The Anthology Series is a new recurring roundtable column here at 4:3 where we look at the oft-overlooked genre of anthology films. Also known as portmanteaus, the anthology film is composed of a series of short films grouped together by theme or some awkward overarching premise. Some of the more popular portmanteaus in recent memory include Paris, je t’aime and horror anthology series V/H/S. There are also anthology films done by the same director, think Love Actually, Argentian Oscar-nominee Wild Tales and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. For the purposes of this column, we will be focusing on anthology films with more than two directors.
In our third piece in this series, editors Conor Bateman and Felix Hubble venture into anime territory with staff writer Saro Lusty-Cavallari, discussing the nine-part feature The Animatrix.
Saro Lusty-Cavallari: The Animatrix was released at a really crucial time for Anime and franchise films in general. Two years after Spirited Away had claimed an Academy Award, Japanese animation was finally seen as more than indecipherable marketing machines preteens were watching on early morning TV. Furthermore, I’d argue that the success of the first Matrix, bringing cyberpunk into the multiplex, was another big step into the mainstream acceptance of ‘geek’ culture and everything that came with it – including the cult appreciation of adult-orientated anime. What would have seemed like a cheap marketing ploy in years prior (and probably in years since) was now very trendy and innovative. The Wachowskis’ decision to give a lot of their favourite Japanese animators a really big platform in the West was seen as a very cool branching out of their newfound franchise. I’d argue that the hype for The Animatrix was nowhere bigger than in Australia and even though I was pretty young I actually remember it really well, probably due to the combination of patriotism over the local co-production with the series (does anyone remember the weird sense of ownership Australia had over the films?) and our proximity to Japan, each individual short got a theatrical release as part of the deafening hype in the lead up to the release of The Matrix Reloaded. I’m not here to argue The Animatrix is great, although I’m surprised to find how much of a fondness I still have for it. However it’s definitely an interesting relic from when The Matrix franchise still had a lot of mystique and good will and Japanese animation was developing a burgeoning mainstream interest in the West.
Felix Hubble: I remember when The Animatrix first came out, Warner Brothers continued their Matrix-targeted and all around impressive early use of the internet as a marketing tool to push this film out there.1 Four of the shorts were available online for free, legally downloadable in Quicktime format off of the official website, and they continued the practice of online world-building by extending the online, digital Matrix universe in the lead-up to the official release. I mean, it’s impressive for major studios to give away free stuff (in this case about a third of the movie) in the lead-up to the release anyway, but in 2003 this was pretty much unheard of. Adding to my excitement was the actual website layout – it was so ‘web 2.0′ with an interactive design and flashy moving graphics. There was no DRM, no restrictions placed on sharing the files, and we’re not talking about only running these files in locked-down enclosures, you could literally right-click and Save As. As a big fan of The Matrix, the internet (dial up, back then), and anime (I’d just discovered [adult swim]) I was super into everything about it.
I remember watching Detective Story and Program a lot, the former because it had the smallest file size and the latter because it had the most obvious Anime aesthetic. I think that the only reason The Second Renaissance is split into two parts is because both halves were given away online on seperate dates – it’s a bit of a shame because it’s a little immersion breaking to have the story cut in two by a title card in its feature presentation, especially since the halves are otherwise truncated. Having seen the complete product for the first time a few nights ago I can’t say I was too impressed.
Conor Bateman: The thing that first strikes me about The Animatrix is how disappointing it is. I think, for me, it was this piece of the wider Matrix puzzle I felt unqualified to really engage with; I’d seen all three of the films but had never played Enter the Matrix or really been across all of the competing mythological elements within the world the Wachowskis created. It’s only with this roundtable that I’ve really had a reason to look at The Animatrix, all these years later. As it turns out, so much of this anthology film is just regurgitated scenes and ideas from the original three films, with only two of the shorts really trying to craft a self-contained narrative that runs parallel to The Matrix universe without relying too much on it as a crux for narrative.2 Those two shorts, clearly the best of the lot, were A Detective Story and Matriculated, the final two on show.
