A few weeks ago, the ultimate edition of Japanese anime classic Akira was re-re-released. Apart from bundling the original with the digitally re-mastered version, the only discernible addition seemed to be a new sound- bite from Empire magazine on the front. It read: “No Akira, no Matrix, it’s that important.” However accurate (and cynical from a marketing point of view) the quotation may be, it rather succinctly demonstrates that The Animatrix, like the recent Enter the Matrix videogame, has returned the Wachowski brothers to an inspirational and cultural source. Still, as another cog turns in the well-oiled hype machine it also feels at odds with some of the central sentiments of the original film. You can almost feel the marketing team pulling the world over your eyes to hide you from the truth.
As regular Pixelsurgeon newsreaders will know, four episodes from The Animatrix were made available for download before the dvd was released, one each month from January to April this year at the official website. This seemed like a generous move considering the high quality of the movies available for download, so I had high hopes for the complete dvd release.
The dvd opens with the the Final Flight of the Osiris. This short by Square USA (as in the CGI Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie) has by far the least in common with Japanese anime, though by contrast has by far the most in common with the Matrix universe. It sets up the beginning of Reloaded, as well as the Enter the Matrix game. Technically it’s extremely impressive, to the extent where at times the CG characters exhibit a more convincing realism than their Reloaded counterparts. Remember the frankly shoddy burly brawl and superman sequences? It’s funny, I always thought the arduous training programs the actors went through for the original film was so we could see them doing all those cool moves face to face for real, but I digress. The point is that Osiris, for all its ‘realism’, suffers in the same way that the Final Fantasy movie did. It often feels like a tech demo and you’ll find yourself looking for glitches in the CG sheen.
Next up, we have The Second Renaissance parts one and two, directed by Mahiro Maeda, which document the man/machine war leading up to the current events we see in the films. The short makes clever use of a digital female narrator, which tells the story as a history lesson, with news footage evoking memories of real 20th and 21st century tragedies, lending an epic melancholy to both episodes. We see how mankind turned the sky black, and how the machines discovered they could sustain themselves through the humans who had ousted them and destroyed their power source. In terms of substance, this is as close to a Ghost in the Shell or an Akira as The Animatrix ever gets. This is not to the detriment of the other interpretations; it’s just that as prequels to the films they carry the most narrative weight and have a darker tone.
Kid’s Story employs the most original animation style, and the skateboarding scenes are probably the most interesting action sequences on the whole dvd, but this episode also raises a problem with the cross-media universe that the Wachowski Brothers have tried to create. The Kid of the title, it turns out, is The Kid in Reloaded. You know, you see him once near the beginning, asking to carry Trinity’s bag, thanking Neo for “freeing his mind”, but then that’s it. No more kid. When you see the animation you start to appreciate the potential importance of the character for the third film, but without it this scene just seems hollow and forced. Just as in Reloaded you don’t see how they blow up the power station, because in the game you get to do it yourself (in one of the dullest levels, which is really saying something), this is another example of how an alternative medium is meant to enrich the Matrix universe, but ends up detracting from the central experience.
Moving on, Program is the most traditional anime, where Kawajiri-san gives us a boldly coloured and beautifully composed short. Elements of his Ninja Scroll classic are evident in the feudal Japan environment, and there is great use of sound in the climax, but this is one of the least interesting stories. It’s a simple variation on the training program concept from the first film, which is really just the modern equivalent of waking up and finding it’s all been a horrible dream, i.e. anything is possible.
World Record, like Kid’s Story, uses a more individual style to get across the idea that a sprinter has become so powerful he starts to break through the Matrix and discover the truth. Despite the originality of Takeshi Koike’s characters and the strong black shadows, stylistically it somehow feels a little indulgent and doesn’t quite manage to capitalise on the interesting concept.
Beyond, written and directed by Koji Morimoto is my personal favourite. Like World Record, it takes one idea from the films and hones in on it, in this case the glitches in the Matrix program. A group of children challenge each other to execute outlandish acrobatic manoeuvres in the courtyard of a haunted house, where the power of gravity is greatly reduced. A teenager looking for her cat also joins in. Interesting techniques, where painted backgrounds are mapped onto 3d composites, really enhance the curious ambient atmosphere of this piece.
A Detective Story takes the noir feel of the first Matrix film and gives us a classic black and white detective story, complete with smoky jazz soundtrack and reflective narrative from the sleuth. It’s perhaps a little too much style over substance, but if you can’t play around with an interesting theme in an animation short then where can you do it?
Finally, Matriculated, written and directed by Peter Chung. Remember Aeon Flux? You will do when you see his distinctive character styles. This is the most abstract episode, and could have perhaps benefited from being a few minutes shorter, but contains some great moments nonetheless. It ranges from the psychedelic to the mechanical and back again, but is fun precisely for this reason. Let’s face it, the Matrix Universe often threatens to disappear into it’s own black hole, and Matriculated is refreshing as a result.
Right, that’s the animations themselves out the way, but without having been able to experience the full project naked on the big screen first, The Animatrix deserves to be considered in the context of the package it is presented in. Sadly, it’s rather lacking in places, and feels a little rushed.
The clunky menu system revolves around the Matrix motif of vertical streams of green code on black. I understand the need for continuity, but if The Animatrix represents how different creative minds have interpreted the Matrix, couldn’t the packaging reflect this too? Why not take that black and white Minority Report styled control centre we saw in Zion in Reloaded as a starting point? Even the Mandala-inspired archive which bookends The Second Renaissance animations on the dvd itself? Either way, the packaging and presentation feels rather lazy, not least because after the end of each short, you’ll have to watch the credits for the whole collection, making the Play All feature redundant.
Extras are fair to middling, with an all too brief introduction to the history of anime in the Scrolls to Screen documentary. The Wachowski brothers are sadly absent, and instead we get the omnipresent Joel Silver, who “really liked Akira and everything”. The makings-of for each episode are marginally better, but if ever there was an opportunity for some sort of concept art gallery this was it. What is worth mentioning is the director commentary on The Second Renaissance though, which is both informative and eloquent.
To conclude, The Animatrix is a welcome addition, if you can get over your initial reluctance to finance further Matrix spin-offs with merely functional packaging and presentation. Where Reloaded opened out the real and fake worlds without being entirely successful, the first film always reminded me of the short science fiction stories I had read as a child, concise but complete unto themselves. What I didn’t see in these stories was the world I had to imagine. The Animatrix gets back to those short story roots, showing how the restrictions of taking a single idea and running with it can lead to fascinating results. Most importantly, The Animatrix might mean that more people get to experience the brilliance of classic Japanese anime titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
In fact, no doubt the next Wachowski brothers are out there somewhere already. Let’s just hope they learn from the cross-media mistakes which Reloaded, Enter the Matrix and The Animatrix have made. Unless of course, Revolutions can bring it all together…
The Animatrix (2003)
Dir. Peter Chung, Andy Jones, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike, Mahiro Maeda, Kouji Morimoto, Shinichiro Watanabe
Stars: Clayton Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Keanu Reeves, Hedy Burress
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action