Real Gone

Jonathan Clements traces the origins of Takeshi Koike’s Redline back into 1960s baseball, 1970s sci-fi racing and 1980s cheese…

It’s all over for the good-hearted racer boy JP (Takuya Kimura) when his souped up Trans Am crashes at the finish of the illegal Yellowline contest on planet Dorothy. Meanwhile his double-crossing colleague Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano) is merrily counting the cash from an evil interstellar syndicate that has rigged the race.

The next race – the highly illegal, immensely prestigious Redline — is held only once every five years, and this time is scheduled to cross the face of Roboworld: a deeply private, heavily armed fascist dictatorship. Roboworld’s Supreme Leader (Ikuo Hirota) is determined to teach the racers a lesson by killing them all, preferably, before the cameras of the galaxy’s media outlets descend on Roboworld and take pictures of all his super-weapons, cyborg armies and doomsday devices. The sheer risk is too much for several fellow racers, whose withdrawal from the competition put JP back onto the starting grid. Now he must cheat death in a race against killer opponents and enemy soldiers.

Takeshi Koike’s Redline plays as if it is the finale of a massive series that unites multiple unrelated genres in the anime world: one participant is a fairy princess; another seems to have escaped from a beat-em-up arcade game; still another is a machine-man who is literally plugged into his vehicle. But our hero’s nickname is “Sweet JP”, a sneering epithet hurled at him by the others because he’s too fair-minded to use landmines, rocket-propelled grenades or tactical nukes just to win a race. Nice guys finish last, which is why the odds on JP are a mouth-watering 25,000 to one. The result is sheer mayhem, as if the cast of Top Gear raced through minefields on the North Korean border, or the cast of the Cannonball Run took on Darth Vader.

Form Deformed

Redline is in love with the physicality of cars. Even those racers who are not literally plugged in to their seats are twisted, bent and broken by g-forces. The film’s imagery is a 180-degree spinout from the naturalism of Isao Takahata or Satoshi Kon’s careful recreation of the real. Koike’s filming frequently “crosses the line”, switches directions, or bends the perspective of his characters as if they and their vehicles are symbiotic life forms. His anime feature is tricked out with vibrant primary colours and larger-than-life caricatures, entirely beholden to a single aim: winning.

Five years in the making, and drawing on a shadowy undertow of obscure short films and festival experiments, Redline is unapologetically brash, unforgettably loud, and mercifully short, clocking in at a mere 97 minutes. But it is also the latest entry in a long tradition of sporting anime that began in the 1960s with tales of baseball, volleyball and martial arts, before diversifying in the 1970s into ever-crazier car-racing stories. In addition, Redline is the inheritor of a hyper-real, “deformé” style that has been part of Japanese animation since the 1960s, and owes its early development to the visceral representation of sporting events in animated form…

If we synopsise the events onscreen, it was a moment of utter inconsequentiality. In an episode of the 1960s baseball series Star of the Giants, the pitcher threw a ball. At a time when the TV series threatened to catch up with the serial manga it was based on, this episode was the product of a writing staff running low on material. Several screenwriters had already flaked out, annoyed at the repetitive and unrewarding nature of endless baseball games. Others found new ways to stretch the material, pioneering sudden zooms and freeze frames, stealing from the toolkit of martial arts movies in order to accentuate the drama in a simple sports game. But the screenwriter Haruya Yamazaki went one better, and changed anime forever.

At a time when, in industry terminology, the anime adaptation was “devouring the original” too fast for comfort. Yamazaki stretched a single baseball play for an entire episode. The progress of that one ball, from pitcher to batter to fielder to base, took up the entire 30 minutes, leavened with multiple viewpoints from all involved, comments from the crowd, flashbacks, inner monologues, or crash-zooms on important techniques and mistakes. Merely getting the bat to connect with the ball took the entire first half of the show.

The “30-minute, 1-ball” episode of Star of the Giants was an extreme case, but came to encapsulate a number of tropes and traditions that have since become anime clichés. Cartooning, by its very nature, deformed reality. Budgets, by their very nature, forced cost-cutting exercises and corner-cutting fixes. Artists, by their very nature, enjoyed experimenting with impressionistic means of conveying the experience of a moment, rather than its simple image.

Deformation is a natural consequence of limited animation, and encouraged animators to invest a certain hyper-reality and stylization in their images. In a 1988 article, the curmudgeonly critic Hayao Miyazaki cursed the day that animators began to make a virtue of such limits, and lamented the trend that, some might say, would lead directly to Redline. In particular, he cited a concentration on broad, “iconic emotions”, the depiction of “extraordinariness”, and “flashy or cool movements”.

The hallmark of Japanese animation thus became works… where vaporous and extremely deformed characters inhabited distorted and flashily colorized worlds, and where time was infinitely expanded. (Miyazaki: Starting Point, p.78)

Miyazaki’s comments were steeped in his own love of the good old days of animation, when he believed that cartoonists were given plentiful time to put together their creations. His own best work has been made in reaction to the hothouse conditions and sausage-factory production lines of the TV industry, a sector of the animation business that has been in constant crisis ever since 1963, when Osamu Tezuka knowingly under-charged networks for Astro Boy in the hope it would undercut any potential competitors. Instead, it merely set the price of TV anime teeth-clenchingly low, and created a feedback loop of low budgets and low expectations.

The TV Generation

Not everybody saw things Miyazaki’s way. For those who grew up in the TV years, limited animation was less of a compromise as it was an accepted style. If TV anime rejected naturalism, then so did many of its viewers. And some of them would grow up to become animators.

