Robot Carnival (1987) | Anime Nonsense
Ladies and Gentlemen! Originally I had intended to start off my new review section, Anime Nonsense, with a worthy stand-alone anime title. And I suppose I still did that, what with my first review being the Escaflowne movie. But the new section of Anime Nonsense is a broad term for an ongoing series of reviews specifically covering Japanese Animated titles, both good, bad, and just plain weird. Earlier today I even wrote two reviews on the works of Makoto Shinkai, which of course are not at all nonsense; in fact they are quite profound, striking, and emotionally captivating. But make no mistake, a whole ton of anime films are utter nonsense and are worth diving into if only to bask in their complete stupidity or their glorious cheese factor.
Today, however, I would like to talk about a film that is neither complete nonsense, nor entirely profound and meaningful. To me, it falls somewhere in the middle as an oddity unto itself. Folks, I present to you a legend, a classic, and an old-taku gem simply known as… Robot Carnival.
Developed as a collection of 8 short films created by 9 of Japan’s most prominent animators of the mid-1980s, Robot Carnival’s goal was to produce a series of shorts lasting a total of 90 minutes that revolved around one simple word, “Robots.” Every short must involve robots. And that’s pretty much it; the shorts just take care of themselves at that point. Personally I kinda wish the assignment for these directors had been a little bit more involved and slightly more specific, if still open and vague. Like perhaps every director had to speak on a certain theme or concept that could be interpreted in numerous ways. But all they were given was “just have robots in it.” The genius of it, though, is how vastly different each Director’s vision and story is in the end. And there was no doubt in my mind that that was going to happen. So, what sort of stories are we given?
(ATTENTION: Many SPOILERS Ahead!)
Well to begin, we have the “Opening” book-end sequence, directed by both Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira, Steamboy, and Mushi-shi the Movie) and Atsuko Fukushima (key animator on Akira, Lupin the Third: Plot of the Fuma Clan, and Roujin-Z). The sequence begins with a strange young boy with a voice that sounds like helium through a synthesizer, picking up an advert for the Robot Carnival coming to town. Except the boy realizes that this is a bad thing and tries to warn the villagers of the on-coming destruction. Soon after, a large object that looks like a Jawa Crawler carrying the logo to Ben Hur on it, looms over the horizon and starts shooting off firecrackers. Once it reaches the village, it mows over the town, crushing everything in its path; while dropping little ballerina robots that explode when they touch the ground. And then, just as suddenly as it came, the enormous crawler leaves: like dust in the wind, never to be seen again… until the end of course.
Somewhat of a grim yet darkly funny way to open the festivities.
Next we move on to “Star Light Angel,” directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume (animator on Armitage: Dual Matrix, Bubblegum Crisis, and Iczer Reborn) that follows two young girls as they go to a theme-park for the evening. The short has no dialogue, as do the next two shorts and the final one; so I’ll have to simply describe these two girls by their hair. Here we have the blond girl and the auburn girl.
At one point, after enjoying a few rollercoasters and the auburn girl passing out; the blond girl wants the auburn girl to meet her new boyfriend. While running towards the center of park, the two girls bump into a robot mascot, and the auburn girl loses her star-shaped necklace. The robot realizes this and sets off to return it.
At that same moment, the two girls meet up with the blond girl’s boyfriend, only for the auburn girl to realize that the guy is her lover, now dating her best friend. So the auburn girl runs away, tears streaming down her face. The robot from earlier catches up and presents the necklace to her, but she knocks it out of his hand and continues to run because the necklace was a present from the guy who betrayed her. She then runs into another bizarre ride that then picks her up, plops her into a tram car that somehow transports her into a virtual reality chamber that makes her feel like she’s flying.
The robot mascot follows her in. Suddenly a giant demonic robot guardian appears shooting pink laser beams from its mouth, attempting to kill the auburn-haired girl. The robot inexplicably gets its head blown off, only to reveal that it was a human dude underneath that robotic exterior. The robot dude then attempts to save the girl from harm, but she keeps pushing him away, until he gets seriously hurt. Only then does she cry in fear for the robot dude’s life: which somehow causes the giant robot monster to reel in pain from the sound. And then the robot dude takes the opportunity to fly up and save the auburn-haired girl from the giant robot’s grip. The End.
I gotta say, the best thing about this short, and indeed a couple of these shorts, is the awesome 80s music. Those hard drum-pad beats and those gorgeous twinkling synth sounds with the obligatory rock guitar riffs is to die for. Seriously, I can’t get enough of Japanese 80s music. The other cool thing about this short, is actually the blond girl’s outfit. I mean, that mid-length skirt with the graphic-T and the brown leather jacket with the rolled up sleeves… it’s like the 50s with an 80s twist. I totally love it. =D
Anyway, on with our next short, “Cloud,” directed by Manabu Ôhashi: known here as Mao Lamdo (key animator on Roujin-Z, Rintaro’s Metropolis, and Air: The Motion Picture).
