In reading the reviews of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995), one might be particularly struck by what is not said: that, for all the ways that titles might recapitulate, refract, or even turn away from a film’s content, there is almost no discussion of what the title means to the work at hand. Yes, the word is uttered early on, and has an obvious, ham-fisted, 1:1 relationship to the first of the collection’s three anime shorts, but what about the rest? There is very little to say, really, since the others tackle different tropes, and have only a slipshod connection to one another in the fact that they’re the film versions of three of Otomo’s previously written stories. In brief, whereas the title could be said to cohere too neatly with the work’s first forty minutes, the last eighty, well, cohere not at all, despite containing some of its best material. Is this an issue? Perhaps, but since it’s the least of the film’s faults, I do have an idea of what it all means, and why Otomo made these artistic decisions. Yet instead of positing an unpopular claim, first, and bracing for the fallout, I will present the evidence, bit by bit, precisely as the film presents it, so that the sum is unassailable, and that the work’s poetic status might get the treatment of a more mechanical eye.
Memories begins with Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, a highly stylized tale of an opera singer, Eva, and her chief fixation: her prior life with Carlo, a famous tenor with whom she went on to win world acclaim. They are happy, briefly, until Eva loses her voice, then Carlo, and ultimately murders her former love in order to trap him in a cycle of unchanging memories. The details are slowly discovered by a crew of scrap collectors, of whom Heintz, a father seemingly on leave from family life, is the mysterious protagonist. They witness an SOS signal in deep space as Heintz and another crew member, Miguel, go on to investigate. Once landed, the two enter a Victorian-style mansion propped up by holograms and ‘genuine fakes’ that, once discerned, crumble and disappear. At first, they do not realize who the owner of this place is, as Eva zips in and out of the landscape, inducing hallucinations that tangle up her own life with theirs. In time, however, another crew member radios from their spaceship, and informs them of what he’s found. The hallucinations grow violent, culminating in the ‘death’ of Heintz as if he were Carlo, Miguel’s imagined fling with Eva, and Heintz’s own probe into his family, leaving the viewer unsure on the question of his daughter’s death. Magnetic Rose ends with Heintz floating in space amidst rose-petals, possibly dying, and possibly even accumulating, in Eva’s manner, his own memories, and waiting for the cycle to be broken by future explorers.
It is, to be sure, an anachronistic setting: the ‘past’ is presented in Victorian, almost steampunk terms, replete with holograms, vast living spaces, decadence, robotic cherubim, and silly, exaggerated interactions. Yet it also looks towards an equally anachronistic future, full of huge, junky spaceships, cigarettes, and a 1950s-style home Heintz’s family apparently lives in. It is also unclear what world Eva’s world refers to: there are references to Tokyo, for instance, but her own memories swirl into a rose-shaped cosmic graveyard that is clearly not Earth, with even contradictory referents in the memories, themselves. The ‘Victorian’ world is not the world of the 1900s, yet Carlo (as well as others) are twentieth-century inventions, and opera festivals in Tokyo imply a diverse, modern world. Thus, we get three typical anime tropes right off the bat: steampunk, cyberpunk, and a re-iterated present, but without any deeper reason for these permutations, for the tale, as told, is banal, marred by poorly drawn-out characters, and leads to neither revelation, change, nor regress. This is because, for all of Magnetic Rose’s stylishness, the basics of ‘what a good story is’ is never respected. Eva, for example, is a prototypically sick, spurned woman, not only murdering her lover, but shacking up in a crumbling mansion to undo some prior hurt, a la Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham. That Morimoto (or Otomo, as executive producer) wishes to plumb fiction for archetypes is not the issue. The issue is that these archetypes do little but bump heads in predictable ways, and say predictable things, in trite, ridiculous ways. Eva, when complimented by Carlo, that roses make him think of her, actually becomes sad that he doesn’t “always” think of her, like she thinks of him, and Carlo, instead of being dumbstruck by her emotionalism, simply accepts her ‘sweetness’ with a grin: a kid’s middle-school fantasy of what romance is ‘really’ like, what with the ever-yielding woman, and a man who gushes at her mannerisms. Just ignore, for a second, the irreality of two rich, famous, and talented artists behaving like children in their love lives, and focus on the writing, itself, and how poorly its clichés communicate even the lowliest love. In other words, the short not only downplays genuine human behavior when it most needs crystallization, but also does little with the material it hoists in its stead. The first is in some cases forgivable. The second is a universal fault, applicable to ALL arts, really, and can only be undone with the film’s undoing.
