originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/651093...
Hello friends! I am once again running late for Animation Night! But I will not miss a Thursday unless I’m like, in the hospital or something. Which I’m not! So all is well!
Today we will finish off the list of films by Katsuhiro Otomo, the unrivalled master of the square-headed boy in a world of meticulously drawn machinery. I wrote quite a bit about Otomo’s historical influences back when we saw Akira, and we’ve also seen his excellent short films such as Construction Cancellation Order, Cannon Fodder and Combustible in the early days of Animation Night! But that’s not the only Otomo… tonight we’ll look at his major feature films that aren’t Akira.
After dropping a work as definitive as Akira, Otomo did not return to full length anime for some time. I can’t say why, especially! Perhaps he was just happier drawing manga. He made a brief foray into live action in the 90s with World Apartment Horror, which generally doesn’t seem to have been especially well received but will probably be worth a look on Tokusatsu Night. But he found time at some point to work on short films, directing the fantastic Cannon Fodder section of Memories, and providing stories for the other two segments… helping to give one Satoshi Kon his start.
Otomo seems to have gotten the feature film bug again in the 2000s. He pops up first as the screenwriter for Metropolis (2001) - which to be clear, despite similar robot girl themes, is an adaptation of a classic Osamu Tezuka manga, not a direct response to the 1927 Fritz Lang film. Which is a shame for fans of sexy gecko robot dances. But that doesn’t mean it’s unconnected!
This screenplay was taken up by Madhouse co-founder Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi), whose anime experience dates back even further than Otomo, working for Tezuka on that first 1963 production of Astro Boy that pretty much created TV anime and directing its first film in 1964. We’ll do a more comprehensive look at Rintaro in the future when I have more time to research!
So what’s this incarnation of Metropolis? Compared to the Tezuka manga, which apparently took inspiration from one still image of Lang’s film in a magazine, this one draws a lot more on the 1927 film’s imagery, if not so much its plot, and tragically drops the manga’s gender swapping elements. Much like Lang’s film, this takes place In a stratified city; this time, it’s held in fraught tension between humans and robots.
The plot kicks off as a hyper-rich oligarch named Duke Red embarks on a megaproject: a giant tower called the Ziggurat, containing a secret weapon controlled by a robot clone of his dead daughter Tima. (Honestly, rich people would if they could.) But he made the classic ‘I made a robot child’ mistake of neglecting his adopted son Rock, and he attacks robot!Tima, throwing her out of the control of Red. She ends up hanging out with a group of revolutionary workers, unaware of her robot status…
It sounds like a lot of fun; the animation clips I’ve seen are also pretty gorgeous. The city is rich with colour and texture like the best of Studio 4C, and while I’m not the biggest fan of Tezuka’s style of character design, the Madhouse animators do a fantastic job making them feel alive and physical.
Not long after, Otomo came back to direction, with Steamboy (2004). It has the same meticulous, 3D drawing style that Otomo is known for, and (from the looks of things) very successful integration of CGI for its time. What’s all that in service of telling? Like most of Otomo’s work, it’s concerned with technology, but this time it takes on a steampunk setting (which was a little less played out back then!) to create a kind of engineering-based superhero origin story.
Steamboy faced a pretty rocky release, and never made quite the same splash as Akira. Perhaps it was the wrong decade for a steampunk adventure story: determined, square-headed boys who are good at engineering mostly disappeared in the 80s, with good reason, and ‘guy who’s good at inventing things’ doesn’t quite have the same charm as ‘absolute dipshit bōsōzuko and his boyfriend’ to carry a film like this? But I don’t know yet, it might be better than I’m giving it credit! At the very least, Otomo knows how to bring the goods with regard to animation! This film is pretty much a showcase of ways to elaborate plumes of smoke and steam, as well as the ubiquitous machinery.
To briefly stand on the soapbox, there’s something weird about how much steampunk struggles to find a story that does something interesting with the imagery it employs. The nineteenth century was rife with class struggles and colonialism and dramatic transformations of the world, stuff that’s a rich subject for fiction, but steampunk authors seem to have little interest in breaking out of a shallow adventure story framing - it’s like if an entire fan subculture was determined to stick to ‘wow cool robot’ and shout down anything with the slightest critical edge. Thankfully the fad seems mostly over.
Otomo, for all that his overwhelming technical precision will sometimes step over a line into something kind of sterile, can clearly deliver a story with tension and ambivalence and a sense of the fuckedupness of the world. I hope he manages to do something better with the steampunk imagery than just channel nostalgia for the era when people were too polite to mention the genocides going on around them! But even if he doesn’t, I’d like to see his final (for now) anime film.
Finally, I have a Rintaro OVA which my friend wanted to watch with people called Download: Namu Amida Butsu wa Ai no Uta (Download: Song in Loving Homage to Amida Buddha) (1992), which is of all things an adaptation of a PC-engine shooter. I don’t know a lot about it beyond that, but she writes:
I’ll be honest, Down Load features a combination of themes and tones that aren’t put together well, but the movie features some really fun + expressive animation, beautiful backgrounds, goofy characters, and some 90s cyberpunk computer setups that I still havent gotten over.
So that’ll be a cute way to wrap up after the sakuga fests, I imagine!
Animation Night 53 is already late, but will be starting as soon as I’ve warmed up some leftovers and turned on the camera, so expect about ten minutes, at twitch.tv/canmom!