When it comes to anthology films Robot Carnival takes its place up there among masterpieces such as Walt Disney’s Fantasia as well as mindless but entertaining shlock such as Heavy Metal, what these films manage to do is set themselves up as testing ground beginning directors as a way of getting ready to take on future projects later on in their careers but also they have a good way of bringing out the best from both the directors and the animators in the stories they can tell as a way of coming together. To help expose their talents for future projects down the line, Robot Carnival manages to tell some rather unique little stories under the command of 9 different directors with different styles under the running time of 90 minutes using Robots as its central theme.
The Opening & Ending directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy)
Both these segments of the film tell the story of the literal title of the film known as “Robot Carnival” which is a monolith scaled moving showcase which back in its prime was a grand and colourful machine that people cheered at, now worn down, rusting and on the brink of collapse. When we see the showcase just joyfully driving through a village, bursting out into a huge musical introduction it destroys anything and everything under its wheels. The ending wraps up with where the showcase is trying so hard to get up the sand dunes but then falls to bits, but not before giving it its explosive but fun send off by the end of the film.
“Deprive” directed by Hidetoshi Ōmori (Space Adventure Cobra, Bubblegum Crisis, Batman: Under the Red Hood)
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where upon a robot invasion occurs attacking a city and kidnaps its people, including a young girl who is the lover of an android who charges head on against the alien invasion to safe her.
“Presence” directed by Yasuomi Umetsu (Kite, Mezzo Forte, Casshan: Robot Hunter)
This segment tells the story of an Inventor who appears to be rather distant from his family and shut off from everything else around him except for a robot girl that he put together and spends the running time of the story obsessing over her. However as the story unfolds the robot begins to develop a personality of her own which was not what the inventor had intended, he panics and then smashes her into bits. Years later as the Inventor grows older he realises his mistake of not being what he considers “Her knight in shining armour” until finally the robot comes back to take the inventor away when he is an old man.
“Starlight Angel” directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume (Urotsukidōji, Megazone 23 Part III, Moldiver)
A Bishōjo story centred around 2 teenage girls enjoying their time in a robot themed amusement park, however the enjoyment is cut somewhat short when one of the girls finds out that her boyfriend is going out with her best friend, after encountering a rather gentle and friendly looking robot she stumbles into a virtual reality ride where upon she has to come to terms with her problems and let go and eventually move on and be happy.
“Cloud” directed by Mao Lamdo (Roujin Z, Dagger of Kamui)
This story focuses on a little robot boy as he is born from a cloud and he marches on through the years, passing through the progress of human evolution. Finally by the end of the segment he is reborn into a human boy by an angel who cried for his immortality.
“A Tale of Two Robots” directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Golden Boy, Black Magic M-66, Blood The Last Vampire)
This story is a lost in translation tale focusing on east clashing with the west, set in the early Meiji Period of Japan a westerner arrives to threaten the country until he is challenged the locals and then eventually the segment becomes a one on one fight to the death in giant robots.
“Chicken Man and Red Neck” directed by Takashi Nakamura (A Tree of Palme, Fantastic Children, Peter Pan No Boken)
The final segment of this movie is set in the city of Tokyo where as soon as the sun sets, all the robots come and stalk the night all while this is being witnessed by a drunk man. Through the story everything begins to become chaotic as the man is also being hunted down by a yellow and red robot.
As a film Robot Carnival holds an important place in anime history of the 80’s, particularly because when it aired overseas it aired on the Sci-Fi channel in the US alongside Vampire Hunter D & Lensman as the first anime to aired on Television in the United States. What it also holds a place for is being able to tell some quirky, emotional and rather poignant stories that have left an impression on audiences who have watched this as being their first exposure to anime. A problem though that I think is rather clear with Robot Carnival is that while all 9 of these stories are well animated and at times well told, really only a few of them have that ability to stick with the audience because of their stories.
