Judge Adam Arseneau had a witty and topically ironic blurb all written up for this film, but he forgot it.
Three unforgettable tales from the masters of anime!
From the brain of Katsuhiro Otomo comes Memories, a trifecta of anime splendor comprised of three seemingly unrelated short stories, each directed by a different anime prodigy. Not quite experimental enough to be avant-garde, but not mainstream enough to be a massive success, Memories straddles both with style and grace. It will no doubt intrigue anime addicts, offering a unique experience that, while daring, also feels instinctively familiar.
Facts of the Case
In Magnetic Rose, a garbage scow in the depths of space responds to a peculiar distress call emanating from a space graveyard. Intense magnetic fields bombard the area. When the scow and its crew arrive, they find—inexplicably—an asteroid the size of a small planet…the source of the distress call. When the crew boards the object, they discover a living, breathing palace, an elegant and perfectly recreated illusion held together forever by the memories of a forgotten opera singer. An elegant feast is laid out for them, but unfortunately, everything they touch turns to holographic dust—that is, until the opera singer and her memories start coming to life within the palace…
Stink Bomb features a chronically sick and slightly hypochondriacal man working at a government lab testing new cold medicines. Under the suggestion of his supervisors, he undertakes a newly developed cold medicine to fight off his malaise. Taking the pill, he decides to lie down for a nap. When he awakens, the base is full of comatose people, wide-eyed, with shocked looks on their faces. In fact, the entire city has become a ghost town, with the citizens experiencing a curious smell before passing out. In fact, everyone our hero gets near seems to experience the same sensation—right before violently passing out!
Finally, Cannon Fodder represents a day in the life of a very peculiar village. All the citizens live in flawless harmony, though their existence is not what you would call "normal." The society exists in a state of perpetual conflict with an invisible enemy; their entire purpose as a people is to fire gigantic missiles into the sky. Like a living arsenal, every building is in fact, an immense cannon, and every day, citizens go to "work," loading new shells into the huge barrels, forever hurling unimaginable explosive devastation into the horizon, constantly waging war against an opponent that is never seen.
It doesn't take a "scientician" to figure out that Memories exists as an allegory for the power of human memories, since each feature in some way or another deals directly with the subject and its powerful effect. That much is conveyed directly in the title of the anime, after all. But what makes Memories worth seeing is the subtle and multi-faceted way these ideas are assembled and configured—sometimes dramatic, sometimes thought-provoking and spiritually stirring, sometimes downright hilarious and amusing. Providing balanced counterpoint to one another, each film pursues the subject in a completely disconnected fashion, allowing only the general thematic similarities to link the shorts together. I could tell you why each short links to one another, but part of the fun of Memories is putting the pieces together yourself, drawing the thematic connections from episode to episode, bridging the allegorical and metaphorical images into a single overall cinematic experience. And I wouldn't spoil that for you. No way.
Think of Magnetic Rose as an exaggerated hyperbolic retelling of Tarkovsky's Solaris by the space marines from Aliens exploring the haunted mansion from The Shining. Despite the ridiculous explanation just provided (which, I swear, is exactly accurate), the feel is decisively mysterious and somber, and the feature plays very straight and enigmatic. In stark comparison, Stink Bomb plays like 28 Days Later with a laugh track, the crux of which cumulates in one innocent pencil-pushing dweeb being chased by the entire Japanese army. Unquestionably the most enjoyable feature on the disc, its allegorical content is somewhat obscured by its outright hilarity. Finally, Cannon Fodder, easily the oddest of the bunch, is radically different in its animation style, coming across like a peculiar blend of Metropolis-style animation blended smoothly with 1984-esque imagery and themes, with the citizens being dressed in WWI doughboy-style helmets and gas masks. The colors, styles, and images are reminiscent of vintage wartime propaganda posters come to life in a bewilderingly fascinating and troubling ballet of wartime society gone mad.
