Robot Carnival – The Strong Sound of Silence
I recently started re-reading Justin Sevakis’ Buried Treasure columns and decided I wanted to start watching the titles he recommends. I’ve seen a decent number of older series/movies, but unlike with movies — my other main passion — I don’t really have a grounding in anime history. The first I started with is also the title Sevakis used to kick off his column — the 1987 anthology movie Robot Carnival.
There’s a lot to dig about Robot Carnival: As Sevakis writes, it’s absolutely gorgeous, one of the most beautifully animated movies I’ve seen, anime or otherwise. Many of the shorts have that ’80s sort of look to them, which may turn off some people, but the fluidity and detail of the animation and art is undeniable. This is god tier stuff here. And the range of ideas within the movie’s stories is likewise wonderful — you’ve got crazy action, if that’s your thing; quiet, thoughtful stories; and madhouse satire (the titular “Robot Carnival” is my favorite — you can’t beat an “It’s a Small World”-esque ride’s AI eroding over time to the point where it rampages through a desert, mindlessly slaughtering people).
But what really stands out is the method of storytelling: An emphasis on the visuals, with minimal dialogue used in nearly every short. There are spoken lines in only two of the shorts — “Presence”, where the dialogue just makes the themes a bit clearer, and “A Tale of Two Robots — Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion”, which is a gleeful mix of a propaganda film and a super robot work set in the Meiji era. Totally bizarre and hilarious. But otherwise, there is nary a line of dialogue used during the shorts. The visuals are used to carry the storytelling load and communicate ideas ranging from the simple to the complex. And it makes this nearly 25-year-old movie refreshing.
Frankly, it pisses me off that anime, Western animation and live-action movies are often so lazy with storytelling, relying far too much on expository dialogue to drive world-building and interactions between characters by bullshitting about the plot. We hear a lot about how stories should show rather than tell, but shouldn’t that be doubly true for animation and live-action movies? They’re a visual/aural medium — take advantage of it! I think a lot about what Roger Ebert wrote about Pulp Fiction: Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue is about something — instead of telling the audience about all the bullshit they can see onscreen, it instead does other work such as developing characters and establishing relationships in subtle ways.
In the same way that Pulp Fiction uses dialogue to show the audience aspects of characters’ personalities and relationships, Robot Carnival uses its visuals to tell its stories and reveal its characters. Take the short “Franken’s Gears”, for example: If it were just your average Hollywood-style Frankenstein ripoff story, with the mad scientist shouting “My creation — it lives!”, “I have created LIFE!!1!1!1!!” etc. at regular intervals, then it wouldn’t be memorable at all. But there’s no dialogue, so instead director Koji Morimoto relies on visual and aural cues — the glee in the scientist’s face (waggling eyebrows, glinting eyes and a near toothless grin) as he builds the robot, the shattering glass and rumbling of metal signifying the robot’s raw power, the intricate detail of the laboratory representing all the work that has been put in to build the machine, all building up the intensity that makes the ending that much more memorable. I love it.
And then you have something like “Cloud” that is on an entirely different level: It’s not so much a traditional narrative as it is a journey through history, a visually inventive experience detailing everything from the beginnings of civilization to its destruction. The little robot boy who trudges through time endures this until the very end. It’s a bit abstract, but it does what showing is ultimately meant to do, which is engage the viewer, encourage him or her to put some thought into what is being put onscreen. What does telling do? It hands everything to the viewer on a silver platter. Would you rather have someone tell you a story, or would you rather witness every detail of that story for yourself? That’s the difference between telling and showing. Robot Carnival understands this, and that’s why it holds up as a fine piece of storytelling instead of showing its age too much.
One final thing that stands out about Robot Carnival is its sharp, dark sense of humor. I laughed a hell of a lot more than expected — when the hell was fucking Japan ever this funny? “Robot Carnival” (and its companion pieces “Ending” and “Epilogue”) are funny as hell, but so is “Nightmare” — or, at least, I think so. Maybe I’m just amused at the thought of robots screwing around at night and partying so hard that they destroy a carefully-cultivated human urban environment. Machines need some revelry every so often, right?