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Keanu, meet Sailor Moon
'The Matrix' owes a lot to Japanese animé. Now its producers are giving something back

Joshua Ostroff
Saturday Post (April 13, 2003)

One of the most memorable visuals from 1999's The Matrix was the green computer code cascading down the screen at the opening of the movie. Representing the titular virtual-reality program, it perfectly encapsulated the film's mix of the familiar and futuristic, played a prominent role in the trailers and became a favourite screen-saver download for millions of fans. What many of us may not remember is that amid the scrolling alphanumeric symbols were characters from the Japanese katakana script -- a subtle clue to the Japanese influences in the rest of the film.

Indeed, while The Matrix may have broken new ground in Hollywood -- its supercool stylized aesthetic and pioneering special effects have since been copped by everything from the Jet Li vehicle The One and Wesley Snipes's Blade II to the big-screen Charlie's Angels -- it was essentially built from borrowed parts: Eastern philosophy, blaxploitation cool, sci-fi futurism and, of course, kung fu fighting. However, its biggest debt is undoubtedly owed to the Japanese animated art form known as animé.

Animé in Japan actually refers to any kind of animation, though North Americans usually associate its unique drawing style with the sci-fi/fantasy genre. A foil to our own kidcentric animation industry, animé has long exulted in violent and sexual subject matter, while also producing children's cartoons, such as Sailor Moon. In Japan, the film Spirited Away, an Oscar-winner for best animated film this year, has surpassed Titanic to earn $340-million and become the country's all-time box-office champ.

Animé's doe-eyed characters and design aesthetic have had a presence in North America since Osamu Tezuka's Astroboy first hit the airwaves in the 1960s. Many kids have been junkies for the likes of Robotech, Pokémon, and Beyblade ever since. And more mature creations, such as the 1988 futuristic feature film Akira, which was re-released in digitally enhanced form in 2001, have become cult classics and enjoy regular screenings at art-house theatres here, while TV series such as Aeon Flux and Blue Submarine No. 6 have gained considerable popularity on American cable outlets such as MTV and Cartoon Network. However, animé remains generally below the adult mainstream's radar.

The Matrix served as a subtle introduction to the form by getting mainstream audiences adjusted to the aesthetic. The film's visuals, most notably its groundbreaking "bullet-time" technique, were ripped right out of the animé style book and have since bled into contemporary filmmaking as effectively as the original Star Wars. The Matrix's storylines and mythology, too, recycle animé's standard tropes -- fear of technology, messianic saviours and utter disregard for the laws of physics. Like Akira, The Matrix revels in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future. Its themes -- computer-program-cum-secret agents, virtual reality and self-aware artificial intelligence -- borrow from Ghost in the Shell, the popular mid-1990s crossover animated movie. And in The Matrix, as in feature films such as X, a lone man with unforeseen powers must save (or destroy) the world. All that's missing is the "big eyes, small mouth" drawings (though Keanu Reeves's features aren't that far off).

The movie's creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski, long-time animé fans, have never denied their influences. And, as the ramp-up to The Matrix's sequels begins (the first, Reloaded, is due on May 15, and the next, Revolutions, in November), they are finally paying tribute, with a nine-part animé anthology DVD, dubbed The Animatrix, distributed by Warner Home Video and due out on June 3; and a groundbreaking video game called Enter The Matrix.

The Animatrix's nine short films are directed by such animé greats as Yoshiaki Kawajiri (creator of the Wachowski favourite, Ninja Scroll), Akira animator Koji Morimoto, Shinichiro Watanabe (whose Cowboy Bebop film is currently in theatres) and Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung.

The film and DVD certainly aren't essential for understanding the sequels, but they will build anticipation -- not to mention The Matrix franchise -- and extend the film's universe for hardcore fans. Together with the live-action Matrix movies, though, they could prove a catalyst in adult animé crossing over from art house to megaplex.

