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Robot Carnival Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

8 min read

What They Say:
A collection of art, animation & robots for the first time in High-Definition. Crawling across a desolated landscape, the Robot Carnival comes barreling its way onto Blu-ray for the first time! A visual treat for the eyes as well as the mind, Robot Carnival is an anthology collection of nine short films, many directed by Japan’s top animators before they were famous. From funny to dramatic, artistic to entertaining, each story reaches towards the furthest corners of time and space to bring you a title of robots, and the people who make them. Whether you have a love for great hand-drawn animation, an appreciation for storytelling, or just like robots, this anthology is a must!

The Review:
Audio:
The audio came in loudly and quite clear in Dolby Stereo 2.0. Both Japanese soundtrack and the English mix from Streamline Pictures played fine with no distortions of any kind.

Video:
The picture quality for the restored film is outstanding. The hues are perfectly saturated and more enhanced than any previous presentation. The footage that didn’t get restored purposefully, such as the vintage trailers still looks great from the VHS era. The still shots and galleries are nice and clear as well but we’ll get into that in the ‘Extras’ section.

Packaging:
There is a glossy slipcase with the title masthead taken directly from the film’s opening sequence. The back has the text of the ‘what they say’ section dead center with screen shots listing the individual segments on either side of the text. Press quotes and the title masthead are in the top section while production credits make up the bottom third. The inner disc case is a standard clear Blu Ray one. There is an information slip with the art / information arrangements similar to the slipcase on one side and an alternative movie poster piece on the reverse side.

Menu:
Footage from the various segments plays in the background with instrumental music from one of the segments. About ¼ across the screen horizontally are a list of text options, which when highlighted and activated lead to vertical text options. All words are easy to read and therefore highlighted options are easy to activate and navigate.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I love animation collections. As a fan of motion art medium, there’s nothing cooler to me than seeing different artists come together to give their own styles of interpretations on a selected theme. Great anthologies can sometimes follow a theme but this is not necessary. Walt Disney’s Fantasia movies are seen as the pinnacle of animation collections on the American scene I still get completely into Sorcerer’s Apprentice ever since I saw it as a kid in the theaters, but I did appreciate the styles of the other sequences. In the Japanese animation scene such anthologies as Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales (AKA Neo-Tokyo), and Short Peace have only been partially successful while having no unifying theme. However, it’s also interesting to see a how well things go when artists interpret a specific theme, like in Leiji Matsumoto’s “The Cockpit” presents varying tales of World War II combat.

Fans were exposed to several such talents when the profits from The Matrix movie allowed for The Animatrix to present several talents to audiences all over the world while thinking about robotics and artificial intelligence. It’s hard to imagine The Waichoskis (who’ve demonstrated their love of anime in their films The Matrix and Speed Racer) didn’t have Studio APPP’s Robot Carnival in mind when they came up with their project. Robot Carnival had some of the best anime directors working in the 80s to contribute to this collection and… to be honest, every time I sat down to write this review, I kept getting distracted by the flow of the initial segments. I’d seen it at an anime club in 1988 and even back then when it was untranslated, the power of the stories kept me captivated and it was a fun time figuring out what was going on in the spoken segments.

The whimsical music of Jo Hisashi (creator of many scores in the Studio Ghibli films) sets the stage for an amazing show as the circus building travels in the opening sequence directed by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo (who emulates the style of GAINAX’s Wings of Honneamise with amazing detail and movements here and in the closing) alongside character designer Atsuko Fukushima (Giovanni’s Island). We are presented with tour first segment entitled “Franken’s Gears” by Koji Moriomoto (Memories – “Magnetic Rose”). This is a majestic, wordless short about a scientist who brings a giant robot to life obeying his every whim against thunderous orchestral music and powerful thunderstorms. Mary Shelley would’ve been proud of how this plays out.

From there we move to “Deprive”, an adventure about a heroic hard-fighting cyborg of sorts. The first time I saw this story by Hidetoshi Oomori (Gundam: Char’s Counterattack), there was a manga being released by Viz / Eclipse in the U.S. called Heavy Metal Warrior Xenon about a cyborg with design aesthetics similar to the marines in Aliens. Deprive’s wordless action reminded me of that series for a long time and held a special place in my nostalgic heart. Even without that comparison, though, it’s a great piece.

Then comes the one segment that has had many viewers gripped for years: “Presence.” Every time I spoke with fellow fans about the work of Yasuomi Umetsu (Megazone 23 Pt. 2, Kite) in this movie, everyone would have the same haunted reaction to this moving story of unrequited love in which a toymaker creates a doll who can’t stop being in love with him. This is one of the two dialogue-heavy parts in Robot Carnival. Like I said the first time I saw it, there was no translation available, but the emotion was conveyed very well the whole time with all the shadowy contrasting backdrops dominating the characters here.

