The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Robot Carnival

Title: Robot Carnival
Genre: Action/Drama
Company: Studio A.P.P.P.
Format: 9 OVA
Date: 21 July 1987

Synopsis: A series of nine animated shorts, all of which include robots in some way. “Opening” and “Ending” follow the titular Robot Carnival, an “It’s a Small World (After All)” type mechanical parade that has gone berserk. In “Franken’s Gears”, a scientist follows in the footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein. “Deprive” sees a humanoid robot fight off an alien invasion. “Presence” tells the story of a man who obsesses over a robotic woman he builds to compensate for his cold, distant relationship with his family. In “Starlight Angel”, a heartbroken girl’s feelings awaken a theme park robot. “Cloud” shows a robot journeying through the birth and growth of human society. “A Tale of Two Robots – Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion” involves warring factions engaging in battle with wooden robots in 19th century Japan. In “Nightmare”, a drunken man witnesses a horde of robots coming to life for a night of revelry.

The Highlights:
Visuals: Stunningly detailed and gorgeously animated.
Humor: Several of the shorts are surprisingly funny.
Silence: Often excellent use of storytelling without dialogue.

Robot Carnival is the type of feature that is rarely made in any medium – a direct challenge to the era’s rising stars to create something worthwhile, seemingly without worrying whether it will make money… and, to boot, they get boatloads of money thrown at them to make this possible. Even with all anime had going for it in the 1980s, it is nonetheless miraculous that Robot Carnival was ever made. But made it was, and for the most part it delivers on the promise of all that money put into it.

Right away, the most obvious benefit of the huge budget is in the visual quality. Each short drawn in stunning detail, and animated as fluidly and creatively as anything in the medium. Even Studio Ghibli would have a tough time matching Robot Carnival at its peak. For those who admire the pure artistry of animation, the visuals alone make Robot Carnival a must-watch anime. It is absolutely up there with Akira, Do You Remember Love? and Ghibli’s work as the most stunning displays of animation from the era.

But the animation might not be quite so memorable if it did not have strong stories to serve as an anchor. Not all of the shorts are good – Kitazume Hiroyuki‘s “Starlight Angel” and Oomori Hidetoshi‘s “Deprive” in particular are rather cliche, although still fun to watch because of the blowaway animation – but most hit the spot, with a couple even venturing into brilliance. One for the crowd that likes deliberately paced, thoughtful pieces is Mao Lamdo‘s “Cloud”, which is an interesting journey through mankind’s history, albeit one lacking an obvious narrative. But it’s fascinating to watch the childlike robot trudge through man’s beginnings, modernization and self-destruction, all without saying a word.

Silence is one quality that makes Robot Carnival stand out. Only two of the shorts – Umetsu Yasuomi‘s “Presence” and Kitakubo Hiroyuki‘s “A Tale of Two Robots” – feature dialogue, with the others opting to tell their stories purely through visuals. This is something that needs to happen more often in anime. Everything in Robot Carnival (facial expressions, movements, glances, etc.) adds a level of detail that tells the story. Nobody stands around explaining the plot; their actions tell the viewer everything that needs to be known. Morimoto Koji‘s “Franken’s Gears”, for instance, has a level of intense detail that builds a tale of obsessive work and sacrifice, and all that energy is released in an ending that inspired raucous laughter in me. All without a single word.

Surprisingly, raucous laughter is not an alien experience in Robot Carnival. Several of the shorts have funny moments, and a few in particular are drop dead hilarious, such as the aforementioned “A Tale of Two Robots”. It’s a gonzo story made in the style of a propaganda film that features hardy Japanese teenagers pitted against a crazy Western invader… and, of course, they duel with giant robots made of period-appropriate materials. It’s totally absurd and absolutely hysterical.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fukushima Atsuko and Otomo Katsuhiro’s “Opening” and “Ending”. They’re built on a simple, yet hilariously brilliant idea: a carnival ride malfunctioning, and then rampaging for centuries without end. It is perhaps the icon of black humor in anime in my mind – a mechanical monstrosity created to spread joy, filled with dancing robots and all sorts of objects that pop out of nowhere, instead spreading death and destruction wherever its path takes it.

Robot Carnival is a cavalcade of creativity and execution, with worthwhile ideas being put to cels in the most gorgeous way possible. It’s not as well known as some of the other classic anime movies, unfortunately, but it absolutely deserves to be held in the same regard and seen by new fans.

The Rating: 8

Reviewed by: Shinmaru

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