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Review: “Robot Carnival”: In Perfect Working Order

Robot Carnival

Robot CarnivalFunny story: The other day I saw a pig shoot through the air. At first, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, so I cleaned my glasses. No, there it was: A flying pig. Wings and everything. I knew they were experimenting with genetics, but wow! This is going to make them a lot harder to catch and make into bacon. Maybe we’ll start “pig hunting” seasons. But I digress.

Flying pigs are like Hell freezing over: They’re supposed to represent long shots, such as how many were saying that Hell would freeze over before the 1987 Japanese animated feature Robot Carnival would see a U.S. DVD release. Yet, here we are: I’m holding the DVD in my hands, have watched it for the first time since it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel almost two decades ago, and am prepared to review it. Was the wait worth it? In a word, yes.

For those unfamiliar, Robot Carnival is an anthology film from studio A.P.P.P. (Another Push Pin Planning) comprised of several shorts, each from a different director. As a result of this approach, the segments can vary wildly in tone, appearance, writing style, and subject matter. Think of the movie as the Japanese equivalent of Fantasia or Allegro non Troppo and you’ll get the idea. The only unifying theme is, as the title suggests, robots.

The movie opens and closes with epic wraparounds directed by Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Otomo. A town learns of an approaching “Robot Carnival” and everyone hides in their homes. In terms of sheer magnitude, the machine carrying the carnival is impressive (it must tower over the village by hundreds of feet!) but it’s seen better days in its upkeep. It’s a bizarre start and end to the film, with the wide-scale stuff that Otomo in particular is known for.

“Franken’s Gears”, directed by Koji Morimoto, is the first true short. It very much an homage to Frankenstein, as a mad scientist works feverishly to give life to a robot. Eventually he’s successful, and the robot imitates his every move. Oh how that eventually backfires. This is one of my favorite shorts in the film; with no dialogue, the visuals and music must pick up the slack, and they do wonderfully. You can understand the story and the emotions of the main character without any dialogue, and thanks to some atmospheric lighting, Disney-quality animation, and a darkly comic ending, this one’s a winner.

Robot Carnival“Deprive”, by Hidetoshi Omori, tells a straightforward story about a superhuman who battles wave after wave of robots to rescue a damsel-in-distress from the clutches of an evil alien. The story is standard material, but the short succeeds because it tells what would have been a feature-length (or TV series-size) plot in less than ten minutes, cutting all the cliched dialog and filler and leaving us with only the essentials: Action, and lots of it. This is accompanied by a rocking synth ‘80s soundtrack, adding up to a very fun short.

After these attention-grabbing openers, “Presence”, by Yasuomi Umetsu is a major change in gears, with its slow-paced drama taking place in what appears to be early 20th century England. We soon are thrown for a loop when we see robots disguised as humans walking around. The central character here is a man who secretly creates a female android in a remote cabin, hoping to create a companion that offers him more than his unfulfilled married life. Obviously, this is a tragic situation; not only has this guy apparently been working on this for years, but he has to resort to artificial love for any emotional connection. It’s hard not to pity him, especially after he can’t bring himself to love his own creation when she starts showing more intelligence than he programmed. This is perhaps the most culturally relevant short in the film; if you’ve read the news lately, not only would you see that big corporations like Google are racing to develop artificial intelligence to mimic humans, while in Japan they’ve created sex robots. It’s hard not to watch this short and think of current events, where we seem to be in too much of a hurry to ponder the philosophical and ethical questions that this short raises. My only real complaint with the short is that it’s a touch long, especially compared to the rest. Otherwise, the simple-but-creepy story will stick with me for some time.

“Star Light Angel”, by Hiroyuki Kitazume, veers back into light-hearted territory again, though it’s not a comedy. Two teenage girls enjoy a robot-themed amusement park (obviously inspired by Tokyo Disney!), but things go sour between the two when the boyfriend of one of the girls shows up and reveals he’s been dating her best friend. The dismayed girl goes on a virtual reality ride but things take a strange turn when a giant mecha attacks her. It’s up to a theme park robot who retrieved her lost necklace to save the day. Of all the shorts in this film, this is strangely the one I remember the most from when I first watched it on the Sci-Fi Channel and I’m not sure why. The short is dialogue-free again, accompanied by sugary J-pop music, and seems the most stereotypically “anime” of all the shorts: Cute girls with doe eyes and some high-octane mecha battles in the second half. I don’t have much else to say about it; it’s a simple but engaging story and is an emotional breather from the previous short.

