Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Memories (1995)... Angie's Pick for January


I tend to enjoy surprising people by going against their expectations, and I think it's safe to say that this month's pick fits the bill. While we've so far been looking at cheesy ninja flicks, silly Japanese wrestling movies featuring giant cephalopods, and street hockey players from dysoptian futures, this month's pick is a little less wacky and a bit, dare I say, artistic? It is still, however, strongly placed in the realm of sci-fi. It's also an anime, a genre that I consumed like candy in my teens and early twenties, to the point that there are movies and series in the genre that my past self tells me I watched on my livejournal account, but I have no recollection of having seen. This anime, however, I definitely do remember, and how fitting is it that its title is Memories?

Memories is an anthology film, composed of three episodes. They were all written by Katsuhiro Otomo, best known for his Akira series. The three pieces are, however, directed by different gentlemen and, as such, their style, tone, and mood vary greatly. Like most anthology pieces, it's safe to say that you're probably going to prefer certain segments more than others, and for me, at least, Memories is no exception.

The first episode is “Magnetic Rose”, directed by Kofi Morimoto, and this is the one that stays with me the most. In 2092, a garbage collection spaceship receives an S.O.S. signal on its way back to earth and international space law requires that they heed the call. Ladies man Miguel and family man Heintz make their way onto the space station the signal is coming from in search of the person in need of help. What they find is the home of a woman haunted by her past. Once a famous opera singer about to marry her true love, she lost her voice first, and then him not long after. Devastated and unable to move on, she has filled the ship with mementos and holograms that replay a time when she was truly loved and adored by all, but most specifically by her beloved Carlo.

I believe that a lot of what happens on the ship can largely be left to the viewer's interpretation. Is it ghosts and spirits that torment Heintz by making him remember the death of his daughter, and tempting him to stay there forever by living out memories as if she was still alive? Is it Eva's ghost specifically that forces Miguel to become her Carlo? Or is it perhaps the ship, so used to catering to Eva's needs that, even after she passes away, it's issuing this distress signal in order to draw people there and continue on its purpose. Most likely, it's a mixture of both.

Regardless, this episode in the series is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. The images are perfectly surreal and creepy, putting you on edge as the mystery unravels. The operatic music is gorgeous and haunting, not only fitting because of Eva's past but also because there's something about it that perfectly fits the setting of desolate space. The acting, a cooperation between the voice actors and animators, is superb. When Heintz is tempted to stay with his daughter, then faces that she is in fact gone, forced to view her death all over again and unable to change it, your heart breaks for him.

Heintz also delivers the line that must be where the title of the anthology is pulled from: “Memories aren't an escape!” he tells Eva. Since I don't speak Japanese, I'm going purely by the English subtitles here, so I'm hoping they are accurate. I personally would amend his statement to say that memories are only a temporary escape, and that some are so painful that we should not revisit them. I think that is definitely what the short is trying to convey, anyway, and I certainly agree.

While on the surface it seems like the short ends unhappily, with Miguel stuck on the space station, Heintz free floating in space, and their two companions dead, I see some hope here. Heintz seems to have truly achieved peace with his daughter's death, and while his chances of rescue are slim, he will die without that burden on his soul.

The second episode, “Stink Bomb”, directed by Tensai Okamura, is much closer in theme and mood to the films we've been watching previously. Nobuo comes down with the flu, and after going to the doctor's office to get a shot, he returns to work at a pharmaceutical company. He's still got a bit of a fever, so his friends recommend he go snatch one of the new “fever pills” they've yet to do trials on. He does so, and not long after goes to take a nap in the break room. His coworkers start to complain of a strange smell, and then we cut to hours later where Nobuo wakes up to find everyone dead. He ends up in touch with their head office, which tells him to bring them the pills and documents, because it turns out it wasn't a fever medication, but rather a biological weapon, and no one is supposed to know about it.

The combination of Nobuo's flu and the drug have turned him into the titular stink bomb, emitting a dangerous gas that becomes worse as he becomes stressed, that knocks out everything but plant life, which instead seems to bloom beautifully. However, just explaining the plot to you doesn't really reveal to you that this is a comedic short. Nobuo's obliviousness to his condition and the people who pass out the moment they come near him are done with great comedic intent, and it gets even better when people begin shooting at him or running away in fear and he has no earthly idea why.

