Hot on the heels of reviewing Memories, I looked at Neo-Tokyo, a close cousin to that three-part anthology film. Neo-Tokyo is much shorter — it’s only fifty minutes to the other movie’s 110 — but it packs about as much imagination and eye-filling imagery into its running time. The project was produced by Masao Maruyama and features three different directors each bringing to life one of Maruyama’s stories. Memories’s own Katsuhiro Ōtomo directed the third; Rintaro (Metropolis) the first; and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (“Program” and “World Record” from The Animatrix) the second. All are good to different degrees, but it’s Ōtomo’s segment that wins out overall.
Rintaro’s opener, “Labyrinth Labyrinthos” is essentially a bookending segment: it opens and closes the whole thing, and serves as a nice introduction to the twilight-zone territory we’ll be traversing. Essentially a fantasia about a young girl and her cat, it’s got the same trippy, reality-bending feel to it as Cat Soup: shadows turn into black slime that cover city walls; a circus tent becomes home to all manner of phantasmagoria; all is illusion. There’s no real story, but it’s worth it for the quality of the animation alone. The name value, as well: Rintaro has been one of the most consistently interesting animation directors in the world, not just Japan, and has broken ground with most everything he’s done. “Labyrinth” also owes its trippy look at least in part to Atsuki Fukushima, who also animated two segments in the underappreciated animation anthology Robot Carnival.
Kawajiri’s “Running Man” may already be familiar to some people: it was shown in a somewhat abbreviated form on MTV’s animation showcase series Liquid Television. Again, the story takes a backseat to a purely visionary experience, involving a futuristic race-car driver who can’t let himself stop no matter what. Kawajiri’s art style is highly idiosyncractic — he prefers highly-detailed faces and somewhat elongated bodies (as per his designs for both Ninja Scroll movie and TV series). At one point the driver’s mouth opens in a great, exaggerated scream, and because it’s animated, we don’t feel distracted by the fact that a person’s mouth never opens that wide. “Man” also boasts excellent background work; the cityscape surrounding the future racetrack is classic stuff.
Ōtomo’s segment shows him doing what he does best: blowing up the world. “Construction Cancellation Order” involves a hapless construction-company worker who’s sent into the heart of the jungle to deliver a work-stoppage order. The construction site is a whole city — one built entirely by robots, with a single human overseer. Unfortunately the robots long since terminated the human as a threat to productivity, and now threaten to do the same to their new master. There’s also plenty of Ōtomo’s droll black humor along the way: every meal delivered by the robot overseer gets progressively worse, until he’s serving scrap metal basted in oil. The climax will probably strike people as inconclusive and rushed, but it worked fine for me — and, at that point, there was really only one direction left for the story to go anyway.
“Showcase” productions like this are always interesting, because I can get two things from them: I can see yet-unseen work by directors and animators whose past work I’ve enjoyed, and I can discover new talents. “Neo-Tokyo” was originally created in 1986, so it predates almost all of the work I’ve experienced by the three featured here. Ōtomo, for instance, was most likely still working on Akira (1988) when this was released. Rintaro had already produced Harmagedon, Dagger of Kamui and Firebird/Hi no Tori — three of his signature works, the latter of which remains incomprehensibly unseen by Western audiences. Kawajiri had also collaborated with Rintaro on Kamui and Harmagedon, and released the widely-lauded Wicked City, which had a solid story to match its spectacular look.
Maruyama, the producer, is another interesting case. Aside from being the founder of the legendary animation production outfit Studio Madhouse, he’s brought several key animation projects to fruition. Most recently he was responsible for the excellent Monster, a TV adaptation of a manga series that absolutely deserves a licensed release, and was also one of the guiding lights being Cardcaptor Sakura (a favorite of mine) and the X TV series. He is also a frequent collaborator with Satoshi Kon — Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers all involved his hand in one form or another.
Come to think of it, anthologies like this may be a good way to introduce people to anime when their exposure to it has been limited to whatever glimpses they’ve caught on the Cartoon Network. They show the very best talents in the field really sticking their necks out, doing something more than just trying to create something that’ll have a toy tie-in.