Saro: This is probably a good time to drop my rather controversial opinion on the Matrix universe: you’re qualified to engage with the Wachowskis’ mythology…. because it’s really not a particularly great mythology. The most effective parts of the first film’s premise are really just simplifications of very well known philosophical theories but mainly I see it as an above average high-concept action film, best enjoyed as little more. However the two sequels, which were monumentally hyped at the time of The Animatrix, are truly dreadful. As the mythos got more and more convoluted and inconsistent the whole series devolved into a memory-tarnishing mess that George Lucas would be ashamed of. I suppose that’s what appeals to me about The Animatrix, it expands on the possibilities raised by the first film while retaining the mystique that came crashing down with the sequels. In a franchise that I’ve pretty much lost all appreciation for, this weird little anthology stands out as a glimmer of madcap creativity.
Conor: If we’re talking fleshing out the narrative, and I certainly see your enthusiasm regarding expansion of possibilities, I think a major issue was that it didn’t do enough. The first short, Final Flight of the Osiris, showcased an interesting animation style (especially for 2003) but really was just a near-remake of sequences from the original films. The next two, the double of The Second Renaissance, was a mostly unimaginative extrapolation on what was already inferred in the first Matrix film. The first short covers the robot uprising following the legal question of A.I. and sentience, a topic covered in a vastly more interesting way in Matriculated, the film’s final short. Its narrative is basically what you would expect, a robot attacks a human, humans try to wipe out that type of robot, other robots start hitting back. To be frank, it’s actually a fairly boring short.
Felix: I have to say I took issue with the film’s depiction of women as objects of desire throughout pretty much the entirety of its duration. It seemed to be a theme as common as the Matrix itself across these shorts – I mean, I’m pretty sure the majority of these shorts contain at least one shot of a female character in her underwear for no logical reason whatsoever. The worst occurrence of this is in the first short Final Flight of the Osiris, which opens on a male and female character battling it out with Katanas in a sequence that closely mimics Neo’s fight with Morpheus in the first film, except this time our characters are blindfolded, and cutting each other’s clothes off. With its impressive animation-style in mind this could have been a fine, if somewhat clumsy sequence if there was some equity in the way in which each character was depicted – instead we received a whole lot of uncomfortable crotch shots of the female character (including one where the virtual camera moves 180 degrees to reveal she’s wearing a g-string) that are contrasted with shots of the male character (who is, arguably, more nude). At their most explicit, these never stray away from his bare torso, except for in a final, non-sexualised long shot of them both revealing him in his underwear.
This is so far removed from the generally solid gender politics pushed by the Wachowskis, and made for a generally uncomfortable viewing experience. In contrast, I can praise one pretty solid use of nudity for visceral effect in The Second Renaissance, a short that I found otherwise pretty boring despite grabbing my attention in the second half when its animation became slightly more advanced and digitized.
Saro: I think The Second Renaissance is fantastic in the way it fluidly leaps around the downfall of humanity that sets up the Matrix’s premise. It’s a story so vaguely alluded to in the films that it could be anything from Asimov to Terminator. Does the Second Renaissance offer anything new to the robot apocalypse genre? No, but it hits all the imaginable beats with such relentless pace and fluidity. The historically loaded series of images (a bit of everything but mainly a lot of Holocaust references) literally bleed into each other as Mahiro Maeda uses his versatile animation skills to move us from each major dot point in the story without a single break in the action. Because the transitions are so seamless Maeda manages to try every device possible to fill us in, sometimes reverting to default expository narration but also trying his hand at various verite excerpts which just add so much richness to an incredibly brief survey of a very dense historical fiction. The Second Renaissance never aims for subtlety – it’s an incredibly broad parable – but I find the relentless series of incredibly memorable imagery almost hypnotic in a way and injects the Matrix universe with more stakes than the increasingly convoluted sequels ever would.
