There's a difference between a simple story and a thin story. A simple story has just enough to get the job done: no fat, no waste, no excess. A thin story has just enough to pass as a story, but nothing more than that: no flair, no feeling, no curves. The first time I watched REDLINE I put it in the "thin" category, since it only seemed to have enough plotting to put wheels on the vehicle and set it in motion — albeit at six trillion miles per hour. But I've come around since then. REDLINE has no more story than it needs, because its real mission is to provide a gloriously over-the-top answer to the question: What if Ralph Bakshi came out of retirement and directed a space-borne installment of the Fast & Furious franchise?
If there's a stupid grin on your face right now, don't wipe it off; you're the target audience for this delirious, one-of-a-kind project. It entertains — broadly, if not terribly deeply — and it serves as a milestone marker for animation as an art form as produced by human hands, not computer algorithms. It also serves as one of the best recent concrete examples of what people mean when they say something has to be seen to be believed.
A fine way to start any story is to describe some mad, wild undertaking, as undertaken by the few, the proud, and the totally off-their-rockers. Far into the future, space travel has become commonplace, aliens and humans have intermingled and cross-mutated, and wheeled vehicles have been long since replaced with antigravity systems. But a devoted cadre of car lovers gather every five years to put pedals to the metal on the plains of some distant world, to participate in the no-rules-just-ride race known as the Redline.
Those who want to participate in Redline, though, have to qualify in a preliminary, and it's at the last leg of one such race, the Yellowline, that the action formally begins. Among the racers are Sonoshee McLaren, a young woman whose amphibious vehicle and skilled driving allow her to more than hold her own against the other (generally male, rowdy, aggressive) drivers. But it's "Sweet" JP, a pompadoured greaser-type in his nitro-powered Trans Am, who provides her with the most direct challenge. He's inches from beating her to the finish line when his car's demolished by a bomb secreted in the undercarriage — one placed there not by jealous rivals, but by his own mechanic, Frisbee.
Frisbee and JP go back a long way, maybe too far back. Deep in debt to the mob, Frisbee and JP fixed races to rake in some fast cash, a plan JP has always been ambivalent about. It sent them to prison, after all, and this time around the scam was meant to help cover their bail bond. Small wonder JP longs to have just one race that he can throw himself into wholeheartedly. To both of their astonishment, he gets it: after two other racers bail out from Redline, JP's drafted by popular demand, and all but hurls himself from his hospital bed to tell the news cameras he's headed for victory.
Why the other racers bailed, though, would give most any sane man pause: the world selected for Redline is "Roboworld", a planet governed by a cyborg species that rules with a titanium fist in a tungsten-carbide gauntlet. They're livid at the idea of their planet being used for what amounts to an illegal street race, but they're even more uneasy that the universal media coverage of the event will allow the galaxy to see the myriad and highly illegal weapons projects they have under wraps. Never mind that their own people are jonesing so hard to not only watch but lay odds on Redline that they're prepared to break a few laws of their own.
JP's determined to get his ride back together in style, and so he turns to Frisbee and the crusty, four-armed Old Man Mole to restore the trashed Trans Am. Old Man Mole doesn't trust Frisbee one bit — no, not even if the whole reason Frisbee did as many deals with the devil as he did was so that JP could benefit — but JP convinces the two of them to pool their talents and give him the rig he needs. He's also distracted, increasingly so, by the fact that Sonoshee is one of the other racers, and he noses around her bashfully even while she's clearly having none of his aw-shucks routine. But he's got more than just an on-the-spot crush on her; he's been carrying a torch for her ever since they met as kids, when Sonoshee's go-kart augured into a fence and she nearly tore a gut-string loose hauling it back out of the mud. He's not just moonstruck by her looks; he admires her determination and self-assurance, and isn't sure how to deal with the fact that they are officially rivals.
The other racers, though, have no problems casting themselves as rivals, either for JP or for each other. I love it when a story fills out its second- and third-tier character rosters with eccentrics and oddballs, and REDLINE's cast is wall-to-wall weirdoes with charming character tics. The most prominent nemesis of the bunch is many-times-over Redline winner Machine Head, a cyborg who fuses with his vehicle and who looks like a cross between a prizefighter and a sparkplug. I also found myself laughing — although I was not proud of myself for having done so — at the "Boin Sisters" (boin being onomatopoeia for the sound of bouncing breasts, if I remember correctly), and the fact they have a large-chested transforming car and hippy-hippy-shake theme music should tell you everything you need to know about them.
