Stinky rose fodder: Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s Memories

It appears that one of the biggest victims of the mass-marketisation of animation starting around 2000 was the anthology of original animated shorts, which is a damn shame. Sure, you have things like The Animatrix and Pixar’s collections of animated short films nowadays – and those two are wonderful for what they are. Not to sound ungrateful for either of them, but let’s not pretend that they’re quite on the same level as the earlier animated anthologies. The Animatrix is a ‘safe’ extension of the Wachowski Brothers corporate franchise, and all of the stories take place in the same two-tiered post-apocalyptic universe of Neo, Morpheus and Agent Smith. And Pixar’s shorts were never meant to be released as anthologies, but instead as theatrical ‘teasers’ for their big-budget features. The anthologies themselves were released as almost an afterthought. The last of these anthologies to be released was, I believe, Short Peace in 2013. Tellingly, Short Peace was another Ôtomo Katsuhiro labour-of-love featuring old-school animation directors, and even the title has something of an elegiac quality to it. (EDIT: I may have spoken too soon. Reader Scott G reminded me of the recent Chinese animated short anthology Flavours of Youth, which was excellent. It may be that streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll will provide a decent platform for these kinds of anthologies going forward.)

I say the farewell of the animated short anthology is a damn shame, because Meikyû Monogatari and Robot Carnival featured some truly powerful, groundbreaking works of art. These collections dragged in new talent and gave aspiring animators an opportunity to show what they could do. The storytelling in these short collections had to be neat, crisp and efficient. They also pushed the envelope of what was possible in animation and allowed visual directors to ‘go for broke’ on new or experimental techniques, or else use traditional techniques in lush, painstaking ways that would not normally be possible in a TV serial.

Memories, Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s 1995 release, is no exception to this rule. I picked up this title on sale from the local Half Price Books, on recommendation of friend and fellow member of Kalamazoo College’s Anime Club Rob Klugerman. The nine bucks was incredibly well spent, and I was not in the least bit disappointed. Similar to Meikyû Monogatari, Memories consists of three adaptations of Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s short manga one-shots: ‘Magnetic Rose’, ‘Stink Bomb’ and ‘Cannon Fodder’. The directors are Studio 4°C founder Morimoto Kôji (the director of ‘Franken’s Gears’ in Robot Carnival) with writing by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tôkyô Godfathers), Tensai Okamura (Darker than Black, Wolf’s Rain) and Ôtomo Katsuhiro himself.

‘Magnetic Rose’ is an SFnal horror piece set in deep space and featuring the crew of the scrap-collecting salvage vessel Corona (ah, irony). After a long slog of collecting mostly worthless scrap, the pluricultural crew of the Corona are ready to return home when they receive a distress call, which happens to be an operatic snippet from Madame Butterfly. Owing to a stringent Good Samaritan law, the Corona crew move their ship into the haunted Sargasso region of space to render assistance, even though the EM field they enter will wreak havoc on their systems. The Corona crew sends over the womanising Miguel and the mourning father Heintz to investigate. But once they set foot inside, the two crewmen find themselves at the mercy of a mad AI, and the bewitching holographic recreations of one woman’s memories.

The second piece, ‘Stink Bomb’, is loosely based on the case of Gloria Ramirez. An employee at Nishibashi Corporation, Tanaka Nobuo, checks into work one day after getting a flu shot. Still suffering from symptoms, his coworkers advise him to take an experimental drug to cure his flu. However, Tanaka takes the wrong pill – a biological superweapon which reacts to the flu shot and causes him to give off a toxic gas that kills everyone in the building. Panicking, Tanaka calls his boss at Nishibashi, who – looking to cover his arse – instructs him to take the pills and the documentation about their development to Tôkyô. En route, Tanaka sees that all of the animal life around him – birds, amphibians, people – is dead or dying, but that the plant life around him is blossoming. The Japanese SDF and the US Navy both learn about Tanaka from the Nishibashi execs as the clouds of toxic gas begin overwhelming local villages and population centres. The SDF mobilises to stop – and, if necessary, kill – Tanaka before he and the toxic gas cloud he’s emanating reach Tôkyô, while the US Navy begins making plans to capture him alive to study the bioweapon and its offensive uses. Hilarity and mass death ensue.

The final piece, ‘Cannon Fodder’, is probably best described as an extended meditation on fascism and the war œconomy. It is a day in the life of a steampunk-styled society which is entirely mobilised – including its labour, its industrial production, its education system, its entertainment and pop culture – around the firing of a gigantic cannon at an enemy in a moving city, which we never see or hear about except in the society’s own propaganda, and which may or may not even exist. Each house is topped with a cannon turret, and the firing of the cannon is accompanied by a massive, fully-industrialised Fordist system topped by a ceremonious cult of a military leader featured in various portraits and in the uniforms of the supervisors. These are fashioned after the classical Roman style as well as the æsthetics of mid-twentieth century dictators… with a bit of Japanese WWII-era militarism thrown in for flavour. The central characters in the story are a young boy studying math (applied trigonometry for ballistics, of course) at school who dreams of becoming the man in charge of firing the cannon, and his parents, who are œconomically-stressed assembly-line and cannon maintenance workers. ‘Shoot and blast with all your strength for our nation!

‘Magnetic Rose’ is probably the most visually-stunning of these three shorts, with remarkably tight, carefully-articulated animation, painstaking attention to space physics, and a mesmeric degree of detail, particularly in the textures – both the decaying retrograde textures of the real space debris and the glossy, glamorous holographic projections. The characterisation of the protagonists is also beautifully done. Even though it’s a short, you really come to care about Heintz in particular; I personally teared up when the AI recreated his daughter’s death before his eyes. The story itself has a System Shock 2 degree of creepiness and disorientation, which is also pretty impressive. Like the two Corona crewmen, we’re not entirely sure what’s real and what’s not aboard the Rose; even if Miguel does get ‘suckered’ by the AI, at least we can see that he has valid reasons for it.

