It’s true that a large segment of anime deals in similar themes: dystopian societies, insane technologies and their impact on human beings, both physically and spiritually. Ghost in the Shell was a definite flag-bearer of these themes, and thus an inspiration to many films, including the non-animated dystopian set The Matrix. The direct line of influence led to the Wachowski Starship producing an anthology anime which provides context to the popular sci-fi world.
Anthology films have recently come back in style with horror series V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, and The Animatrix uses the same general road map, albeit with a more cohesive background. Made up of nine short films each running about 10 minutes, The Animatrix carries the relative strengths and weaknesses of the storytelling method. We are able to see a variety of filmmaking and animation styles each with a different approach on the franchise. Overall, it is a nice representative sample of classic anime and an interesting mix---from Ghost in the Shell style robopocalypse to a film noir lifted straight out of Dashiell Hammett. Negatively, the level of success tends to vary when you are dealing with nine separate parts, which creates a strange pace. Many of the shorts [even the more interesting ones] lack a cohesive completeness. A few simply wander off without a satisfying ending.
The Animatrix opens with “Final Flight of the Osiris,” among the more closely tied to The Matrix universe. Using amazingly photo-realistic animation [especially considering 2003], the piece starts with a wordless, narrativeless battle of the sexes. Two blindfolded warriors engage in swordplay that eventually turns into a mutual undressing; the realistic animation adds to the beautiful movement and inherent sexiness to the scene. The scene is then interrupted to reveal it is taking place within the training program we’ve become acquainted with through The Matrix. Unfortunately, once the short shifts to a more conventional action chase scene, it loses a lot of its shine.
The follow two shorts, the duo “The Second Renaissance Parts I and II,” show a much different version of humanoid robots in society from Ghost in the Shell. Instead of the powerful entities building important status as law enforcement, these robots are outrightly feared and shunned. Humans mercilessly slaughter the robots, eventually driving them out to form their own society. Eventually, the robots develop their A.I. and start the war which precedes the events of The Matrix. The animation style is more closely tied to the traditional anime form as seen in Ghost in the Shell, with coarser edges and beautifully styled violence.
One of the more narratively complex of the group is “World Record.” The short plays like a Twilight Zone episode run through the world of The Matrix. It balances on an Olympic race, cutting into flashbacks from the days leading up. But, of course, there is a twist which takes it into sci-fi, one that is true to the incredibly pessimistic tone. Among the directors featured in The Animatrix, Takeshi Koike is the only one I’ve seen other work from---his 2009 film Redline is an ultra-cool and fast paced sport-centric anime which stylistically falls in line with “World Record.”
Finally, my favorite short in the film is “A Detective Story” from Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo director Shinichirô Watanabe. It quickly stands out for its full-on film noir style and narrative. It involves a down-on-his-luck detective, the kind who openly wishes to be Sam Spade, who is hired to track down notorious computer hacker “Trinity.” Of course, we know Trinity as the badass hero of The Matrix, giving a dramatic irony to his search. Yet again, “A Detective Story” concludes with a Matrix-centric twist that breaks the narrative direction to something more complicated. It dampens my love for the simple noir homage, but it is a fairly seamless transition in this case.
The remaining shorts include “Beyond,” a brightly colored Ghibli-style search for a missing cat, “Kid’s Story,” a simple recreation of Neo’s recruitment with a high school kid, “Program,” which is too similar and less interesting than the opening short, and “Matriculated,” a beautiful-but-dull story about human rebels.
Overall, The Animatrix shows off its anime influences while expanding its own sci-fi universe. These nine short films are far from the most complex or substantial anime, but the anthology approach works for an entertaining ride. Strangely, aside from “The Second Resistance” I enjoyed The Animatrix less when the stories became too complex in the science fiction philosophies and world building. The ultimate joy is in the mix of animation styles and narratives which showcase the great breadth of anime form.