Conor: I will concede that the second part of The Second Renaissance was better than the first, with some interesting images, particularly with regards to the blacking out of the sky. Still, I didn’t feel like a story that needed to be told tangential to the Matrix world. The one that followed this duo, though, was just as useless. The first of Shinichiro Watanabe’s two shorts here, Kid’s Story was co-written by the Wachowskis and features Keanu Reeves’ Neo guiding a high schooler who starts to realise the world he’s living in is less vivid than his dreams. The animation in this one is interesting, with the always shaking and intentionally messy characters, but the narrative is so dull. When Felix and I were watching this one we remarked just how specific the young male fantasy is in this one; truth through rejection of the world through anonymous computer chats and insane skateboarding skills. It has a similar link to the Matrix universe as a later short as well, World Record, where breaking a perceived physical barrier leads into a breakage of the digital one, though World Record is actually much more interesting, it’s chaotic animation style matching the chaos of an explosion of physicality.
Felix: I’m going to have to admit Kid’s Story was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me – sure, it was incredibly dumb but the animation style really clicked with me, although I will admit that beyond that it had virtually nothing to offer. We’d be remiss not to mention the next short Program; while it doesn’t really offer anything beyond a very shallow ‘are you with us or against us’ plotline and some really cheesy dialogue, I hold a soft-spot for it due to fond childhood memories of checking it out online. On top of that, the animation is some of the best in the film, and definitely some of the most traditionally Anime-ey – there are a few particularly impressive sequences of the protagonist leaping from rooftop to rooftop that are almost worth checking out this short for alone… almost. I think I liked the concept of World Record a lot more than its execution. I’m always a sucker for ‘fight the power’ material and it was nice to have a short in here that dealt with the Matrix in less formal terms, but something about it just didn’t click with me like I felt it should. It was alright to have a bit of optimism though, to contrast with the film’s relentless cyber-punk drenched, ‘edgy’ pessimism.
Saro: I really like World Record for it’s attempt at presenting the implications of the Matrix in everyday terms (well as much as elite athletics is everyday). The grotesque movement of Dan’s muscles give us a sense of the machinery of human biology bucking against a digital system that has been created to control it. It’s a fascinating and very visceral presentation of life in the Matrix that differs a lot from what we’ve seen in the film. Yet although Dan may be considered ‘elite’ in some ways I find it refreshing to see a protagonist who breaks through the facade of the Matrix who isn’t a libertarian hacker. It’s also an example of an idea that could only work within this project, when you see Takeshi Koike’s incredibly evocative take on human anatomy you immediately get what the story’s going for in a way that a live action film never could muster. I like Beyond for a similar reason, it provides an alternative view of life within the Matrix outside of hackers. It’s a very simple and affecting take on the break from mechanical monotony (which we take as philosophical but in this world is literal) that can be found in a glitch in the matrix – a phrase that has taken on a life of it’s own.
Conor: Ah, Beyond, which finds its way to the bottom of my list purely because I couldn’t care less about it. The tangential narrative by way of a physical portal out of the Matrix is interesting, but I found this entire short too slow and uninteresting. The break from hackers is somewhat refreshing, sure, but it just lacks any narrative hook. We get the big tanks in the street, the overhead surveillance at the start, all feeling draped over a mostly limp story to make it more akin to the world it supposedly links to. I would’ve much rather seen this as a short removed from The Matrix entirely, about a haunted house or a longer piece about missing children, anything to make it feel like it had more of a reason to exist.
Felix: I have to agree with you, I pretty much tuned out at this point, lost in thoughts of what to do after the film. It’s a shame; a big problem I have with a lot of this film is that it is too Matrix-ey and as Conor mentioned, and although this is a criticism you couldn’t really level at this short there just isn’t that much to it. Coming from Akira‘s animation director it’s a bit of a kick in the guts, although I guess Ti West was responsible for M is for Miscarriage in The ABCs of Death and Beyond was only ‘eh’. Thankfully this was followed by the film’s highlight, A Detective Story.
