Anime Spotlight: Redline
Released By Manga/Anchor Boy on January 17th 2012
The universe is a weird, wonderful place. The catena of odd, alien shapes writ large across the expanse of stars. One guy.. a guy with a leather jacket , ridiculous pompadour and switch blade comb, is going to scrawl his name across that space. "Very Sweet Weaponless Prince" JP is going to take his souped up classic Trans Am and outrace the infamous rogues, sorceresses, gods and legends; validating his comrade’s sacrifice and winning the girl.
I'm not going to say it's not hyperbole, but there is also a whole lot of truth when the makers of Redline call the movie "once in a life time" and "the ultimate anime film; one that defies all logic." This should be a fire cracker under the posterior of anime.
However, though the movie itself is positively exhilarating, if there is one thing anime is good for, it's engendering and dealing with apocalyptic feelings. Look at Akira, created during a boom, imagining a gig-bust. Look at Astro Boy and Cyborg 009 and how their heroes flew and fell towards oblivion. In regards to what it means for anime, Redline feels apocalyptic. Even its producers have suggested that it's something more along the lines of a last hurrah than it is a vanguard.
Anime's gotten more than a bit unpopular. Not invisible. Not unknown or unfamiliar. Unpopular: known and broadly unliked, or, in more sympathetic circles, at least not sufficiently liked that is deemed worthy of time and attention.
Yeah, "Manga Man Says Parental Discression Advised," because anime is "not for kids." By in large, it's for kids and otaku.
Back since Osamu Tezuka inked his Astro Boy TV deal, back since it was Toei making movies, anime has been a tough business. In a tough economy it has focused on the safer targets. So, with anime and otaku, you get a marriage of consumers and the industry producing their 2D paramours. With input from the sponsors, it fine tunes itself to the tastes of a dedicated crowd, who will buy the unedited Blu-rays, the character goods and so on. Not say that it's an easily maintained marriage. You have an audience prone to hanging onto some favorites, prone to abandoning once hot for the new sensation and prone to the occasional berserk reaction. Focused on that, there isn't the opportunity to avoid qualities that will be turn-offs to other audiences. A part from exceptional productions, a lot of anime doesn't even bother attempting to woo audiences beyond those dedicated ones.
The consequence it that most anime isn't enticing to non-anime fans. There are few works that I'd push on people who wouldn't identify themselves as anime watchers. If something is well made, I'll suggest it to lapsed anime viewers, but since even many fairly solid works carry otaku audience baggage it's become a subculture as much as a medium.
Take the recently popular Steins;gate for example. It's a fun pseudo-science time travel puzzle that's fairly well constructed, especially in regard to introducing a cast of characters, then only using that specific set to affect the story. I'd recommend it to anime fans, but it's so tied to Akihabara culture and otaku types that, while I think non-anime fans would get it, they'd also be turned off by its by-otaku-for-otaku mannerisms.
So, say you want to cheat on the otaku spouse and win the adoration of the whole neighbor. How do you go about that?
Since 2005, Fuji TV has been trying that with its late night noitaminA block, which is anime programmed for audiences who aren't typically anime watchers. It's featured adaptations of classic Noh horror, a literary psychological comedy and dramatic novels. In Japan many manga audiences aren't anime fans, and the block went to genres, specially josei, that don't generally attract anime adaptations and whose readers don't generally watch anime. The results have been depressing ratings and even more depressing video sales. Basically, it proved the tautology that non-anime-watchers watch want anime. In response, noitaminA has moved deeper and deeper into otaku territory, featuring things like [C]: The Money and Soul of Possibility - a look at economic collapse with a cute girl in a bright, skintight outfit, or, next month, full otaku bait, Black Rock Shooter.
Beyond that, how do you rock those broader audiences? Nostaglia apparently isn't a bad route or go. "From Studio Ghibli" help a lots.
A combination of the two seems seems an even keener plans.
So, what can anime do beyond aiming safe, low or small; adapting some other works or taking some other tried route.
