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When The Matrix hi-jacked the hype that surrounded the bloated behemoth that was The Phantom Menace to detonate a cyber-culture explosion, few initially believed that a mere summer movie, albeit a smash, would elicit such an effect. In fact, the Larry and Andy Wachowski shockwave is still rippling through Hollywood and now promises a synergy of film, music and gaming the likes of which have yet to be experienced.

In another bold, and unprecedented, move the directing duo sought to both explore and expand, in anime form, upon themes implicit in the opening chapter. The concept of technology blurring the lines between reality and fantasy is not exactly new in Japan where the pursuit of breaking human boundaries by the use of machines is almost a religion in itself.

So then, to Animatrix, a compendium of 9 animated short stories employing top Oriental anime directorial talent with experienced studios like Gainax, Madhouse and Square USA Inc. behind them, allied to U.S. participants working to briefs set by the Wachowski brothers themselves. Buckle up Dorothy, ‘cos Kansas is going bye-bye...

Final Flight Of The Osiris
Revisiting the dojo training program, strapping captain Thadeus and the lithe Jue face off. Blindfolded the pair execute move after breathtaking move, each sword swipe loosening a little further the clothing of each combatant. When there’s little more modesty to be preserved an alarm sounds and the sparring partners (in more ways than one) are whisked back to the ‘real world’ to discover that sentinels are burrowing down to the human headquarters. Thadeus initiates a frantic chase as Jue jacks back into the Matrix to warn Zion before it’s too late…

Animatrix, The
Designed by some of the leading lights of Square USA Inc., part of the team responsible for animating Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the centrepiece to this release is quite staggering. Despite having only 16 minutes to play with, Andy Jones, to a Wachowski script, manages to create characters the audience can care about at the deadly denouement, a chase sequence that’s exhilarating and enough awesome eye candy to sate the most hardened CG junkie. Considering Final Fantasy, no mean achievement in itself, Square have clearly made exceptional advances in endoskeletal musculature, skin and hair, and in this case there’s a premise thought-provoking enough to do them justice.

Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 2
Man lives in harmony with machine; that is, an entirely unequal structured society in which androids are habitually abused as animatronic underlings for a decadent organic upper class. With a new form of A.I. comes an increased awareness of social justice and when humans steadfastly refuse to allow their electronic alter egos to function in an isolated peace the stage is set for an inevitably apocalyptic clash of cultures.

In addressing the backstory behind the creation of the Matrix, Mahiro Maeda, backed by the cel frame animation expertise of studio Gainax, has created a quite chilling allegory of human folly in which the race of man ultimately becomes the arbiter of its own semi-extinct slavery. Employing vocoder processed narration and a newsreel style narrative approach Maeda references some of the most heinous suppressive acts in human history (Tiananman Square, U.S. executions of Vietnamese prisoners, humiliation of female Parisian WW2 collaborators, Nazi extermination of the Jews) in a necessarily violent vignette that’s as sophisticated an animation as they come. Proof, if any were indeed needed, that this is no cartoon…

Kid’s Story
Michael Popper is your usual inattentive high school adolescent with a penchant for skateboarding. Problem is, in gazing for hour upon hour at his computer screen, he’s come into contact with an unusual internet user who calls him to question the nature of his existence. With unknown agents closing in, Popper will have to use all his skateboard skills to stay alive long enough to uncover the truth…

Illustrated in a scruffy sketched style that is sure to alienate as many casual viewers as it enthrals, Shinichiro Watanabe’s contribution jacks into the second Matrix instalment, Reloaded, and what it lacks in plot it certainly makes up for in its unusual old school style that serves as a nice metaphor for the shifting lines between the dream world and the real world.

As a pair of lovers spar in a samurai influenced training exercise, the nature of commitment required to survive in the real world is underscored as a member of the human resistance bids to be rejoined with the Matrix and attempts to persuade his beau to accompany him or be killed.

Easily the most overtly Japanese anime due to its feudal Shogunate setting and heavily lined 2D form, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s segment presents the classical ‘look’ of his own Ninja Scroll (also known as Jubei Ninpocho), exhibiting all the Chi influenced gravity defying moves that became par for the course in the movies. The sole piece to take place in a period environment, it might look a little out of place but this is a prime example of master craftsman Kawajiri at work.

World Record
Taking comfort in the faith of his father and despite the misgivings of his advisor, disgraced athlete Dan takes to the track once more to prove that he can break that 100m benchmark. As the finish line nears, Dan’s sheer physical exertion threatens to break down the boundaries of the Matrix and agents are despatched to ensure that he fails.

