The Techno-Rockabilly Romance of Redline
This article originally appeared on the Cultural Gutter, Aug. 3, 2017
Redline is the sort of movie that might spontaneously spawn during a Guitar Wolf concert. Well, this and Wild Zero of course — an apt film to bring up, as the two share rather a lot besides leather-clad rocker protagonists. It’s over-the-top, anarchic, and every frame is infused with the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll (if not actual rock ‘n’ roll; Redline‘s soundtrack is more thumping techno-oriented). It also has a sweet, doe-eyed love story beneath all the engine revving and hair grease — and if you think that is somehow not in keeping with the tough, leather-clad exterior, you might not know many rockers. They are a sentimental lot at their core. Heck, Elvis wanted to be your teddy bear. And Roy Orbison! That dude was all about crying and being sad and taking advice from candy colored clowns who sneak into your room late at night and stare at you. One of my best experiences after moving to New York nigh those many decades ago was talking an autumn stroll through Tompkins Square Park past an older (than me, at the time) rockabilly couple with arms around one another, listening to The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” on a beat up old boom box. Modern rockabilly may be all about tattoo sleeves and volume, but even beneath that noise beats the heart of a romantic. And beneath all the leather, engine revving, and alien hustlers, Redline is most definitely a romantic, sentimental movie.
JP, who has been nicknamed Sweet JP (voiced by Takuya Kimura) by television personalities, is a small-time racer in a future when flying cars have supplanted wheeled vehicles, leaving ground cars the sole playthings of the members of an oddball racing league. JP is small-time not for any lack of talent, but simply because he and his partner Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano) capitalize on JP’s endless potential by manipulating and eventually throwing races so a big-time space crime boss can make bank. He is also notable not just for his retro rocker leathers and meter-tall pompadour, but also because he drives one of the few mostly traditional cars in the circuit, an old school American muscle car while the others cars are modified with assorted future stuff so that they barely resemble cars. Neither JP nor Frisbee are happy with the situation, but between debts and threats, they don’t have much of a choice but to play along — that is, until JP finds himself qualified for the be-all, end-all of races, the Redline, to be held on a hostile planet that has outlawed the race and threatened to blow up anyone who dares put the pedal to the metal in their star system. JP qualifies not because of his record, but because he is wildly popular despite always losing and is elected to take part in the race after a number of qualifying drivers decide they’d rather not participate in a contest where both their fellow drivers and the mad overlord of a highly militarized robot planet will be lobbing missiles at them.
Also on the circuit is hot-shot driver Sonoshee (Yu Aoi), who beat JP during their last race and on whom JP has a crush (as well as a secret memory of). In an era of anime characterized by either awkward young weirdos and simpering waifs who need to be cradled and protected, JP and Sonoshee are refreshing grown up and likable characters — not without their quirks of course. We are talking about a guy with a three-foot pompadour and a woman seemingly composed entirely of day-glo. But their relationship as it grows throughout the film is sane, mutual, even cute, and lacks the creepy vibe that makes so much modern anime so thoroughly revolting. Granted, it’s only Sonoshee who turns in the movie’s obligatory nude scene. I could have done with the same from JP (JP does appear topless as well, though I think it means a little less from a cultural standpoint). But even then, and acknowledging that yes, this is gratuitous fan service, the situation in which the nudity occurs is pretty innocent and realistic: sitting around in her apartment, watching television while she enjoys a cigarette.
The rest of the racers are the sort of oddballs and aliens straight out of 1975’s Death Race 2000. The king of the Redline circuit is a towering Moai statue looking guy who has completely integrated himself with the circuitry of his hot rod (but still takes time to accessorize with a resplendent crimson cape). The race is largely financed by the pre-teen princess of a civilization represented by two scantily clad pop idol types who, despite their love of glitter and hearts, are relentless racers. There’s also a couple of part-time bounty hunters and a psychotic cop whose motivation for success in racing is his desire to pull over, ticket, and beat up his fellow racers for speeding. Standing in the way of their big race is the insane emperor of a planetary system occupied largely by cybernetically enhanced warmongers whose civilization is fueled by the labor of underpaid, overworked, and increasingly agitated workers. The race itself is taking place on the only demilitarized planet in the system, a dingy, run-down haven for refugees and laborers. But it’s demilitarized nature isn’t going to stop the ranting emperor from raining all manner of destruction down on it.
