Over the next few weeks I am posting reviewer quotes from various Streamline Pictures Video Comics releases. In the end we will have a clear picture of the companies output, and critical reaction to each release. We continue this week with Neo Tokyo and Planet Busters.
“Known originally as Manie-Manie or Labyrinth Stories (said to be a play on the title Amazing Stories, with emphasis on the ‘maze’), Neo-Tokyo offers up three of the best short films seen in the anime world. Like its cousin Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo presents tight, well-crafted stories and animation apparently unfettered by the budget or time constraints common to weekly television titles, OAV series, and most feature productions.” “Ominous and grim (and yet neither), ‘Labyrinth’ is a weird cabaret. Unusual camera angles, clean and fluid animation, and a brilliant use of color highlight this piece. ‘Running Man,’ touted as being featured on MTV, comes from Yoshiaki Kawajiri. […] Years of violent competition on the Death Race circuit has left driver Zach Hugh a man in whom losing is so abhorrent that his broken mind psychically lashes out at opposing drivers, and with surprising results. The graphic destruction of hardware and lives is handled with a cinematic beauty, bolstered but not overrun by an array of elaborate animation light effects.”
“From Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo comes ‘The Order to Stop Construction,’ a wonderful tale of bureaucratic tangles and miscommunication, set in the jug-gernaut of an automated city-construction project. The only human supervisor on site must cope with recalcitrant robots as everything around him falls apart. The scope and detail of this story is staggering, supported by an excellent musical score which reinforces the frenetic repetition of pile-driving and mechanical chugging. The animation is burgeoning with mechanical creations and inventive characters. Is it an allegory for the frustrations of today’s modern society? A warning about a technological and artificial future? Perhaps, but a fun journey into anime nonetheless. Streamline’s video is clean and full of color, and shows off well the film’s ending, where Sachi and cat join in with more creatures of darkness and light. The dubbing does try to be faithful to the original, and the unspecified sound engineering comes across with a full surround feel. Neo-Tokyo […] bears many repeat viewings.”
Rick Sternbach, Animerica, v.2 #3, March 1994, pg. 55
“The opener, Labyrinth, is a Fellini-esque slice of surrealism about a little girl and her cat who are sucked through a mirror and into a bleak urban landscape populated by seductive clowns, hip-hopping zombies and some kids straight out of Village of the Damned. Imagine Alice being led through a wasted wonderland by Mr. Tambourine Man, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of animator-author Rin Taro’s state of mind. It is followed by writer-artist-director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man, which is much more in the current Japanese tradition of violent, hard-boiled sci-fi. It sends a seen-it-all reporter to a futuristic race track called Death Circus, which has been dominated for a de-cade by the fearless driver Zack Hugh. At race’s end, the reporter learns he hasn’t seen it all after all. The most elaborately animated film in this trio is the weakest dramatically. The Order to Stop Construction is a predictably O. Henry-type tale about a Tokyo ‘salaryman’ who has been sent by the head office to shutdown a robot construction project in a third-world country in the midst of revolution. But his mission is jeopardized by the plant’s robot foreman who has been programmed to let nothing stand in the way of production. The attraction of Neo-Tokyo is that each film takes barely more time to watch than it would take to read a corresponding comic-book story. For all of the obvious skill and effort that has been expended on the animation, the result is disposable fun.”
Terry Lawson, Dayton Daily News, May 14, 1993, pg. 6
“Neo-Tokyo is a good idea. Assembling imaginative, personal projects from three of Japan’s top artists cold be nothing but. Last year, Carl Macek and Streamline Pictures had an idea of their own, deciding to translate and distribute the resulting videocassette in North America, an idea which, I am pleased to tell animation lovers, was a very good one indeed. Part of Streamline’s Video Comics series, Neo-Tokyo is made up of three shorts: Labyrinth, by Rin Taro, Running Man, by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and The Order to Stop Construction, by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. While each of these films are unique, they share a handful of fascinating preoccupations. All three stories play liberally and skillfully with time, juxtaposing striking images and concepts from the past, present and future into enjoyable and interesting visions. The films also work out of a common interest in exploring the domains of their genres; in order, a fantasy, a mystery and an allegory.”
