Here's a sobering thought for you: Robot Carnival is a product of anime from a time (1987) as far removed from our time now as the first release of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty was from its time (1959). Twenty-eight years is a generation and a half, and in that time anime has undergone multiple mutations. Production techniques, and production qualities, once taken for granted have either fallen out of fashion or become prohibitively expensive. Having Robot Carnival back in print for the first time in decades serves as a reminder of how much has changed, and a prime way for those who weren't there at the time to get a whiff of what about anime first caught the attention of eyes in the West.
Not many anime anthologies have been distributed domestically, but I cherish them whenever they do turn up. Short Peace, Memories, and Neo-Tokyo (a/k/a Meikyū monogatari, "Labyrinth Tales") all showed what anime could do when typical commercial constraints weren't an issue, and even when the quality of the storytelling varied wildly, the animation itself was always worth the time spent with it. The same goes here.
Opening/Closing ("Coming Soon", "See You Again" ) (Katsuhiro Ōtomo/Atsuko Fukushima)
Never let it be said that Ōtomo (AKIRA, et al.) doesn't enjoy the sight of technology going horribly wrong. In "The Order to Stop Construction" in Neo-Tokyo, and in the underlying stories for "Stink Bomb" and "A Farewell to Arms" in Memories and Short Peace, respectively, he explored that theme lovingly. For Robot Carnival, Ōtomo turns the opening credits themselves into a monolithic machine gone berserk — a kind of traveling cybernetic sideshow on tank treads, now grinding its way senselessly through the ruins of the world it once entertained.
Franken's Gears (Kōji Morimoto)
Morimoto is one of those talents who's tried his hand at most every side of animation: as a director, mainly of shorts ("Beyond" from The Animatrix, "Magnetic Rose" from Memories, the Genius Party films); as an animator or animation staff (AKIRA, Kiki's Delivery Service, Roujin Z); and as a character designer. Here, he does all three at once, and gives us a cute riff on the tale of Dr. Frankenstein. This time, the monster is a robot, although it's being brought to life by its dotty creator in much the same way, in a lab loaded with grinding gears and lit by arcing electricity. Even as the lab crumbles around them (the level of detail is fantastic), Papa Frankenstein is only too happy to see his creation take its first steps ... although it also looks like Junior is a little too keen on emulating Dad. Most striking is the fluidity of the animation; there're more actual animation in this segment, or most any other featured here, than in an entire episode of your average TV anime today.
Deprive (Hidetoshi Ōmori)
Another polytalent -- animator, character designer, storyboard artist, and director — Ōmori has appeared in a slew of different productions since the early 1980s. Deprive is very, very '80s in both its look and feel, and its storytelling: it plays like one of the OVAs from that decade compressed down into the space of a few minutes. This actually works in its favor, since I always felt a lot of the titles rushed onto shelves from that period really only have enough story to sustain a few minutes of animation. Here, a young girl is torn away from her robot companion when aliens invade Earth, but the robot (now disguised as a handsome young man) braves all challenges to rescue her from the clutches of evil. The animation style isn't the only thing dated about this segment, but it's enjoyable to watch, and like the previous two segments it accomplishes everything it needs to do without needing a single word of dialogue.
Presence (Yasuomi Umetsu)
Here's something I would never have expected to say: The creator of Kite, an anime more interesting for its notoriety than anything else, was responsible for one of the most beautifully animated and designed segments in the whole film. Set in a kind of retro-future European land, it's a sorrowful take on the Pygmalion myth: a man creates a female robot that is a little too human for his own good. Even though this is the first segment in the anthology that features spoken dialogue, it's almost irrelevant — all of the most important things about the story are delivered through images. The character designs in particular are exceptionally expressive and striking, reminiscent of the lavish, muscular look Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) gave to his works.
Star Light Angel (Hiroyuki Kitazume)
Another '80s artifact, in both its look (Kitazume worked on ZZ Gundam) and themes. Two girls enjoy an evening in an amusement park, only to have one discover the other cheating with her boyfriend. The robots populating the park come to the rescue, as it were. It's a frippery, but the animation's fluid and sport some intriguing TRON-like analog lighting effects (another 1980s animation trope that more or less vanished with digital production techniques).
Cloud (Mao Lamdo)
Manabu Ōhashi, an industry veteran (you name it, he probably did key animation for it) used a screen name for this impressionistic piece. It's the one that has the least connection to the overall theme of the anthology — the only robot in it is an Astro Boy-like wanderer — but it hardly matters, what with the dreamy, sepia-toned imagery on display here. The ending is lovely, but also a little chilling: the robot boy becomes a human, but based on the parade of images we've seen, he's inherited all that is both good and bad about being so. (I suspect it couldn't have been any other way.)
Strange Tale of the Meiji Era (Hiroyuki Kitakubo)
The funniest segment of the bunch by a mile, and easily one of the best for that reason alone. Kitakubo also worked on Roujin-Z -- a greatly underappreciated story about machines gone berserk written by (who else?) Katsuhiro Ōtomo — and with this segment he gives us classy-looking, broad-scale physical comedy. In the Meiji Era (late 1800s, early 1900s), a mad scientist from the West prepares to stomp Edo with his electrically powered creation, and it's up to a ragtag team of homebrew steam-powered robot builders to stop him. The joke is that neither side is particularly competent, and between the two of them they end up wrecking a good part of the city anyway. Another great example of a story that works well as a short — if spun out to a full OAV or feature, it would have run the risk of becoming belabored, but here the fun lasts just long enough not to wear out the welcome.
Chicken Man and Red Neck (Takashi Nakamura)
Nakamura, another Ōtomo alumnus (he worked on AKIRA and "The Order to Stop Construction" from Neo-Tokyo), is another name with a storied career that needs more attention. He was responsible as director for the dazzling but dramatically confused A Tree of Palme, and the hidden-treasure TV series Fantastic Children, a classic case of a great piece of work camouflaged behind an awful title. I recognized his beaky character designs right off the bat in "Chicken Man and Red Neck", where a salaryman flees in terror through a nighttime cityscape that is mutating into a cybernetic circle of hell. The punchline is that the nightmare doesn't end when the sun comes up, although it's the seething imagery and the hilarious body language of the terrified protagonist that are the real stars of the show. Nakamura is also directing Harmony, one of the forthcoming adaptations of SF novelist Project Itoh's work, and after seeing this I'm doubly curious if he'll be bringing to that project some of the same energy and gleeful vision.
I first saw Robot Carnival in 1994 — the salad days of my anime fandom — as a VHS rental from the mom-'n'-pop video store around the corner from my apartment in NYC. Anime itself was still relatively new to me at the time, but somehow Robot Carnival helped me draw correlations with things I was already familiar with — the experimental animation of the Brothers Quay, for instance, whose mesmerizing "Street of Crocodiles" caught my attention on PBS some years before that.
It wouldn't be fair to say the state of animation today is uniformly worse off now — do you really want to write off REDLINE or Princess Kaguya? — but it's always nice to be reminded of how things once were. Projects like Robot Carnival are proof that a cultural history lesson doesn't have to be a slog.