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Inspired by the film they inspired

Anime influenced the 'Matrix' films. Now the live-action series spawns 'Animatrix.' They share not only a style but also a disturbing vision of the future.

June 01, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

When "The Matrix" burst onto the screen in 1999, American audiences were dazzled by its spectacular effects: characters leaping from the top of one sky- scraper to another, hand-to-hand combat that sent the participants flying -- knocking chunks of concrete out of walls -- or doing 360-degree flips in midair. But fans of Japanese animation recognized much of what they saw was a live-action adaptation of anime.

"The Matrix" and its sequel "The Matrix Reloaded" exemplify the increasing influence of anime on American live-action films. "The Animatrix," a 90-minute compilation of short animated films inspired by the world of "The Matrix," pushes the cultural cross-pollination even further. Seven artists from Japan, the United States and South Korea were commissioned to make the shorts, including noted directors Peter Chung ("Aeon Flux"), Yoshiaki Kawajiri ("Wicked City"), Koji Morimoto ("Robot Carnival") and Shinichiro Watanabe ("Cowboy Bebop"). "The Animatrix" will be released on DVD and video Tuesday after first appearing on the Web earlier this year.

Beyond their look, the "Matrix" features and many anime films share a dystopian vision of a future in which humans are the slaves, targets or puppets of technology run amok. Tetsuo, the antihero of Katsuhiro Otomo's landmark feature "Akira," is the product of an attempt to create a human bioweapon. In "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie," Spike Spiegel has to prevent Vincent, a victim of military bioexperiments, from loosing a plague of deadly nano-robots. In "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the sinister cabal SEELE (whose members may be humans or machines) plots to alter the course of human evolution.

These monstrous regimes can be overthrown only by a destined hero whose powers have been refined through intensive training. In the "Matrix" films, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) believes Neo (Keanu Reeves) is "the One" who will destroy the Matrix, and teaches him to fight in the cyber-world. Similarly, Shinji Ikari, the reluctant hero of "Evangelion," can't resist his fate: He is the "Third Child" who must learn to pilot the giant biorobot Unit 01. Domon Kasshu in "Mobile Fighter G Gundam" and Guts in "Berserk" pursue rigorous courses of study that include sword fights under icy waterfalls. Even the comic heroes of "Dai-Guard" ("office workers saving the world!") require special training and dedication to pilot their Edsel of a robot.

"Matrix" creators Larry and Andy Wachowski are fervent anime fans, who cite "Akira," Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell" and Kawajiri's "Ninja Scroll" as influences on their work. In a recent online discussion, they noted, "In anime, one thing they do that we tried to bring to our film was a juxtaposition of time and space."


Some of the "Animatrix" films tie directly into the narrative of the live-action movies. "The Second Renaissance" (Part I and Part II) depicts the wars between humans and machines that led to the enslavement of humanity and the creation of the Matrix. Michael Popper, whom Neo guides through his escape from the Matrix in "Kid's Story," appears in "Reloaded" as an eager young cadet who dreams of serving aboard Morpheus' ship Nebuchadnezzar.

The crew of an ill-fated hovercraft struggles to reach Zion with the news of an upcoming machine attack in "Final Flight of the Osiris," which bridges the two features. "Osiris" was released as a trailer in theaters with "Dreamcatcher" earlier this year.

Other shorts echo themes from the features or present related side stories. The battle between two extravagantly costumed Kabuki warriors in Kawajiri's "Program" amplifies the cybernetic training exercises Neo undergoes. In Watanabe's stylish "A Detective Story," a '30s-style shamus pursues Trinity (voice by Carrie-Anne Moss) through a weirdly retro world, then helps her escape from enemy agents.

Each segment has its own graphic identity. The characters in "The Second Renaissance" films are drawn with a monochromatic simplicity that recalls the work of Jean "Moebius" Giraud. To get the old newspaper photograph look of "Detective Story," Watanabe photocopied the backgrounds, crumpled the copies, then ran them through a fax machine. During the Japanese publicity tour for "The Matrix," the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver met special effects and computer animation consultant Michael Arias, who introduced them to a number of Japanese animation artists.

Arias, who had worked on American and Japanese films, became a producer on "Animatrix." Speaking recently by phone from his home in Tokyo, he discussed the evolution of the project, which began as an idea for a television series.

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