A visionary fusion of CG animation and Japanese anime
There comes a time when mere words prove inadequate in expressing the emotional reaction one has to a specific film. In this case, it's nine short films, viewed individually or as a collective, that give the mind and soul pause to reflect upon life, death, and the worlds that exist beyond our basic understanding. In a near perfect blend of traditional and technology enhanced anime, The Animatrix takes viewers deeper into the Wachowski brothers' universe—nine uniquely distinct worlds, populated by some of the greatest creative talents in animation today. It's a journey the mind will desire to experience more than once.
Facts of the Case
During The Matrix's Japanese press tour, Larry and Andy Wachowski visited with many of Japan's leading edge animation houses and video game developers. Their mission was to expand the Matrix Universe, leveraging the power of the medium that first inspired them. The boys originally wrote story treatments for ten, six-minute tales they wanted to tell. Yet when handing them off to their respective creative teams, several directors sought and received the freedom to leapfrog those outlines in order to express ideas of their own. The result is The Animatrix—nine short films exploring the spiritual and philosophical themes that color the landscape of these worlds.
Final Flight of the Osiris
The Second Renaissance—Parts I and II
A Detective Story
As a child of the 1970s, my first introduction to Japanese culture and anime came from television in the form of the Godzilla films, Ultraman (Urutoraman), Speed Racer, and Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman). I did not come back to anime until the late 1980s and early '90s, drawn by the power and style of such films and series as Akira, Vampire Hunter D, Robot Carnival, and Ranma 1/2. While my interest has waned in recent years, the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Shinichirô Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) has re-energized my interest in the medium. Thus, it was especially rewarding to sit back and enjoy the diversity of creations found within this collection.
Of the nine films, the one that stands out as most distinct is Osiris. Its non-anime, photo realistic, CG imagery is astounding—most notably on the close-ups during the swordfighting sequence. One only wishes there were more to it, for as soon as the story gets moving, it's over. Credit director Andy Jones for pushing the medium one step closer to the reality of complete filmmaking with a virtual cast. It's amazing what you can achieve by spending $5 million on nine minutes worth of film.
While Osiris serves as the appetizer, our entrées consist of Second Renaissance (Parts 1 & 2), Kid's Story, Detective Story, and Program, with Renaissance as the main course and the others served as side dishes. All five films deal exclusively with the Matrix world and/or several established main characters within the mythos.
Second Renaissance is the one thing Matrix fans have been hungering for—an explanation for how this universe came to be. The Wachowski boys have done a fine job of communicating these origins in less than 20 minutes, due in large part to the vision and mastery of director Mahiro Maeda. Together, these two films provide the most significant emotional impact of the anthology. Layer upon layer of subtext, historical reference, and spiritual/philosophical questions can be uncovered and pondered here. Taking more than a year and a half to create, Maeda's tale eerily mirrors recent world events. Told from a first person perspective, through live video feeds from the men and women on the front lines of battle, we bear witness to the sins of our past and the mistakes we continue to repeat. Whereas much of today's entertainment (film, television, video games) glorifies violence, Maeda uses this violence as lesson to be learned and with any luck, a catalyst for change.
Kid's Story mirrors Neo's own journey of enlightenment. Yet, where Morpheus and Trinity enabled Neo's awakening, young Michael is left to his own devices with only his wits and physical agility aiding him in making the ultimate choice. Here, Shinichirô Watanabe gives anime a whole new look. Utilizing unfinished pencil sketch rendering, he heightens the tension and elevates the action to a frenetic pace, as Michael's world swirls around him always slightly out of focus. Originally written by the Wachowski boys focusing solely on the school chase, Watanabe expanded the story, enveloping the action with more of Michael's life and the questions that have been plaguing him. Upon awakening, Michael eventually carries on in live-action form as part of Neo's band of heroes in Reloaded.
In Detective Story, Watanabe spins 180 degrees, going from an uncontrolled modern world to an overly detailed, precise duplication of a film noir microcosm. Much like Michael's journey in Kid's Story, our hero makes contact with a recognizable member of the rebellion—Trinity—who enlightens him on the pawn-like role he has been forced to play in the game of man versus machine. The pacing is very laid back, unfolding like a flower in bloom. Placing these two films side by side, you would be hard pressed to tell they are from the mind and hand of the same man. Where most directors have a distinct visual style, Watanabe is a creator who delights in taking his art to new and extraordinarily different levels.
Of all the films, Program is the most faithful representation of traditional anime. Legendary director Yoshiaki Kawajiri borrows heavily from the look and feel of time-honored Japanese scroll painting and Hanafuda cards, creating stylized two dimensional characters living within a three dimensional plane of existence. The swordfight and chase sequences are vintage Japanese martial arts brought to bear by larger than life characters. Yet there is more here than just titillating visuals. The emotion of this tale runs incredibly high and the final payoff is quite rewarding.
