As Thursday on the internets has become “Throwback Thursday,” where everything that’s old becomes new again, this seemed a good opportunity to highlight a movie that cemented my interest in anime. I grew up with Astroboy, and Speed Racer, and Kimba the White Lion, but after they vanished from the airwaves, my next contact with this distinctive style of Japanese animation wasn’t until my college years, when I discovered StarBlazers/Space Battleship Yamato, and Gundam Wing, and Dragonball.
Then a few years after that, I happened upon Robot Carnival, which encapsulated everything I’d always enjoyed about anime—a fresh speculative vision, a sense of adventure, attention to small, interesting mechanical details, and a childlike sense of wonder coupled with a sophisticated and whimsical sense of humor. In a nutshell, it was different, and it was fun.
Robot Carnival is that odd bird, an anthology movie, featuring a collection of short animated tales, ten minutes or so each. The stories have one thing in common: robots, as you might expect. They’re an eclectic mix of storytelling and artistic styles, in a variety of genres: drama, romance, comedy, horror, and action. Stories are set across the past, present, and future, and the definition of “robot” is flexible—some are sophisticated artificial intelligences, others are little more than mechanical dolls. There are good robots, evil robots, robots that wish to be human, robots masquerading as human, and humans masquerading as robots. Most of the segments are wordless—only two include spoken dialogue—so there’s a heavy emphasis on music to support the mood and pacing. The score is worth a listen all by itself. In keeping with the robotic theme, all the music is computer-synthesized, though that’s often hard to discern.
Most of the artists were obscure at the time. Some have gone on to garner awards and have participated in notable anime features like Akira, Steamboy, Lupin III, Roujin-Z, the Gundam series, and The Animatrix. If you’ve seen any of those, you’ll probably notice the family resemblance in many of Robot Carnival’s stories.
You can still find copies of Robot Carnival via Amazon, eBay, and anime-specific vendors, but you can also watch the entire film or any of its component parts on YouTube. I’ve summarized the individual segments below and linked to their YouTube postings. The quality is a little (okay, a lot) grainy for most of them, but you’ll get the idea. Hey, it’s 27 years old. We were still working off VHS tapes back then, you young whippersnappers. Now, get off my lawn.
“Opening“: In a windswept Mongolian desert, a boy discovers a tattered flier announcing the “Robot Carnival” is on its way. He and his fellow villagers soon realize this is not cause for celebration. The Carnival is a ponderous clockwork contraption that is sort of a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the entire film—a conglomeration of entertainment devices lacking clear direction or purpose, yet plowing relentlessly onward, flattening everything in its path and filling the air with music, pyrotechnics, and the occasional goat.
“Franken’s Gears“: In this brief vignette, a mad scientist with dreams of world conquest builds a powerful robot that perfectly obeys his every command. He discovers perfect obedience is sometimes a very nasty bug, not a feature.
“Deprive“: A future society where robots and humans live in community is devastated by an alien invasion. After a young girl is captured by the aliens’ evil overlord, her damaged robot companion re-engineers himself into a powerful fighting machine and speeds to her rescue. This one is almost pure action, with the robot’s courageous battle against overwhelming odds accompanied by a dynamic musical score.
“Starlight Angel“: A day at the robotic amusement park leads to fun, tragedy, danger, and a little romance. It’s a familiar girl-loses-love, girl-finds-better-love story with a symbolic robot battle tossed into the mix, but it’s nicely animated, conveying the story and its emotional content without a single word. Anyone who’s spent a day at Disneyland will notice lots of tributes to the iconic theme park.
“Presence”: A robotics engineer trapped in a loveless marriage creates his ideal companion, but she proves a little too perfect for his comfort, with tragic results. Near the end of his life, the ghosts of his past return to haunt him…or, perhaps, to save him.
This piece takes place in a near future where robots are commonplace, and often very lifelike, but are treated with little more respect than toys or other common objects. It’s the most fully-rounded story of the collection and one of only two with significant dialogue. It raises some interesting questions: What is life and where does it come from? Do we assume some level of responsibility for and to our creations? The background art, particularly in the engineer’s workshop, is beautiful, with lots of delicious little details.
(Note—the link goes to a playlist. This episode is longer than the rest and was posted in multiple parts)
“A Tale of Two Robots—Part 3: Foreign Invasion“: There’s no Part 1 or 2. This comedy plunges us into a strange clash between two cultures and two giant robots, as a collection of misfits take their steam-powered parade float into battle against a mad scientist bent on conquering Japan. The characters are all standard archetypes, but if anything, that enhances the fun. Like “Presence,” there’s spoken dialogue (the English dub incorporates some stereotypical accents for the Japanese characters).
There’s a parable in here somewhere about overbearing Western attitudes, and the indomitable Japanese spirit, but in the end, it’s just a big, blundering, robot fight—steam and wood versus electricity and steel, with more damage dealt to the town than to the combatants.
“Cloud“: A little robot boy trudges along a desolate road, where he’s battered by wind and rain, but strange things are stirring in the heavens. This is the artsiest episode of the anthology and in some ways the most beautiful. Ninety-nine percent of the action happens in the scrolling, magical tapestry of the background art. It takes a little patience, particularly if you favor slam-bang action, but there’s a nice payoff at the end. The music is appropriately soft and dreamy.
“Nightmare“: The cast-off bits and pieces of a decayed city come to life as a demonic army, and a drunken salaryman caught up in the horror scrambles to survive the night.
This is an unabashed tribute to Disney’s “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia, beginning with a moody, portentous opening that plunges quickly into a pulse-pounding roller-coaster of a mad monster party.
Was it real, a dream, or merely a night of intoxicated delirium? Does malevolent life lurk within the technology we’ve created, waiting for the right opportunity to overwhelm us? You decide.
“Ending” and “Epilogue”: The Robot Carnival meets its wheezing, clanking end in the desert, and we see some images of its better days, interspersed with scenes from the various stories as the credits roll. The worst seems over for the Mongolian villagers, but the Carnival has one final gift for them. You’d think they would have known better.
I’d rate this at a low PG-13 for some violence and emotionally-intense situations in “Deprive,” “Presence,” and “Nightmare.” Your mileage may vary.