The mood is enhanced greatly by the short's soundtrack, a unique blend of jazz music with interesting vocal melodies. I'm not sure if the vocalist is singing in Japanese or perhaps just riffing in a unique way, but it certainly enhances the bizarre tone of the whole short.

The plot is a bit predictable and it takes the actual makers of the drug far too long to figure out that Nobuo is, in fact, the cause of the problem, but I think it's still an enjoyable, brief short.

The film wraps up with one more tale, "Cannon Fodder", directed by Otomo himself. Here we get one more completely different style of story, this time a dystopian steampunk world where an entire nation is devoted to firing the large cannons that cover the rooftops of their city. We never see the nation they are fighting, nor are they ever attacked. The influence of 1984 is evident, including the nation's slogan, “Shoot and blast with all your strength for our nation.” The story primarily follows a young boy who believes whole heartedly in the propaganda being presented by their government. He sits attentively in school, hoping to learn enough so that one day he can be the one who fires the cannon, rather than one of the lowly workers who helps load it, like his father. His mother also works in the factories that create the artillery to be fired.

This short isn't so much a story as it is a brief glimpse into a world, and I think that's why it doesn't hold my interest as well. While the detail in the backgrounds and cannons and buildings is very impressive, I'm just not particularly interested in watching a cannon being loaded then fired, which is primarily what happens here. Much praise is often given to this short for the fact that it all appears to be one take, a constant movement of the camera rather than any sharp cuts. It is very impressive, it's just not enough to grab me. I was more amused by the boy's fantasy as a future cannon firer, made to look like a child's drawings as he imagines it. It is, however, a very brief moment of the short.

The main issue I have with this film overall is that I feel like it shows you its best first, and then slowly decreases in quality as it goes on. While I would watch “Magnetic Rose” again and again, I don't know that I need to see “Stink Bomb” more than once every few years, and, quite honestly, I would probably just skip “Cannon Fodder” on repeated viewings. The DVD even provides an “Episode Selection” in the main menu that makes this rather easy to do.

The other thing I'm not so sure of is whether or not these pieces truly make a cohesive whole. They chose to title the film Memories, and as such, you would expect all three pieces to tie to that. It could easily be an alternate title for “Magnetic Rose”, but for the other two shorts, I have to reach. My guess is that it relates to “Stink Bomb” in terms of Japan's memories of the atomic bombings, especially thanks to the part the Americans play in the biological weapon's creation. For “Cannon Fodder”, perhaps it is the false memories being implanted into the nation to make them believe in the cause. In the bonus features of the disc, they interview all three directors, but the theme isn't truly discussed, so I don't know how right or wrong I am. Of course, it's really up to us to decide our own meaning. I'm curious to see if Noel and Tony find similar ones, or something completely different.


I was huge into Katsuhiro Otomo in the 90s, not just because of Akira - a scattered film that never really grabbed me, it's technical brilliance aside - but because of his segments of Robot Carnival, or Roujin Z, a wonderful screwball comedy he wrote, designed, and supervised. Even when I fell out of anime, his works would catch my eye, as I really enjoyed both Steamboy and Metropolis, and I picked up the massive six volume set of the original Akira manga, rapidly consuming it and declaring, to this day, that it's one of the greatest works of fiction ever gifted to the world, in any medium. I love his grounded designs, strong characters with chips on their shoulders, vast, sprawling worlds pieced together with an engineer's precision that even James Cameron continues to praise. His narratives aren't always the strongest, but the man sure does build fascinating societies and populate them with memorable folk. And then blew them all into gorgeous rubble.

Memories is a film I hungered to check out during the 90s, but it didn't hit DVD over here until 2004, when I was in a lul with anime. The boom of the 90s had turned into a flood by the time DVDs came around, and a medium that was once still so limited that fans could literally consume everything released in America suddenly expanded, and that was no longer possible. Many people fell out of anime fandom at the time, as realization hit that, like every other medium, only a percentage of it is actually good, and weeding the good from the bad was no longer easy, as I'd just graduated high school and was between the social groups of then and now.

