Sunday, March 18, 2012

REVIEW: Memories


Released: 1995

Koji Morimoto
Tensai Okamura
Katsuhiro Otomo

Starring (voice talent):
Tsutomu Isobe
Koichi Yamadera
Hideyuki Hori

Running time: 113 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

The 1995 omnibus film "Memories" should easily be an appealing treat for both anime and science fiction fans alike. Produced by legendary "Akira" creator Katsuhiro Otomo, it adapts three stories of his that he originally wrote in manga form. While some viewers regard omnibus films warily due to the sometimes uneven, hit-or-miss nature of their viewing experiences, here there should be little cause for concern as each of the three gathered tales offers an original and compelling vision. Both their fantastical contents and beautifully compact story arcs evoke short science fiction writing at its best while the unique animation styles provide a feast for the eyes in the bargain.

The first segment, "Magnetic Rose," was directed by Kôji Morimoto and features a screenplay based on Otomo’s story by another renowned anime master: the late Satoshi Kon. It drops in on a salvage crew who travel in their ship, the Corona, in search of abandoned equipment and junk to scavenge. A distress signal that mysteriously contains a portion of the Giacomo Puccini opera "Madame Butterfly" leads them to an enormous, rusting vessel. They send two men, Heintz and Miguel, aboard to investigate. What they find is utterly confounding: confining metallic corridors eventually give way to vast rooms decorated with towering stone pillars, tall staircases and ornate furniture. The derelict ship appears to have belonged to Eva Friedel, a once-famous opera singer who sought to preserve her past glories. As the Corona’s crew members discover more about her past, they become further entangled in her still-vital power.

Tensai Okamura’s "Stink Bomb" dramatically shifts gears from atmospheric mystery to dark, absurdist comedy. Beginning in modern-day Yamanashi, it follows Tanaka, an unlucky scientist who mistakenly takes an experimental drug in an attempt to alleviate his cold. After waking up from a nap, he is shocked to find every living being in his research facility from the personnel to the lab rats has died. The scared and confused Tanaka escapes and, while traveling by foot, notices several odd occurrences: flowers are in full bloom all around him despite it being winter, and every animal that approaches him suddenly dies. It soon becomes clear that Tanaka is giving off toxic fumes that grow more lethal as he grows more emotionally distraught. Japanese and American military chiefs desperately concentrate their strategies and firepower towards stopping the clueless Tanaka as he makes his way towards Tokyo.

Otomo himself directed the film’s final story, "Cannon Fodder," which imagines a great city locked in battle with a distant, unseen enemy. Giant cannons protrude from nearly every building, and the citizens’ lives are totally devoted to the maintenance and firing of the weapons day after day. One family lies at the centre of the narrative. While the mother toils in an ammunitions factory and the father works as a lowly cannon loader, their young son dreams of one day rising to the rank of cannon commander and claiming glory for himself in the never-ending war.

As previously mentioned, each of "Memories"’ stories has something different to offer. Out of all of them, it seems only "Magnetic Rose" focuses on the titular theme of memory, doing so not only through Eva Friedel’s efforts to dwell in the shadows of her heyday, but also through Heintz, who is immersed in a memory of his wife and young daughter. While this segment begins as a realism-inflected sci-fi piece in the style of Ridley Scott’s "Alien" – complete with working-class space travelers and their bulky ship – it soon becomes a sort of haunted house yarn as the Gothic imagery and hallucinatory spirits of Eva’s sad life gradually intensify. "Stink Bomb" pulls off the tricky feat of balancing a totally ridiculous premise with elements of satire-laced, reality-based horror. The latter come through in the military officials’ tense discussions about how to neutralize poor Tanaka and the massive amount of tanks, fighter jets, helicopters and battleships they deploy, all, comically, to no effect. The sequences showing the devastation of Tanaka’s stink and the panicked exodus of people trying to get out of Tokyo all at once further add to the scariness that stories about deadly epidemics seem to pull off so well – "Stink Bomb" being no exception. Yet Otomo truly saved the best for last with his own segment, in it taking a wonderfully creative approach to his premise. Rather than tending to the progression of a plot, he instead busies himself with presenting and developing his fictional, cannon-obsessed society through descriptive details. This is brilliantly executed not only through the day-in-the-life structure that follows the father, mother and son through their daily routines, but also the carefully maintained illusion of the whole segment unfolding in one continuous shot, with creative transitions smoothing over the necessary jumps in time and location. Through these methods, Otomo is able to fully devote his energies to giving his viewers an ever-moving tour of the city. Several vivid images appear: the crowded commuter train packed with grim-faced workers on their way to their respective cannons, the numerous propaganda posters calling for hard work and death to the enemy, the city’s many buildings and the assortment of weapons sprouting from them. The storybook-like quality of the animation combined with the explored messages about mass indoctrination and the industrial dimensions of aggression all strongly evoke such similarly-themes political fables as J.M. Coetzee’s "Waiting for the Barbarians" and George Orwell’s "1984."

All three segments within "Memories" offer a wide variety of tonal flavors to enjoy. While preferences regarding most and least favorite episodes are sure to vary – I myself enjoyed "Cannon Fodder" the most, followed by "Stink Bomb," then "Magnetic Rose" – there are many positive things to take away from all of them in terms of both craft and content. Indeed, so intriguing, visionary and well-made is the film as a whole that many will no doubt find themselves wanting to revisit and savor it soon after their initial viewing.


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