Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories is a very special and somewhat humbling experience. It’s dark, it’s dramatic, it’s very artfully crafted, and has a broad scope with its subjects, its backgrounds, its camera-work, its musical choices, and its varied art styles.
The film was original conceived by Otomo as a series of direct-to-video or OVA (original-video-animation) shorts; having written multiple short stories in his time that he wanted to adapt to film. But after other projects came and went, the idea shifted to a theatrical production, meaning that the number of shorts would have to be downsized to three. Otomo was also not interested in putting all three productions on himself, and so he brought in two of his earlier collaborators on Akira: Koji Morimoto, who would direct the first short entitled “Magnetic Rose;” and Tensai Okamura, who would direct the second short entitled “Stink Bomb.” Katsuhiro Otomo would then direct the last short, entitled “Cannon Fodder.”
In an interest to not spoil the stories for you this time, I will try to sum up the stories without giving away the endings.
Magnetic Rose – Out in deep space, a team of space junk salvagers intercept an S.O.S call from the center of a large debris field. At the center of this debris field is an enormous rotating object, seemingly the result of the debris congealing into a single form with its own gravity; which two of the astronauts are sent out to investigate. Once on board, the two discover that a large mansion, fully furnished and complete with marbled columns, granite floors, large open windows, and wall to wall paintings; is built inside.
As the two astronauts venture deeper into the mansion, they find that the deeper and lower levels have greatly decayed, and are almost about to fall apart. But they also find a hidden evil haunts the place: the artificial remnants of the mansion’s long dead owner. A famous Opera Soprano, named Eva.
As she comes in contact with the two astronauts, she begins to manipulate them by using her hologram generators and their own memories, in order to coax them into staying with her forever, until they die.
“Magnetic Rose,” as well as the other two shorts, were the brain-child of Katsuhiro Otomo. However, the script for Rose was actually written by the late famous anime director, Satoshi Kon, and was animated by Studio4*c: the creators of the very beautiful “Kung Fu Love” anime short, as well as the Hikaru Utada mini videos entitled “Exodus Fluximation.”
The production design and story seems very reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, as most sci-fi short stories are bound to feel like. But it also has an air of Blade Runner and The Matrix with how trippy the visuals get. And funny enough, it is literally about a “Haunted mansion… in space.”
The music for “Magnetic Rose” was written and composed by the always amazing Yoko Kanno: who composed the music for Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex to name just a few.
She provides a masterful combination of both opera and synth, inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to create a specific soundscape that accentuates the dramatic and foreboding visuals perfectly. She was actually able to work with a real Opera company, full choir, in an opera-house, in order to produce the haunting, reverberating harmonies that will stick with you long after the short is over.
Stink Bomb – At a pharmaceutical research laboratory, a young employee named Nobuo Tanaka has caught a cold, and his co-workers suggest he should try some of the yet untested pills sitting on the chief’s desk. They tell him they are the blue pills in the red bottle. But once our sick friend gets to the chief’s office, he foolishly thinks it’s the red pills in the blue bottle that he should take.
So he pops one in, and decides to go nap in the lounge for a bit. Only an hour later does the chief frantically run back in, furious for someone to tell him who touched the red pills on his desk. He finally realizes that Nobuo is still inside the building, and the chief runs off; seemingly intent on confronting the man.
But by the next morning, Nobuo wakes up to discover that everyone in the building has collapsed, with snot and mucus exploding from their faces. He soon finds the chief, who has also fallen dead just after shutting off the bio-chem Alarm in his office. And once Nobuo reactivates the alarm, a message is sent straight to the higher-ups, who then tell him to take the pills, and paper-work detailed the files of everyone involved with the drug’s production, and bring them in a briefcase directly to him in Tokyo.
But what no one realizes is that Nobuo, the man delivering the drugs and the paper-work, is actually the source of the gas that killed everyone. And as he ventures across the country-side to Tokyo, not only does he realize that the gas has spread over the entire nearby city and killed everyone there, but he is unknowingly bringing the fatal gas along with him; which threatens to decimate Japan, and the entire world.
