Memories- DVD Review

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/28/05


  I had long suspected that the American geeky infatuation with Japanese animation (aka Japanimation or anime) stemmed from the same impulses that veered Western Intellectuals into the Eastern Mystical religions. To me, anime was merely the new name for the poorly animated cartoons that proliferated in this country back in the 1960s wave of cartoons that began with such fare as Gigantor the Space Age Robot, Kimba the White Lion, & Speed Racer. By the 80s & 90s the filmic equivalents had spawned such ‘classics’ like Akira, & Princess Mononoke. I was wrong.

  The man responsible for Akira is Katsuhiro Otomo, the Orson Welles of the genre, & the mastermind of this intriguing triptych of short films. In the mid-1990s he released this follow up, called Memories, based on some famed Japanese manga- or comic books- he had written. The title is a bit misleading since it only obviously ties in to the 1st of the 3 films- Magnetic Rose. This is a magisterial film, the longest of the 3, that borrows elements from such sci fi classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey & Solaris. It is directed by Koji Morimoto, who also contributed to the Animatrix compilation DVD. The tale follows a space salvage crew of the ship Corona, in 2092 that stumbles on a haunted derelict spaceship in the middle of a magnetic asteroid belt, & reluctantly follows orders to investigate. 2 of the crew- Heintz & Miguel- are sent to investigate & find a palatial estate in space- or rather a hologram of 1, filled with the romanticized memories of a famous female opera star who disappeared decades earlier, that seems not only to be able to materialize things, but play with the minds of the astronaut’s like the ocean on Solaris. The lush visuals & musical score alone can make this small film a gem, but the story never veers into predictability. Miguel gets swept up in the romantic fantasy of the sentient hologram’s wish to relive its long dead owner’s life over again, but better, while Heintz’s mind & emotions are toyed with by the sadistic hologram, which plays off feelings of guilt he has for leaving his family behind on his long voyages. Rare is such human characterization achieved in film- animated or not, & with such spare strokes. The film’s ending, where the title is manifested, is 1 of those ends that leaves you truly thinking.

  The 2nd film in the piece has almost no bearing on the overall film’s title, save that it may be assumed a memory that is told from a future point in time. It’s the weakest film of the 3- a tale called Stink Bomb, directed by Tensai Okamura, about a moronic lab worker named Nobuo Tanaka, who mistakes a biological weapon in pill form for cold medicine. He soon becomes a living mega-Typhoid Mary whose body odor kills anything that comes near him. He is ordered to return to his company’s Tokyo headquarters, but soon becomes a target for the Japanese & American military as anywhere he travels becomes a biological disaster area. This is intended as farce, since the corporate & military leaders are deliberately shown as cartoonish imbeciles who cannot even kill Nobuo, who evades them with a simple moped. At film’s end he succeeds in accidentally wiping out a good portion of Japan- fade to black.

  The last piece- Cannon Fodder- is Otomo’s own film. It has a visual sensibility far different from the 1st 2 pieces- sort of a more lush version of the Eastern European animation of the 1960s & 1970s, typified by the sci fi classic Fantastic Planet, & like that film is almost pure allegory. There is also not a single break in the track of the film as its iris glares relentlessly at a fictive dystopian city-state in a perpetual war with an unseen enemy beyond its walled borders. The society is very fascistic & reminiscent of the silent film classic Metropolis. The daily duty seems to be loading huge cannons, reminiscent of those in another sci fi classic, Things To Come, to be fired at an unseen enemy- a fact which is blissfully never questioned by the city’s inhabitants, yet which the viewer sees is nonexistent in the desert beyond the city. The moral being that once a power has defeated all its enemies it must manufacture its own lest fall of its own weight. It is the memory of a former enemy that drives this state- this the subtle tie to the overall film title. The ostensible character focus of the film is a presumably typical plebeian clan whose father works a dreary job as a cannon loader, & whose gung ho son longs to 1 day do his duty for the cause. Its ending is enigmatic, as the 1st film’s was. The boy goes to bed & we see what may be the light of bombs flash several times outside his blindered window.

  Artistically, the 1st & last piece should have been switched, & the middle piece needed a bit more fleshing out, as well as a tie to the overall title. The DVD has a terrific widescreen anamorphic transfer, with yellow subtitles, & extras, including 3 short pilot episodes of each segment. It also has a featurette with the 3 directors, called ‘Making of Memories’. But, it is heartening to see a film of such daring, even when it fails, getting made & released in Japan, as well frustrating to note that no American animators would dare pick up the gauntlet this film drops- opting instead for numbingly simpleminded Disney fare, which is far more like the watered down Mysticism I expected from this anime film. Instances like this are those times I love being proved wrong. In fact, I only hope my artistic presumptions are more routinely proved wrong. I strongly recommend this DVD to both hardcore anime buffs & mere filmic afficionados. I doubt you will be disappointed.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 12/04 Hackwriters website.]

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