When it comes to japanese animation, anthology films are a great way for new directors to get their start, as they’re rarely handed a TV series or feature film. The format of short film allows them to express their creative style, but without the budget of a larger project. There was a healthy dose of anthology films in the late 80s/early 90s between Neo-Tokyo, Memories, and Robot Carnival. While I can wholeheartedly recommend Memories and Robot Carnival, I’m not sure Neo-Tokyo (aka Manie-Manie, Labyrinth Tales) earns the same privilege. The segments aren’t particularly outstanding or entertaining, nor are they awful. They’re no doubt interesting experiments in storytelling and animation, but unfortunately all that results of these experiments is mediocrity.
The first segment, “Labyrinth,” acts as the framing device, telling the story of a young girl who, during a game of hide and seek with her cat, discovers a labyrinthian world. In this world are shadow figures, cardboard residents, and a mysterious carnival clown who shows her the other two segments. Directed by Rintaro (Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Metropolis), the segment is extremely interesting to look at due to its clever camerawork and unusual character design, but has little to offer besides that, having no dialogue, character, or real story to it. It almost breaches into surrealism with the strange images and complete lack of character or narrative, but that would actually make it interesting if it did.
The second segment, “The Running Man,” is perhaps the best segment of the three thanks to its intriguing concept and gorgeous animation. “The Running Man” follows a reporter as he writes a story on Zack Hugh, a racer in the dangerous Death Circus circuit. In an interview with him, the reporter discovers that Hugh is telekinetic, which is how he’s been defeating the other racers. Unfortunately, after years of racing, his body is shutting down on him and the reporter bears witness to his final destructive race that Hugh wins even after he has died. The explosions and gore of “The Running Man” are fascinating to watch due to the extraordinary detail, the trademark of the director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who’s also responsible for such extremely violent works as Ninja Scroll, Wicked City, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.
“Construction Cancellation Order,” the third segment, was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy) and plays on his favorite theme of man vs technology. Sent to a fully automated construction site to shut it down after the last foreman disappeared, Tsutomu Sugioka finds himself held hostage by the robot responsible for controlling the crew and keeping them on schedule. The segment, while lacking in a solid ending, manages to be entertaining if solely through the tonal shift that occurs halfway through, taking the short from weird and light-hearted to creepy and mildly horrifying.
Neo-Tokyo as a location is a futuristic rebuilt Tokyo, and is the center of many cyberpunk stories. However, Neo-Tokyo as a film lacks in a lot of the familiar imagery and themes we’d see in other cyberpunk works. While Neo-Tokyo is by no means bad, it fails to capture our imagination through its individual segments or present us with an overarching theme or question. It has no utter insanity like in Robot Carnival, nor does it have one shining segment that could be a film on its own, as with “Magnetic Rose” in Memories. One’s time is far better spent on those other films, but if you so wish to check it out I’m afraid you’ll have to resort to not-so-legal sources as the DVD is out of print.