“Cloud” by Manabu Oohashi (under the pseudonym Mao Lamdo) is the most experimental and existential of the bunch, as a robot slowly walks in the foreground while history unfolds behind it. The name of the short comes from the various images in the background, which often take the form of clouds: Angels looking like clouds, mushroom clouds, etc.. As you probably guessed, this is another dialogue-free short. This is the only short in the film I don’t care for, since it’s too abstract for my tastes. I don’t really know what it’s trying to say, if anything.

Robot Carnival“Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion”, by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, is the only fully comedic short in the film, and it happens to be one of my favorites after “Franken’s Gears” and “Deprive.” In 19th century Japan (aka the Meiji period), a foreign invader, operating a giant robot (think the giant mechanized spider in 1999’s Wild Wild West), wants to take over. But this particular village will not be invaded, as a group wielding their own giant robot faces off against him. What makes this short work so well is that it subverts expectations. These two rivals ironically destroy more of the city than each other, and in order for the giant robots to even move at all, there are a laborious amount of steps to take first. While the gratuitous and exaggerated Asian accents in the English dub don’t really make me laugh, there are other laughs to be had here. I also like the fusion of older aesthetics with modern ideas (i.e. robots), which is a common theme running throughout the movie.

The last short is “Chicken Man and Red Neck” by Takashi Nakamura. One night, modern Tokyo’s machines spring to life with the help of a sprite, and one unfortunate drunk in the wrong place at the wrong time gets caught up in the lively chaos that ensues. Arguably the most whimsical of all the shorts, this one’s said to be inspired by Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” As a happy coincidence, the character design on the drunkard looks and feels very much like Disney.

There are a number of reasons why Robot Carnival works. First of all, it’s a treat for your eyes and ears. I had almost forgotten what full animation in anime was like, but you get it here. The amount of effort put into each short is incredible; whether it be the lively, animated doctor in “Franken’s Gears” or the real life-mimicking detail in “Presence” or the environmental damage in “Chicken Man,” there is a lot of talent and effort on display. As with many animated anthology films, each short offers something new; no two shorts look alike. So if you like visual variety, you’ll get it here. Music-wise, regular Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi’s score is radically different in each short, bouncing between moods effortlessly.

More importantly, though, the film gives you something unique. With only about ten minutes, each short has to grab your attention, and they succeed wonderfully. In addition, since each one comes from a different director, they all offer a fresh experience on the same overarching theme. This makes it easy to see a director’s “style,” and thus each segment feels more personal than a watered down, committee-driven product. More impressively, certain shorts show a director’s range. Yasuomi Umetsu is mostly known for the violent action anime Kite and Mezzo Forte, yet he directed an introspective dramatic piece here. From a behind-the-scenes standpoint, the film is also important because it gave many artists their directorial start. Think Katsuhiro Otomo started with Akira? Think again.

Robot CarnivalHow is the DVD itself? As per usual for Discotek Media, the image quality is nice. Rather than DVNR’ing the picture to the point of erasing important parts of the picture, this transfer still feels like a film, and is all the better for it. The disc includes both the Japanese audio with optional subtitles and the Streamline dub from the ‘90s. The DVD is light on special features: besides the theatrical trailer, we have an informative write-up by Mike Toole, a writer for Anime News Network, where he gives his own take on why Robot Carnival is special. There isn’t much on the disc, but I’m not complaining because it’s a small wonder we even got the film in the first place.

Almost thirty years after its theatrical release, there still isn’t much like Robot Carnival. It’s weird, it’s varied, it is wonderfully animated, it’s weird, it alternatively raises commentary on robots and simply entertains, it’s weird, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Discotek deserves praise for finally releasing what seemed like a long shot, and did the movie justice with this release. Robot Carnival comes highly recommended to anime and non-anime fans alike.