The first time I saw Robot Carnival was about six years after it came out. I saw the English-dubbed Streamline release, and it was good. Very good. After it was released on VHS in the States, it took almost 20 years before it was released on DVD. When I saw it available, I snapped it up (with a spare, in case something happened to the first one).
Robot Carnival is an anthology of works by nine animators and directors well-known in Japanese animation circles. There are ten different segments, though three are segments of the same story. The purpose of the film was to showcase the talents of all of these directors and animators by giving them a theme and letting them make short films to be part of the anthology.
Three of the segments (“Opening”, “Ending”, and “Epilogue”) are directed by the legendary Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and have character designs by Atsuko Fukushima (Akira, The Dagger of Kamui). These segments tell the tale of a robot carnival which travels the wastelands. Unfortunately, the robots have gone beyond providing an amazing show, and now do that without thought for how it might injure or kill those viewing the show. “The show is everything!” you might say. These three are among my favorite Robot Carnival segments.
My favorite segment, “Starlight Angel”, is directed by Hiroyuki Kitazume (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, Aura Battler Dunbine). Kitazume also wrote it and did the character designs (which I love!). Now, almost 29 years later, the story makes me nostalgic for the best of 1980s anime. I really loved the effects and the feel of this segment.
“Presence” was an interesting Robot Carnival segment. By Yasuomi Umetsu (Mezzo Forte, Galilei Donna), it tells the story of man who—in secret—builds a cute robot, and then smashes her when she becomes too self-aware. I loved the animation in the segment, but I was not a fan of the story. I found too many ethical issues throughout the story, from his murdering of a self-aware being to the ending where he abandons for a dream his wife of over 40 years. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, given some of the other shows he’s created. This segment glorified a lack of morals.
Another favorite was “Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion”, set in the early Meiji Restoration period of Japan’s history. This was the only one where I wanted an entire series based on the segment. The creativity of the robots, the interesting characters, and the goofball script kept my attention and left me wishing for more. Who knew that giant robots started in the steampunk-esque 1880s? Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Roujin Z, Blood: The Last Vampire) created a real winner with this segment. I also loved the character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Summer Wars, Wolf Children)
I would be remiss in my duty as a reviewer if I failed to discuss “Cloud”, by Mao Lamdo (a nom-de-plume of Manabu Ōhashi (Patema Inverted, A Tree of Palme), who also did the character designs and animation). This one I love for the animation. All of the animation is either black and white or sepia and white, and it’s simply gorgeous. This story follows a small robot as it wanders through time, from the fall of Rome to the industrial revolution through to modern society. Through it all, an angel or wind spirit watches over him from the clouds, eventually granting him human form at the end of the film. The music is very calming through most of this segment, so do not watch it when sleepy or you may miss the wonderful animation. This is one of my favorites from Robot Carnival.
Speaking of the music, the entire film was scored and composed by Joe Hisaishi, known for his decades-long collaboration with director Hayao Miyazaki. This film allowed Hisaishi to truly show his versatility and let his talent shine. Each of the segments are scored separately, and each has its own feel. I could definitely hear hints of other works Hisaishi has done: there are parts which nod to Laputa: Castle in the Sky as well as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This is one of my favorite soundtracks.
If you haven’t ever seen this anthology film, I highly recommend it. It has science fiction, a touch of fantasy, a little horror, humor all around, and many different styles of animation—enough to please everyone. Even nearly 30 years later, the animation for these shorts stand up as shining examples of the top animators of the time. Get it now before it disappears again!
Release Date: July 21, 1987 (Japan)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Original Title: ロボット・カーニバル (Robotto Kānibaru)
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (brief social drinking)
Language: 1 (a couple minor, deity)
Sexuality: 1 (brief innuendo)
Violence: 3 (comic violence, scary situations, explosions, death)