There was a time during Japan’s 80’s economic boom when it seemed feasible for studios to spend massive amounts of time and money on animated films that were merely showcase features for young, experimental film-makers and animators. What would seem unfeasible a decade later (unless you’re Studio 4º C) spawned two back-to-back anthology films: Neo Tokyo and Robot Carnival, both making their debut in 1987. These films were less about a strong narrative and more about letting restless animators go wild, visually and thematically. While Robot Carnival is larger in scope and a bit more mainstream in its target audience, Neo Tokyo delves into a place not too far off from the kind of experimental animation seen at film festivals or work by independent directors.
Neo Tokyo (its Japanese title is Manie Manie Labyrinth Tales) is a moving sketchbook for three unique voices: Rintaro, as the Japanese ‘toon senior, Yoshiaki Kawajiri as the sophomore just off his first feature film, and Katsuhiro Otomo as freshman, with Neo Tokyo being his first animation work as a solo director (his debut work before this in Robot Carnival was co-directed with Atsuko Fukushima). The film is notable for being an early acquisition by Streamline Pictures to capitalize on its Akira success, hence the title change intended to create a connection between the two films which is, despite Otomo’s involvement, non-existent.
The first segment, directed by Rintaro, is less of a story and more of an excuse for visual experimentation. Rintaro isn’t as concerned with plot beats and more focused on playing with the form of his characters and their environment, featuring a little girl in over-sized pants and her overweight cat. At this point in his career, Rintaro shows a confidence in the movement of his characters, who look more like American animation out of Warner Bros. in the 1940’s or the UPA cartoons of the 1950’s than they do the work of a Japanese director. There are quite a few echoes of Rintaro’s earlier project Kamui in the fluid movements of his characters, showing lots of squash and stretch and generally more “cartoony” physics at play. It all feels like an excuse for Rintaro to animate a few doodles he’d been itching to put into animation at some point. In that respect, it works well, but is easily the weakest of the three segments.
Kawajiri’s segment The Running Man is easily the strongest of the three segments visually, with Kawajiri flexing his now usual visual tricks like extreme lighting and over-the-top gore. It’s interesting for Kawajiri in that this was the first time his recognizable style showed through as a director, after his freshman effort in Lensman being a fairly generic-looking piece of early 80’s space opera.
The highlight of this segment is the protagonist’s slow motion death scene, with his racing pod shattering and exploding around him, every piece of glass and wiring lovingly animated as the driver does a dead-on “Michael Ironside in Scanners” impersonation. This segment is notable for scarring this particular writer as a pre-adolescent with it’s grisly visuals inserted into the standard Streamline pictures promo attached to their videos from the early nineties. (“State-of-the-art…Japanese animation!”) The top of the driver’s skull ripping off in slow-mo as his racer was destroyed around him definitely left a mark on this developing mind, and hasn’t left since. The Running Man was also notorious for being featured on Mtv’s early 90’s television distraction, Liquid Television. As such, it’s easily the most high-profile segment, and the one most viewers of a certain age will probably be familiar with.
The final segment of Neo Tokyo is Otomo’s Construction Cancellation Order, a darkly humorous little man vs. mechanized workforce parable, and Otomo’s first stab at animation direction. Otomo shows a lot of confidence as a first-time director, taking full control of the art direction. The nebbish Japanese bureaucrat that serves as the main character of this segment easily could be an extra in Akira, and the backgrounds are vintage Otomo; all watercolor buildings with a fetishistic obsession to detail. The film is funny as well, as each of the three mornings that serve as acts in this segment open with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt playing over footage of a progressively worsening plate of breakfast and a slowly dilapidating robot supervisor. It’s easy to see why Otomo was handed the keys to the kingdom on Akira based on this short alone: the man clearly has an eye for pacing, direction, and storytelling within the confines of this short film.
Neo Tokyo could not have been made during any other era than the late 1980s, but we should be grateful it exists, primarily as a chance to see three different directors of varying talents and generations flexing their creative muscles without constraint. After a while of being out of print and hard to find, Neo Tokyo is now easily affordable and available in an ADV two-pack along with New Fist of the Northstar. It’s worth a watch, especially to those who remember a time when Japanese producers were more at ease about allowing artists to experiment on a higher budget without worrying about cost versus returns.