Katsuhito Ishii, the lead designer and co-writer of Redline, is an avowed fan of Star of the Giants, and once made a TV commercial that humorously moved its hyper-real excesses into the real world. Ishii’s “Magic Pitch”, an advert for Sky PerfecTV, lovingly pastiched the bone-cracking finale of Star of the Giants with live actors, whose world was stretched, enhanced and twisted by digital effects.

Takeshi Koike, the director of Redline, is best known outside Japan for “World Record”, a film on the Animatrix anthology video that lifted elements of the epochal episode of Star of the Giants in a different way. Much of the film is taken up with a mere 8.72 seconds, as an athlete pushes himself beyond human limits to run a hundred metres in record time. As in Star of the Giants, the action is stretched through a series of cutaways. We see the athletes straining muscles; we see the faces of the onlookers; we see the scowls of the observing Agents. The athlete’s thoughts flip between single-minded racing motivation and drifting flashbacks.

Death Race 2010

Some have suggested that Redline’s prime inspiration must be the mismatched cartoon competitors of Wacky Races (1968), but the old Hanna-Barbera show does not have quite the footprint or following in Japan that one might expect. Wacky Races was broadcast in Japan in 1970 as Chichiki Machine Mo Race (Furious Crazy Machine Race), but we ought to remember that Katsuhito Ishii was only four years old at the time. He was, however, a much more impressionable ten years old in 1976, when TV Asahi broadcast the 21 madcap episodes of Machine Hayabusa, an animated series that took the clichés of sports shows and combined them with an exuberant sci-fi plotline.

At dinner before the film’s world premiere in Locarno, Ishii told me that Redline’s true inspiration was his childhood love of Machine Hayabusa, and his wish to make something that had the same sort of energy. In Machine Hayabusa, the world of formula one racing has been changed forever by the activities of a bunch of soulless swindlers, the Black Devil Team, led by the nefarious “demon lord” Ahab Mobildick. In a world where everyone is a cheat and cars are fitted with boosters, rockets and wings, only Ken Hayabusa, noble racer with the Saionji racing team, is prepared to play by the rules, in a series of raging races, animated with a loving interest in the technology of tomorrow lurking beneath the cars’ various sci-fi engines.

Of course, Machine Hayabusa was itself part of a tradition. Above all, it bears a strong resemblance to the iconic Speed Racer (1967), and indeed to Rubenkaiser (1977), a remake in all but name, which filled Machine Hayabusa’s slot on TV Asahi the following year. But that is only to be expected when children’s cartoons work on a limited product cycle. Every two years, cynical producers can wheel out the same old shows with a respray, and hope that nobody notices. Fortunately, for a pre-teen boy with a love of racing, there is always the movies, and the youthful Ishii seems to have been obliged by the appearance of Cannonball Run (1981). Released in Japanese translation with the stark, one-word title, Cannonball, it featured a racer called JJ (Burt Reynolds) taking on a motley series of archetypal comedy creations…

Stunt Casting

Redline inherits Cannonball Run’s sense of insider humour. Sometimes it is as if we are watching the all-out, chaotic finale of a long series, in which characters with long back-stories are finally getting their just desserts. In Cannonball Run, the famous celebrities were often playing to their public personas, or reprising famous characters from other movies. In Redline, the casting of certain voice actors often evokes connections within Japanese media that are invisible to most English-speaking viewers. Above all, many are alumni from earlier Ishii productions: be they movies, pop videos or commercials.

JP’s double-dealing mechanic Frisbee is voiced by Tadanobu Asano, the edgy star of movies like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Ishii’s earlier Sharkskin Man and Peach-Hips Girl. Another Sharkskin alumnus is the comedian Tatsuya Gashuin, who plays the racer Lynchman. Meanwhile, the actress/model Akemi Kobayashi, previously seen in Ishii’s Party7, provides the voice in Redline of the ditzy, pneumatic racer girl Bosbos. Rival racer Sonoshee Mclaren is one of the few characters who is not played by someone with apparent former connections to Ishii; she is voiced by actress/model Yu Aoi, who has previously appeared in films including Mushishi and All About Lily Chou-Chou. JP himself is voiced by Takuya Kimura, a true Japanese superstar who has dominated the airwaves for 15 years as one of the members of the all-singing, all-dancing boy-band SMAP. Garlanded with awards for serious acting on TV, he is also the star of the new Space Cruiser Yamato live-action movie.

Redline is also something of a reunion for a number of characters from previous productions that bear the hallmarks of Koike and Ishii. The racers Trava and Shinkai, little more than also-rans in the film, were once the stars of their own four-part video series from the Madhouse studio, Trava: Fist Planet (2003), directed by Katsuhito Ishii and Takeshi Koike. Blink during the Yellow Line race stage that opens the film, and you might miss the dog-faced driver Bons, who previously appeared in Ishii’s computer-animated short pieces Hal & Bons. The odd little-and-large pair of drivers from Earth, Todoroki and Miki, first had their appearance in yet another Ishii short, as the inept stand-up duo The Mole Brothers. It’s as if Redline is a Cannonball Run for the Ishiiverse, dragging together half a dozen strands from festival shorts, showreels and anthology discs from the previous decade. And then shooting at them with a big orbital laser…

Redline is out now in the US and Japan, and will be screened at Scotland Loves Anime in early October. Manga Entertainment Ltd will be releasing it in the UK in 2011. Here’s the trailer.

And here is a brief taste Machine Hayabusa.