Memories is an anime with lofty ambitions. Otomo describes wanting to make an anime "omnibus," something all-encompassing to follow up his string of previous success (Akira, Roujin Z). And, in a sense, he accomplished what he set out to do. There is no doubt that, visually, Memories pulls some awesome tricks, and its constantly changing style and experimental form was quite bold and progressive way back in 1995. Of particular note is the ingenious use of CGI throughout the features, blended so congruously into the animation that you barely notice its presence. On the featurette, Otomo recalls how the computer animation equipment was not only brand new, but it was half-built and incomplete in the studio. The decision to blend the still-developing technology so effortlessly into a traditional anime film was still impressive in its day, unlike today, where most anime features at least some computer manipulation.
After the awesome treatment extolled by Columbia on such anime titles as Metropolis, one can't help but feel like they dropped the ball this time around. The transfer here doesn't look nearly as nice as it deserves to. Almost ten years after the fact, the animation is starting to show its age, and while Columbia certainly didn't do a bad job transferring Memories to DVD, this isn't the best-looking anime transfer around. Black levels are disappointing, for an anime, often nothing more than a jumbled mass of indistinct grays and shadows. Even worse, the animation is at times decisively blurred and indistinct, suffering from the peculiar malady that North American anime releases often suffer of being too soft transfer-wise. Lines are fairly distinct, but occasionally degrade into jagged edges. The film exhibits some nasty damage and smearing in places, showing far more of its age than one should reasonably expect, with white flecks and odd watermarks dotting the transfer. Dust seems to be the biggest problem here, though it should be noted that at no point does the transfer deter from the splendidly awesome animation in Memories. The animation style is immaculate in its detail, background cells are lavish and lusciously illustrated, and the DVD transfer still presents the material well, nitpicking aside.
Each soundtrack varies based on the tone of the anime piece. For example, Magnetic Rose features a lilting, operatic score of sweeping strings and elegant classical music, while Stink Bomb features a polar-opposite avant-garde, fusion jazz soundtrack of squelching saxophones and lazy upright bass licks, like the B-side tracks from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. The only audio track, a Japanese Dolby Surround 5.1 soundtrack, throws most of the dialogue and sound up front, and utilizes the rear channels aggressively for music and action effects (helicopter blades, explosions and the like). Definitely nice to have the surround track, though the mix is far from being a natural-sounding, all-encompassing experience, as far too much of the action takes place in the front channels. Bass response is reasonably aggressive, and overall, the audio is very pleasing to the ears.
The only feature included on the DVD is a half-hour featurette entitled Memories of Memories, which features interviews from directors Katushiro Otomo, Koki Morimoto and Tensai Okamura discussing their film pieces, as well as the original pilot films for each short. Not a bad offering, all things considered, but a director's commentary track or anything else would have been most appropriate. This featurette only tantalizes the taste buds, leaving you hungry for more—but more importantly, it leaves you slightly annoyed to find nothing else available.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If seeing the words "From the maker of Akira" emblazed on the DVD box send your heart palpitating in anticipation, take a deep breath, and go get a glass of water. Also, you might want to consider a visit to the emergency room. Memories is enjoyable, experimental, and entertaining, but it lacks the focus of a feature film—as it cannot help but do, given its structure and relative ambiguity. Each segment is entertaining enough as a whole, but unless you go deep into the allegory, you are simply left with three Otomo short anime stories—entertaining enough, for certain, but lacking focus and cohesiveness.
As a whole, what the film needs is pathos, a dramatic development beyond the obscurely thematic. Segmented, each film must stand on its own merits, and while each is fantastic in its own right, together, they lack the transcendental feel of a conceptual trilogy. The connections are there, but they are delicate and thin. What Memories really needs is some backbone, some guts, some risk-taking and rule breaking. Visually splendid, no doubt, but if the film took the same risks in the plot and dramatic development department, it could have elevated Memories to the level of a seminal anime classic.
Like an elegant rose, Memories is a sophisticated and elegant anime experiment, balancing between artistic experimentation and anime convention. Unfortunately, the one thing it needs—the thorns, the bite—it lacks completely. Though not quite the masterpiece of conceptual animation that the film sets out to be, the simple beauty of peeling away each mysterious petal of the flower is sufficient to secure Memories as an anime worth experiencing. If you put in the effort, you will be rewarded with a beautiful and unique cinematic experience.
Certainly not guilty, but if Columbia had given the film the same treatment given to other anime films (i.e., Metropolis), it would have made a world of difference.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Memories of Memories
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