A carnival...with robots!!
Back when the Sci-Fi Channel was called the Sci-Fi Channel.
If you got into anime in the early to mid 90s like I did, then the Sci-Fi Channel probably helped fuel your interest. Back in those days, they had a program titled "Saturday Anime", where every Saturday morning, they would either repeat the films from the previous festival, or show entirely new films. I remember they actually showed a pretty good variety of different films from comedies, fantasy, horrors, and of course, sci-fi. It was a great way to be introduced to the artform.
One of the films that was frequently shown was a very strange anthology film called Robot Carnival. It is a collection of short films, all of them by some of the top anime directors of the time when the film was released in Japan in 1987. The films are completely unrelated, the only connection being that they all have something to do with robots. This is not your usual anime. There's very little dialogue in the film, as only two of the eight segments even have any dialogue. The segments range from standard short stories that have a beginning middle and end, to one segment that is downright surreal and dream-like, but very beautiful.
For this article, it's only fair that I review and grade each short film seperately, since they vary in quality. So, let's do this thing.
OPENING - The film actually opens with an introductory short directed by Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame.
This little guy is trying to warn people that the Robot Carnival is coming to town...
It's a darkly comic piece about a small desert town that has the Robot Carnival come to town. Sounds innocent and full of wonder, doesn't it? It would, if the fireworks shooting out of the massive rolling carnival structure weren't actually bombs, and if the moving carnival itself wasn't crushing everything and everyone in its path! The happy, jubiliant music that plays throughout the segment as people are blown away and run for their lives adds an even darker twist to the proceedings.
They don't listen, so it shows up and smashes through their town...
This segment continues and closes out the film at the very end in a bookend fashion. A bizarre opening credit sequence to say the least. Once this is over, we get our first film.
The heroines of the Starlight Angel segment
STARLIGHT ANGEL - The first film is a simple love story set at a futuristic robot-themed amusement park. Two girls are having a fun day out together checking out the sights, going on rides, and having fun with the various robots marching about the park.
"Thanks for saving me, but seriously, who are you?..."
The fun comes to an abrupt end when the blonde girl runs into her boyfriend, and the other girl discovers that the boyfriend is the same boy she has been dating, and had even given her the necklace she wears around her neck. The blonde girl tries to apologize, but her friend runs off in tears, and here's where things get weird. She goes on a ride, but the ride soon goes flying off the tracks, and she starts falling through the sky. Fortunately, a friendly flying robot just happens to be passing by, catches her, and takes her on a magical flight over the park.
Just another day, flying around the park, then a giant killer robot shows up...
When the robot tries to return the necklace she had dropped (the same one the guy who cheated on her had given her), she gets mad, and tries to fly off on her own. She doesn't get very far when a giant evil robot suddenly appears in a bolt of lighting and captures her. Fortunately, the friendly robot from before is still around to save her, and he's not just a robot, he's a hunky, cute guy in disguise!! He slays the robotic beast, saves the girl, and now she has someone new to love. She reunites with her blonde friend, shows off her new boyfriend, and then the three walk off together.
"This was a weird day, but hey, I got a new boyfriend out of the deal!"
Okay, so maybe it's not so "simple". This is a very "shoujo" (girls comic) story about love lost and found in a span of about three minutes. It's a romantic fantasy obviously aimed at the young girls in the audience. The animation is good, and the music is catchy in that 80s synth kind of way. Gets a bit weird during the last half, but not a bad film.
CLOUD - Easily the most experimental film in Robot Carnival, and the one that most people differ on. This is a very surreal, dream-like film that has no real plot or meaning. It's simply some beautiful imagery set to some haunting and soothing music that combines piano with synth.
Don't ask what it means, just enjoy it...
A robot child is born from a cloud, and makes his way across a constantly changing background.. Images float by in the background like dragons, white blob-like visions that take the form of rabbits, a woman, and various other objects. Eventually a thunderstorm breaks, and although it tries to hold the boy back from his journey, he endures. At the end of the short, the sun finally shines through, and the robot boy becomes a human child.
This is an impossible film to describe, and it really just needs to be seen. So, I'm going to put the film here, so you can see for yourself.
The artwork is simple but effective, done in a very basic black and white style that almost looks like shaded pencil work come to life. The film has a very children's book quality to its look and tone, with random dream-like images fading in and out of the background as the robot boy makes his way across the landscape. A haunting and memorable film, I find it beautiful in a strange way, and it's one of my favorite segments in the film, for the awesome music and the sheer inventiveness of it.
DEPRIVE - And now for something completely different. Perhaps to wake up some of the people who fell asleep while watching Cloud, the next film is a very action heavy, very 80s story about revenge.
I'm your generic 80s hero for the evening...