“Cloud” turned out to be the type of short film you usually expect to see in short film compilations. The kind of short film that’s quiet, unassuming, tries too hard to be symbolic and meaningful; while in the end, being the sort of short that I like to call “Stuff happens in the background.” Because that’s all that this is. It’s an 8 minute short of a small robot (likely a girl by what I got from the ending), walking endlessly to the left on a looping animation, while random stuff morphs, changes, and flies by in the background. First it’s clouds (obviously) that look like wood-cuts from the beginning of Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Then it turns into strange figures, angels, cheribs, and that figure of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And just a few minutes later, random white a blue bunnies bounce across a black sky, and then a hat with a flower in it floats past.
By the end, the robot with hair that looks like a rooster, suddenly turns into a human girl and looks on at a blinding ball of light that likely becomes the sun. So of course I’m asking, “What the heck was all that about?” I could speculate, but it’d probably take me way too much time and way too many rewinds to figure it all out. So we’ll just press on.
Next is “Deprive,” by Hidetoshi Omori (key animator on Mobile Suit Gundam Seed and Batman: Under the Red Hood).
Deprive was definitely total 80s cheese. You got your invading evil army destroying a village, you’ve got your kidnapped girl with her hunky robot guardian (who turns out to be another dude in a robot armor suit), you’ve got your hunky hero with awesome spiky yet fluffy hair and a tolerance for pain; and of course you have your obligatory villain mastermind with a ridiculous mustache looking green hairdo.
Seriously, the rest of the story just writes itself from there, no other description needed. I will say though that once again, the music is totally boss.
“Franken’s Gears.” Directed by Koji Morimoto (animation director on Mind Game and Genius Party Beyond, as well as the director of the opening title sequence to Dirty Pair: Project Eden; one of the coolest opening titles you will ever see: Here’s A Link )
This one is another relatively simple premise. You have a crazy mad doctor; who for some reason loves to make out with a model of the globe that he carries on his back. And he has plans to bring his giant clunky robot to life with his massive dungeon of machinery. But once he does bring the robot to life, he’s so preoccupied with his accomplishment, that he doesn’t realize the robot is unstable, nor does he realize that it plans to harm him. At the end, I don’t quite know what the outcome was. I guess the robot either strangled the good doctor, or just fell on top of him and crushed him while the rest of the lab fell down around them. Nothing really indicated if the doctor made it out alive or not.
I noticed here that the animation and cinematography for “Franken’s Gears” was more stretchy and goofy than the previous three. Specifically “Star Light Angel” and “Deprived” were designed like your typical 80s Japanese cartoon with the big eyes, small noses, broad shoulders and rockin’ hairdos. But “Franken’s Gears” comes along and has that more grim, gritty, unpolished vibe to it. It tries to be more subtle in its color scheme and more fanciful like your typical sci-fi short story, but with a few goofy 16-bit sound effects thrown in; as Japan is often to do.
“Presence,” directed by Yasuomi Umetsu (key animator on Barefoot Gen and Akira, and animation director on Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic.)
Probably the most bizarre short here, we have the story of a young man living in late Victorian London, who has revolutionary thoughts about women’s rights, as well as personal feelings about wanting a wife and a family of his own. However, he’s not entirely sure he even wants that. More or less, he probably just wants companionship of a more meaningful kind.
So what does he do? He builds a robot girl that looks like a porcelain doll of course.
Now my problem with this story comes when the robot gains consciousness. And my problem isn’t with her, it’s with him. You see, when she wakes up for the first time, he’s stunned. She then asks him to give her a name, and says that she longs to live and love as a human, but cannot do so until she is given a name. She quickly persists in her inquiries to him, and very quickly he becomes scared at the prospect of his creation. And so just as soon as his creation is born, he snuffs it out.
Now why does he do that? Because you would think if he spent so long trying to build the girl, that he would have contemplated the many possibilities of her eventual existence, right? At least I totally would. I would have considered if she’d have feelings, if she’d have wants and needs, and if she would long for a meaning to her own life; and whether or not I’d be able to give her those things. But this guy here is just stunned cold by the prospect that his creation has gained human consciousness, and just plain whacks her out before she’s said even a few sentences to him. I know it’s a short and all, but I didn’t feel there was any justification for what he did, nor was there any reason why he shouldn’t have been prepared for what became of his creation.
The short itself then moves on to a few decades later, when the man now has a wife, a daughter and a grand-daughter. And the man seems to be having visions of his robot girl walking towards him and falling to pieces.
A few more years pass by, and suddenly the girl appears again, but wholly intact. It then grabs his hand and they walk off together, only for the wife to walk outside and see the man and the robot walking off together.
Then they both disappear.
I took this as the robot girl had now become the form of the man’s guardian angel, and the angel was taking him up to heaven because it was his time to go. This was confirmed by the image of a small flying toy that looked like the same robot girl but with wings. This outcome is obviously sad for the wife in the picture, but often short-stories end up as sad ones.