“Labyrinth is not so much a story as it is an expressionistic slide show from one animator’s inspired imagination. The stylized design of the characters is wonderful, with the girl, the cat and the clown all graced with strong, individual personalities of expression and movement. The strange circus is populated by wonderful grotesques and gargoyles, all of which are thrilling to watch. Although the editing is occasionally a little inconsistent, the timing of the action, one of Japanese animation’s undisputed strengths, is breathtaking. The film does not aspire to too much more, so within its parameters, it is a success.” “…sound is one of the strengths of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man, a cyberpunk-influenced story about a deadly future racing sport, and its doomed champion. The soundtrack combines with editing and timing to give an overwhelming impression of speed and power, as impeccably designed vehicles tear around a huge circular track, racing one another to the death.”
“Running Man is tense, loud, mean, gory and fun. It will appeal particularly to dilettante cyberpunk and technical fiction fans, presenting the kind of ingenious gadgetry anime is famous for, then destroying it in a slow, loving ballet of ripping metal. It is badly written, but what script there is is forgotten in the roar of the engines. The best of the three films is The Order to Stop Construction, a cautionary tale with an interesting premise: an anonymous corporation learns that a fictitious banana re-public in which they have interests has undergone a coup. Their massive installation there, designed, as far as we can tell, to exploit various natural resources, must be shut down. […] Katsuhiro Otomo invites us to what is likely the most mind-boggling construction site ever imagined. Heavy machinery merge with their robot operators, wearing ludicrous little white hard hats. Abandoned skyscrapers overgrown with jungle foliage crumble into miles of mud, held back by the single-minded efforts of robots mounting pitiful steel retaining walls. […] These memorable creations let us in on a little of what might happen if faceless corporations were to rely on idiotically loyal machines to do their secret but undeniably evil deeds, and what kind of behavior that situation might drive us humans to. This is among the best Japanese animation and design I have seen …” “Anyone who loves animation, allegory or just wants to laugh nervously as Sujiyoka takes it upon himself and his cool khaki shorts to show the metal maniacs who has the ultimate authority will enjoy this wonderful little film.”
Marc Elias, fps, #4, September 1994, pg. 30-32
“An anime omnibus produced in 1987 for the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival, NEO-TOKYO (originally dubbed MANIE-MANIE, or ‘Tales from the Labyrinth’) avoids the pitfalls of most genre anthology flicks by not peaking early but saving its best seg for last. A trio of science-fiction and fantasy tales ranging in length from 12 to 23 minutes, the film effortlessly aces shifts from tone poem wistfulness to cyber-punk grue. ‘Labyrinth,’ Taro’s episode, which doubles as the movie’s framing device, follows the ‘Through the Looking Glass’ style adventures of a young girl and her cat as they are led through surreal and disturbing dreamscapes by a sinister clown. Kawajiri’s segment, ‘Running Man,’ is a meld of Chandleresque pulp noir and ferocious cyber-splatterpunk. Set in the 21st century, when racecar drivers are now psionically ‘plugged’ into their vehicles, story revolves around a hard-bitten reporter’s attempts to get the scoop on the longevity of Zach Hugh, the last decade’s Death Race champ. ‘The Order to Stop Construction,’ Otomo’s offering, is a pitch-black comic melding of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. A young bureaucrat, sent up-river to investigate his predecessor’s disappearance and pull the plug on a building project in the jungle, finds himself the only human on the site, locked in conflict with the project’s (short-circuiting) robot foreman, who’s determined to finish his objective at any cost.
