When most people think of Katsuhiro Otomo, they think of AKIRA, and the outsized influence of that project obscures many of the other things in his roster, like the fact that he was a prolific manga creator entirely apart from AKIRA and its Otomo-directed film adaptation. Memories, his 1995 anthology project, renders three of Otomo's manga stories as short films, each with a different director realizing. It remains one of the best projects of its kind, both for its animation artistry and the quality of the storytelling — well, two times out of three for the latter, anyway.
Magnetic Rose (彼女の想いで, Kanojo no Omoide, "Her Memories")
d: Koji Morimoto; wr: Satoshi Kon; music: Yoko Kanno; studio: Studio 4°C
The setup for Magnetic Rose is a common hard sci-fi staple, itself a reworking of a pulp fiction staple. A team of astronauts — be they scientists, salvage men, or pirates — happen across a derelict floating somewhere in space. They head inside, seeing treasure or answers, and instead find bottomless horror. Here, it's a freelance salvage ship, the Corona, that discovers a Sargasso Sea of dead ships in orbit around a massive, shapeless space station. In go cautious family man Heinz and cocky wildcard Miguel, who find the inside resembles, bafflingly, a cross between an opulent 18th-century palace and an opera house.
From what they can reconstruct, the craft belonged to opera diva Eva Friedel, who apparently retreated into it after the unexplained murder of her beloved fiancé Carlo Rambaldi. Eva herself might still be somewhere in this gilded tomb, but when the two discover what they think to be her, they realize it's something else — something that reflects their own desires and fears back at them (a la the world-brain in Stanisław Lem's Solaris), and which endangers them and the rest of their crew. All that remains of Eva is memory, kept alive by something that was never her to begin with, and with retained memory comes forever unfulfilled desire.
In theory the best things about this segment should have been purely technical. Time and again, Morimoto and his team do a fantastic job of simulating the feeling of three-dimensional images with nothing more than 2D planar drawings — e.g., the sequence where the Corona first dives into the heart of the derelict. But the writing and storytelling raise it even further. Kon (who originally worked for Otomo as an art assistant) had a penchant for stories about illusion and self-deception, and his craft is an exact fit for this project. It deserves mention in the same breath along with the films that are most commonly advertised with his name.
Stink Bomb (最臭兵器, Saishū-heiki, "Smelly Weapon")
d: Tensai Okamura; wr: Otomo; music: Jun Miyake; studio: MADHOUSE
Stink Bomb employs a trope Otomo returns to often in his work: technology going haywire, specifically military technology, and the men who command it watch aghast as their war machines and contingency plans all crumble at a touch. It's not the idea itself that's uncompelling, but the way Otomo tends to turn it into hamfisted black comedy. The biggest problem with Stink Bomb isn't the idea or the visualization, but the fact that it just isn't very funny.
Nobuo, a hapless lab technician working for some pharma company, comes to work with a cold and downs what he thinks is an experimental new flu drug after swiping it from his boss's desk. Turns out that pill he popped is a bio-weapon, which reacts with the medicine already in his system and causes his body to produce a lethal gas. His horrified superiors urge him to seize all the details he can about the drug — lest they be incriminated — and head for Tokyo. And so Nobuo climbs on a gas-powered bike and heads through Yamanashi, leaving a trail of death behind him as he goes, one that even the JSDF and the American military can't stop with all their weapons.
No question the whole thing looks great; it's conceived and animated on the same scale as something like AKIRA, and with many of the same kinds of visuals — e.g., a lone figure emerging from desolation to stand off against thousands of adversaries. But once the story sets up its idea, it has nowhere to go with it but in circles. It doesn't so much develop as just repeat a larger version of the previous clutch of gags again and again. A five- or ten-minute version of the story would have worked; at nearly forty minutes, it's exasperating. And then there's that ending, one that converts the whole thing firmly from "SF short" into "shaggy dog story".
Cannon Fodder (大砲の街, Taihō no Machi, "City Of Cannons")
d, wr: Otomo; music: Hiroyuki Nagashina; studio: Studio 4°C
Otomo saved directorial duties on this project for himself, perhaps because in some ways it's the best of the bunch: it tries to show us its story instead of telling it to us, and it uses both digital and analog animation in the most creative and exuberant ways.
Somewhere there exists a city-state with architecture like a cross between the lower depths of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the torpedo bay of a submarine. Cannon nozzles protrude from most every rooftop. A state of total war exists, where every citizen devotes every waking hour of every day to preparing, firing, and maintaining the massive cannons that bombard the aggressors somewhere in the wastes beyond the city walls. Over the course of a day, we follow a family — a young boy in school, his mother, and his father who works on one of the big cannons — as they live through all this, with the grim feeling that every day for them will be exactly like the last. The only ambition we see is that of the boy, who dreams one day of pulling the lanyard that fires the cannons, instead of just scuttling around beneath them. At no time do we ever see the enemy — assuming, that is, they even exist at all.
Most Studio 4°C use cutting-edge digital techniques in some form, but always with an eye towards how animation should look like the product of human hands. For Cannon Fodder, it seems the hand-drawn images were layered and wrapped around 3D objects, allowing the camera to move freely through them but without too much of the "cardboard dollhouse" effect that often plagues such imagery. The way the camera transitions between scenes across the city is fantastic; there's rarely ever just a straight cut from one thing to the next, but a tying-together.
I think Memories was the first anime anthology project I ever watched, even though Robot Carnival predated it by some years (even if its U.S. release was hard to find). Of the two, Memories is the less diverse (as it has fewer segments), but a good showcase for how Otomo's imagination encompassed more notes than just sardonic destruction on a mass scale — even if one of its episodes seems predominantly occupied with just that.
The hard part, for a long time, has been trying to see it. Sony Pictures brought out Memories on DVD, as part of a line of theatrical-anime releases (e.g., Metropolis), that begged to have Blu-ray Disc upgrades. It took Discotek Media to enact such a reissue, another sign of how the indie/boutique video labels are stepping in to provide physical product of video titles that deserve a lasting place on disc.