Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Redline (2009)

Unironically Awesome
by Silence Do_nothing

     That a surly blue gorilla traffic cop who braves the hostile forces of a military planet called Roboworld to enter an illegal anything goes death race with brazen alien hot-rodders is a great idea in theory, I take as a given. What matters most, though, is how well that idea would translate in practice.
     Going back to VHS tapes from Blockbuster in the 90s, I've learned that most anime ideas which sound cool or quirky in the synopsis aren't as entertaining when executed on the screen. Poor dialogue (perhaps a a weak adaptation by the translator?), glacial pacing, or choppy cost-saving psuedo-animation have doomed many which sounded good. But just as I think it's time to give up on the medium, I come across one which reminds me how it can offer an experience not found in American animation. Redline (2009) is the latest to do so.
     Those whose interest in Japan comes from video games, giant battling robots and mulleted superhuman martial artists with implosion powered punches, as opposed to the more traditional route of cherry blossom viewing, tea ceremonies and zen gardens, will be attuned to the film's awesome visual style. The movie radiates garish delight. It has Las Vegas style architecture, pachinko color schemes, futuristic Hot Wheels influenced hot rods and characters that wouldn't feel out of place in the Heavy Metal (1981) animation. It's the perfect antidote to the restrained taste of Apple's much vaunted design aesthetic.
     The animation is giddy fun that wrings smiles out of even the most reserved demeanor. Frames were dense and hyperkinetic without losing clarity. Vehicle and driver stretched towards infinity during a nitro boost. A gaggle of wild eyed reporters who've invaded a racer's hospital room contracts and expands like one breathing entity. The production went against the CGI trend by using 100,000 pages of paper based hand drawn animation. The fluidity wasn't equal to a Hollywood production (although Ghibli is presumably the only Japanese studio currently making feature length cartoons which are comparable in this respect), but it's still noticeably better than television quality.
     Thanks to good pacing, the film's vast amount of frenetic action never became repetitive or numbing. The sequences in between the two races allowed for a better look at all the awesome design work. Background guys looked better than many animations' main characters. From the larger elements, like an orbital beam cannon or giant mutant bioweapon, to the small, such as an unmotivated anthropomorphic squid shopkeeper (which struck me as a Japanese dig at foreigners' customer service), the movie had so much stuff that would have made a cool toy (I leave it to the reader to decide if the merchandising-appeal-as-cinematic-excellence standard should be applied to a Citizen Kane (1941) ).
     CliffsNotes aren't needed to follow the story, but when you have a movie that looks as awesome as Redline, it only has to avoid gumming up the works. There wasn't any cringe-worthy dialogue to ruin scenes. JP, the rockabilly looking hero with an improbable pompadour (officer Gori was only a minor character), is likable enough to give a rooting interest and provide an emotional anchor to the action scenes. He isn't racing for money and he rejects his competitors' habit of arming their vehicles with deadly weapons. JP is a purist who wants to compete on racing ability alone. His earnest hunger for victory manifests itself near the finish-line as the strain of every fiber of his body is so great that his eyeballs bleed (although that display still wouldn't be enough to save him from the "lazy" label if he were running wind sprints for my former coaches).
     I've used "awesome" to describe its visual excellence, even though the public doesn't respect the word as much as I'd like. The term has become debased by attaching it to things far from awesome (I won't get into whether using it to describe entertainment, rather than nature or the divine, was a prior devaluation). Add to that a generation's cynicism [several decades after Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966) and Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), the pendulum continues in one direction] and you have the word more often employed sarcastically than seriously.
     Hopefully, applying the term to high quality works like Redline is a step towards shoring up the currency of awesome and rehabilitating its sincere meaning. Because I refuse to use "epic". Forget that.
     For neophytes, Redline is good enough to spark an interest in other anime. For lapsed fans, it will renew their faith. It would be totally awesome if my wait for the next anime of this caliber were less than the five years the characters had between races. "Totally", not to betray my 80s upbringing, but because nothing is ever somewhat awesome or a little bit on the awesome side. Awesomeness knows no moderation, but it is well acquainted with Redline.

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