The Anthology From the Man Who Brought You Akira

No convention has been a greater boon to animation as a whole than the anthology. Granted, I love anthologies in most mediums. A collection of short stories from a slew of diverse, creative minds can expose audiences to all kinds of stories and genres they wouldn’t normally see or seek out themselves.

In terms of animated anthologies, works like Batman: Gotham Knight, The Animatrix or recent experiments like Love, Death, & Robots are perfect examples. They expand upon established works and introduce their own lore spanning myriad genres and subject matter, all while experimenting with myriad art styles.

The best part is that you can hook the audience with at least one story and they’ll surely be curious enough to see how the others fare. Maybe they don’t love all of them, but even one or two great stories can make the entire collection worth it, especially if the whole package is an hour and forty-five-minute film with three stories.

In 1995, Madhouse and Studio 4°C collaborated to create Memories, a collection of three short films based on short manga stories written by Katsuhiro Otomo, the man who created Akira. Since Otomo seems to always be involved in the animated adaptations of his work, he was the executive producer for Memories and even directed the third and final short himself.

Together with Darker Than Black director Tensai Okamura, Studio 4°C co-founder Koji Morimoto, and legendary director/writer Satoshi Kon, Memories was an ambitious fusion of three very different kinds of stories. If the objective was to make something that would stick in your mind, then they certainly picked a fitting title.

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Magnetic Rose

Magnetic Rose begins the anthology on a high note with hands down my favorite film of the three. This was directed by Koji Morimoto and written by Satoshi Kon. For the latter’s involvement alone, there is a lot to be excited about. Set in 2092, it follows a team of engineers preparing to head back to Earth before receiving a distress call that sends them into the belly of a derelict space station.

Upon arriving, Heintz Beckner and his teammate Miguel Costrela find themselves lost in a labyrinth dolled up to look like a palace, having belonged to a presumably dead opera singer. The mixture of sci-fi technology and paranormal happenings blurs the line between what is the product of faulty technology and what is of an occult nature.

The plot setup feels reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien, for both the call to action and the aesthetic. The atmosphere is haunting and the juxtaposition of such grand and natural architecture in a place set in a decrepit space station offers a feeling of uncertainty and claustrophobia.

The imagery is astounding, portraying such huge landscapes in the most unlikely of places. It’s this creative flexibility that helps Magnetic Rose feel so memorable and different from its peers. The music and sound design are integral, as expected of the horror genre. Similarly expected, Yoko Kanno’s work on the music across all three films is great.

I’ve always said her soundtracks are flexible, but here she proves just how true that is. Typically, her work in a show like Bebop or Darker Than Black would have an assortment of different genres depending on the episodes, but here she flaunts her versatility by providing a singular mood for each film. It’s another small way to appreciate her skill.

Magnetic Rose is perhaps the short with the biggest thematic tie to the theme of memories. The other films’ stories don’t necessarily feature themes of the like nature, making the choice to call the anthology that a bit odd. However, as Magnetic Rose is arguably the longest and most consuming experience of the three, that might explain it.

Rose is a film about getting lost in the past and how that addiction to nostalgia can be infectious, roping others in with that sinister allure. However, at a certain point, we all have to wake up and return to our lives as they are, not as we wish they were. Across the approximately 45 minute runtime, this message and how it drives the characters is delivered powerfully.

The cast, specifically Heintz and Miguel, are very endearing in the short time we get to know them. Heintz, especially, goes through one hell of an introspective journey that emotionally touches on his past. With how full of life the character animation was, I kinda wished this short was a full theatrical length film so the other characters could have been fleshed out more. That being said, there can be too much of a good thing, and I’m happy with what I got.

The problem with starting the film with Magnetic Rose is that it’s hard to top it, but I didn’t mind so much as long as what followed was made with passion and enjoyable in different ways. That certainly was the case with the second short film…

Stink Bomb

Tensai Okamura, who would later direct Darker Than Black, wasted no time setting his short apart from the previous one. Written by Otomo, this short – rather than dabbling in psychological horror – is something of a quirky dark comedy, in which a man creates a catastrophe. The worst part is that he doesn’t realize it.

The dramatic irony of the story escalates to ludicrous proportions as a chemical threat to Japan grows larger. The story is presented just seriously enough to make the implications frightening, but with just enough ridiculousness to make the short exciting, albeit intentionally frustrating.

What happens when someone unaware of a threat unknowingly quickens catastrophe? You get misunderstandings, desperation, and panic from everyone else who knows what’s going on. And since Japanese disaster fiction thrives off of it, you also get the oldest breed of sakuga there is; military-themed mechanical animation.

Animation by Yasushi Muraki

This short is like what Evangelion would be like if every plan was a failure. You see grounded and (mostly) believable plans to try and deal with a terrible chemical weapon, only for things to go awry in spectacular fashion. That spectacle is the film’s strong suit. The film isn’t one you enjoy for its satisfying conclusion or likable characters, but the very idea of the story and the comedy/tragedy that results from it.

Cannon Fodder

The final short is the most unique, but also the most unclear of the three. Considering Otomo wrote and directed, though, I’m not surprised in the least. See, the first time I watched Akira, I was beyond confused and found it hard to pay attention. Eventually, I did revisit it and found it to be exceptional, but Otomo’s direction can focus so much on style and presentation that the story can almost completely pass you by.

Cannon Fodder follows a mother, father, and son through their daily routine in a city where every building is fitted with huge cannons aimed off in the direction of some unseen “enemy.” People go to work in factories to build munitions for these large cannons and perform extensive and elaborate functions to aim, load, and fire these behemoths.

Very little is told to the viewer about the world. Instead, everything is shown, and by the end (if you can call it an end), it sorta leaves you to think about what might be going on. It seems to share visual similarities with the industrial revolutions of the modern world. The concepts of an unseen enemy feel very Orwellian in the presentation. It’s as if the world is a veil but the story doesn’t pull it back for us. It just leaves it closed and we’re left to wonder what’s behind it.

Animation by Toshiyuki Inoue

Whereas Stink Bomb was impressive for it’s grounded approach to mechanical animation with all the military vehicles and weapons, Cannon Fodder is spectacular for its scope and imagination. There is a tracking shot in the middle of the short that follows the arduous process of loading a cannon and the whole time I was wondering how long they would stretch it out. Now, the mechanics of a one-shot in live-action is understandably more difficult and therefore may be more impressive but the scale of the animation here is breathtaking regardless.

Closing Thoughts

Memories is a slept on film for sure, but it’s not very surprising. In the same year that this came out, Mamoru Oshii took the west by storm with Ghost in the Shell, and Anno was about the change the entire industry with Evangelion. Up against those giants, Memories faded into obscurity. The film may struggle to live up to Magnetic Rose after the fact, but it would hardly be fair to call the two other films disappointing.

As I said in the beginning, I love anthologies. They are a breeding ground for talent as well as a celebration of established icons. This film was more the latter and quite a promising staff list at that. You may not get what you were expecting but you’ll get something worth remembering. Anyone on the hunt for older obscure oddities will have a field day with this.

Memories is available for legal streaming through RetroCrush.

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What do you think of Memories? Is it the next thing on your watch list? Leave a comment below and let me know what other old gems are worth checking out?

Thank you very much for reading. I’m taking another hiatus for August to work on fiction writing again. Rest assured I’m still gonna be writing over at Anime Quarterly, so check me out there if you find yourself missing my ramblings. Until then, stay healthy, stay safe, and I’ll see you next time.

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