Robot Carnival
A cybernetic spin on Fantasia
Robot Carnival
Orion Home Video
Japan, 1987
The notion of syncing a pantomime animated film to music is hardly new; Disney's Steamboat Willie and Silly Symphonies are classic examples, and even "silent" films usually had a pianist performing to accompany what was being seen onscreen. However, since the days of the Silly Symphony--and the ultimate Silly Symphony, Fantasia--there has been a profound lack of this genre of animated film in the commercial arena, with the possible exception of music videos.

Enter Robot Carnival, a mid-80s Japanese techno-Fantasia with a twist. As in Fantasia, Robot Carnival is comprised of several animated shorts set to music. Unlike Fantasia, Robot Carnival has each segment directed by different teams, each with their own distinct style, while all the music is composed by Jo Hisaishi, who has also composed soundtracks for anime classics such as Nausicaä, Laputa, and Arion. Where Fantasia's unifying theme is fantasy, Robot Carnival's unifying theme is, as the title suggest, robots.

In some ways, Robot Carnival's structure is much like that of Fantasia. It gambols through some light-hearted sequences, takes time out for a relatively somber short, has a trio of shorts (one light-hearted, one "art", and one uproariously funny), and a final, dark sequence.

The film's opening has a little boy in the desert going about daily life until a poster ad blows his way. He picks it up, squints at the type, and runs off in a panic to warn the villagers: the Robot Carnival is coming! People frantically run for cover and cower in their hovels as the Carnival makes its destructive presence known. This segment was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (creator and director of Akira) and Atsuko Fukushima, and is enjoyable for its large dollops of slapstick cartoon violence as the Robot Carnival's fireworks detonate within the village and its cute dancing dolls explode in the company of their human consorts.

Franken no Haguruma (Frankenstein's Gears), directed by Kouji Morimoto, has us in a darkened laboratory illuminated only by the occasional flash of lightening. A (mad?) scientist with an unidentifiable something on his back creates a robot which can mimic anything he does... much to his dismay. Further comment would only give away the joke.

Deprive, directed by Hidetoshi Omori (who has worked on Aura Battler Dunbine, and more recently the new Guyver OAVs), is a fast-paced action film. An invading overlord and his minions kidnap a young girl and her robot friend sets off to rescue her from their clutches. Aside from the catchy music, a few neat visual effects during his retribution and a particularly nasty surprise, there's nothing too exceptional about this segment.

Two of the shorts within this movie violate the music-only rule, of which the first is Presence. Directed by Yasuomi Umetsu (who was behind the opening of Project A-ko 3), the film's subdued background music is mainly accompanied by the voice of the main character, a man who creates robotic toys for a living. The world he inhabits is much like ours, only robotics are more commonplace. In his private work area, he creates a robotic female companion, who startles him by exhibiting some all-too-human behavior. This touching film is hauntingly beautiful, with lush background designs and ultra-detailed, colorful cel work. The animation itself is smooth--almost too smooth. While it suits certain things such as flying cars and slow-motion shattering glass, the smooth movement sometimes makes the characters themselves seem inhuman.

Starlight Angel is a short about two girls' visit to the fair. This is a light, entertaining "feel-good" sort of film, which is fairly average. The story meanders a bit in some places, leaving the audience occasionally muttering, "Yes, yes, get on with it!" Hiroyuki Kitazume directed Starlight Angel, which is highly reminiscent of his work for Zeta Gundam.

Meiji Karakuri Bumei Kitan: Koumoujin Shurai no Maki (Strange Tale of Meiji Machines: The Episode of the Red-Haired Man's Invasion) is the second Robot Carnival short to have any dialogue. Strangely, the music seems to only be a minor aspect of this film, which is about a western man invading 16th century Japan with his giant, lumbering wooden robot. Some Japanese youngsters attempt to retaliate with a wooden robot of their own, with some hilarious consequences like accidentally punting a small house into the stratosphere when they mean to raise the right leg to start walking. Hiroyuki Kitakubo, chief animator of Black Magic M-66, directed this bit of silliness.

Cloud sticks out from the rest of Robot Carnival as Toccata and Fugue in D Minor did in Fantasia; it's not cel animation. Unlike Toccata and Fugue, it doesn't even have all that much animation at all. Cloud has a quiet, contemplative soundtrack and features a small, robotic child wearing a jacket. Little actually happens in this as far as plot goes; most of the film is comprised of still drawings serving as a backdrop for the young robot's journey. Mao Lamdo directed this, probably the closest to an "art" film Robot Carnival has to offer.

Niwatori Otoko to Akia Kubi (Chicken Man and Red Neck) owes quite a bit to Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain. An ordinary city is overrun by demonic robots at night, and one man is trapped in it all. Chicken Man and Red Neck has a few slapstick moments, but is still generally a dark film. What it lacks in the sheer power and dark majesty of both the music and animation in Night on Bald Mountain it makes up with a frenetic pace and the terror of poor Chicken Man. This was directed by Takashi Nakamura, who later became chief animator of Akira.

The closing segment was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and Atsuko Fukushima. The Robot Carnival is over, and the mobile sign/parade vehicle is in ruin. The ending is a funny and almost sadistic surprise; see the movie and judge it for yourself.

Originally printed in Animato! #20