Playing around in a digital sandbox: The Animatrix

With the news that the sequel/reboot of The Matrix is due for a December release this year, it seems it’s time to revisit an old favourite again. The Matrix was my first introduction to cyberpunk as a genre, and The Animatrix, my first introduction to the anime short format of which Meikyû Monogatari, Robot Carnival and Memories are exemplary. So, eighteen years after this short collection was released, how does it hold up?

‘Beyond’, ‘A Detective Story’ and ‘Program’ are the real gems in this collection, with ‘Matriculated’ being really close behind them in the running. The others (‘Final Flight of the Osiris’, ‘A Kid’s Story’) were certainly not bad, but in many cases appear auxiliary to their source material in a way that hampers what they are trying to say; while ‘World Record’ just felt like a rehash of ‘The Running Man’. The only one that feels really insulting to the intelligence is ‘The Second Renaissance’, a pretentious, preachy, poststructuralist, petit-bourgeois piece of crap that wants to look deep by playing with symbols. Judging the collection as a whole, though? This mixtape kind of pales. If anything, it’s almost a riff, a pastiche on earlier and better cyberpunk works.

The art quality in some of these shorts – ‘Program’ and ‘A Detective Story’ in particular – is nothing shy of stunning. It’s also interesting to see what stylistic influences, topical preoccupations and reference points the artists who worked on The Animatrix took to heart, given that the source material they were working from was itself influenced by works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. In a certain sense, this collection represents Japanese animators and writers looking through the glass at themselves (see what I did there?). But the problem with playing in someone else’s sandbox is sometimes you aren’t able to tell the stories you want to tell, and that’s a problem that this short collection runs into repeatedly. Although I know it’s bad form in a review, I do want to tackle these shorts one at a time, so I’m just going to post the usual spoiler alert right here and dive in.

‘The Final Flight of the Osiris’ is kind of a case-in-point for how being shackled to the Matrix universe gets in the way of the storytelling. The captain and the tactical officer on the Osiris are snapped out of a simulated fight in their undies by an alert – a squad of squiddies chase them to the surface where they discover an army of machines preparing to invade Zion. Outnumbered and outmatched and quickly overtaken, Jue (the tactical officer) undertakes one last mission to deliver the critical intelligence to Zion through the Matrix. This short is so clearly and blatantly an attempt to plug Matrix: Reloaded that it has no real merit on its own terms. The animation, which was done by Square and thus has a Spirits Within feel to it, does have some charm to it – and I’m not saying that just because it’s fun to watch Jue fight in a red thong. The scene where she’s diving and flipping her way through the pipes does have that ‘bullet-time’ cool to it that made the original Matrix stand out effects-wise. But again, there’s not really that much reason to care about the Osiris or its crew apart from its connexion to the Matrix sequels.

I know this is going to sound harsh, but ‘The Second Renaissance’ just made me mad. The animation is actually fairly good quality, and there are some nice flourishes that tie in nicely with the movies. But otherwise, it’s pretentious, corny, pseudo-intellectual tripe, made by a director who thinks he’s being politically aware and radical and transgressive but just comes off as a bitter, cynical misanthrope and a coward. The religious imagery borrowed from Buddhism and from (popular readings of) the Books of Genesis and Revelation in the Bible were clearly put forward to appear deep, but semiotically they make no sense. The repeated use of religious imagery – Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, the Lotus in the historical archive representing the Noble Eightfold Path, the Bhāvacakka in burning gear form, the robotic Horseman of the Apocalypse – is somewhat confused, and insofar as it appears to say anything meaningful, it is to lay an emphasis on the repetitive cyclical nature of history and the arrogance of human beings (whose technology far outstripped their moral growth). Which, as far as it goes, is all well and good. That point should underlie any worthy cyberpunk work, but the imagery is driven home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and after a certain point the Jungian-typology stuff just feels excessive.