The concept for the anthology came in 1999, when the Wachowski brothers visited a few animé production houses in Japan, to meet their animator heroes. "On the flight back, they came up with the idea to do these shorts with the animé directors," says Andy Jones, the director of the Final Flight of the Osiris short in The Animatrix. Though Jones is not a traditional animé artist, the photo-realistic style of his computer-animation company, Square USA, set new standards in film imagery (if not storytelling) by bringing the Japanese videogame series Final Fantasy to the big screen in 2001. The other short films in the collection consist of traditional cel-drawn images (with some computer-enhancement).

Not all of this is about commerce. Three of the stories -- Program, Detective Story and Part 1 of the prequel epic Second Renaissance -- are now available for free download at www.intothematrix.com. Part 2 of Second Renaissance becomes available next month, and the 11-minute Osiris is currently playing before the film Dreamcatcher. (Osiris can't be seen anywhere else until the DVD release.)

All the films reflect the stylized movements peculiar to animé. Originally, animé was made cheaply, and the tricks employed to make do with fewer frames -- slow-motion action, delaying frames over time, unconventional perspective shots -- became stylistic devices that distinguished the form. "I call it a poetic action, the way they slow down moments of the action to allow you to focus on specific parts," Jones explains. "It's more musical, in a way. It's beautifully done, instead of a traditional action scene, which is just cut, cut, cut and half the time you don't know what happened."

What's also striking is the breathtakingly detailed imagery, which often seems nearly as real as the original Matrix film -- and almost as iconic. In such scenes as a column of squid-like sentinels chasing down a rebel ship, and a gut-wrenching robot holocaust, the animation in The Animatrix offers a level of intensity and sophistication rarely seen by North American audiences.

This is exactly what the Wachowskis, who wrote four of the nine scripts, were aiming for as they supervised the production remotely from Australia, where they were shooting the two Matrix sequels. "A lot of their feedback was to amp everything up -- more sexy, bigger muzzle flashes, more intense, more sentinels," Jones says. "Everything was just, Raise it up another level."

Raising it to another level will be crucial if the Wachowskis are to broaden animé's appeal. The art form is already growing as a cult phenomenon in North America. On Victoria Day weekend, Toronto will host the seventh annual Animé North, Canada's largest fan-run convention, which organizers hope will attract nearly 5,000 participants (up from 3,000 last year).

And, while there will certainly be many typical otaku (animé enthusiasts) in attendance, the crowd will consist of more than prepubescent boys. The convention organizer, for instance, is Tamara Macdonald, a 37-year-old mother of two. She hopes to debunk certain myths, such as the notion that animé is pornographic. Some adult animé works are highly sexual, she admits -- consider the erotic sword-fighting scene in Osiris, or the bum-cleavage-baring protagonist in Program. But most are, as Andy Jones puts it, "more like action films. The stories are a little darker, and they deal with serious situations in terms of explosions and bombs and things you don't put in a kids' film -- life and death and spirituality."

Tokyo-based Animatrix producer Michael Arias notes that in Japan, animators tackle almost any subject, because audiences are more open. "In the U.S., I always feel as though people look askance at animation, perhaps because it is not 'real,' " he says. "I think it's quite strange that Americans will pay to watch the Terminator wreak havoc, but they won't accept that kind of action in a cartoon -- as though the Terminator is any less of an invention than the characters in Japanese animation."

It may be Warner Bros.' hope that The Animatrix will establish something of a beachhead for a full-on animé invasion. Arias is not optimistic. "I'm certain this will inspire the birth of other American projects of a similar bent," he says. "I'm also certain that there will be a wave of imports from Japan. But Americans like their meat well-done and their films fairly middle-of-the-road, so I think it will take more than one anthology like Animatrix to get Japanese animation on everyone's breakfast table."

"What The Animatrix will do is push animé further into the mainstream," Tamara MacDonald predicts. "But I haven't seen the complete package, and the proof is in the pudding. Final Fantasy trailers were very exciting, and people were cheering at the convention, but then you saw the reviews. The fans, they want it to be flawless.

"The Matrix," she adds, "that was flawless. It's the closest thing you can get to live-action animé."
© Copyright 2003 National Post

 

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