As we savor and reflect on the main course, our dessert arrives in the form of three distinct variations on the Matrix theme—World Record, Matriculated, and Beyond—none of which have strong or direct connections to the films.
World Record, while slammed by many as being too stylized and having little substance, is in my opinion a welcome change of pace. Whiz kid director Takeshi Koike takes Kawajiri-san's thought provoking story and energizes it with wild and reckless abandon. While the artwork may share more with modern comic book storytelling than traditional animation, the status quo anime would have difficulty conveying the emotional intensity of this story. Dan is an athlete with a passion, not willing to stop at just besting his fellow competitors. Catching the merest glimpse of his own personal nirvana, Dan blocks out all distractions including his own doubts to achieve self-actualization. This is a personal story, one that transcends every form of media, to inspire anyone who has felt a similar calling in life.
From the mind of Peter Chung comes Matriculated, a last minute commissioned entry into this anthology. Peter takes a different slant on the mythos, with a band of human rebels performing their own version of the Spanish Inquisition by converting captured machines into human-esque sympathizers. The animation is classic Chung, with distorted human forms, exaggerated facial features, and mind warping landscapes. This short is also distinct, in that it is told more visually than verbally, using a Pink Floyd: The Wall approach. Probably the least well received of the collection, Matriculated still packs an emotional punch as we feel for the solitary machine who struggles with his/her own self-identity.
Last but certainly not least is Beyond, my personal favorite. Writer/director Koji Morimoto, a perfectionist to the Nth degree, took more than two years to create this majestic allegory for childhood innocence lost. As children, each day is a new adventure, filled with discovery and wonder. It's no different for this gang of youngsters, who stumble upon an abandoned work site where nothing is what it seems. In reality (a strange word to be using here), this sector of the Matrix has glitched—it's programming gone haywire, allowing these tiny adventurers a taste of human enlightenment, but never enough to awaken them to their true imprisoned state. Morimoto's subtle touch permeates every inch of this beautiful world, leaving viewers with a sense of being cleansed by a brief summer rainstorm, yet saddened by having to eventually "grow up" and face reality—be it actual truth or imposed by the powers-that-be. In the end, the decision to create our own reality is truly left to us, if we choose to accept the responsibility.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, you will have to look extremely hard to find any flaws in this exhibition. From film to film, the colors pulse and resonate with their respective surroundings, while the blacks and shades thereof are both mood elevating and imposing. The familiar Matrix wash is used to buffer and intro each story arc, closed out by a plug pulling effect on your television set. Consuming this disc in one sitting is truly an emotional experience. Amplifying these visuals is an explosive Dolby 5.1 audio track. If you want the full effect of these films, especially the combat sequences in Renaissance and Program, crank your system up into the -35dB range and feel the room vibrate. Normally, I prefer watching anime in Japanese with English subtitles. However, having watched the disc all the way through in both languages, the English dub is just as impressive. The only two shorts I would strongly recommend listening to in Japanese are Program and Beyond, as the vocal talents carry more of an impact.
Warner has done a magnificent job in providing a wealth of bonus materials in support of these shorts.
• VOICES (43 min): Engaging creator commentary on Second Renaissance (Parts 1 & 2), Program, and World Record. Japanese with English subtitles.
• CREATORS: Cursor driven bios and filmographies for the creative talent behind each of the films.
• EXECUTION (55 min): Seven behind-the-scenes featurettes on the individual films, offering a wealth of anime and creator history from producers, creators, and industry experts, test animation, clips from creator's other work (Ninja Scroll, Blue Submarine 6, Aeon Flux, et cetera), insight into the development process, and even a brief interview with Ain't It Cool News guru Harry Knowles (Why? I have no idea).
• SCROLLS TO SCREEN (22 min): A brief but informative look at the history and culture of Japanese anime, from manga to the groundbreaking films of today. Learn why anime is such an important aspect of Japanese culture and how its influence has grown dramatically in the US during the past 20 years.
The bonus features are rounded out by a look at the Enter the Matrix video game and DVD-ROM links to the Matrix and Animatrix web site content. If you only want an anime primer, watch "Scrolls to Screen." More astute anime fans will definitely want to see "Voices" and "Execution."
Much to the dismay of many Matrix fans, The Animatrix is not the Holy Grail they might have been expecting. While Flight of Osiris does seem to be the universal favorite, followed closely by Second Renaissance, most will find the rest of the shorts unrewarding. However, anime fans will revel in the envelope pushing creativity found within Beyond, Detective Story, Kid's Story, and World Record. The Animatrix earns a rental recommendation for the Matrix faithful and a must buy recommendation for anime lovers. If you happen to be both, you're in for a real treat!
Warner and the Wachowski brothers are congratulated on facilitating an amazing creative undertaking. This court hopes to see a trend develop with more anthology storytelling in the near future. Can you imagine anime variations on such epic properties as Star Wars, Star Trek, or Lord of the Rings? The possibilities are endless. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Voices: Creative Team Commentary on Select Films
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