Masters of anime riff on The Matrix in this sizzling collection of nine shorts
Like its parent narrative, The Animatrix is a truly groundbreaking experiment, a distillation of anime, graphic novels, manga, electronic music, technoculture, cyberpunk, philosophy, film noir, speculative fiction and sociopolitical critique so seamless that it has to be seen several times to be fully grasped. Which is not to say that, like The Matrix franchise, it does not work on the level of pure entertainment alone. Far from it: Larry and Andy Wachowski’s greatest boast should be that they took thousands of years of tradition and compressed it into a unique, brainy pop culture staple that can sell everything from movie tickets to Powerade and Heineken.
But The Animatrix is not simply an anime version of the film or its various backstories: it is the Wachowski Brothers’ love letter to the Japanese artistic tradition (itself influenced by Americans like Max Fleischer, Walt Disney and onward) that gave them their stylistic palette in the first place. That alone is a refreshing break from the current American tradition of cross-cultural theft: everyone from comix god Stan Lee to animation legend Hayao Miyazake is being given short shrift by an industry, pardon the pun, machine more interested in marketing strategies than quality narrative. With The Animatrix, the Wachowski Brothers have done the admirable: acknowledging the collaborative nature of creativity, they’ve opened their own heavily armored franchise to the potent talents that have nurtured it.
And the payoff is huge.
Some of animation’s formidable figures make their presence felt here, and you can tell they were thinking about making an impact when they put their hats in the ring. After all, for some Americans, this will be their first introduction to the tech noir tastes of Shinichiro Watanabe, whose Cowboy Bebop was a refreshing hybrid of freeform jazz, William Gibson’s Neuromancer cyberpunk, and film noir convention. Or Yoshiaki Kawajiri, whose canonical Ninja Scroll set the bar for anime’s violent and sexual excess so high that it has yet to be reached, even by his own equally lurid Wicked City or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Even homegrown talents like Peter Chung, whose Aeon Flux was a midnight MTV delicacy back in the very early ‘90s, have lamentably lived in the shadow of Disney and Warner Brothers’ animation monopoly. These guys have nothing to prove — after all, the Wachowski Brothers asked them to join the party, not the other way around — but the fact remains that their films are far more famous than they themselves are.
Which itself is an American bias: if you separate the sloppy Gangs of New York from Martin Scorsese or the awful Eyes Wide Shut from Stanley Kubrick, then those movies go straight to video with zero hoopla. Yet the United States seems to have no problem separating Ninja Scroll, Akira, or Cowboy Bebop from their Japanese creators because, simply, they’re Japanese.
But The Animatrix will hopefully change all that, because there is not a dead entry to be found here. Even the Wachowski-written Final Flight of the Osiris, directed by Final Fantasy‘s Andy Jones, is a heady work that dovetails directly into The Matrix Reloaded. Although its main appeal lies in its crystal-clear digital renderings — something lasciviously displayed during the co-ed, nearly naked swordfight showoff scene at the piece’s beginning — its heart-attack action sequences (and believable sexual tension) blow the cliché Final Fantasy out of the water. But more than anything, Final Flight‘s coolest attribute, like The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded before it, is its deliberate multiculturalism. Watching a nearly nude African-American male and Asian-American female almost get busy inside the Matrix is titillating enough; what’s stranger is that rarely will you see that kind of thing anywhere else on film.
But neither will you see as textually sweeping an animation as the two-part masterpiece, “The Second Renaissance,” on film. Written by the Wachowski Brothers to explain the power shift from “man” (women, it seems, escape most of the blame when it comes to humanity’s self-administered extinction) to machine, “The Second Renaissance” hybridizes Blade Runner, Metropolis, the Jewish Holocaust, biblical allegory, Tibetan mandalas, Eddie Adams’ Vietnam photography, horror anime, the Tiananmen Square riots, the Japanese atomic apocalypse, and much more into a breakneck theoretical treatise on the delicate tension between the flesh and technology (what David Cronenberg’s Videodrome calls “the new flesh”). The Wachowski Brothers, and director Mahiro Maeda, are at their finest here, relationally charting the evolution of robot consciousness from slave to master within the blink of an eye. It’s a heady Hegelian stew, narrated with deep sympathy by a holographic female avatar that provides the dark narrative its only (literal) bright points. Turning metaphorically on Adam and Eve’s stolen apple from the Tree of Knowledge, “The Second Renaissance” posits the downfall of humankind as an expulsion from Eden, the result of an arrogant decadence much like that found at the last gasp of the Holy Roman Empire. The two-parter is, by far, the most fearsome chapter of The Animatrix; as a prelude to the franchise’s first cinematic installment, it is an intimidating success.