Notable for being the directorial debut of Madhouse studio alumni Takeshi Koike, it’s an intriguing exercise in making human muscular motion interesting and more enticing than it may sound. As such, Koike uses an engaging animated style that actively encourages body deformation against a backdrop of Antonio Gaudi inspired architecture.

Animatrix, The
Upon discovering the loss of her beloved cat, a young girl scours the streets of her city. Eventually she happens across a group of other children who challenge her to enter an unusual house in which the normal rules of time, space and gravity do not apply as they do elsewhere. However, this glitch in rendering has alerted the Matrix authorities who are arriving on the scene to eradicate all trace of the error.

Koji Morimoto’s film, a simple story built on the old haunted house axiom, harks to the very best of Hayao Miyazaki. Like in Grave Of The Fireflies or Oscar-winning Spirited Away, it’s the attention to detail that has been so painfully thought out yet remains so unobtrusive that it’ll have you coming back time and again to notice something that was missed previously.

A Detective Story
A down on his luck private eye gets reluctantly hooked on a new case in which he is bade to find the mysterious underground character known as Trinity. Staring through the looking glass down the barrel of a gun after making contact, Trinity has to evade the agents hoping to secure her capture in this ‘case to end all cases'...

A super stylish evocation of classic 1940s film noir, all the staples are here: voiceover narration into a mechanical device, rain sodden streets in the neon-lit night, Venetian blinds, the cigarette balanced on the edge of the lip, the .38 revolver, trenchcoats, trains. Shinichiro Watanabe pulls off that slightly grimy look with aplomb in using a scuffed pencil approach to the black and white animation.

A plucky group of resistance fighters take the unusual step of risking their lives to capture as many of their android antagonists as they can. Once in custody, each machine is offered a choice of fighting for humans or remaining with their mechanical alma mater.

Inventively turning the whole Matrix raison d’etre upside down, the abstract and surrealist way that Peter Chung’s perplexing philosophical piece addresses the issues that it raises, recalling the work of Dali in its style and best viewed with a clear head, certainly won’t be to every viewer’s taste. The director of seminal American animation Aeon Flux Chung’s blending of CG and 2D animation is consistently excellent and is sure to tax the little grey cells if not the adrenal glands.

Anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 2.35:1, this is a gorgeous transfer.  Free from the shimmer and awkward contrast of colours of which some animated DVD renderings are prone, this is a vibrant and sharp presentation. Challenged by the different demands of each segment’s individual style, the transfer comes up trumps every time from the CG based Last Flight Of The Osiris to the grainy black and white hand drawn 2D of A Detective Story.

As a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, this is pretty good stuff too. As all the sonic components are composed or processed in a studio it’s a clean crisp affair with dialogue always clear from the centre speaker.

Again, the requirements of the soundtrack vary from piece to piece. Last Flight Of The Osiris is obviously the most aggressive with fantastic channel separation in the swordplay and plenty of action from the subwoofer as the ship’s gun turrets pound away. That said, Beyond boasts some fantastically subtle sound design that complements the elegiac piece very well.

In quite a coup, the producers of the Animatrix DVD have managed to persuade three of the normally reticent Japanese directors to lend their voices to an Audio Commentary. Conducted in Japanese, the English subtitles are thoughtfully designed so as to appear at the top or bottom of the screen so as to allow the viewer to best focus on the action on screen while reading the text.

Animatrix, The
First up is Mahiro Maeda for both parts of The Second Renaissance in which the surprisingly effervescent animator explains the origins of the Mandala inspired opening and Buddhist images for an unknowing Western audience which, on a personal level at least, greatly increases the understanding and enjoyment of these two segments.

Also alluding to in-jokes, Babylonian heritage and the parallelism of contemporary events (despite neglecting to mention the Japanese WW2 instigation of the Death Railway or the rape of Nanking) this is a fascinating insight into the depth of imagination require for such an affecting anime.

Next up comes the jovial Program commentary featuring director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and jocular producer Hiroaki Takeuchi. This is a fresh and funny double act which sheds new light on orthodox Japanimation while championing the use of 2D characters within a 3D environment to accentuate the emotional depth of the protagonists. There’s also plenty of insight into just why Kawajiri’s exceptional style is as pronounced as it is and the residual influence of ukiyoe, traditional wooden block paintings in anime.