Kung fu movies were once produced in almost a production line. Sure, you still get cheapies, but now, you get a fewer, grander events/spectacles. How about that "go big" direction?
Online web publication Slate has a weekly culture podcast that often returns to this metaphor. Wine critics frequently talk up fruity wines. One reason for this is that they sample so much wine that they're desensitized to it. It's when a flavor really blasts them that they take notice.
Even with the prolonged bad economy, there's still a gargantuan glut of media choices. It’s made us all critics. Very few media consumers are going to give anime the time of day for lack of anything else worthy of note. Fewer still are going to wait for it to get good. We've all sampled enough wine that if it isn't noticeable and enjoyable, we spit it out and check if there's anything cool up on youtube.
Redline goes big, daring and blasts. Famously, it was created over the course of seven years, at times taking several months for a single scene, and using 100,000 hand-made drawings. At Otakon 2010, Masao Maruyama state that he expects it will be last hand drawn animation of its complexity.
If a studio was going to do this, it was going to be Madhouse.
There are few major anime producers more laudable than Madhouse. It was founded by Masao Maruyama, Osamu Dezaki (70's classics like boxing tragedy Tomorrow's Joe, the girl's tennis title Aim for the Ace! and famed shoujo anime The Rose of Versailles), Rintaro (Galaxy Express, X), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll) after leaving the home of Astro Boy at Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions. Over the year's it's balanced commercial works (many CLAMP adaptations, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Trigun, Death Note, Beyblade) with artistically ambitious ones, like the work of creators like Satoshi Kon (Perflect Blue, Paprika) and Mamoru Hosoda, (Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars).
With a lot of design and writing input from Katsuhito Ishii (character designer on the anime section of Kill Bill, creators of notable OVAs Hal & Bons and Trava - Fist Planet, both of which find places in Redline), the movie is thoroughly the work of Madhouse lifer Takeshi Koike (animator of Animatrix: World Record, creator of the Afro Samurai pilot and the Iron Man, animator on Yoshiaki Kawajiri anime like Ninja Scroll, Wicked City, and Goku: Midnight Eye) who directed the film and got his hand into its guts as storyboard artist, unit director and animation director.
What they produce is anything but a sloppy production that is just distinguished by the volume of sensationalism being stuck to 11.
Lately, the wheels have come off "Cool Japan." Japanamerica author Roland Kelts has called it the product an outdated notion of branding. De facto figure head Takashi Murakami, whose "Superflat" contemporary art career has spun off Luis Vuitton purses, the “Akihabara Majokko Princess,” music video with McG and Kirsten Dunst, $4,000 watches and $1000 action figure has gotten pissy about ad agencies trying to make a business out of Cool Japan. An announced in October, cancelled in December program to pay the air fare of visitors willing to talk up Japan suggests that politicians are now afraid of being burned by funding efforts to foster the increasingly out of favor concept.
Say, for the sake of argument, that there were things that embodied what "Cool Japan" was supposed to represent; creations whose merit translates globally, that made you sit up and say, "wow, Japan produced outstanding things!" Maybe there aren't that many media or artifacts that fit the bill. Maybe the fact that something called "There's No Way My Little Sister is This Cute" is a notably popular anime suggests that anime's trends aren't towards cool, and aren't likely to get people marveling at the wonderful things produced by Japan.
Still, I'd say that there are games, anime and manga that fit the bill.
I think of the original Pokemon, which combined an addictive, still used game system with 100 monsters, the majority of which were brilliantly designed. I think of the great Nintendo Wii game Mario Galaxy, which kept on on shifting its mechanics, always delighting the player by giving them something new and then moving on before it got tiring.
If there is a "Cool Japan" Redline is one of its key manifestations.
Like Pokemon, like Mario Galaxy, it is fantastically well crafted.