But that can truly be said for all of these riffs on The Matrix‘s minor key melody. Kawajiri’s stylish “World Record”, directed by Takeshi Koike, takes a mundane subject — an exceedingly swift track star’s desire to make the history books — and turns it into a quest for self-knowledge (the knowledge, unfortunately for the athlete, is awareness of the Matrix, for which he is punished forever). The same type of forbidden knowledge leads the heroine of Koji Morimoto’s poetic “Beyond” to a similar fate, yet the narrative’s trajectory comes from the accepted “reality” first, conflating a technical glitch in the Matrix with the folkloric convention of the haunted house. Except that, this time, it is not witches, ghosts or ghouls but massive industrial trucks and gas-masked thugs that terrorize this particular horror film ingénue into her banal fate.
That psychological dissonance rears its gorgeous head most notably in The Animatrix‘s finest installments, Chung’s “Matriculated” and Watanabe’s “Kid’s Story”. The final work of The Animatrix written by the Wachowski Brothers, Watanabe’s short relates the backstory of Michael Popper, Neo’s adolescent acolyte from The Matrix Reloaded. Like Neo (and most teenagers these days), Popper feels resolutely disconnected from the world at large, even though he’s plugged into the Internet all night, much like Neo was in the franchise’s first film. After a cryptic email from Neo — “There is some truth in your fiction and some fiction in your truth” it reads — Popper heads to class, only to be chased down by agents, one of which is his own teacher. Hand-drawn in what Watanabe calls “rough” Japanese style, Popper’s revelation propels the animation into overdrive; as he races away from the enclosing agents, forms and figures stretch into caricature, bodies spastically jerk from here to there, and the entire world turns upside down — in what may be a deliberate or indirect homage to Richard Linklater’s brilliant Waking Life — as Popper’s fragmented psyche melds with the machines’ fractured “reality.”
But Chung’s piece takes The Matrix‘s empirical obsessions and turns them on their philosophical heads. After having captured a robot “runner,” a group of renegade humans jack into a dream-state program in hopes of changing the mercenary machine from a foe to a friend. Reversing the theoretical current on The Matrix is a ballsy move, one that hints at the subtexts of The Matrix Reloaded — is Neo a machine? Are the machines capable of recapturing a harmony with their human counterparts? — while opening the genre to the type of psychedelic strivings found in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Chung quotes directly in one scene.
After all, The Matrix‘s central thesis — is this a dream or reality? — turns specifically on the ability to tell the difference between a human dream (an unstable, almost psychotic environment) and virtual reality (an ignorant but blissful corporate machination). Chung’s singular riff on that idea throws the “runner” into a human dream, turning the tables; watching the machine break down in sad desperation as it tries to negate the tenuous bridge between its unidirectional consciousness and the less programmatic human mind is The Animatrix‘s most poignant, heartfelt moment. The fact that your human empathy is spent more on a doomed machine locked in a human dream (which, in pure Chungian poetry, is almost entirely digitally rendered) than a human bound within a machine’s hallucination is the type of circular argument that the Wachowski Brothers have built their entire rep on.
Indeed, there are simply too many layers to count in Chung’s piece alone, to say nothing of the entire Animatrix. But the beauty of the DVD format is that there’s enough room for explanation, and there are plenty to check out here (“A Brief History of Anime” is one of the disc’s best). But you can only explain so much; at some point, the individual intellect has to take over and give narrative its personal shape. What’s so amazing about The Animatrix — and The Matrix franchise, for that matter — is that there is literally so much material to sift through, and so many ways to show it.
The Wachowski Brothers should be commended for not only concretizing thousands of years of art (from 12th-century Japanese scrolls to 21st-century digital technology) into a deeply unique form, but also allowing geniuses like Watanabe, Chung, et.al. to add their particular vision to a tradition that they helped create. Whether it is truly a dream or reality, The Animatrix is hard to ignore. Even harder to stop watching.