Anime can suffer from the conditions under which it produced. Although many American fans dream of working in anime (naively — most of them don’t even speak Japanese), the reality of how anime is assembled is pretty soul-crushing, consisting of extremely long hours, bad pay, and an unwillingness to do anything that hasn’t been proven part of a successful formula. Scripts and artwork both are turned around in incredibly short amounts of time, leaving almost no room in the process for creativity or unusual ideas. When making Redline, however, perhaps because the production was full of people from live-action cinema, the standard procedure for cranking out anime was not followed. This was a movie allowed to take its time in being made, involving actors and screenwriters who had been afforded a chance to travel the world, to immerse themselves in the film and pop culture of other countries and other fandoms. Through no fault of their own, the average anime creator spends most of their time chained to a desk in a depressing studio, which doesn’t give them a lot of chances to get out, develop some life experience, and expand their horizons. Redline is an example of what can happen when a production house (in this case, Madhouse) allows creative people to be creative. There isn’t much in the way of originality in Redline, but they’ve been given time to execute the formula exceptionally well, and with enough flare and personal style that it doesn’t feel like rehash.
Anyone who is familiar with anime from the 1980s will find themselves on firm footing here. Redline possessed the same frantic energy, the same enthusiasm, and the same eye-popping obsession with background detail as the best the medium had to offer in the decade of excess that made anime fandom so huge in the United States. Comparisons have inevitably been made to Japan’s other legendary race car show, Speed Racer, but I think other than shared subject matter, Speed Racer and Redline have very different vibes. More recently, it shares a lot of the same spirit as Cowboy Bebop, another show that was also sentimental and not particularly popular in Japan. Redline is playful, upbeat, and energetic, like a puppy that just wants to make you happy. It’s also the antithesis of what the bulk of anime fans in the United States and almost all anime fans in Japan want from the industry. While older fans and non-anime fans have embraced the film with the same gusto it puts into itself, everyone else stayed away. Any number of factors contributed to this. First and foremost, the tastes of modern anime fans does not favor science fiction, rockers, or car fetishes. Sci-fi anime fell out of fashion round about the end of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and while I poke fun at the stereotypical anime of today, in the end people are free to dig what they dig, so what can you do? Science fiction these days is to anime what the western or the musical is to mainstream American cinema. Each of those has its fans, but all of them are currently out of style with most viewers.
There’s also a disconnect between what American and Japanese fans want, much the same as is seen in the video game industry. But in both countries, things like space alien con artists, pompadoured heroes, and muscle cars aren’t the sort of things for which they are looking. The very things that attract some people to Redline are what repulsed the larger population of anime fans: gearhead nonsense, black leather, grown-up (if juvenile) characters, thunderous beats, and edgy (sometimes eye-searing) artwork. It’s like you took a bunch of Hatsune Miku fans to a Guitar Wolf show. Or tried to mix Qoo with motor oil. The people involved with making Redline probably knew this when they went it, but this is the kind of movie they wanted to make regardless. And that probably explains why so many of the people involved with the film are not mainstays of the anime industry. Director Takeshi Koike has spent most of his career as animator in the harsh meat grinder of mainstream anime production, having worked on properties as diverse as Wicked City, Goku: Midnight Eye, and Ninja Scroll; and more recently offbeat animated titles like Samurai Champloo, WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3, and Funky Forest: The First Contact.
A number of titles in his filmography are examples of the increasing amount of cross-production that happens between the United States and Japan. Koike’s few efforts as a director also showcase this increasing interdependence. His first directing job was for one of the shorts in The Animatrix. Redline was his first significant effort as a director though, and there is no way he wasn’t aware of how unpopular the style and subject matter would be with most anime fans — particularly in Japan. Like many lauded shows, from Stand Alone Complex to Big O to Cowboy Bebop, American fans were the target. Unfortunately for Redline, while American audiences may be more receptive to action and science fiction anime, the movie was just too many things that didn’t catch their fancy. Ultimately, Redline is the type of movie that shouldn’t even bother marketing itself to anime fans. It should instead eye broader fans of genre and cult cinema. Of course, even there it’s difficult, since many fans of even the most obscure live-action films still carry an irrational dislike of animated fare or consider it somehow less legitimate than live-action.
