Nov 08, 2007 - 01:18 AM
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 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

One of the most frustrating things about being an animation fan is realizing all that animation has to offer the art of visual storytelling, and seeing how infrequently it fulfills that potential. In the Western world, and particularly America, animation is mostly limited to "family" (read: kiddie) fare, dumb primetime comedies, and stuff for comics nerds. But as much as anime fans like to make that fact their mantra, Japan really isn't much better. If what we get on these shores is any indication, most contemporary Japanese animation is mass-produced specifically for kids and people that shriek when they see sunlight. Sure, there are a handful of exceptions all around - Lasseter, Bird, Chomet, and Park for the West, Ghibli, Kon, Oshii, Otomo, and Rintaro for the East - but if all the medium's innovation is forced to ride on the shoulders of a handful of people, I don't believe animation has a chance of ever being taken as seriously as so many of us claim to wish it would be. This fact becomes all the more glaring while watching Memories, a 10-year-old feature film that throws almost every animated work of the last decade into sharp relief.

Even though I refer to Memories as one single film, it's actually an anthology of three shorter films, each handled by a different director, but all linked to Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Magnetic Rose is the first, and arguably the best, of the three segments. It tells the tale of some space-debris collectors who answer a distress call, only to find it emanating from an abandoned spacecraft haunted by a jealous, vengeful ghost who can't let go of her memories. Despite its description, however, it's more of a science fiction psychodrama than what we commonly think of as a "horror" story. Magnetic Rose is a difficult, complex work that doesn't comfortably fit into any single interpretation, but it has a lot to say about a variety of subjects, such as love, obsession, insanity, the nature of memories and the importance we place on them. Its attention to visual and auditory detail is stunning, and the directorial style establishes a very uneasy atmosphere throughout.

The second feature, Stink Bomb, is perhaps the most purely entertaining film of the three. It tells the story of a man who accidentally ingests a chemical that turns him into a horrifyingly efficient biological weapon, and almost every effort made to stop him is foiled by both the military's ineptitude and his own stupidity. The film itself is a mercurial combination of social commentary, terrifying science fiction, black comedy, and fast-paced farce. Stink Bomb is less obtuse in its meaning than Magnetic Rose, but it gives us just as much to think about, especially given the relevance that biological warfare has today. It also serves as a gauge of just how much has changed over the past decade; what would have been funny in this film ten years ago is more than a little scary to think about today. We might laugh, but it's a very uneasy laugh. The music also deserves special mention; it's a jazzy affair full of upbeat rhythms and screaming saxophones, which at once emphasizes the film's dark humor, and somehow heightens its nervous, tense atmosphere all at the same time.

Memories! Memories! Memories!

The third film, Cannon Fodder, unfortunately can't quite uphold the high standard set by Magnetic Rose and Stink Bomb. It's an allegorical tale about people who live in a society where the only jobs appear to be fashioning ammunition, loading and firing cannons at an unseen enemy. It's certainly the most heavily sociopolitical of the three segments; the entire film is essentially a diatribe against certain political systems, such as totalitarianism, fascism, and communism, and the type of societies that such systems might feasibly create. And it's a touch heavy-handed at that; unlike the previous two films, it leaves very little up to the imagination. Very obvious references to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany appear throughout the film. For example, though much of the writing is in English, it's done in a pseudo-Cyrillic font, and one of the state slogans is "No Conquest Without Labor," which at once sounds like a Communist manifesto and something hauntingly like "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes Freedom), the slogan on the gate above the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Even the characters look like they just came fresh from a concentration camp, with their pallid green-hued skin, rotten and missing teeth, and hollow black-circled eyes. Although the characters live in a society that claims to praise the working class, the working class is the most downtrodden of all, and the only people who remain somewhat happy are the children, who have yet to see the reality of their situation. Although it's a very visually inventive film, Cannon Fodder seriously drags at points (there are long stretches where we see nothing more than a huge cannon being loaded) and the film just doesn't quite match the complexity of the preceding two films. After the unrelenting attack of the first two films, Cannon Fodder guides the movie to its conclusion with a whimper, rather than a bang.

Memories is a bit of an oddity, in that it was created exclusively for adults, but doesn't fall into most of the trappings that most so-called "adult" animation does. It treats its subject matter with restraint and respect, rather than lacing itself with sexuality or being far more violent than it has to be. Nevertheless, it will most likely not appeal to anyone who isn't an adult, or at least an older teen. Even if we put aside the relentlessly dark tone and more disturbing imagery in the film (both of which would certainly upset young children), the fact is that children and most younger teens simply won't understand it. These aren't simple, straightforward stories with clear messages; even an educated adult will find that these stories require some thought to understand. This is both surprising and refreshing, especially since both Hollywood and Japanese animation seem obsessed with being deliberately inoffensive and as marketable to as many demographics as possible.

Memories! Memories! Memories!

But none of this is to say that Memories is the one perfect anime film that everyone should be willing to kill to see. For all its excellent execution and fearless innovation, I have to say that Memories is often more interesting than it is truly entertaining. It's interesting enough that it encourages repeat viewings just to see if you caught and fully understood everything, but it's too dry to be very effective on the visceral level. It succumbs to the common ailment of many art-house films. It's mind candy: rich with meaning and filled with audiovisual delights, but it spends so much time seducing the mind that it neglects to appeal to the heart. This is why I must say that Memories should not be held up as an ideal to aspire to for animation, but a touchstone that shows us what might be accomplished if animation were taken more seriously, by its creators and audiences alike. That, and it's a very good movie if you want something that will leave you thinking long after the credits have rolled.

Added:  Saturday, August 06, 2005

Related Link:  Destination Pictures
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