Hand animation is more than a throw back. It enables the go for broke spirit of Redline. The anime is teeming with stuff. It has aliens and explosions and pixie dust coming out of its ears. And all that isn't fine tuned or algorithmic. Instead it's messy, inventive energized, artistic creation. It's the kind of wild outpouring that that saw a Budweiser can draw into the Macrosss missile circus and a Pepsi can in Project A-ko. All the quick, movements that you had to study to ensure you didn't miss anything. It's what anime did when anime grabbed global attention. That it takes that sublimely expressive route in a production full of mechanical designs, the kind of which really send anime productions screaming for the 3D models makes it that much more wonderful.
You have the main thrust of Jp's (voiced by SMAP's Takuya Kimura) relationships with rival/love interest Sonoshee McLaren (the adorable Yuu Aoi, by the way, her amphibious car is the awesomely named Crab Sonoshee) and his relationship with his long time partner Frisbee (voiced by "Japanese Johnny Depp" Tadanobu Asano ). The latter effects his dreams of winning the Redline, and that in turn effects the former.
Beyond that, the anime withhold nothing. There's a pantheon of fascinating racing competitors. Each of which evidently has their own stories, which just happens to intersect with Jp's at this juncture. In the process, they crash into all these other incidental stories occurring in the background, from minor family narratives to major political uprisings. While the anime withholds nothing in including all of this, while the Jp/Sonoshee/Frisbee core is complete, with all of the other racers and all of the other incidental stories, Redline does work on the Mario Galaxy principal. Don't exhaust the fun. Leave the viewer wanting something more.
The second, critical "Cool Japan" element here is that Redline is perfectly accessible.
Show this to a non-anime fan, tell them to just watch, and after the typical "why don't they look Japanese?" they're going to stop asking questions. The racing sells itself. Even if you don't shared a need for speed, and I don't , the clenched, frantic intensity commands attention.
Beyond that, the complexities of Redline's universe are simple.
The place is called Roboworld. It has guys with names like Volton. They're protective of their turf, militaristic and wear fascist regalia.
It's Funky Boy. It's a giant f'n Tetsuou out of control like bioweapon.
The guys name is Machinehead he's a god of racing champion who has merged with his vehicle, the God Wing.
While being dead obvious it applies verve to the coolness of trying not to be too cool such that just starting to list out the litany is fun
Part of "Cool Japan" was that the creations were supposed to be "culturally odorless," which was to say that while they raised Japan's profile as a creator of great things, the creations themselves were not gobmackingly Japanese. You look at Hello Kitty, and she's a cute reflection of your feelings, not some foreign artifact. In terms of anime, it's not Gintama (about aliens rather than Commodore Perry opening Japan, full of all sorts of cultural references and language puns) or many of the other gag anime or something based on manzai comedy routines. "Sweet" Jp falls along the lines of a Japanese tough guy's emulation of American toughs, but, really, you don't need to know what a bancho is to appreciate the character. All the significant dimensions are evident either at the glance or what the anime shows of his life.
Here's an extra, now key, element of the "culturally odorless" equation. You don't get the scent of otaku from the Redline. Sure, there are nods and in-jokes. There's a big magic girl bit. There are plenty of Easter egg references to Koike/Ishii works beyond the Trava appearance, like a robot doing Party7 dance moves. But really, you don't have to spot the reference when the evil doppelgangers of Lupin and Jigen come on screen to appreciate the movie. More crucially, you don't have to appreciate moe or tsundere or answer any of the other otaku wolf whistles to be excited by Redline.
On the commentary track for Appleseed: Ex Machina, an anime movie made with international audiences in mind, producer Joseph Chou made the point that while Japanese audiences are satisfied by dazzling set pieces, American watchers want something with a governing narrative. To put words in his mouth, it doesn't have to be The Godfather, but it needs a line between points A and B. Redline's script works perfectly well as a governing narrative. It's a bang, build, boom! pattern: it starts with the attention commanding Yellow Line preliminary race, it builds in the middle, then it's all screaming Redline to the end. In terms of action movies that set up, then have a sustained ferocious assault, it sits impressively alongside movies like "Bodyguards and Assassins" and 13 "Assassins".