Conor: As I said before, I think the final two shorts are the best, with Shinichiro Watanabe’s A Detective Story the clear pick of the bunch. Unlike Kid’s Story, he is credited as the sole writer on this short, and it clearly showcases an impressive engagement and understanding of genre convention, cleverly interweaving the film noir detective with a steampunk future. It’s one of the few shorts that feature women to not have them act as purely sexual objects; here Trinity appears briefly and her short arc, potentially recruiting the detective assigned to find her, is an interesting foil to that of Neo in the first Matrix. Also I like how self-contained it is, with a clear (and bleak) ending, a relative unique animation style featuring moving characters over what looks like altered still photographs and a simple yet effective plot.
Felix: Although it was a little dull, A Detective Story was a pretty welcome breath of fresh air at this point in the film’s run-time, although I do wish it had come a sooner so I wasn’t as burnt out. I’ve always been a big fan of Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo and it came as no surprise to me that he had directed this short because A Detective Story was just such a cut above the rest on pretty much every level (I am a little shocked he was responsible for Kid’s Story too). The animation was interesting, the world building leaned on The Matrix but wasn’t derivative, the dialogue was only occasionally cringe-worthy and everything about the construction (the framing, the soundtrack etc.) was really tight. It was a short that, ignoring the obvious Matrix elements, could have stood up on its own elsewhere which is a lot more than can be said about a fair few of the other shorts in this film. Following this was Matriculated (get it, the world Matriculated is almost Matrixulated!) which had some pretty cool acid-infused visuals but didn’t really do it for me on a whole, which was a bit of a surprise because I kind of like Peter Chung’s main project Aeon Flux.
Conor: Matriculated starts off so shakily, a chase scene with the machines is exactly what we don’t need right after A Detective Story outlines how to do a Matrix-tangential story well. Luckily the plot shifts to being about sentience and loyalty, through an LSD-tinged look inside the ‘dreams’ of a computer we get to explore something not really touched on in The Matrix as blatantly – the idea that machines with sentience wiping out humans stunts the expression of that sentience.
Saro: The Animatrix is far from perfect: it has consistently weak scripts, voice acting that feels tacked like tacked on overdubbing, numerous recycled elements from the films and an offensively common occurrence of whatever the animation equivalent of the male gaze is. However I still have a lot of fondness for it even as just a beautiful looking sample plate of some of Japan’s best animators. Even when the plots lose momentum I think it’s hard to argue that things look anything less than stunning. The Animatrix also serves as a fascinating alternative for franchise tie-ins, converting a money making property into a playground for cult auteurs. Maybe this isn’t as consistent as a hypothetical Morpheus solo film and 2020’s reboot/sequel The Matrix Rebooted but it sure as hell is more interesting.
|Saro Lusty-Cavallari||Felix Hubble||Conor Bateman|
|1. The Second Renaissance Pt II (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
2. The Second Renaissance Pt I (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
3. World Record (dir. Takeshi Koike)
4. Beyond (dir. Kōji Morimoto)
5. Matriculated (dir. Peter Chung)
6. A Detective Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
7. Kid’s Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
8. Program (dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
9. Final Flight of the Osiris (dir. Andy Jones)
|1. A Detective Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
2. World Record (dir. Takeshi Koike)
3. Program (dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
4. The Second Renaissance Pt II (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
5. Matriculated (dir. Peter Chung)
6. Kid’s Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
7. The Second Renaissance Pt I (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
8. Final Flight of the Osiris (dir. Andy Jones)
9. Beyond (dir. Kōji Morimoto)
|1. A Detective Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
2. Matriculated (dir. Peter Chung)
3. World Record (dir. Takeshi Koike)
4. Program (dir. Yoshiaki Kawajiri)
5. The Second Renaissance Pt II (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
6. Final Flight of the Osiris (dir. Andy Jones)
7. Kid’s Story (dir. Shinichirō Watanabe)
8. The Second Renaissance Pt I (dir. Mahiro Maeda)
9. Beyond (dir. Kōji Morimoto)