“With surreal images of streetcars filled with irradiated, skeletal commuters and clock-headed ‘salarymen,’ Taro’s seg is basically an innocence vs. experience meditation, its power somewhat lessened by its use as a bridging device for the other episodes. Kawajiri’s ‘Running Man’ (seen in an edited version on MTV’s LIQUID TELEVISION) is a lean and stark technological terror tale providing mordant commentary on our own society’s media-fed bread-and-circus morbidity. But the Otomo episode is easily NEO-TOKYO’s most sunningly sustained achievement and one of anime’s best and bleakest dystopic visions. A perfect balance between horror and humor […], the story’s ultra-dark man vs. machine themes reach an epiphanic climax that’s sheer perfection. The poetic, compressed narrative approach of these episodes re-quires relatively minimal dialogue, resulting in an easier-than-usual dubbing job for Streamline, who acquit themselves quite nicely.”
Todd French, Imagi-Movies, v.2 #4, Summer 1995, pgs. 36, 38
“Neo-Tokyo, a collection of three shorts, is […] the most diverting Japanese animation I’ve come across. The first story, Rin Taro’s Labyrinth (which also serves as a framing device for the whole film), follows a little girl and her cat into a circuslike fantasyland. The visuals, drawing on everyone from Rockwell Kent to Al Hirschfeld to Bob Clampett, are so imaginative that the lack of story is irrelevant. Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man is less successful, but the depiction of a crazed racecar driver’s final run is visually exciting. Finally, The Order to Stop Construction, from Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), is a very funny story, in which a corporate functionary, sent to shut down a remote factory, must contend with an overzealous robot foreman.”
Andy Klein, Los Angeles Reader, April 23, 1993, pg. ?
“Neo-Tokyo […] is a fantastic, dark, and bizarre collection of contemporary Japanese animation.” “…Labyrinth [deals] with a little girl and her cat, who find themselves sucked through a mirror into a twisted urban maze in pursuit of a dancing clown. The disturbing, hallucinogenic images express regret, lost youth, and the inexorable march of time. […] Containing easily the best animation of the bunch, Running Man portrays a futuristic auto race where drivers are cybernetically connected to their vehicles. The film’s crisp neon colors, sharp detail, and piercing soundtrack contribute to Running Man’s ability to elicit gasps and applause. Katsuhiro Otomo’s The Order to Stop Construction is a very funny black comedy that is sort of a cross between Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey. […] The Order to Stop Construction has plenty of laughs and ends the festival on a relatively upbeat, if twisted, note. Neo-Tokyo’s unique blend of unusual visuals and themes may be a bit much for conventional viewers to stomach. One leaves the theater utterly drained. But for those open to new planes of perception, Neo-Tokyo is a must-see.”
Bob Glouberman, L.A. Village View, April 23, 1993, pg. ?
“First, a confession: after about 10 minutes of watching Japanese animaion, I invariably want to run screaming from the theater. I know the stuff’s visually snazzy — all those weird angles, sudden shifts of perspective, closeups of blood (inevitably blood) dripping onto the floor — but the story-telling tends to range from the inept to the incoherent.” “The same is two-thirds true of the Neo-Tokyo compilation, whose one saving grace is Rin Taro’s ‘Labyrinth,’ which spins witty variations on Lewis Carroll. Not only does Taro have a sense of fun missing from his peers, he has a visual style that’s almost philosophical: lovely and space, ‘Labyrinth’ is a soothing antidote to the ex-hausting pyrotechnics surrounding it.”
John Powers, L.A. Weekly, April 23, 1993, pg. ?
“Neo-Tokyo (a potpourri of animated shorts) worked best because its narratives were indeed short and allowed the animation to reveal its true artistic nature: something much closer to poetry than storytelling.”
F. X. Feeney, L.A. Weekly, v.16 #9, January 28-February 3, 1994, pg. 56
“With the exception of Katsuhiro Otomo’s political satire ‘The Order to Stop Construction,’ the three [are] more fun to look at than to analyze.” “…the film makes some nasty points about big business, corrupt government, over-seas development, slave labor and corporate jargon, which the robots parrot. Although not as quick-witted as ‘Construction,’ Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s ‘Running Man’ and Rin Taro’s ‘Labyrinth’ each has some striking images.”