Last in this section comes a Takeshi Koike commentary, once again assisted by producer Takeuchi, for his World Record segment. Very much an emerging talent in the anime scene, the perspicacious Koike is disarmingly humble in his appraisal of his own work and, at times, has to be prodded along by his ebullient producer but it becomes clear he really is one to watch for the future.

Following these is a Making Of section under the banner of ‘Execution’ in which each piece is afforded a short featurette, running from between 6 minutes and 9 minutes:

Last Flight Of The Osiris: Director Andy Jones talks through the involvement of Square USA Inc., citing the improvements that have been made in skin tones and facial animation since Final Fantasy and even includes some fantastic test footage submitted to the Wachowski brothers which involves a short-haired Aki Ross in hand to tentacle combat with a sentinel.

Renaissance: Composer Don Davis elaborates on extending some of the score’s cues to fit director Maeda’s vision and Maeda himself goes into more detail in how he combined cel frame and CG elements to create the emotional resonance for which he was hoping.

Kid’s Story: Shinichiro Watanabe evaluates the success of the particular sketchy style of the piece (imparting his fears on whether the audience will accept it) in the context of the staggering cost of animation and the personal touch that a director can preserve in designing the key frames. There’s also a background on the unusual step of establishing the look and mannerisms of the central character by observing an actual San Francisco high school student in everyday life in a practice more common in motion-captured CG then cel frame work.

A Detective Story: Here you can see just how pervasive the motifs of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown can be and Don Davis particularises the inspiration behind the 1950s B-movie style smoky jazz score.

Animatrix, The
Program: Yoshiaki Kawajiri provides more depth with regard to the nature of ukiyoe and Hanafuda playing cards and how they inform every aspect of his work, most notably Ninja Scroll which initially brought him to the attention of the Wachowskis.

World Record: Further highlighting the extreme nature of body deformation as a narrative device, director Koike illustrates his use of shadow and purely black silhouettes as a product of his own burgeoning style.

Beyond: A fantastic short piece in which the full obsessive eccentricity that makes life’s observer Koji Morimoto such a producer’s nightmare but conversely such a great animator (in the mould of Miyazaki) is revealed.

Matriculated: Peter Chung (yes, he used to work on Rugrats!) goes some way to deconstructing the rationale behind his abstract and kaleidoscopic artwork.

To accompany the above, under the title of Creators, is an extremely informative text based feature on the various directors and producers involved in the Animatrix project.

The penultimate special feature is a 22 minute Documentary entitled Scrolls To Screen: The History And Culture Of Anime. Here you’ll find an introduction to the genesis of Animatrix swiftly followed by a background to anime in general with to its leap from a previous incarnation as a purely print based Manga medium to animated film form. The influence of Osamu Tezuka, the founding father of anime, architect of Rintaro’s masterful treatment of Metropolis and creator of Astroboy, is clearly stated and there’s plenty here to inform the more casual anime fan.

The one factor that limits this feature’s scope is that it is presented entirely from an American point of view and focuses almost exclusively on the effects of anime on American culture rather than how the medium consistently and constantly denotes and draws from Japanese society. That said, there are plenty of clips of original Japanese masterpieces which happen to be now available on DVD so hopefully appreciation of anime will enter a whole new popular phase.

Well designed and well executed it may be but Enter The Matrix: In The Making is not much more than promotional fluff to encourage the purchasers of this DVD to similarly splash their hard earned on the game across several platforms which is now appearing on the shelves of the nearest video game shop. However, should the game prove to be as ground-breaking as this extended trailer would have you believe, it’ll certainly have been worth waiting for!

All of the above can be accessed by a neatly designed set of menus. A nice touch is that, when returning to the main menu after having viewed one of the segments, the industrial dance music feeds in slowly so the viewer who has just viewed Last Flight Of The Osiris at full whack won’t rattle the room if he/she still has the volume tuned to the max. This is merely an indication of the attention to detail that the Wachowskis demand and let us hope that other DVD producers may follow in their footsteps with future releases.

Animatrix, The
Fans of anime should love it. Fans of The Matrix should love it. Fans of ultra-high quality yet surprisingly modestly priced DVD releases are sure to love it. Across all 9 stores, and in a rare occurrence indeed, exquisite animation is effectively matched with abundant inspiration for an experience to engage the adrenaline gland and the cerebrum.

Presented by Warner Bros. on a disc with outstanding visual quality and an impressively immersive use of a 5.1 soundtrack, not to mention enough extras to keep the average viewer not just occupied but engrossed for some time, this has ‘essential purchase’ written all over it. You have just been told what the Animatrix is, now you have to see it for yourself...