Robot Carnival, a 1987 anthology of mostly dialogue-free Japanese animated short films, each involving automata. Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo directed the dark framing segment: a visual marvel that literalizes the program’s title by imagining a gigantic roving vehicle that contains dozens of rusting mechanical circus attractions rolling inexorably through a bleak futuristic landscape. Seven other directors helmed Robot Carnival’s seven shorts, which deal with humanity’s relationship with machines in ways that are sometimes lyrical, sometimes comic, and sometimes disturbingly grim.
Because the highly NSFW animated science fiction anthology Love, Death + Robots debuts on Netflix this weekend.
Co-created by Deadpool writer-director Tim Miller and Fight Club / Zodiac director David Fincher, the shorts collection is an intentional throwback to the adult fantasy comics and cartoons of the 1970s and ’80s when gory violence and copious nudity were the norm. The first “season” consists of 18 episodes of varying lengths and animation styles, with stories ranging from a bloody revenge thriller to dark slapstick comedy. Love, Death + Robots is meant to appeal not just to younger fans of edgy, bawdy science fiction, but also to older geeks who are nostalgic for Heavy Metal and the days when Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation toured colleges and arthouses.
Robot Carnival is a product of that same 1980s era. Originally released straight to video (which doesn’t have the “second rate” stigma in Japan that it does in the United States), the anthology was picked up for American distribution by Streamline Pictures, a company which helped popularize anime in the US in the late 1980s and early ’90s. During its heyday, Streamline cherry-picked some of the best movies and series for release in video stores and specialty theaters. Back then, Robot Carnival’s superior production values and “anime sampler” quality made it a popular entry point for newcomers to the medium.
Even now, the movie remains a good snapshot of 1980s Japanese animation. Like Akira, Fist of the North Star, Robotech, and early Studio Ghibli releases like Castle in the Sky and Grave of the Fireflies, the shorts in Robot Carnival showcase the detailed illustrations, visionary ambition, and mature themes that set Japan’s cartoons apart from most of their American counterparts at the time. Even big-budget live-action Hollywood blockbusters in the 1980s rarely attempted the all-out, eye-popping science fiction action of Robot Carnival shorts like “Deprive” and “Star Light Angel,” which feature epic clashes involving superpowered androids.
People who like robots, but aren’t as focused on love or death.
To be fair, Robot Carnival doesn’t lack for love or death. The film’s two best segments are “Presence” and “Cloud.” The first is the haunting story of an inventor who becomes creepily obsessed with the female bot he created, and the second is a poetic piece about a lonely immortal machine being watched over by a compassionate weather goddess. A number of these shorts end in tragedy and / or outsized violence, including the hilariously exaggerated steampunk / mecha parody “A Tale of Two Robots, Chapter 3: Foreign Invasion.”
But the point here isn’t sensationalism for its own sake. There’s no sex or splatter, in other words. “Cloud” is a perfect, gentle little work of art that uses unconventionally sketch-like illustrations and a lilting Joe Hisaishi score to suggest the underlying emotions, rather than spelling them out. There’s a mysterious, meditative picture-book quality to several of these segments. And as with a picture book, parents should feel comfortable letting their kids watch Robot Carnival by themselves — so long as they enjoy manga and young adult fantasy novels, that is.
It’d be even better, though, if the whole family watched together, talked through the complicated themes of ownership and regret in “Presence,” and discussed the literary allusions and use of irony in the mad scientist cartoon “Franken’s Gears.” Robotics isn’t just a fun hook on which all these stories hang. The writers and directors of Robot Carnival put real thought into what it means to make a machine and instill it with human qualities, such that it can live on after its creators are gone, carrying the best and the worst of us into the future.
TubiTV, for free, with commercials (which, fair warning, sometimes interrupt the segments at awkward moments). For those who prefer a commercial-free experience, the anime-heavy subscription service Crunchyroll also carries Robot Carnival, along with more than a thousand other cartoon series, movies, and live-action Asian dramas