Nor does it get better when other characters are thrown into the mix. There’s Miguel, for one, who is broadcast as a womanizer so ridiculously horny that he tries to court Eva, a potentially dangerous apparition whom he knows to be unreal. There’s the old, ‘hard-boiled’ ship captain, who grumbles of “execs” that know not a thing whereas the crew is always in the thick of things. And, of course, there’s Heintz, around whom the tale’s depths are now expected to turn. As he discovers Eva’s strategy of keeping herself stuck in a loop, Heintz is hit with an epiphany which he feels the need to shout at her, and at himself: “Memories…aren’t an escape!” Well, no shit, for if Otomo and Morimoto thought their audience was too dumb to get the film’s prime philosophical thrust, there it is, swinging for their jaws, just in case they’d missed it. Worse, a potentially interesting aside – the relationship between Heintz and his daughter – is never treated as anything more than a plot device, as the viewer merely asks whether or not she is alive: a superfluous detail, really, if one were to actually have well-developed characters that often say more in their stasis than they do mid-action. Yes, there are some interesting parts: the fact that Eva, despite being so set in her decisions, sends a distress signal; the idea that cyclical memories are a kind of contagion, inducing others to follow suit; and the implicit assertion that Heintz is little more than an Eva ‘type,’ for the one time he is asked about his daughter, prior to all of these events, he is noticeably silent, as if he is trying to suppress the kind of thoughts Eva must have suppressed prior to her mental break. Unfortunately, none of this is explored, most is conjecture, and little of it’s justifiable by what is actually on-screen, for the directors are comfortable to merely let the film rest on its stylishness and the willy-nilly permutations of tropes.
But while the first short is bad in its attempts to do so much, the second, Stink Bomb, directed by Tensai Okamura, is little more than an intermission, with neither negatives, nor pluses. The short follows Nobuo Tanaka, a low-level laboratory technician who ends up ingesting an experimental medicine which causes a fragrant cloud of gas to emanate from him, knocking out those who breathe it. Nobuo wakes up from a nap, finds his colleagues unconscious, and doesn’t connect the gas (which he cannot smell or even see, evidently) to what’s happened. This is discovered by the director of medicine in Tokyo, who orders him to find the medicine, some files, and deliver the package to him as soldiers mobilize to deal with the threat. In time, it becomes clear that Nobuo is the source of the problem, as the military attempts to kill him but cannot. Yet for all that, Nobuo cannot connect his own behavior with the contagion, and is merely confused at the plot to kill him. In fact, he neither comments on it, nor seems to think about it, at all, in a nod to yet another anime trope: that of an awkward, pathetic young man who is suddenly embroiled in a series of events that affect the whole world, wherein he becomes the key to its undoing. This all leads to a peculiar ending, wherein Nobuo, neutralized by a group of armored soldiers who dress (and therefore contain) him in the same armor and helmet, is stuck in a suit that seems little more than a game to him, as he removes the gas-filled helmet and causes a stampede in corporate headquarters, failing, per trope, at the easiest part of the task he’s given.
This is all presented in a light-hearted way, a 40-minute sequence that is little more than the ‘action’ portion of combat-oriented anime writ large. No, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Stink Bomb can neither be discussed as art, nor even as a cultural artifact, really, given how little it pushes boundaries, and how interchangeable it is with fan-fiction of an equally lifeless, ambitionless sort. The characters are all one-dimensional, from Nobuo’s stock character arc, to the ‘tough executive’ in Kyoichi Nirasaki, the sneaky military commander, and on and on. Perhaps it captures a milieu, but so do even the worst parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in Japan, and schlock like Power Rangers in the West – the bloodlessness of one 1990s subaltern aesthetic against another, yet emanating from the same void. Perhaps worst of all, there is so little fun in the art direction, itself, that even a surface reason to watch the film is no reason at all. It is drawn in a vanilla ‘manga’ style that neither shows things as they are, nor as they could be: a state of limbo that, if you really think of it, damns ALL bad art into doing nothing much at all. One sees, for instance, ‘genre’ faces, ‘genre’ explosions, ‘genre’ attire, and no image or shot that can be deemed symbolic, ambitious, or reaching for something a little higher than the thing itself. Yes, the scene where Nobuo is finally neutralized has an almost pre-natal quality to it, what with the frightened child, heavy colors, and an inability for either viewer or character to make sense of it all, but that is a tiny stroke in an otherwise blasé canvas. And for all the faults of Magnetic Rose, there was clearly an attempt to be something: both in the deeper, narrative sense, as well as in its grand stylistic flourishes that, while going nowhere much at all, could at least function as a pretty illusion for others to see through, and build off of, do better than, and better from. For that, too, is an art-work’s function: to act as a stepping-stone into the past, the future, and even serve as a key to its own undoing, when something better, grander, inevitably comes along. By contrast, Stink Bomb – in Otomo’s own admission – offers nothing to engage with, and nothing to supplant.