Then comes the race itself, which takes up the entire second half of the film, and where all manner of high-speed hell is unleashed on the drivers, the onlookers, and the audience. Along comes the Roboworld army, bristling with enough weaponry to pave the planet and put parking stripes on it, and the race turns into a full-on war for survival. It's made all the worse when the racers blunder across a cache of Roboworld's forbidden weaponry — some of which has a mind of its own — and Sonoshee and JP are left to either pool their resources or head for the finish line on their own. Assuming, that is, that the new bomb Frisbee planted in the Trans Am doesn't end their part of the race first.
Must go faster, must go faster
Animation projects in Japan tend to live in their own self-contained universe of talent, but REDLINE is one of the relative exceptions to the rule. The "directed by" credit — Takeshi Koike — is slightly misleading, as the real brains behind the film is live-action director Katsuhito Ishii, he who created the anime-esque live-action titles Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Party 7, with the latter sporting a wild and stylish animated opening-credits sequence (better than anything else in the film, I regret to say) directed by Koike himself. The two joined forced for REDLINE, with Koike as animation director and Ishii as screenwriter, along with Yōji Enokido (of Revolutionary Girl Utena, FLCL, Star Driver, and Ouran High School Host Club) and Yoshiki Sakurai (Otogi-zoshi, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone).
Koike had his work cut out for him: the vast majority of the animation work was done entirely by hand, and it took seven painstaking years to complete the project in that manner. Vehicles, backgrounds, landscapes, explosions, all of it was rendered manually via some 100,000 key drawings, not — as is the case with so many other animation projects — spit out of a computer and then either composited directly into the finished product or traced by hand. The result is a movie where even the rocks seem like they're throbbing with life. Every frame squirms and shimmers with brassy colors, bold and jagged lines, endless energy and motion. (The energy level's amped up even further by James Shimoji's booming, sassy score.)
3D CGI animation, for all of its versatility and popularity, always seems to be hidebound by how much suspension of disbelief it can conjure. Because it tends to strive for some degree of photo-realism, it always seems to be trying to suggest reality, instead of hinting at how the real world is being transformed or left behind altogether. With hand-drawn animation, some part of our disbelief is more aggressively pre-suspended. The world becomes a simpler place, one where color and line and movement are all stripped of everything that doesn't need to be there. Exaggerations that ought to look ludicrious, look fitting instead, because they're part of the new overall plan. Obviously REDLINE does all this, but one of the cleverest visual innovations it has in its arsenal is how it suggests extreme speed through the use of selective distortion, akin to a fisheye lens. When JP hits the gas, the front end of both his car and his pompadour elongate towards the viewer as if they're traveling near the speed of light. In a movie like this, they might well be.
Touches like this make the movie feel less inspired by other anime projects, and more by influences one and two stages removed from such things — European and American comics, or the aforementioned Ralph Bakshi. (Compare JP to the protagonist of American Pop, or the background anarchy to the chaos of Cool World.) This isn't to say that anime consciously created in the manner of other anime is automatically bad, only that such projects can only innovate so much, and are ultimately hidebound by drinking from the same pool they're trying to replenish. Whenever anime, or any other creative endeavor, draws on something that much further from itself, it always finds that much more to draw in and make its own.
With all that dazzlement being firehosed across the viewer's face, it's easy to ignore that yes, there is a story here, and one that reveals itself over successive viewings to be a little (I repeat: a little) more robust than you might think. The romance between JP and Sonoshee is one part of it, but there's also the hard-luck friendship between JP and Frisbee. The two of them have stuck with each other, maybe a little too devotedly, through things that would have broken up most any other friendship, although it takes Old Man Mole's, uh, "interference" to make sure Frisbee does right by JP in the best possible way, not just the way most convenient for him. It's actually quite understated, and so it's not hard to see why it gets buried by the sound, fury, and shockwaves unleashed by the rest of the film. But it's there, all right. So are some curious omissions, though, such as the fate of Roboworld's military commander (he's kind of left in limbo).
I'm always a little reluctant to recommend something specifically to "fans of animation", meaning people who style themselves as appreciators of animation as an art form. The reason being that, in the past, I've fashioned too many such recommendations to sound as if everyone else could go hang — you know, those foolish people who care about pesky things like a plot, story, characters, etc. I suspect some of them will shrug at REDLINE as being all noise and no signal, not enough meat to go with the veg.
Those folks are hereby warned: no, you don't watch something like REDLINE for the story. You watch it for the eye candy. Or maybe better to say, the eye chocolate. Godiva, not Hershey's.