As far as depth goes, this isn't one of the great anime movies for grownups. Redline is not in the league of human celebration Mind Game or Tekkon Kinkreet, which seems design to impart a degree of ambivalence. Instead, it goes a route that is a bit romantic, a bit Romantic, conventional, and does the trick.
With full recognition that it's a broad, broad generalization, I subscribe to the notion that younger audience anime/manga works are about aspiration... I'll be strong... I'll find love... I'll be the best, ect. Older audience works are about reconciliation, accounting for how matters got to their current state and how to live with that.
Redline takes one of the most successful formulas in younger audience anime/manga in that it rests on tripod famously used by Shonen Jump (Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece and so on): friendship, effort and victory. Reline offers adult characters, and to that extent, it shifts the shonen formula by having the circumstances around "Sweet" Jp being of his own making. He's not Goku, born a Saiyan monkey king or Naruto, the cursed vessel of a fox spirit, in that, he has that adult element of reconciliation. Still, watch the anime. Spend a moment reverse engineering Jp's relationships with his partner and his crush, what he puts into the race and what he gets out of it... this would get a Shonen Jump's editor's seal of approval. But, hey, a crowd pleaser is a crowd pleaser.
The depressing hang over to the intoxicating experience is that Redline is destined to be an outlier and not a goal post. A new gold age of anime movies is not in the makings. While Redline executed its end of the plan to rock audiences, at least as far as Japan went, it didn't move the needle. The movie opened on 56 screens, which was substantially more than niche otaku fare like Haruhi Suzumiya or the movie edit of visual novel game adaptation Fate/stay night, but less than annualized franchise like Naruto. Ticket sales were less than the former, to say nothing of the later.
It is this an issue specific to the astoundingly unique Redline? Toei, the father of classic big anime productions had a vision to go big with their adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha. Studio veteran Kozo Morishita talked about how TV anime was different from movie anime, and how grand productions had a chance to reach broader audiences. Buddha did manage to open up at #4 in the Japanese box office, behind Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2nd week), Princess Toyotomi (1st week) and Black Swan (3rd week), and spent three weeks in the top 10, but there's little sign that it has met Toei's expectations, started a trend, or even that Toei is hot to start on the next part of the planned Buddha trilogy.
The history of studio's like Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions shows that Redline is the kind of work that is more likeable to break a studio than it is to make one. Madhouse is doing relatively ok by the standards of an anime producer in 2012, and is still making quality mainstream anime like the new Hunter x Hunter, but the teas leaves for more boundary pushing material don't look great. Mamoru Hosoda spun off new Studio Chizu to work with Madhouse on his upcoming The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. Work on Satoshi Kon's Dream Machine was shut down in August 2011 due to lack of finances.
Koike and Ishii will probably continue to roll the artistic dice. The results might not end up licensed for English language audiences (Trava, Hal & Bons), it might not be audience pleasing (Party 7) or artistically successful (Smuggler by most accounts), but it almost definitely will not be anime with the sort of ambition and backing of Redline.
If you've been listening to the buzz, it is important to note that Redline is not everything you've dreamed and more. When I revisit a work like this, I notice that it is exactly how I remember it. Because it is so memorable, and because while complex, it just sort of loads itself into your memory. Fantastic to see again, but not something in which to find new depths or angles.
I think of it in terms of Hayao Miyazaki's Lupin III: Castle of Cagiolstro, which offer a similar experience. It's a classic. It's a joy. If you want to let your mind wonder back into depressing territory, consider that Yasuo Otsuka, responsible for much of its outstanding animation, thought of Castle more as a routine baseline than something that should have stood as one of anime's grand monuments.
Still, even if the boom is anime imploding and not anime rocketing onwards and upwards... don't wait for an online stream, because Redline is anime that you'll want on your shelf. Get the best format that you're home theater supports and get ready for a real spectacle.