Looking at this carefully stories such as Franken’s Gears & Deprive don’t have much to latch onto except just showing you clearly what is being shown in a limited time but not having much to invest in with its cast or its tiny story. However other 7 stories of this have a strong sense of story but also interpretation from the audience.
“Starlight Angel” has a theme of letting go from your negativity and your sadness and having an unfamiliar but also friendly pat on the back by your side to really push you into a direction that will no doubt allow you to do bigger and better things with your life.
“Cloud” is an interesting one which relies heavily on its music and it’s scenery to tell its story, Cloud is easily my favourite segment in the film because of how it’s poignancy based on different interpretation allows it to stand out as a creative short in the film. As the film demonstrates through it’s rough animation it’s about birth and rebirth but also it focuses on how humanity as a civilisation can progress to do some beautiful and horrible things, one lone watcher observes this and it’s a robot and when he is out of power from wondering all those years he is then reborn thanks to an angel from the clouds.
“A Tale of Two Robots” being one of the comedic and heavy plot orientated stories in the film has so much rolling into the action and the chemistry from the characters that you want to really see more of, because how the story is clearly done in the style of a Japanese World War II-era propaganda film it easily has the most memorable quips about it, mostly it’s music and how it’s eccentric mix of an oriental and techno steampunk vibe really plays out through the story. As a Lost-in-Translation story it has an interesting way of having Japanese subtitles for the American character which of course the Japanese characters would have a hard time understanding what the foreign antagonist is saying.
“Chicken Man and Red Neck” is based mostly on its style, particularly what it’s been known to reference. This segment is a clear reference from two works of Walt Disney, the first reference being 1940’s Fantasia (most notably Night on the Bald Mountain) where you see the various robots from all over be summoned by a horned robot which is a clear reference to Chernabog and second reference which is a character aesthetic of the main character would be The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad from 1949, how the main character of “Chicken Man and Red Neck” has similar facial expressions and features to Ichabod Crane.
Production for this movie is incredible and rather pleasing to look at to see how much time and effort went into the making of this film, animated by Studio A.P.P.P. with it’s of 9 directors each story is told in a different and unique style. Based on how the design work for each of the characters, the stories manage to pull hit the right notes in being entertaining but also have as much to offer in the scope of the worlds that these stories are told in and how much the budget went into making this.
From an audio perspective there is very little to mention in regards, Robot Carnival is an anthology movie that relies heavily on its atmosphere and the body language of the characters to carry the movie forward. The music by Joe Hisaishi, Isaku Fujita, Masahisa Takeichi is a wide mix that ranges from being classical to being synth to a tiny bit of metal and then being a little bit of melodic tones which are carefully selected for each segment. For an English dub which was done by Streamline there are really only 2 segments in this film with any voice overs, “Presence” & “A Tale of Two Robots”. The voice for Presence is actually okay, nothing really to mention except Michael McConnohie as the Inventor who does a really interesting and believable presentation of a man who is so devoid of everything around him. “A Tale of Two Robots” has a dub that is both interesting and incredibly jarring in a very dated way; the dub of this is done in a style that is told from the American perspective at the time by having the Japanese characters sound as though they are talking in broken English sounding accents, while the American character clearly speaks through an understandable voice. It doesn’t work by today’s standards and can come across as a real distraction by how today Japanese people would sound from the perspective of an American, however Steve Kramer does a great job playing the American character John Jack Vorkarson III putting in as much rasp in his voice as possible.
So overall Robot Carnival is a gem of anime from the 1980’s, not only did it give us some of the amazing and dedicated animators and directors able to push on with their work for the 21st century but looking at the film in more depth it’s an iconic movie and one that leaves an impression on anime fans of old, some of the stories can be great to follow while at times they can be a little confusing but the interpretation based on how each story is laid out is done to where you need to pay attention at all times to really get what makes this film so special.
A great collaborative attempt and one we should see again in this day and age of anime.