Stephen Holden, New York Times, July 23, 1993, pg. C12
“Neo-Tokyo consists of Labyrinth by Rin Taro, Running Man by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and The Order to Stop Construction by Katsuhiro Otomo.” “Labyrinth is a surrealistic story of a toddler’s day at home with Mother and a cat. The child and the cat spend an unusual day exploring the world of fantasy. This is one of the stories told better by animation than by any other medium. Running Man is the English-narrated Zach Hugh adaptation of the original Japanese animation as was shown on MTV. A race car driver becomes possessed by the preternatural, melding himself into the racecar and losing all human identity. Otomo’s The Order to Stop Construction is elaborately animated, as was his Akira, and is the same general design.” “I’ll say it’s the original animation tour de force, and as the original didn’t rely on dialog, this one too is little influenced by the voice dubbing.”
Stephen McCloy, The Rose, v.8 #40, April 1994, pg. 25
“Pix will acquire must-see status among aficionados of Japanese ‘anime’ …” “‘Neo-Tokyo’ consists of three films, none of which really have anything to do with Tokyo. Rin Taro’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s ‘Running Man’ are heavy on style and short on character and plot.” “‘The Order to Stop Construction’ (written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who did the feature-length ‘Akira’) is the standout. […] The visuals are dramatic and the story is sharply ironic.” “… if ‘anime’ is to achieve a Western audience beyond the cultists, ‘The Order to Stop Construction’ shows that it is a tight, coherent story that will get audiences to pay attention.”
Daniel M. Kimmel, (Weekly) Variety, March 7-13, 1994, pg. 63
“…this excellent anthology […] builds to a frightening technological crescendo.” “Taro’s wispy introduction works on the level of a tone poem, touching a surprising number of spiritual nerves. […] Kawajiri’s cyberpunk spectacle (which has been excerpted on MTV’s LIQUID TELEVISION) is a much stronger narrative. […] The Otomo segment, however, is a major achievement.” “Streamline’s presentation of this material is up to their usual high standards. […] The English-dubbing is first-rate.”
Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog, #22, March-April 1994, pg. 26
“Neo-Tokyo incorporates a trio of shorts from three different anima-tors. Both Taro’s Labyrinth, a vaguely ominous Alice Through the Looking Glass variation, and Kawajiri’s Running Man, a visually hypnotic, neon-bright run around a futuristic racetrack, are longer on style than substance. Only Otomo — responsible for the anime cult classic Akira […] manages to fuse excellent panoramic animation with a strong storyline. […] Funny, pointed, and spectacularly drawn, Order represents Neo-Tokyo’s lone crossover segment.”
unsigned, The Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope, v.2 #9, May 15-July 15, 1994, pg. 16
“This compilation of three animators’ work is worth a peek, especially Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s “The Running Man” (featured on MTV’s Liquid Television) — a stunning, nightmarish tale about a futuristic racecar driver’s last spin around the circuit. The second sequence, Rin Taro’s “Labyrinth,” is an Alice in Wonderland story told in a refreshing, abstract style.”
Jamie Painter, Wild Cartoon Kingdom, #1, 1993, pg. 48
“I cannot say a lot of things about this movie — not that it is not good. On the contrary. It is just that if I say too much, I will blow the punchline! I have seen a lot of animation, many that were much better but I never saw a plot as zany as this one! Crazier than that, you’ll die. Honest! And the end is rather, well, philosophically nuts. The story revolves around the crew of a spaceship trying to get the famous ‘planet buster’, the mother of all weapons (he! he!). Of course, getting it will not be as easy as they first thought. I rather liked the no holds barred comedy of this movie. Lots (but lots) of action, beginning with a nearly half hour chase scene right out of LUPIN III, but much crazier!” “If you want to be entertained in front of the TV (with chips and beer) and laugh your head off, then his movie is definitely for you.”
Martin Ouellette, Protoculture Addicts, #18, July-August 1992, pg. 24
Next week: The end is not in sight