Robot Carnival [ロボット・カーニバル] (1987)
Starring Koji Moritsugu, Yayoi Maki, Kei Tomiyama, Chisa Yokoyama, James R. Bowers
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, Atsuko Fukushima, Hidetoshi Ohmori, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Kouji Morimoto, Mao Lamdo, Takashi Nakamura, Yasoumi Umetsu
I remember watching this film way back in the ’90s when Cartoon Network would air it about once a year, usually back to back with Vampire Hunter D. As such, it was one of my first and most formative anime experiences. Back then I was far more enamored of Vampire Hunter D and its more overt action. Robot Carnival is a much artsier film, and as a kid/teen I wasn’t really able to appreciate its more subtle points.
It’s been so long that I had pretty much completely forgotten everything about it, other than its anthology format. This wasn’t helped any by the fact that it never saw any kind of home video release, so after Cartoon Network stopped airing it, it was effectively gone for good. Thankfully the folks at Discotek Media recently gave it a DVD release after all these years. And it’s probably past time to give them a shout out, as they have put out a great deal of older anime titles that I have fond memories of or just never would have seen otherwise; films like Space Adventure Cobra, Fist of the North Star, just about anything related to Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express, and tons of other titles.
As an anthology film (one of the earliest anime ones ever made) it’s difficult to make many statements about the entire film, but I’ll try to say something. As a whole, it is exceptionally well animated, particularly for the time period, and the fuzzy hand-drawn feel of it delighted me, even if it could have used a bit of remastering for clarity. The storytelling is great and usually abandons dialog entirely, resorting to a much more visually focused style that is great fun to watch. The segments range from action and adventure to thoughtful intellectual fare, with the only universal theme being robots. There’s also some great music courtesy of Joe Hisaishi, best known for composing most Studio Ghibli film soundtracks.
Robot Carnival has nine segments, although the first and last are really just a frame setup for the rest of the film. Even then, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and at a total runtime of 90 minutes, these shorts are very short. I’ll try to burn through them as fast as I can, otherwise I’ll be writing a book instead of an article.
Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira, co-directs the opening and ending segments (with Atsuko Fukushima), and his character designs are obvious here. It sets the stage of the film with a giant tank carrying the robot carnival which comes to a decrepit desert village, and proceeds to blow it to pieces with cheerful pomp and circumstance. There’s robots and they’re blowing stuff up! Isn’t that why we’re here? Let’s have some fun with it! It’s also interesting to think of the different segments as being stories told by this traveling circus that obliviously devastates anything it comes across. It’s silly and fun despite its dark nature, and a great bombastic frame for the film.
The first true segment, “Franken’s Gear” directed by Kouji Morimoto, is an obvious homage to Frankenstein. Instead of a creature of flesh, it features a robot being brought to life. It doesn’t really add much of anything to the Frankenstein story, but it does have some really cool visuals.
“Deprive” by Hidetoshi Ohmori is a pretty typical story about a good (robot) guy rescuing his girlfriend who was kidnapped by evil robots, or at least it would be if it had any dialog. The story isn’t anything unusual, but its ability to make everything clear with purely visual storytelling is definitely something to admire.
“Presence” by Yasuomi Umetsu is one of only two segments to have dialog. It’s also one of the longer ones. The main character is a toymaker who is building a robot girl in his shed, but cannot handle the emotional quandaries that arise once she develops sentience and desires of her own. It’s a much slower and more philosophical story than the others. But it does start off with a bunch of children knocking an old guy’s head off and using it as a soccer ball while the head still shouts angrily at them to stop, so at least there’s that.
“Star Light Angel” by Hiroyuki Kitazume is more of a romance story. It’s about a girl hanging out at a futuristic Disneyland who drops her locket near a robot performer. The plot follows the robot guy as he chases her around the park trying to give her pendant back. That simple description really doesn’t do it much justice though, and it has a good bit more depth than I can relate without spoiling things.
“Cloud” by Mao Lamda is certainly the most boring of the segments, although it is very gorgeous. It’s basically a robot boy (or maybe just a boy pretending to be a robot) walking by a bunch of clouds. the clouds change into various shapes, but nothing much actually happens. “Cloud” is much more a visual experience than a story, and considering the boy (probably) isn’t a robot, or even the main focus of what you’ll be looking at, it seems more than a bit out of place in the anthology.
“Meiji-Era Civilization Machine Saga” by Hiroyuki Kitakubo is a steampunk mecha action story with the slowest giant robot action ever made. It’s also the only other segment to feature dialog, and uses it to hilarious effect. The heart of the story is really the characters’ banter as they argue while trying to move their sluggish and primitive mecha in combat. It also features character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of Evangelion and other Gainax works.
The last segment is “Chicken Man and Red Neck” by Takashi Nakamura. This one is easily my favorite of the bunch, and is worth the price of admission all on its own. It’s a horror chase story that somehow reminded me of Icabod Crane, even though the “horseman” here isn’t headless. A giant robot rises up, towering over a modern city and begins raising an army of robots that crawl across the city causing mayhem. The hero runs for his life as one of these robots chases him around. The level of detail and the sheer number of different robots and their antics were amazing to watch. I can imagine seeing this segment a dozen times and still not noticing everything it has to offer.
I’m delighted that I was finally able to revisit this classic from my past, and that it turned out to be much better than I remembered. “Cloud” is the only segment that I didn’t care for, and even that one I can admire somewhat for its artistry. The other segments all have at least something endearing or thought-provoking about them, and the variety of stories and styles makes this a surprisingly good film that has a little something for everyone.