrun with hordes of malevolent automatons. An enormous godlike monstrosity conducts the madness, and its red-caped harbinger of destruction chases the man on his moped down streets strewn with rubble and metal protrusions.
Relentless and dream-like in its nonstop chase structure, Chicken Man and Red Neck is perhaps one of the most accessible segments of Robot Carnival. It’s all about the spectacle, and the chills, with its horror-infused imagery and creepy soundtrack. I liked this one a lot.
Ending (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
And we return to the desert, and Otomo’s bonkers opening sequence, with the titular Robot Carnival itself struggling through the desert, straining to crest an enormous dune, succeeding only to fall apart at the seams, the title letters falling off and rolling into the desert. Credits roll and we see happier times, robots performing before delighted human audiences when the carnival presumably wasn’t so mindlessly destructive.
We leave the film with a desert nomad discovering a shiny ball in the carnival’s wreckage, and bringing it back to his family. At the dining table, the children are delighted that it’s a miniature carnival all of its own, with one of those little dancing robots that look so harmless and funny.
Of course it detonates the house and its inhabitants, as one final screw you, fleshy humans! from the carnival’s robots. That’s certainly one hilariously dark way to end your anthology. My earlier Monty Python comparison was very apt…
Thanks for staying with me on this journey into robotic anime past. It’s a weird and uneven movie, but apart from the slow, hypnotic Cloud sequence, it’s never boring. I’m glad this relatively obscure but important anthology is easily available now on Crunchyroll. Join me soon as I break out my eyepatch and wooden leg to track down a watchable copy of Neo Tokyo.
Directed by: Hidetoshi Omori, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, Mao Lamdo, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu
Written by: Atsuko Fukushima, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mao Lamdo, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu
Runtime: 90 minutes
Music by: Joe Hisashi and Isaku Fujita
Japanese theatrical release: July 21 1987
US region 1 DVD: September 1st 2015
US Region A Blu-ray: March 27th 2018
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
Available to stream on: Crunchyroll (UK+US), Amazon Prime (US only)
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