When Robot Carnival was brought to the U.S. by Streamline Pictures, producers Carl Macek and Jerry Beck did a good job overseeing the English dub by recruiting Michael McConohie and Lisa Michaelson as the leads, as their performances gave “Presence” the same gravitas it had in Japanese.

To offset things, we get to take a ride with the “Star Light Angel” in our next segment from Hiroyuki Kitazume (Relic Armor Legaciam, Armitage III), a carefree romance at an amusement park between a teenage girl and a shy robotic admirer. Yes, the robot can’t figure out how to approach the pretty teen who comes to check out the roller coasters and such. The story goes in a rather unpredictable direction but is quite enjoyable by the end. Star Light Angel often reminds me of the upbeat spirit of contemporary Project A-ko (also from Studio APPP) and sends me into serious 80s nostalgia mode every time I watch it.

The most introspective experience is the abstract “Cloud” by Mao Lamdo (Bobby’s Girl, Gosick) which reflects a minuscule character’s thoughts in the sky above. This one isn’t bad at all but it feels strange among the more concrete pieces here. Still, it’s a wordless work worth watching to think about times gone by or whatever one might take from it. I’ve watched this segment many times over the years but never could connect with it until right before writing this review.

The goofiness of “A Tale of Two Robots” by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Roujin-Z, Blood The Last Vampire) is something that has to be seen to be believed as two warring villages from feudal era Japan convert their surroundings into giant golems to duke it out. This is the only other piece with dialogue and it’s crazy as hell, in both English and Japanese. To close things out, we take in the “Nightmare” of Takashi Nakamura (A Tree of Palme, Be Forever Yamato), a surrealistic segment which evokes sensations of the 1930s Fritz Lang flick Metropolis. There’s action aplenty concerning “A Chicken Man and a Red Neck” (the segment’s original Japanese name before it was brought to the U.S.) but it’s something you’d have to take in for yourself.

Extras:
This aspect, along with the video quality is the best reason to upgrade from the prior DVD or whatever formats you may have had before. The amount of work put in here is truly astounding. To start with, the menu offer you a choice to watch the film as is, in its original Japanese structure, or in the order as presented by Streamline Pictures on their VHS tape or in the Manner presented on Streamline’s laserdisc edition. There are differences here as Streamline had rearranged the segments for American theaters, and … strangely I liked their arrangement more. (I’ll elaborate in a later paragraph.) Also, the laserdisc version was fun to watch as we see logos of bygone companies and get one subtle experience in the middle of the movie. You’ll know it when it happens.

You can see the film like I said as a whole or you can watch individual segments of your choosing, and next to each playback option (which includes the segment name in English and Japanese) are options to look at storyboard / animation comparisons, art galleries from the programs and art books, and liner notes featuring profiles and remarks from the individual segment directors. These were a lot of fun to read through / watch.

In addition to the various trailers and other galleries, the best aspect is the newly created documentary “The Memory of Robot Carnival,” narrated by Mike Toole (who imitates James Earl Jones the whole time) and edited by Justin Sevakis. I’m honestly not certain who did the most research here as both men are known to be extremely knowledgeable on anime production history, but I have to say it’s immensely satisfying to hear all the knowledge presented here. I’d not known before that each segment took 9-24 months to complete due to logistics and that this film was completed before Manie-Manie even though the latter started production first, mostly due to the animators working on both films. Included here is an interview with Jerry Beck on how Streamline Pictures got started between himself and the late Carl Macek of Robotech fame, who were trying to develop a structured home video market through the comic shops. He indicated their desire to eliminate the Cloud segment at one point as he wasn’t sure audiences would react well to it, but the restructuring gave Robot Carnival new life in the American art house theater scene. These are some of the many fascinating factoids we get in this doc.

In Summary:
The great thing about anthology titles is that there’s likely a style for everyone who takes the collection in at some point. For many years, I’ve held on to my Streamline Pictures VHS tape and would hope Sci-Fi Channel would run this movie again someday just to experience it at any time. I’m very glad Robot Carnival has made it to Blu Ray finally and Discotek Media has done an excellent Criterion-level job with its presentation. I definitely recommend it for purchase at your first availability.

Features: HD Restoration From The Original Negatives For Both Japanese and U.S. Presentations, New Documentary “The Memory of Robot Carnival”, Extensive Liner Notes, Storyboard to Screen Sequences, Art Galleries, Trailers

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: A
Extras Grade: A+

Released By: Discotek Media / Eastern Star
Release Date: March 27, 2018
MSRP: $29.95
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p High Definition
Aspect Ratio: 1:85:1 16×9

Review Equipment: Samsung 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation 3

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