So thank you, Angie, for giving me the kick I needed to finally give this film a watch.

"Magnetic Rose"

Right from the start, the meticulous animation and precise design work introduce you to an interesting group of blue-collar laborers in a job that's alien and wondrous to us, just another day on the clock to them, as they gather up space junk into clusters, salvage it for what pickings they find, then vaporize it to keep the space lanes clean. This could be played for comedy (as Tony and I know all too well), but it's grounded and straight and, most importantly, real. There's a hard science to the design of the craft and tools, and a realistic griminess to dudes who stopped caring so much about hygiene some time ago.

This atmosphere carries on into the discovery of the ghost yard with the massive, rotted rosebud of a ship at its heart, pulling anything nearby in with both a magnetic attraction and a siren song broadcast over distress channels. As the crew explores its corridors, it plays a very delicate game of bait-and-switch, lulling your whimsy with promises of exuberant fantasy, then deflating them with easy answers of holograms and a eccentric woman with riches to spare. But then the fantasy keeps coming in waves, bigger and more personal, and answers stop being easy to find until they're impossible and all you're left with are memories come alive to torment and allure the poor explorers who opened the wrong door. I like that there's an answer to it all, that the ship's computer, in its damage and decay, has gone insane, but also the implication that this is merely Heintz reaching for an answer as he barely has time to reject the fantasy before it rejects him into the frozen drift of the stars.

I credit a good chunk of the success for this short to Satoshi Kon, who wrote the script (from Otomo's story), and served as the sequence's layout artist and art director. With the success of this short, Kon was able to get his own film project off the ground, debuting Perfect Blue in 1998. It's also about the rise and fall of an idol, her story blurred in a web of reality and fantasy, both of her own and her admirers. It's a fantastic film, and so many of the twists, visual exploration, and psychological wrenching it's known for is a ripple of what started in "Magnetic Rose". With the additional films of Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika, and the tv series Paranoia Agent, Kon not only rose to prominence as one of the top names in anime, but an important voice in international cinema as a whole. He died in 2010 at age 46, after a brief but devastating battle with pancreatic cancer, and I can now see why many fans hold up "Magnetic Rose" as the the first shining light in his now legendary career.

Which isn't to completely dismiss director Koji Morimoto, who's work here is also superb, I just don't have as much to go on for comparative purposes as I do Kon. The only other work of Morimoto - who's shunned features in favor of just directing short films and music videos - I've seen are his Robot Carnival segment "Franken's Gears", which is a charming bit of destruction that doesn't share many similarities with "Magnetic Rose" beyond their strong animation, and "Beyond", which he did for The Animatrix. Now "Beyond" is where definite similarities can be found, as it also deals with grounded, everyday people suddenly coming across something fantastical that they increasingly struggle to rationalize before it's taken away from them. While much of the underlying narrative is definitely Kon, the execution, the relationships, and the drifts between perceptions are absolutely emphasized by the work of Morimoto, giving us a creative match made in heaven.

And what they made absolutely is heavenly. The story, from concept to execution, would fit perfectly at home in a collection of Ray Bradbury stories. The themes of salvaging the alluring but ultimately harmful memories left behind by the past, executed with spot on precision, brings to life the film Event Horizon never knew it had the potential to be. This is a classic, an absolute classic that absolutely must be shared with fans of anime, fans of science fiction, fans of cinema, fans of good stories told well in general. When the rose first appears, it's the perfect image to foreshadow both wonders and horror. When the cock-sure young Miguel becomes so lost in the fantasy that we never find him again, it's haunting. When Heintz holds his smiling daughter, then witnesses her fall right through him in an echo of her death, it's devastating. When we see the withered body of Eva Friedal, as crumbled and rotten as the heart of her ship, it's heartbreaking. When Heintz is left abandoned among floating debris with his mind finally at peace, it's inspiring.

I've only just seen this film and I already know moments like these will stick with me for a lifetime.

As for the other two...

