Japanese animation is and its permeation of American culture has always fascinated me. While I admit to only seeking out a handful of anime shows and films per year, the ones I discover tend to blow me away. This past year I discovered Redline, a magnificently drawn, exhilarating thrillride of a movie that deserves more attention in the animation-loving world. Make no mistake, the film is all style and very little substance. But what glorious style it has! The film is a sci-fi lover's dream come true, with imaginative alien designs, grittily-detailed worlds, and an incredible soundtrack that matches the film's exciting speed and video game-like sense of fun. In fact, it might be apt to compare Redline to a video game, because it exists as an experience, not so much as a coherent story with compelling character arcs. The film introduces us to many potentially great characters, but their stories feel somewhat incomplete.
In the far future, human beings and aliens alike compete in elaborate and dangerous races in high-tech cars, flying vehicles, and even transforming robots. A human with an impractically large pompadour named "Sweet" JP (Takuya Kimura, Patrick Seitz in the dub) barely makes it to the finish during the Yellowline race, which is a sort of a preliminary for the galaxy's most popular race, the Redline (I can only assume there were other color-lined races were before this, but we'll get to world-building problems later). Among the other contenders is a human named Sonoshee "Cherry Boy Hunter" McLaren (Yu Aoi, Michelle Ruff in the dub) who has been determined to win the Redline race her whole life. The race will take place on Roboworld against the wishes of its President (Kosei Hirota, David Lodge in the dub). The inhabitants of Roboworld are militant cyborgs who view the race as a plague upon society, and warn that they will kill the racers if they choose to continue. That's not stopping the contestants, who are primed to race no matter what. Among the racers gathered on Roboworld are a couple of bounty hunters, an insanely strong cyborg, some overly-sexualized pop stars, and blue gorilla-like alien cop. Meanwhile, JP's alien best friend and mechanic Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano, Liam O-Brien in the dub) is concerned with fixing the race for a mafia boss, to whom he owes money of course.
There are plenty of great ideas here to bolster the story, and the ensemble cast of characters are very well-established, but Redline isn't ultimately throws away a lot of potential. Little Deyzuna (Kenta Miyake, Derek Stephen Prince in the dub) is a highly emotional cyborg who joins the race to get back at his old comrade, who apparently left him behind during a war. He is consequently my favorite character; everything from his design to his personality to his tragic backstory begs for more details and more time given to the character's resolution, and a short epilogue might have been able to address this. Sadly, the film stops dead when the race ends. In fact, hardly any of the potential story points planted throughout the film have any kind of solid payoff, and the only resolution we do get is a half-baked love story that had hardly buildup. The ending is very frustrating because the characters really are fantastic, but as-presented, each is sadly one-dimensional (save perhaps for Sonoshee and Frisbee).
Problems with worldbuilding start from the ground up; is this an underground race or is it widely celebrated? The Roboworld president declares it illegal, but what power does he really have? The race is broadcast all over the galaxy, and people aspire to be in it, so is Roboworld the only place that has a problem with it? If so, why in the world would you have the race there? And seriously, what was with the big, blobby, energy baby Funky Boy? Rather than smiling with glee at the madness just witnessed, I was left pondering these questions and wishing I'd gotten more development out of the ensemble cast. I also can't decide if Redline's portrayal of women is self-conscious and satirical in its over-sexualized nature or if fanservice is supposed to be just that (I'd like to think that BoiBoi and BosBos are parodies of sexualized anime women, but at one point, Sonoshee is topless watching them on TV, so who knows?). In a lesser film, these issues might be deal-breakers, but here they're merely speedbumps. This isn't a political thriller, it's nothing but a sci-fi racing movie with some of the best racing scenes ever committed to the screen (my thirst for a deeper story be damned).
The aesthetics do a lot of the heavy lifting here, and the races really are the stuff of legend. Director Takeshi Koike brings everything to life with a heavy emphasis on hand-drawn animation; the vehicles, explosions, moving backgrounds, speed warping, etc. are all lovingly crafted and fluid, accentuated by pitch black shading that resembles striking comic book art. In fact, much of Redline resembles a moving graphic novel, with its wonderfully-detailed characters and sharp, stylish backgrounds. I can't even begin to describe the amazing designs of the hundreds of aliens and cyborgs seen throughout the movie, which range from charming to disgusting to just plain adorable. There are things done here that CGI wouldn't be able to replicate, like JP's car warping when he fires off a speed boost, or a strange cutaway to a family of aliens watching TV that's drawn in a wildly different art style. Since the animation was handled by studio Madhouse (which also produced the incredible Paprika), I'd expect nothing less. Even when the film borders on sensory overload, the sense of excitement is never lost.
The large majority of Redline is incredible to look at, but also to listen to. The music by James Shimoji is pulse-pounding and intense, but oddly beautiful at the same time. It matches the gorgeous animation flawlessly, and incorporates hilarious little "theme songs" for most of the racers that are charming and fun (and helps to make up for their lack of character development). I watched the film in its original Japanese audio and the American dub, and the dub did it justice. It is, of course, incredibly sad that in the eight or so years since its release that it didn't inspire any other projects to follow in its hand-drawn footsteps (though its seven-year-long production and poor box office performance were likely not encouraging factors). Nonetheless, I'm grateful that it exists and that it seems to be gaining a small cult audience. I've said this before about my personal relationship with the Disney films of the 70s and 80s, but if there's one good thing that's come from the CGI overload we face from modern animated American films (and the ever-increasing digitalization of Japanese anime), it's that it forces us to look to the past for gems we might have missed. Redline is assuredly one of those gems.