Here is a project that is not entirely successful but fascinating for what it attempts to do all the same. Keitarou Motonaga's Malice@Doll is somewhere between an adult OVA of the 90s/00s home-video era and an experimental stop-motion art film, with the story elements of the former and the aesthetic of the latter. It falls short of real success, but it's not merely a skin show, and it has ambitions of a kind I wanted to see more of.
The hazards of the body
There was once a time when human beings came to a red-light district in some megatropolis, to savor the pleasures of the artificial flesh. The "dolls", the mechanical prostitutes that worked there, catered to every whim. Then everything collapsed — aliens? a pandemic? it's never said — leaving the machines to themselves. With nothing to do, they roam the silent streets, occasionally encountering the other robots tasked with policing the streets for intruders or providing them with increasingly scarce repairs.
This is the only life that Malice ("Mechanical Alice"?), one of the dolls, has ever known. Sometimes she puts on a shabby wrap and wanders about to no particular end. Better the empty streets than the increasingly decrepit room she sleeps in. One morning she springs a coolant leak — one that leaves her looking as though she's weeping — and heads to the chamber where she believes she can be repaired. But the repair robot is gone, replaced instead by some strange creature that spears her with its appendages.
Malice passes out, and awakens — but something has happened. Where before she was metal and plastic, she's now flesh and blood. All the pleasures she knew about by proxy, she can now experience firsthand. What's more, whatever it is that transformed her is now, in a sense, transmissable: with a kiss she can pass the same transformation on to her fellow dolls, whether it's the haughty, self-appointed leader Doris, or the spunky, friendly Heather (whom Malice has always favored). But when passed on to them, it does more than turn them into living flesh; it also mutates them horrendously. The gift of flesh also means pain and suffering of a kind they were shielded from as dolls. And so an aghast Malice tries to uncover the secret of what's happened, including whether or not it can be reversed, and at what cost.
The dreaming machine
The easier it gets to produce things that look forensically realistic in animation, particularly CGI, the more interested I become in animation that doesn't try to be realistic at all, but instead tries to be visionary, the product of pure imagination. Malice@Doll uses CGI to create a look less akin to hand-drawn animation and more along the lines of stop-motion puppetry — a fitting look for a story about mechanical dolls. Some people might reject this out of hand, since part of the charm with stop-motion animation is seeing something physical that was crafted by hand and photographed with a real camera (see also: The Book Of The Dead, or most everything by the Brothers Quay). Having the whole thing generated by computer doesn't evoke the same flavor at all.
On the other hand, I suspect everyone involved knew this, and decided to work with it rather than against it. The CGI aims for gauzy, dreamlike imagery, not hard-edged digital shapes. And over time it becomes an aesthetic all its own. Think of how the low-end digital look of the '90s and '00s, on display here, is already becoming an object of nostalgia via the vaporwave movement and its cousins. Another side effect of that look is how it makes things that are ostensibly erotic — e.g., Malice's flashbacks to her life with human customers — become all the less sexy, and that actually ends up serving the story instead of undermining it. Some of the adult material is about what you'd expect for a project of this kind — e.g., the tentacle-sex prelude to Malice's transformation. But they're elements in a story rather than things lingered on for their own sake, and in the end the story, for all its eccentricities, wins out.
Malice@Doll fits into a sub-subgenre of anime I've come to call Past-Midnight Viewing — the sort of thing you watch in some wee hour when you're half-awake, and which somehow works all the better in that state because of how odd and dreamlike it already is. Mononoke, Serial Experiments Lain, and Texhnolyze all fall into this bucket, and what perverse sense it makes that all these things share a common screenwriter: Chiaki J. Konaka. His projects, even the "mainstream" ones, have tended towards the introverted and psychologically dramatic, and Malice@Doll hits both of those marks squarely. Motonaga, the director, is most memorably responsible for the outstanding Katanagatari, and the less-than-outstanding Jormungand, but he collaborated elsewhere with Konaka on the effectively grim Vampire Princess Miyu TV series.
Those who have seen Lain and Texhnolyze are correct in thinking Malice@Doll is likely to have an ending as bleak or weird/open-ended as those two. If I read the ending correctly — warning, spoilers — it is meant to imply that Malice is not a doll, and has never been one. Instead, she is the last living remnant of the human race, or one of the "Gods", as the dolls call them, preserved in a kind of dream stasis. All we have seen is only one of many possible dreams she's had, ending with her discovering — that is, remembering — her true self, awakening, and then returning to slumber to dream once again. It's an unexpectedly ethereal conclusion to such an earthy story. Then again, maybe by the end, that was the only direction left to go: away from both the machines and the flesh, and into the realm of pure spirit.
Foonote: Malice@Doll was distributed in the U.S. by Artsmagic, a now-defunct distributor that also handled a number of Takashi Miike live-action projects. It is currently out of print, but a used copy may turn up if you're lucky.