This despite the fact that Redline features the voice talents of a number of actors who, like Koike, are not really anime fixtures. As the world-weary alien hustler Frisbee, we have Tadanobu Asano, a darling among fans of international cinema and decently successful cross-over actor, having appeared in Japanese cult movies like Takeshi Kitano’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, and Sogo Ishii’s Electric Dragon 80.000 V (which would make an excellent double bill with Redline). He’s also had a successful Hollywood career, with a substantial supporting role in both of Marvel’s Thor movies, the silly Battleship, and a lead role in 47 Ronin alongside Keanu Reeves. Not without his anime bone fides though, he’s done both voice work as well as acting in live-action adaptations, including a 2015 live-action adaptation of the long-running Lupin III series, in which he will play the endlessly suffering Inspector Zenigata. He also appears in 2014’s The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece of detective fiction, set for this version in 1950s Tokyo and starring Asano as Masuzawa, the series’ version of iconic private eye Philip Marlowe.
Actor Takuya Kimura, who voices JP, comes with a similarly impressive pedigree, though his work has been primarily on Japanese television. His most notable anime work is in Hayao Miyazaki’s epic Howl’s Moving Castle. While he is not as well-known internationally as Tadanobu Asano, he did have a role in Wong Kar-wai’s lush science fiction daydream 2046, the less popular sequel to Wong’s internationally acclaimed In the Mood for Love. Rounding out Redline‘s main cast is Yû Aoi as Sonoshee. In keeping with overall non-anime-mainstream nature of Redline, her other most significant anime role was in the lavish Tekkonkinkreet, another animated feature film that was all but dismissed by most anime fans while finding an audience amongst fans of live-action cult and arthouse cinema. She also had a lead role in Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected, a delightful satire of both spy films and slice-of-life dramas, as well as appearing in the live-action adaptation of Tetsujin 28.
The music, composed by James Shimoji, is dominated by booming techno beats, but while those songs may be aggressive and loud enough to set the tone of the score overall, it’s not nearly that one-dimensional. In keeping with the rocker sentimentality, there’s everything on the soundtrack from contemplative piano interludes to funk and even some syrupy pop (although usually used for comedic effect). Given how punk/rock ‘n’ roll the film looks, it’s a bit odd that nothing of that nature makes it onto the soundtrack. This movie is tailor-made for a song or two from a band like Samurai Attack or Fifi and the Mach 3, to say nothing of how appropriate it would have been to slip Guitar Wolf in there somewhere. After all, the best rockabillies in the world these days are Japanese rockabillies. Those cats know what they are doing. But I guess licensing those songs is expensive, and Redline was already pretty expensive to make. That said, the soundtrack is still fitting for the action on-screen, and even though I’m not much of a techno guy, it’s diverse and idiosyncratic enough to get on my good side.
The pace set by Katsuhito Ishii’s script is as frantic as the soundtrack, yet just as with the soundtrack, it frequently takes time out for quieter, more contemplative moments: JP and Frisbee waxing poetic about their careers as they enjoy a beer, or JP leaving a lost earring and a flower at Sonoshee’s doorstep. Like everyone else involved in the production, Katsuhito Ishii’s career has more to do with the world of live-action cinema than anime. He’s pretty well established as a director of quirky Japanese cinema, including 1998’s Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl and 2000’s Party 7. It brings a different perspective and a different way of telling stories to Redline. In fact, Redline is deceptive. It certainly feels like it’s packed with action and insanity, but when you analyze what you’ve seen, you realize there’s really only two big race scenes (granted the one at the end is long and complex and also includes space warfare, revolution, and a throw-down between a semi-sentient bioweapon and a disintegrator cannon). The rest is pretty quiet, with much of the time between the opening and final race spent on developing the relationship between JP and Sonoshee or JP and Frisbee. But these scenes are so sincere, and the characters, while very much archetypes, are so likable, that the bounding energy of the film persists even when it’s just a couple of dudes having a smoke and looking at the stars. Again, like any good rocker, Redline is a big softie at heart. And even if the music is more techno, less Roy Orbison, there’s a winsome sense of loss at the center of the movie.
Given how long the production took (seven years to complete and 100,000 hand-made drawings at a time when almost all animation is done digitally), how much it cost, and how little interest there was in it once it was complete, I doubt that Redline represents anything more than a one-off labor of love that keeps anime interesting to people who aren’t otherwise very much into anime. Despite these obstacles, Redline has eked out a niche for itself, one I suspect will grow over time. It’s an infectious movie, one of those things I end up trying to push on everyone. It’s a visual feast with a kind soul. It’s the movie that comes from the wrong side of the tracks, who your parents tell you not to see. But you know it’s heart is good. When it pulls up outside your house and revs its engine, you are ready to slip into the passenger’s seat. When the weather gets cold as you tear along endless ribbons of asphalt, Redline will lend you its battered old leather jacket and keep you warm.