And as if that weren’t enough deep symbolism for you, man, Maeda also loads up his historical allegory with a bunch of references to (particularly Western) history of mechanised violence: slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and so forth. Coming from a Japanese director, this fixation on American and European civil rights history looks pusillanimous and even morally horrid. If Maeda was going to deliberately use historical imagery like that, why would he not make semiotic references to the Rape of Nanking, Unit 731 or the Bataan Death March? Oh, right: because according to Japanese state propaganda, Japan was a pure and innocent victim of the Pacific War rather than an aggressor and certainly did nothing worthy of censure. Silly me.

‘A Kid’s Story’, directed by Watanabe Shin’ichirô, is a definite improvement. The animation quality, with its deliberately sketchy inkwork and impressionistic, dreamlike pacing – often using transparent frames or motion blurs to simulate the slowing of time – is sublime, and seems to riff a little off of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. The skateboard chase scene in particular was masterfully done. But it still can’t quite escape its nature as a tie-in to the movie sequels. It follows Kid (a.k.a. Michael Karl Popper, probably named after the highly overrated and irascible libertarian academic who inspired George Soros) as he begins to question the reality around him and wonder why he doesn’t seem to fit in at school. He manages to contact Neo and Trinity, but when they try to reach him the Agents have already gotten there, and Kid has to escape them through the halls of his school on a skateboard. Ultimately he is chased to the school roof, and – putting his trust in Neo and accepting the unreality of the Matrix – jumps off… presumably to his death. We see that in the Matrix he is ‘dead’, having gotten a funeral service, but in the real world he wakes up as Neo and Trinity stand over him. Artistically and musically speaking, it’s a fun piece that more than earns its keep, but its expository reliance on the logic of the Matrix movies does rob its dual ending of a bit of its power.

Now, we get into the Kawajiri Yoshiaki shorts. Yes sir! ‘Program’ and ‘World Record’ were both produced by Madhouse and directed by Kawajiri, and it shows. ‘Program’ highlights some of the ways that the human resistance learns to try and guard against betrayals like Cypher’s in the original film, specifically the use of the training program used to ‘test’ Cis’s loyalty to Zion, and see if she would kill a potential traitor (even one she presumably respects and loves). We do learn that Cis is a fan of Sengoku-period battle drills, both mounted and unmounted. The sheer cinematic aplomb that gets deployed here makes it worth watching, as Cis and Duo battle it out along a torii-ended bridge, in a bamboo grove, in a labyrinth of decorated paper walls and doors, and on the roof of a mediæval Japanese fortress. The heavy use of chiaroscuro and artistic deployment of hue-bounded palettes to express mood and theme and movement practically serve as Kawajiri’s signature here. Some of the artistic flourishes meant to show it as a simulation (like the dead ‘warriors’ dissolving into code) are nicely done, and Kawajiri plays up the moonlight-and-sakura-blossoms æsthetic just enough to show us that he’s got his tongue in his cheek with it. In Cis we get an unabashed declaration of Kawajiri’s love for badass and bodacious femmes fatales, particularly when she ‘wakes up’ and punches the real Duo in the face for having tricked her. This short is definitely one of the high points in the collection.

The follow-up, ‘World Record’, is not bad by any means. But, in my review of Meikyû Monogatari I said that ‘The Running Man’ was its direct spiritual predecessor. I’m afraid I have to eat my words somewhat on that. ‘World Record’ is not so much a spiritual descendant of ‘The Running Man’ as it is a near carbon-copy. That’s its weakness. The plot beats are the same, and even the characters are the same – Dan Davis’s powers and motivations in his sport are clearly the same as Zack Hugh’s; and they share a similar troubled relationship with the press. The one twist is that, in the end, Dan Davis doesn’t kill himself in the attempt to beat his own time: he accidentally discovers the nature of the Matrix! The ending is left ambiguous: Dan Davis, whom the Agents are sure will ‘never walk again’, stands up from his wheelchair, murmuring the word ‘free’, before slumping to his knees. The fun thing about ‘World Record’ is the artwork. The deliberately exaggerated facial features, musculature, gesticulations of the main characters are mesmerising in their quality. And – somehow – Kawajiri’s liberal stylisation on the character design of the Agents (giving them floofy hairdos and trenchcoats) works better than it should.