Aliens kidnap a girl, and an android with feelings for her decides to suit up for battle, and kick some ass accompanied by a very 80s guitar rock soundtrack. This is literally non-stop action with only a couple seconds worth of story to set up the situation. The rest of the film is the android hero kicking butt and taking names until the girl is finally safe.
I am not the Terminator...
Very generic, very 80s action-oriented piece here. The artstyle is good, I just can't get into it.
FRANKEN'S GEARS - This sci-fi take on the Frankenstein story follows a crazy old mad scientist who is desperately trying to bring life to his creation - a giant robot monster.
It's alive! It's alive!
At first, the experiment seems to be a failure, but then the creature starts to show faint signs of life. The scientist is overjoyed that his creation lives, until it turns against him. The End.
Come to daddy...
This is such a padded story, it takes almost 10 minutes to tell a story that could have been told in 3. It just doesn't go anywhere, and there's no pay off. It's just 7 minutes of the scientist running around the lab, trying to give life to his creation, 2 minutes of him being overjoyed, and about 10 seconds of him realizing the monster can kill, then it comes to an abrupt end. A big disappointment, despite the somewhat cool steampunk look to the film.
PRESENCE - This is the first film in Robot Carnival that features dialogue. As such, it's probably one of the more effective and definitely the most fleshed out story in the film.
The inventor and his creation...
Set in a futuristic London, an inventor feels distant from his family, since his wife is always working. Every day, he sneaks off to a cabin in the woods, and works on a secret creation - a robotic woman that he built from the spare parts of battered robots he finds in a dumpster. He gives her life, but becomes frightened when his creation starts to show a human-like personality.
Even robots can be lonely...
She starts asking about love, her feelings, and starts showing human affection toward him, even though he didn't program her to do or think these things. Out of fear that his creation is acting "irrationally" and against her program, he smashes it to pieces.
The creator as an old man.
In the film's haunting final moments, it flashes forward to the inventor as an older man, and he is still haunted by the memories of his creation even to this day. As he sits on the front porch of his home, his creation appears before him. When his elderly wife comes out to check on him, he is gone. A very vague, but somewhat sad ending.
One of the more popular segments in the film, this one has some great scenes, such as the opening sequence where we see what looks like a man walking down the street until some punk kids knock his robotic head off with a soccer ball and run off with it. At about 18 minutes, this is the longest film so far, and the first one that doesn't seem rushed or padded. It's a very simple, yet effective and somewhat tragic, story that is easy to like.
A TALE OF TWO ROBOTS - After the very somber and sad Presence, Robot Carnival again decides to go off in a different direction with a very broad, very wacky comedic story that is somewhat of a parody of giant robot anime set in 19th Century Japan.
I love the old, wooden look of the robots in this segment...
The characters use very primitive, steam-powered robots that are clumsy and hard to use, but the characters still battle with them anyway. The story is your typical plot of a crazy genius super villain piloting a giant robot to attack a peaceful village. It's up to a team of young heroes to pilot their own robot, and do battle with the madman.
Oh yeah, like this trick has ever worked...
This is the second film to feature dialogue, and it's a lot of fun, since it uses a lot of clever parodies of using giant robot cliches and placing them in an ancient Japan setting. This is the only segment in the film that's a comedy, so it's a nice little bit of relief. Too bad it has to come so late in the film. Still, some really interesting robot designs in this one, and the segment itself is a lot of fun.
NIGHTMARE - The final segment in the film is one of the better ones, and definitely the most interesting visually next to Cloud.
Imagine waking up from a hangover to this...
It's a dark horror-themed film about a city that is overrun by a robot invasion. A drunken man lying on the street somehow managed to sleep through the whole thing, and when he wakes up, he is terrified to discover the world that he has woken up to.
The world looks a bit different today...
A robot spots him, and gives chase. The film follows the man as he runs through a nightmarish world where robots have overrun everything and everyone. The visual style is very dark and claustrophobic, giving a sense of tension and fear as the man tries to survive this strange new world that he has awakened in. A very strong finish to the film.
Robot Carnival on the whole is a mixed, but mostly strong, collection of short films. The only two that don't work for me at all are the two middle ones - Deprive and Franken's Gears. I like that all of the films are completely different from each other in terms of style and tone. Some of the films suffer from trying to fit in too much story in too short of amount of time, but for the most part, they are successful.
I love the music in this film, some of which was written by Joe Hisaishi, who is best known for composing the scores to many of Hayao Miyazaki's films. The movie on the whole is a great experiment, and although it doesn't always work, I walk away mostly satisfied whenever I watch it.
The problem is this movie is very hard to find, and the Japanese release is long out of print. There are bootlegs floating around, however, if you know where to look. The segments can also be watched individually on Youtube. If you're an anime fan, you should definitely check it out. I wish Sci-Fi would show this movie again sometime, but that's probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Hope you enjoyed reading about this beautiful, but criminally unseen film. And I hope everyone here has a wonderful 2015!