Happily, the last short, Cannon Fodder, is not only the best sequence here, but also a corrective on what animation could be, particularly when it comes to the aesthetic both Stink Bomb and Magnetic Rose attempt to mine. This is because it does the most with the least, opting for a narrative where ‘nothing happens’, yet still manages to not only sketch its characters quite well, but also give them a few dead-on emotional moments that come through intellectual engagement. The viewer is left to fill in some blanks, for instance, when the film’s protagonist – a nameless boy – wakes up, salutes a huge, never-explained portrait, and goes off to have breakfast with his family before arriving at school. It is, as far as the viewer can tell, another steampunk universe ruled by an authoritarian government. The city (or kingdom) the boy is part of is at war, but against whom is never said, nor the enemy ever shown. ‘Soldiers’ merely load up cannons and shoot into the distance, almost sardonically shown by way of pretty skies and limitless beaches. There is, then, an almost diegetic ‘need’ to do what they are doing, which is only hammered home in a great little scene at film’s end wherein the boy asks his father who they are fighting against, and the father merely answers that he’ll understand when older. And, just in that exchange, one sees not only how the boy’s father is without answers, himself, and lacks the curiosity to even wonder, but that his son, in saluting the portrait once more, then promising that he’ll do better than his father, and be a cannon shooter, as opposed to merely a ‘loader,’ has pretty much given up his own curiosity, too. More, one gets the sense that if the curiosity does remain, it will be beaten out of him: a window, really, not only into father and son, but into most of the odd, off-human creatures which populate this world and eerily refract ours. The boy goes to sleep, and alarms sound. It is impossible to know whether it is all a drill or something serious, but the more important thing is that the boy sleeps through it, and the portrait, which piques the viewer’s curiosity, is never named, and does nothing, really, but give a face to something that we know is not ‘the’ thing itself.
It is ironic, then – albeit predictable – that while most of the film’s praise has been heaped upon Magnetic Rose, the most puzzlement has been expressed over Cannon Fodder, due to the unconventional art style as well as a lack of ‘story’. Yet whereas criticisms of its art style are silly, given that the images in fact mean something, as opposed to fulfill a “cool” aesthetic, the idea that it lacks a story are absolutely true – and irrelevant. That is because there is a difference between narrative and plot, where plot is merely the details of ‘what happens,’ and narrative, by contrast, is how it all coheres. Clearly, it is the latter that counts in art, and it is done well, here, for the reasons given. Some might also wonder whether it is accurate to call Cannon Fodder’s society “authoritarian,” since, in what seems to be an embarrassing oversight, the viewer sees protestors and agitators who long for better working conditions and the like, none of which is possible in a ‘true’ dictatorship. Yet even in these seemingly banal snippets, there is an implicit comment: that despite their protestations, all The People ever seem to seek is better hours, fewer toxins in the materials they are handling, and the like, while the biggest issue, the issue of WHAT they are doing, and WHY, every single day, is never a concern. One may extrapolate a deeper social comment from all this, or one may not. It doesn’t matter, really, but the point is that one can. It would be legitimate to do so precisely because the viewer’s given a great deal to look at and interpret on a higher level than Stink Bomb’s action-driven narrative, or Magnetic Rose’s trite attempts at poesy and depth. Cannon Fodder, from its enigmatic, often symbolic visuals, to its scant dialogue, delivered only to convey serious narrative arcs, means the film must respect its audience in order to succeed, whereas the first two pander to some of anime’s nadirs, and are therefore trapped by them.
This brings us, then, to the original claim. If the film’s title has an explicit connection only to its first episode, what does it mean for the whole, and why? My guess is that Katsuhiro Otomo is simply referring to his own life or state when the tales were first written, as manga, but lacks any means to communicate the value of this state to others: and, naturally, a one-out-of-three batting average, here, entails two immature stories and one happy accident, with no proof that the accident can be replicated at will. This is visible in its fandom, too, which is quick to love the insular for no other reason than it being ‘different,’ yet jumps all over innovation – as with Cannon Fodder – that takes from art, first, and attempts to broaden it beyond its comforts. In fact, the more I watch anime, the more I see glimmers of depth and power marred by fluff insisted upon those who have never quite grown up. And the beauty of this theory is that while the first part is likely true, yet untestable, it is wholly irrelevant, for the second part, the part that hits upon a brilliant stroke here and there, then nothing, is what makes anime so infuriating as an art-form, and so easily tested. Yet one suspects that it is the future – or a part of one – that there are things, here, the world must inevitably run with, if only because the worlds it depicts and their ever-sharpening distinction between truth and reality are the worlds that must follow. But unless they are communicated, and given a deeper reason to exist than aesthetics alone, it is pointless to discuss. No doubt pieces of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories show where this is all going, in time. And the rest, well, must drag it backwards, time and again, for regression is a part of this aesthetic just as well.