"Stink Bomb"

I love Roujin Z, which I mentioned above, and which is essentially the predecessor to this film as, with the designs, script, and supervision of Otomo, it tells a madcapped story of bureaucracy gone mad, rampant destruction, and a hapless innocent caught in the middle of it all. There's much hilarity to be found in everyone's scrambled efforts to figure out what's going on, their attempts to clue Nobuo in once they sort it out, then their mission to wipe him off the face of the earth when he just doesn't get it. And he just keeps chugging along, never realizing why that cloud keeps following him everywhere he goes.

The look of this short is a testament to the everyman design work Otomo is know for, with figures that feel like real people and lack the exaggeration anime is know for. Don't ge me wrong, it is caricaturish at times - most especially when you have the shrunken Japanese commander arguing with the massive black American - but it still captures the way everyday people look in an everyday world. And also staying true to Otomo's style, we see that everyday world demolished in explosion after explosion of meticulously animated rubble, often with Nobuo desperately clinging to the handlebars of his scooter for his dear life. Let it never be said that Otomo drew an impressive structure that he didn't also impressively blow to pieces.

Unfortunately, the narrative doesn't always hold together for me. There's absolutely no way a person the average size of Nobuo would be able to emit a vapor cloud that stretches for miles just through his perspiration. They do try to take his metabolism into account by having him wonder why he's always hungry, but we never see him gorging on food as he goes along, nor instead withering away from the quantity of what's being expelled by his body. And it pushes the concept too far for the cloud to suddenly become a psionic extension of his emotions, intentionally shooting out towards opposition and shorting out electronic devices. Isn't him just being a walking cloud of death enough? And how the hell did he get into the spacesuit at the end! That one doesn't even begin to make sense to me.

Also, as well produced as the short is, and as amusing as moments are, it's hard to have a fun time when you're watching tens of thousands of people die just because a guy is an idiot. That makes for a funny punchline to a story, but as a build, it draws out the horror, especially when we learn the apocalyptic implications it has on Japan and the world at large.

It's a fun short, but ultimately uneven.

"Cannon Fodder"

I don't like this one at all. Surprising, as it's the only one of the three actually created in whole by Otomo himself.

This world makes for a great rock album cover, and the story of the nuclear family unit and they way they fit into the machine of their society might have made for a neat three minute music video or short of the same length, but there's nowhere near enough depth to the material to drag it out for the 22 minutes we get here. And man does it draaaaaaag. It's the shortest of the batch, but the hardest to slog through as, Angie's right, we spend five of those minutes just watching them load and fire a gun. An interesting image and concept, yes, but not one I want to observe in real time, especially over a monotonous percussion track slowly working its way into the base of my skull.

The family unit is interesting, but again, nothing that needs 20 minutes to explore. The dad is weary and broken, the child buys into all the propaganda, and the mom keeps them both in line.

Visually, it's a mixed bag. The sketchy, grotesque design work is striking, and reminiscent of the comic art Jamie Hernandez was doing at the time on Tank Girl (and would continue doing a decade later on the Gorillaz music videos), but it's also ugly and dreary and unpleasant to look at. And the idea of the moving "camera" to hint at this being a "single shot" narrative is interesting on paper, but in practice, it's disorienting and calls attention to itself, and also shows limitations in the budget as we pan over still frames or looped animation.

It's hard to say this is a bad short, as a lot of what I don't like is done out of intention. It's meant to be disorienting and empty and monotonous and ugly, so I can't call it a failure, but it's avant garde nature just clashes with my tastes, so I agree with Angie that I'm likely going to skip over it the next time I pop this disc in for a viewing.


So I pretty much agree with Angie all the way. "Magnetic Rose" is a masterpiece, "Stink Bomb" isn't perfect, but still pretty good, and "Cannon Fodder" is something I want to duck and cover from any time it's mentioned. And like Angie, I agree that the film as a whole doesn't really hold together, as there's no real connective theme between the shorts. I think she's stretching it by applying "memories" to the second and third installments, as it's totally just a reference to the core concept of "Magnetic Rose".

You know what this feels like? Those books where they have a specific story or novella they want to publish (i.e., Shatterday by Harlan Ellison, I am Legend by Richard Matheson, Fear by L. Ron Hubbard) but that story alone isn't enough for them to meet their page length quota, so they stick a few stories behind it to pad the material out. The cover and title are dedicated to that one story, as is the copy on the back, meaning these aren't so much anthologies as they are a novella with bonus features. "Magnetic Rose" is the star of this film, and deservedly so, and "Stink Bomb" and "Cannon Fodder" are just bonus features.