‘Beyond’ is probably my favourite in this collection, as it explores the lives of some ordinary kids inside the Matrix – including one ‘gal’ who loves her cat – as they encounter a glitch in the system. This takes the form of a haunted house where it rains from a sunny sky, the laws of gravity don’t seem to apply, phantom winds blow ephemeral newspapers around in closed hallways, and doors open onto experiences of the recent past. It’s an interesting look into a few of the aspects of the original Matrix where deliberate changes to the programme take the form of déjà vu or other strange phenomena. But this is one instance where less is more: the action all takes place within the same block, the cast of characters is sketched out quickly and endearingly enough that we come to care what happens to Yôko and her cat – who ends up strangely MIA at the end. As a result, it feels like a more solid piece of artwork, despite the animation being less experimental or boundary-pushing than the other pieces in the collection. It really does take the concept of ‘playing in the sandbox’ literally as far as you can go with it, and does it with style.

Directed by Watanabe Shin’ichirô, ‘A Detective Story’ takes as its reference points the film noir and ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction roots of the cyberpunk genre (which are cranked up to 11 here, with a bit of a steampunk twist), and the textual references to the Lewis Carroll books in the Matrix movie. The noir elements, of course, belong front and centre in the Matrix universe, but the 1940s tech and fashion which are melded into the backdrop seem like they don’t quite fit. A private investigator named Ash is set on the trail of Trinity by an anonymous informant who drops $800,000 in his account. Following a trail of other PIs who died, disappeared or went insane, he begins exploring a hacker network where references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books are the keys in. That trail ultimately leads to Trinity, who considers waking him up. However, an Agent begins taking him over, and Trinity shoots him to escape. ‘A Detective Story’ is, from a pure visual standpoint, the best of the bunch, but again the story seems a little thin. The animation here is brilliant – Watanabe uses mostly a monochrome black-and-white palette, with occasional splashes of colour for emphasis. Although the character designs are fairly standard for early-2000s anime, the pointillistic penwork and semi-translucent cels give the animation a gritty density and weight meant to recall the grainy 1940s film noir æsthetic: think The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it seems a little strange to imply, as Trinity did, that it was Ash’s fault (his ‘choice’) that an Agent took him over. I actually think that cuts away from the tragic ending to the story.

The final short, ‘Matriculated’, directed by Peter Chung, explores some of the political-ethical territory of the war between the machines and the human resistance. The story follows one of the machines, a ‘runner’, who is captured by a group of scientists and plugged into the Matrix to give it the option of joining their side. The ‘runner’ is forced to make that choice when the scientists are attacked and killed by a squad of squiddies and other machines. I know this piece was one of the more controversial ones, but I happen to like it: not only because it turns the ontological question of free will vs. determinism around and applies it to the machines, but because it implies that the Matrix – a tool used by the machines to deceive and enslave the human race – can actually be used to give the machines the freedom to choose a side. It’s actually kind of nifty how this was encapsulated within a few short lines of dialogue.

This piece did get critiqued for its animation style: Chung’s is at once highly unique and expressive, and at the same time very similar to late-90s and early-00s Disney features like Hercules, Atlantis and Lilo & Stitch. I guess anime purists were kind of offended by that? But I happen to like that style, so it didn’t bother me as much. The use of CGI, particularly in the chase scenes on the surface, occasionally seemed to be fairly low-rent. But the scenes inside the Matrix where the humans are trying to break down the runner’s programming and offer it the chance to make a decision… those were really artfully done, with a minimum of dialogue. End spoilers.

To sum up: there’s definitely some worth to this collection… if you’re willing to overlook ‘The Second Renaissance’. It isn’t really groundbreaking in philosophical or thematic terms, and I generally fault the ‘other guy’s sandbox’ syndrome for that. But the artwork is consistently impressive, the storytelling is mostly well-done, and the sheer variety of artistic inspiration that the directors and animators took from The Matrix is worth celebrating all on its own. Still, as an entrant into the genre of ‘animated shorts’ collections, it can’t really stand up in comparison to its direct predecessors.


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