LABYRINTH TALES (AKA NEO TOKYO) (1987)

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The anthology film can be a tough thing to get right. On the one hand you have freedom to tell a number of different stories but the short running time dedicated to each one can mean that making each one meaningful or immersive enough to captivate an audience is hard. I find anime anthologies akin to a rare and fascinating beast; there aren’t many out there to study but when you do watch (or indeed rewatch) one you always make some interesting discoveries.

Robot Carnival and Memories are two of the most well known anthologies out there but there’s another one well worth a look if you’re a fan of the format.

I first saw Labybrinth Tales (under its US name of Neo Tokyo) after a friend brought it over to mine at a little geeky gathering I have mentioned before on this very blog that my circle of friends and I used to call “Housecon”.

My friend Jess knew that I liked the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Katsuhiro Otomo. I wasn’t too familiar with Rintaro’s work at the time  (though that would change over subsequent years). The film features shorts by all three of them and is under 50 minutes long, considerably shorter than both Robot Carnival and Memories.

The first film “Labyrinth Labyrinthos” by Rintaro is one of the strangest, most visually eye popping shorts I’ve ever seen. It has an almost constant stream of motion and interesting perspective shots and is quite technically impressive.

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It concerns a young girl called Sachi who follows her cat Ciccero seemingly into some other world, where she arrives at a mysterious circus. The film doesn’t really have a cohesive story but instead feels like it’s just a fluid stream of thought and ideas, where absolutely anything can happen, just like the imagination of a child. It’s dark too, with some quite sinister imagery which I won’t spoil here. Being a kind of experimental film it’s likely different people will have different ideas about it or what it’s trying to say. If it’s about anything then it would seem to me its about a child’s ability to escape into their own world through their imagination. Though I would say I probably prefer some cohesive storytelling in my anime and therefore the other two shorts are my favourites I can’t deny that this one has something special, a unique quality about it.

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Running Man” is an interesting piece. If you know the work of Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Cyber City Oedo 808, Wicked City, Goku Midnight Eye) then you’ll recognise his signature visual style right away. This Cyberpunk story is about a future sport known as “Death Circus”. A lethal high speed race between futuristic cars where racers quite literally crash and burn. For the last ten years the #1 racer has been a guy who goes by the name of Zach Hugh. A sports reporter goes to interview him for a magazine but soon finds out that something is very wrong with him and that his latest race is going to be a spectacle quite unlike anything anyone has ever seen.

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This short is incredibly stylish, I love the realistic use of light as the cars race by the circuit at night. Zach himself has a  look typical of many Kawajiri antagonists, physically strong and muscular yet with a drawn, sunken face. This short just has a beautiful amount of attention to detail, in characters, effects and mechanical design. It’s just gorgeous to look at. The story is simple but captivating and I always find watching it enjoyable. According to the internet this short was shown on MTV in the US quite frequently on a program called “Liquid Television” which showcased animation from around the world. Apparently it was shown in three four minute blocks in between other pieces of animation. There are some pieces of short anime that are just aesthetically pleasing to look at and are nice to watch just to appreciate the animation and overall style. The sort of thing you can just put on, relax and enjoy without concentrating too hard and enjoy the visuals. For me this is such a piece.

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The final story is my favourite. Otomo’s “Construction cancellation order”. The basic premise is that a salaryman is sent by his construction company to a Aroana, a jungle region to get the workforce there to stop construction on a large scale  project. The government was just overthrown and the new government doesn’t support the work so the project must be brought to a close.

There’s just one problem though……the workforce are all robots who seem to have been programmed to do this work if it kills them (which it frequently does). They simply don’t seem to hear or understand his commands for them to stop and just go on anyway, constantly increasing the speed of the work to meet with an ever decreasing workforce who are working themselves into scrap metal. You really feel for his character as things get more and more out of control under the rule of a robotic foreman who has more than a couple of screws loose.

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This is satire at its best, Otomo seems to have had a bit of an anti-establishment thing going on at this point in his career. A lot of his work in the 80’s and 90’s had a pretty big axe to grind about social issues and it shows (see also Roujin Z and his manga Domu). I guess the unrelenting robots are a metaphor for the Japanese corporate machine.

Most people watching this will instantly recognise this as Otomo’s work. Not only is the character and world design pure Otomo but he also did key animation on the whole thing, someone else drew the backgrounds but it was obviously to match Otomo’s ultra detailed realistic style (the type of thing that two page spreads in his manga are often dedicated to).

It’s uncanny how similar the motion of characters is in some scenes to Otomo’s 1988 classic. This was being made in 1986 only two years before Akira was released which is crazy to think given the incredible quality of both films. Let’s go back to that alternate title I mentioned at the beginning of the review: Neo Tokyo. It’s no coincidence that the American title of this film was named after the futuristic city of Otomo’s Akira. This was basically a marketing ploy by Streamline pictures (who also distributed Akira in US cinemas) in order to create a link with Otomo’s film in the audience’s mind, hopefully leading to more cinema ticket sales, it must have worked since the film made them some money. Interestingly when they screened the film theatrically on a double bill it was with the Silent Mobius movie.

If you enjoy eye-popping animation, anthologies or any of the creators mentioned above you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out Labyrinth Tales.

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Availability: Currently there is no available disc release of the film and I don’t believe it is currently streaming anywhere either. Screencaps are taken from my old Region 1 AD Vision DVD.

 

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