A couple of things I’d like to point out here. The main character’s hair is atrocious. I mean, just look at it. What would you even call that rat’s nest? And his forehead seems to grow larger the older he gets. lol. Sorry, that just stood out to me.
But besides that, the one thing I really liked about this short was the music. Actually while listening to the music, it sounded suspiciously like the opening theme to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Same note progression on the piano, similar orchestral arrangement, and even a similar tune at times. Sure enough, after looking at the credits, I found out that Joe Hisaishi, the composer of Nausicaa and all of Miyazaki’s films, was one of three composers for Robot Carnival. So if my suspicions are correct, Joe is the one who composed for “Presence.”
“A Tale of Two Robots—Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion.” Directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (director of Roujin-Z, Golden Boy, and Blood: The Last Vampire)
This was by far the most fun of all the shorts. Though you have to wonder: was there ever a Chapter 1 and 2? And was there a Chapter 4; since at the end it says “To be continued”? (answer: No, there wasn’t =( )
Either way, this is the one that felt like it could have been part of an awesome continuing series. I love shorts that feel more like pilots to a larger production. It quickly creates an interesting world while introducing multiple characters by making their personalities broad and straight forward.
The story is this: IN THIS CORNER! You have the crazed, western-born inventor, Jonathan Jamison Volkenson; who wishes to wash clean the heathen ways of the Japanese culture by wiping it out with his giant mech robot built out of wood, bricks and mortar. AND IN THIS CORNER! You have the native Japanese team, consisting of a husband and wife, a short nerd, a large man, and a skinny man; with their giant robot mech built out of old wood and shacks with the shingles still attached.
Now some of these characters do have names that are mentioned in the short, but some of them don’t. I’m sure they all have names somewhere, but likely I wouldn’t be able to track them all down. So first off you have the stereotypical husband and wife where the husband is hard-headed, head-strong, and self-centered; and the wife is tough, smart-mouthed, and naggy (but more likely she’s a strong independent woman who has to deal with a dork of a husband all day, every day. Am I right?) The husband, of course, guides the robot’s movements from the control deck, while the wife handles some of the robot’s motor functions.
Then we have the short nerdy guy with big glasses: he’s there to add quirky variety to the cast while also serving as the guy who essentially pushes the gas to drive the robot forward.
Then there’s the big guy and the skinny guy. The big guy is your lovable strong-man who serves as the robot’s coal-shoveler; and the skinny guy is your quiet, unassuming, and loyal samurai-type who handles the robot’s motor controls in the arms.
And finally, we have the pièce de résistance, the crazy man to end all crazy men. I give you the mad doctor, Mr. Jonathan Jamison Volkenson: who looks like a cross between Marty Feldman from Young Frankenstein and Gargamel from The Smurfs.
This character is just totally priceless and the English dub is awesome for him as well. Sadly the same can’t be said for the other voices, as Carl Macek had the brilliant idea of making the mad doctor who’s supposed to be a westerner, sound normal; while everyone who’s supposed to be Japanese, has a stereotypical Japanese English accent. Even though normally everyone would just speak normally. A somewhat understandable choice given the nature of the short, but nonetheless an odd and unnecessary one.
Despite the stereotypical approach, I liked the husband and wife team, as well as the little nerdy guy who were part of the Japanese robot crew.
“Nightmare.” Directed by Takashi Nakamura (director of Catnapped! And chief animator on Akira)
As I had speculated from the start, this short was entirely inspired by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Disney’s Fantasia: that is if Bald Mountain were replaced with a city, and Chernobog replaced his demon spawn with robot monstrosities built from the vehicles, sewer pipes, and infrastructure of the city below.
The only difference here is that some guy is thrown into the chaos by waking up from his alley way only to discover that robotic zombies have begun to walk the Earth; and he tries to escape on his moped, only to be pursued by a strange golden robot wearing a red hood.
Rounding out our series of shorts is the second half of our book-ends directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and Atsuko Fukushima. This time we watch as the giant crawler from before hits the peak of a sand-dune, and shockingly falls to pieces. Eventually turning to rust and becoming lost to time in the desert.
Immediately following this is an Epilogue of sorts, where we see an old man bring a silver ball to his family’s home. Upon pressing a button on the top of the ball, a little ballerina appears inside and dances across the table top. But unsurprisingly… the ballerina EXPLODES! Reducing the family’s home to rubble, liking killing everyone inside. And this is the note they leave it on because then we see the “END” sign in the sand, with loud carnival music playing.
(ALL SPOILERS Over.)
I gotta say, this was a truly unique experience. Not too often do you get to sit down and watch something that has been murmured and talked about for decades in the anime fandom, only to finally experience it for yourself. Only in the past week have I finally seen the anime juggernaut Akira. And so this was one of those other infamous films that I just had to get ahold of.
If you’re a fan of anime, especially old anime, as well as a fan of short films, then you should definitely seek this film out if you can. It might not be the most inspired or exciting piece of celluloid, but I do consider it a new feather in my hat of animation knowledge and experience. And I will not soon forget it.
Take care, everyone. More Anime Nonsense on the way.