The cybernetic horror and suspense scenes (as when the Rose AI demolishes Miguel’s and Heintz’s docking vehicle, or when the oil-dripping, splintered player piano begins playing by itself) also manage to be well-placed and tastefully-restrained, again looking more for that psychological edge on the viewer rather than bashing you over the head with the effect. The message of ‘Magnetic Rose’ (which Heintz voices in a subtle title drop) seems to be about the dangers of getting lost in one’s own memories of the past, and refusing to move past the pain of loss. Ultimately Heintz manages this better than his antagonist Eva does, which is what allows him to escape the labyrinth of illusions.

Watching ‘Stink Bomb’ I was immediately struck by the parallels between this story and that of Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, with thematic notes of New Dominion Tank Police. In both of them, the incompetence of a greedy and self-interested military contractor lands a superweapon in the hands of an average everyman. The superweapon goes out of control, producing massive amounts of collateral damage. The Japanese SDF and the American military are both called in, and respond with even more cartoonish levels of incompetent and psychotic violence. (There’s kind of a rôle reversal here, though: in MADOX-01 the Americans were the ones revelling in mass slaughter while the SDF were more restrained; here it’s the Americans who want Tanaka alive with minimal harm – albeit for self-serving reasons – and the SDF who are willing to level entire city neighbourhoods just to make sure he’s dead.) But whereas MADOX-01 is relatively restrained and realistic, and plays up the technical elements of the fight between mecha and tank, ‘Stink Bomb’ is a black-comedic farce which borders at times on Vaudevillean slapstick. I will say this, though – the landscapes of rural Japan and the atmospheric effects of the gas clouds and the electrical storms are exquisitely done, as is the animation of Tanaka riding for his life on his little bike over collapsing bridges while military helicopters are firing stinger missiles all around him.

But ‘Stink Bomb’ is also probably the weakest piece here in that it’s markedly more difficult to sympathise with Tanaka in ‘Stink Bomb’ than with Sugimoto in MADOX-01. That’s in part because Tanaka is colossally, preternaturally thick. Sugimoto is intelligent, with a high degree of self-awareness and ability to analyse his situation critically, and in the end he is able to exercise some degree of agency by scuttling the MADOX. Tanaka demonstrates no such agency and no such self-awareness, and his boneheaded obliviousness and blind loyalty to his corporate masters are played up for bleak laughs.

‘Cannon Fodder’ is both ambitious and disturbing; it’s probably the ‘deepest’ and most politically-poignant of the three pieces. I really appreciated the artwork: Ôtomo’s use of variable-width inkwork and dirty, sketchy hatch lines – the caricatured miniature eyes and triangular noses set in oval, round and triangular faces – create a texture that is deliberately ‘cartoonish’ but also works well with the grim, grey industrial æsthetic he wants to evoke. He also uses a lot of what in traditional cinematography would be considered ‘long takes’, using a changing angle of perspective to convey space, movement and action effectively. A lot of the little details, which Ôtomo never neglects, add up in the composition. There’s a lot of reinforced concrete, rusting metal piping, square windows in square faces of masonry; the cramped, dingy mess halls and break rooms in the factories definitely convey a Dickensian perspective. He uses a fictional pseudo-Cyrillic typeset which is loosely based on Soviet propaganda; however, the armbands, gas masks, helmets, heroic propaganda paintings and Roman salutes are all meant to evoke Nazi Germany.

Ôtomo uses this concept of a totally-mobilised city in a permanent state of war to turn the lens back on us, and offer commentary on the modern day. It’s not a perfect parallel with modern Western societies even back in the Clinton-era Yugoslav Wars when Memories was released. The ones who run the war machinery and the surveillance state in the modern day find it easier to simply keep most of us alienated and sheltered from the realities of the forever war, rather than having the whole society kept on a war footing. The dystopia that we live in is more one of Huxleyan distraction than Orwellian manipulation and force. Still, Ôtomo’s commentary in ‘Cannon Fodder’ is valuable. He turns a critical eye on a public education system which churns out propagandistic views of history in the humanities, and which instrumentalises the STEM subjects to prepare students to take their places as cogs in an ever-grinding war machine. Ôtomo even aims a sharp jab against milquetoast liberal activism, showing the inefficacy and inadequacy of reformist ‘elf-‘n’-safety protests (‘We demand they use nontoxic gunpowder!’) in the middle of a society which is clearly suffering from much more dire problems of existential meaning and basic questions of humane value. Perhaps the saddest moment comes near the end, when the young schoolboy asks his father: ‘Who are we fighting?’, and the tired cannon-loader answers: ‘You’ll understand when you get bigger.

There isn’t really much connexion between any of these three shorts, other than a shared SFnal slant and the fact that all three stories were originally written by Ôtomo. The tone and topical content vary widely. Also, unlike the earlier anthologies Meikyû Monogatari and Robot Carnival, there is no encapsulating introductory sketch or framing device to these stories: the film simply launches into each of them with a simple title card. That is one reason why here I consider each of the three shorts in Memories in turn rather than judging the composition as a whole.

But, if you like any of Ôtomo’s early work in animation – Meikyû Monogatari, Robot Carnival, Akira, Rôjin Z, Metropolis – you will undoubtedly find something to love about Memories. It’s worth recommending on its own just for the artwork; even the over-the-top ‘Stink Bomb’ is visually lush and intricately animated. And with that recommendation: a toast (with non-holographic wine!) to the animated short anthology.


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