My foray into anime

What I like about Angie’s picks is they take me out of my comfort zone. And believe me, there’s nothing further outside of my comfort zone than anime. Before I met Noel, the only non-Americanized anime I had ever watched was Vampire Hunter D. Unfortunately, I found the experience excruciating and spent the next fifteen years avoiding anime the way Wilford Brimley avoids salads. Noel has changed that the last few years by sharing some selected and highly regarded anime with me. There was one with, like, a big green rabbit-thing in it. And I believe another had a little girl that could fly. Come to think it, it’s entirely possible those were from the same movie. Anyway, as you’ve probably guessed by now, he didn’t exactly make a convert out of me. That’s why I was so excited when I found out Memories was an anime anthology. This is something I never would’ve watched on my own, and I wanted to discover what it was about Memories that compelled Angie to share it with us.

With my curiosity on high and my mind wide open, I once again set foot into the world of Japanese animation...

Magnetic Rose

I love it when a story has the courage to ease you into its world. I know the modern attention span is so short that you’ve probably stopped reading this sentence already you witless weasel, but I don’t always need to be thrust right into the thick of the action. Magnetic Rose deceptively lulls us into a sense of familiarity, even in this foreign environment, by letting us see our characters in their workaday world. Yes, they’re aboard a space ship, but their daily lives are much like our own. They punch a clock, bicker and banter with their co-workers, and try to scratch out a living for themselves. For the first few minutes, I floated comfortably along in zero g with these men, tricked into thinking this was going to be a situation comedy of sorts. And then they receive the S.O.S. and everything changes.

From the moment they reach the station, this becomes something akin to a Stanley Kubrick film. What’s real? What isn’t? And what do these strange episodes reveal about Heintz, Miguel, and their mysterious hostess? In particular, I was taken with the story of Heintz. The details of his back story unfold gradually, pulling us in bit by bit, so that when it finally detonates, we’re at point blank range emotionally. It’s gripping stuff. Exceptionally well done. I was less engaged by Eva’s story. On its own, it would’ve been interesting, it just lacks the gut punch of Heintz’s story. And poor Miguel is really nothing more than a pawn.

I agree with Angie. I believe there’s a lot of room for interpretation here, and it’s one of the many things I loved about Magnetic Rose. Whatever conclusions you ultimately draw will be far more powerful, and personal, than anything explicit the makers could’ve included.

Stink Bomb

After the dark and emotionally complicated Magnetic Rose, I was certainly not expecting the next chapter to be a farce. On its own, Stink Bomb is a fun little dark comedy - and I use the term “dark” only because of the high body count. In truth, the tone is rather tongue-in-cheek, but, coming as it does on the heels of Magnetic Rose, it seems slight and insignificant. Kind of like watching a Naked Gun movie after L.A. Confidential.

If there’s any deeper meaning here, it was lost on me. I suppose the military’s “hammer to swat a fly” approach to dealing with the infected Nobuo might contain some commentary, and perhaps the biological warfare premise is an update of the atomic war theme that was woven into Godzilla, but you’d have to really search to find a statement.

I enjoyed this quirky bit of comedy about an average joe having the worst day of his, or any, life, but like Angie, I really have to stretch to tie anything here into the theme of “Memories”.

Cannon Fodder

Once again turning on a dime, this final chapter delivers a somber and deceptively simple dystopian tale. The somewhat dispassionate tone of the piece is off-putting at first, but as it goes along, I realized that it mirrors the dreary and hopeless existence of its citizens. Along with the off-kilter character designs, it all kind of keeps you at arm’s length emotionally, but it makes you think.

The simple answer to “What is this trying to say?” is that it’s a commentary on how governments manipulate the masses into doing things without asking “Why?”. In this case, it's war, but you could easily substitute any number of things depending on your own political point of view. Beyond that, I also saw something I guess you might call a coal mine thematic, where generation after generation get stuck in a sort of stasis with the son follows the father and aspirations never seeming to reach any higher than the next rung on the ladder.