This time around the animation was created by Madhouse, who have animated such anime wonders as Satoshi Kon’s Millenium Actress, Rintaro’s Metropolis, and the cult-classic Ninja Scroll.
The style of this film is more or less a very dark comedy, where just about everyone in the film dies except our main character: who even in the end is completely oblivious to the fact that he caused everything to go so wrong. Even the music is evidence that this was intended as a comedy, as the short opens with a very upbeat jazz-infuzed tune, and continues with a relatively light-hearted soundtrack, all written by Jun Miyake.
Cannon Fodder – In a world where a fully militarized society lives and breathes the operation and firing of cannons, a young boy dreams of becoming (what I like to call) the grand blaster; or as he calls is, “the one who fires the cannons.” Basically that’s all there is to this one.
There is, however, a special section during this short where the art style shifts dramatically from a sketchy, wood-cut-like style; to a young boy’s doodles presenting a sort of propaganda piece for the glory of the state.
Once again, Studio 4*c animates the production, with a similar production style to what one might see in a Terry Gilliam stop-motion piece, and rather rough and sketchy. It is perhaps the most dramatically artsy and unique of the three pieces, as it feels the most like a short animated piece that one might see in a film festival.
The opening theme as well as the music for the final story, Cannon Fodder, was chosen by Katsuhiro Otomo in order to sound fully modern, in the style of techno-dance. He essentially wanted music that the audience could dance to as they left the theater. And then they could ponder the meaning of the different short films once they got home. And I quite think he’s right. I much prefer movies to end on an upbeat danceable or heat-pounding tune rather than a somber pop-song. That way, when I’m leaving the theater, I can feel excited and elated about what I just watched.
Now something that stood out to me about this whole production was the early use of integrated Computer Generated Imagery. Katsuhiro Otomo and director Koji Morimoto (Magnetic Rose) describe their use of CGI as intended to blend into the scene, not stand out from it. Unlike most anime series that have utilized CGI in order to save money and time; Otomo brought in a small digital animation team in order to create specific shots that would not be possible in traditional animation. And they spent a long time creating all of the background artwork and textures that would be laid onto the different digital polygons and surfaces. It effectively gives a smooth and cinematic movement to many key shots, without looking ugly or out of place. It’s an approach that Studio Ghibli has embraced in a few of their projects as well.
The camera shots that were created in 2D are also mind-blowing in their own right. It shows in behind-the-scenes photos that huge bending and twisting background paintings (sort of like a long python on canvas) were created in order to represent a camera move that would push towards some objects, away from others, move up, move down, left and right, and finally stop at a particular point within this seemingly 3-dimentional space. In order to falsify a three-dimensional camera move in a painting, it surely takes an enormous amount of pre-planning and fore-thought in order to conceive of such a shot without the use of CGI CAD systems, or at the very least a model mock-up of the set in question. I assume such models are used. But if not, then it is a thing of brilliance that shots like this can be created in the mind alone, and with such variety and frequency within the anime industry. Even the opening of Soul Eater utilizes similar shot design, with both static optically stretched backgrounds and fully animated ones; but not nearly as elaborate or intricate.
For me, Memories is perhaps one of my most favorite anime productions that I’ve seen in a while. It was a somewhat unexpected joy to watch, because while I can appreciate the artistry and the visual brilliance of things like Escaflowne, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust; I can’t say that I actually enjoy them on any level, because the stories just aren’t intriguing enough, and the characters aren’t interesting enough. There certainly was potential for all three of them, but they didn’t have as competent people working behind the scenes. Here in Memories, though, we have some of the best in the business.
The DVD for Memories has been out of print for quite some time. But unlike it’s cousin, Neo Tokyo, it’s still relatively easy to obtain a copy for under $10 dollars. So do yourself a favor and buy a copy, whether you’re a movie fan, an anime fan, or a sci-fi fan.