Sunday, January 4, 2015


(1995) Directed by Kôji Morimoto (“Magnetic Rose”), Tensai Okamura (“Stink Bomb”), Katsuhiro Ôtomo (“Cannon Fodder”); Written by Satoshi Kon (“Magnetic Rose), Katsuhiro Ôtomo (“Stink Bomb” and “Cannon Fodder”); Original stories by Katsuhiro Ôtomo; Starring: Shigeru Chiba, Hisao Egawa, Kayoko Fujii, and Hideyuki Hori;
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“What I wanted to make was a film with tension, like a tornado storming through your life.” – Katsuhiro Ôtomo (excerpt from

Well, what do ‘ya know? 2014 has come and gone, which means only one thing: time for another round of Japan-uary goodness. One of the tricky things about planning a theme month is ensuring there’s some balance in the titles covered. As a result, I’ve made a conscious decision to scale back my coverage of anime, despite the fact that I’m a big fan. Considering the relative paucity of anime titles I’ve covered over the past couple of years, however, I thought it was only proper to kick off the month with Memories.

My love affair with anime started 25 years ago when I was introduced to Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira. The film was my gateway drug, which made me aware of the potential to tell mature, visually inventive stories in a medium traditionally reserved for more juvenile fare in the United States. More than any other anime film, Akira inspired me to actively seek out the works of Miyazaki, Takahata, Hosoda and many others. Memories re-introduced me to Ôtomo, and solidified his place as one of the art form’s best. Originally envisioned as separate video projects, the three segments (based on stories by executive producer Ôtomo) were expanded into a feature-length theatrical release.

The Kôji Morimoto-directed first segment “Magnetic Rose” is a mood piece, which owes a huge debt to Alien. The astronauts are depicted as blue-collar, working-class stiffs, who regard space exploration as simply another means to a paycheck. In response to a distress signal, the crew members of a deep space salvage mission encounter a derelict spacecraft. The cavernous interior springs to life as the astronauts enter the craft, revealing the ornate living quarters of an early 21st century opera singer. The tomblike derelict begins to act out her whims as a jilted lover, attempting to ensnare the lonely astronauts through their emotions. One explorer, a young playboy, becomes the object of the singer’s affections, a surrogate for her long-dead boyfriend, while (in a nod to Solaris) the other astronaut reunites with a deceased loved one. “Magnetic Rose” ties in closely with the film’s title, presenting memories as a double-edged sword, alternately a comfort and a trap. Memories enable us to revisit the things we found most enjoyable in life, but can also bog us down in grief, replaying traumatic events that can never have a different outcome. 

The second segment, “Stink Bomb,” is lighter in tone, although it deals with the unpalatable subject of biological warfare. When meek pharmaceutical company employee Nobuo Tanaka accidentally ingests a powerful bio-weapon (thinking he’s taking fever pills), he creates a noxious cloud that wipes out anyone in his vicinity, but paradoxically causes flowers to bloom. The classic “shaggy dog” story continues to escalate, exacerbated by the klutzy main character, oblivious of his actions. Tanaka’s affliction could be likened to his status as a social outcast. Because he doesn’t have a family or girlfriend, he’s presented as a bit of an oddball, toxic to others around him. Compared to the other two segments, “Stink Bomb” is the most instantly accessible, grounded in the present, in a recognizable setting, and with a sympathetic main character. It’s also the weakest segment, showing the telltale signs of a short story stretched thin to the breaking point.  

Memories ends on a strong note with the brilliant third segment, “Cannon Fodder,” directed by Ôtomo. It’s the shortest of the trilogy, but packs a wallop, depicting a militaristic society perpetuating an interminable war against an unseen enemy. We follow a day in the life of a family who exist to feed an insatiable war machine. A father goes to work as a cannon loader, and a mother toils in a munitions factory, while their son dreams of a day when he can command one of the huge guns that protect his city. “Cannon Fodder” is packed with visual details of a totalitarian city state that echo our own society: communist-style propaganda posters extol the virtues of labor, announcements employ a double letter ‘S’ (an obvious allusion to the Nazi SS), and the television news program continues to tout meaningless victories. The city itself is a steampunk nightmare, bristling with gun turrets from every home, and dominated by pistons and turning gears. The residents exist in service to the machinery, as opposed to the other way around. The society’s infrastructure is based on perpetuating a lie, where no one stops to question the validity of their mindless rituals. In one scene, the child asks his father who they are fighting, but the father only responds that he’ll understand when he gets bigger.

Each of the distinct science fiction stories in Memories stand alone, but together form an impressive anthology. We are treated to visions that reinforce and condemn humanity’s darker tendencies, compelling us to reflect on where we are headed as a species. Memories affirms anime’s ability to tell an engaging narrative on a vast, diverse palette beyond the confines of live action productions.

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