The tale of the tape

Three chapters, three very different stories, and, in spite of my normal anime aversion, I enjoyed them all. But in my mind, Magnetic Rose stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not merely a fun diversion like Stink Bomb, or a sometimes "too artistic for its own good" think-piece like Cannon Fodder, Magnetic Rose is a haunting and deeply moving sci-fi drama that will stay in my own memory for a long time to come. Thanks for the nudge, Angie. This was a most worthwhile experience.


That's an interesting thought about "anthology versus bonus features", Noel, and you're probably right. In this case, it may be something akin to what Walt Disney was doing in the post World War II era, where it was far cheaper and quicker for them to create a collection of shorts to release in theaters rather than a full length film. The title The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad may have attempted to bind those two together, but they have about as much in common as the shorts in Memories do.

I'm so very happy to find that both of you mostly enjoyed the experience, especially "Magnetic Rose." I fear anyone reading this may think we're over-hyping it now, and I suppose we are raising expectations pretty high, but I find it hard to believe that most other people wouldn't also be as impressed with it. Yes, it really is that good.

I am, however, not as sure as Noel that Kon's later works are as good as this one. However, my opinion may not be the most trustworthy on this. For instance, I know I tried to watch one of Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Paprika, but for the life of me, I can't remember which one it was. I just know that I had a really hard time following it and, as such, ended up turning it off. However, it could have simply been my mood at the time, as I plan to try revisiting them again, and would recommend that anyone else should also give at least one of them a shot if you loved "Magnetic Rose."

The dark humor of "Stink Bomb" is probably nowhere near as universal a pleasure, but I'm glad you both appreciated its strange brand of humor. Tony is right in that the tonal shift from the previous short is a hard right turn that takes a bit to settle into, though I personally think the soundtrack is very helpful in that respect. I wasn't as bothered by the absurdity of Nubuo's condition as Noel was, as I figured the huge cloud of gas was simply being done for comedic effect, but he's right in that there's no true way to apply real science to what happens here.

I think Tony hit the nail on the head in terms of describing what "Cannon Fodder" is all about and what it's trying to make us feel and think. I'm a huge fan of dystopian fiction, but I think the lack of a storyline in this one is what stops me from truly being able to enjoy it. If we'd spent more time with the figures we see protesting the working conditions and what they were trying to do (were they perhaps punished for handing out those flyers?), I would have gotten a lot more out of it.

But more than anything, I'm glad that I've exposed Tony to some really great anime. Noel is right in that the genre is like any other with both good and bad to be experienced within it. It certainly has got its fair share of strange and odd examples, but there's also some more traditional stories, as well. I think one of the reasons I've found myself drawn to the genre is that the Japanese seem to have less of the "cartoons are for kids" stigma we often have here in America, and instead often use the genre for things that you just can't do in live action without a considerably higher cost.

We'll be back on the 1st of February with a pick from Noel: The Guyver (1991)


ChaoticRambler said...

I remember watching this a long time ago and, before today, the only thing I could remember was what I called "That One with the Robots"

However upon starting to read I was instantly flooded with (hehe) memories of the segment Magnetic rose.

I think that, even though I didn't remember it after so many years, it was definitely the more meaningful short.

One observation I'd make is that it feels reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode called "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" wherein an actress spends her days lost in nostalgia in front of a projector showing her old movies to the point where she becomes trapped in the film strips themselves.

Strannik said...

I had a somewhat different impression of Memories when I first saw it. I enjoyed Magnetic Rose (for the same reasons as everybody else). But I couldn't remember what Stink Bomb was about until I read this post, which just shows ho much of an impression it made. Cannon Fodder, on the other hand, really stuck with me. Maybe because it was because of the imagery, which wouldn't be out of place older, avant garde Soviet cartoons (which I have a certain fondness for because, well, nostalgia). Maybe because I've always been fascinated with propaganda and the way it shapes popular attitudes. For everybody here, 1984 was the obvious association, but my mind immediately went to Soviet World War II propaganda. Which just goes to show that one's upbringing can influence one's perception (and tastes) in surprising ways.