Spectacular Japanimation reunites talents behind worldwide smash "Akira," with even better results. Three contrasting stories offer something for everyone, eschewing the usual garish violence in favor of subtler social commentary, boffo humor and eye-grabbing action. Careful handling will yield "Memories" a long life on rep-house and cult circuits. It took three years to complete this ambitious omnibus effort, and it was worth the wait. Working with a batch of younger animators, "Akira" maker Katsuhiro Otomo put together three radically different cartoons, although they manage to hang together due to alternately harsh, spooky and hilarious comments on technological culture and where it may be going.
“Magnetic Rose,” the first seg – the longest and also the most technically stunning – is an atmospheric thriller set a century from now, when the multinational crew of space merchants (intergalactic garbage men, really) encounter a feeble SOS from a drifting ghost ship in the shape of a rose. Two of the gutsier crew men, Miguel and Heinz (always called “Heintz” in the subtitles) board the ship, which at first appears to be deserted. They soon encounter holographic images of a woman who greatly resembles Scarlett O’Hara; when one image dissolves before them, Miguel says it has “gone with the wind.”
In a lady-and-the-tiger scenario, she keeps reappearing in different guises; eventually, it’s clear that she was an acclaimed European opera singer earlier in the century (in excerpts aided here by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra). Heinz soon gets the creeps, but as the ship starts crumbling, his partner goes ever deeper into the mystery woman’s tomblike Xanadu.
This CGI-heavy seg’s necrotic mood is quickly dispelled by the bright colors and brisk pacing of the next, although “Stink Bomb’s” message isn’t exactly comforting. Story centers on Tanaka, a generic company man who works for a major pharmaceutical lab. One day, getting the sniffles, he heads into his boss’s empty office looking for a snappy new cold medicine. Too bad the bottles weren’t better labeled: Tanaka takes a sample, all right, but when he wakes up from his quick catnap, everybody in the complex appears to be dead. And when he goes outside, cherry blossoms spontaneously generate on barren trees, even as passing motorists immediately crash their cars.
For some reason, Tanaka doesn’t notice that a sickly green gas flows from his body, but he is sufficiently alarmed by all the plotzing to want to get out of his rural prefecture, which has essentially shut down. Soon, he has hopped a Honda and is trailing great clouds of perfumed poison all the way to Tokyo, where military types try to figure out how to take him, and his top-secret weapon, out of the picture. They, in turn, get pressure from the U.S. Army (led by a Colin Powell type) to do things Uncle Sam’s way.
This may sound heavy-handed, but vivid seg is rollicking throughout, with its blinking Everyman an ignorant foil for the increasingly frantic deployment of ever-more arcane weaponry – and the giddiest use of midair explosions since “Independence Day.”
Vancouver aud was lukewarm to the third chapter, but this was surely due to viewer fatigue rather than flagging quality. An undeniably downbeat closer, “Cannon Fodder” is the only toon animated by Otomo himself (he wrote graphic stories for the others) and obviously the closest to his dour view of human nature. Drawn in a line-heavy, red-saturated style recalling East-European cartoons from the Iron Curtain era, seg depicts a nameless city that exists solely to blast away at other, “enemy” cities with its giant, WWI-style cannon. Results of each day’s volleys are reported on TV, inspiring citizens – such as the main character, an utterly militarized little boy – to dream of supercharged glory.
Tale uses sparse dialogue and brassy music to make digs at Japanese rearmament, political passivity and company-town mentality. Baroque visuals and grisly humor reflect tone of Otomo’s only live-action pic, “World Apartment Horror” (described in his CV as a “directed actuality film”), but “Cannon Fodder’s” style is even more abstruse and unforgiving, and unprepared auds may resent this bleakness after the earlier fun.
Shifting the last seg – the shortest, at 22 minutes – to the middle might help, and could save wary distribs from temptation to drop it altogether. Losing the pic’s bland, misleading title would definitely help, but the overall package is strong enough to bear a few permutations. All tech aspects are top-notch, and “Memories,” which had a one-month run at home last year, will stick in the minds of any offshore auds, no matter how distant. It’s also certain to be a timeless hit on laserdisc or DVD.