The brilliance of art is simplicity. The best art tells us something about ourselves, makes us think, and focuses our attention on the unconscious which nevertheless invades our daily lives. One could argue if Memories is really art, I suppose, though all of its artistic parts are equally excellent. However, Memories is the kind of anime that I wanted to watch when I first became fascinated with Japanese animation back 17 years ago. Katsuhiro Otomo, director/creator of Akira, takes us through three separate worlds of his creation. He only directs one of the three segments, and each has its own unique style, form, and concept, but his seasonings are evident throughout. It is not conventional in story form, in artistic style, or musical leanings, but it strikes a unique, emotional chord that convention cannot attain. Animated films like Memories give reviewers the resolve to slog through countless hours of lesser shows; it's movies like Memories that remind us that these pictures of paint and celluloid can become so much more in our mind's eye.
To say much about the three individual stories spoils a bit of the mystery, so I will keep my descriptions to a minimum. The first short, "Magnetic Rose", runs the longest, and is my personal favorite; it chronicles how the Corona, a scavenger vessel in the middle of space, runs into trouble as the crew investigates a distress signal sent by a huge, rotting starship. The second feature, "Stink Bomb", follows a hapless fellow trying to cure his cold, oblivious to the fact that the medicine he's taken is causing a disaster of epic proportions. Finally, the film closes with "Cannon Fodder", Otomo's segment, which creates a new world where the entire populace is dedicated from birth onward to firing gigantic cannons against an unseen foe. Only problem is, when does the firing stop?
Although Memories was released in 1995, it has not aged in any way, just as Akira could have been released yesterday and would still appear fresh. The artistic direction is just stunning, with an incredible level of detail displayed in every segment. How this plays out depends on what the mood of the piece is, but the artwork is noteworthy throughout. Whereas "Stink Bomb" is the closest to Otomo's typical look, "Magnetic Rose" and its sci-fi trappings are particularly impressive in their detail and trappings. By far, though, the most unique segment artistically is "Cannon Fodder". The character design is a mix of Heavy Metal, Ralph Bakshi, and Gerald Scarfe; the world itself takes these artists, combines them with the dirty grandeur of Moebius' cityscapes and filters it all through a brown haze of war. It is unlike virtually anything else in the world of anime. Meanwhile, although the music is also uniformly impressive, Yoko Kanno's work in adapting "Madame Butterfly" for "Magnetic Rose" is exemplary, enough that I scouted out the music online for some time after watching the film. Everything here is magnificent, though each segment is so very different.
Despite all the craftsmanship involved, if it weren't for the significant power of its stories, Memories would be just another movie of the week. "Magnetic Rose", for one, is hauntingly beautiful, the rare piece that makes you think how you would react in similar circumstances while enjoying the superb pacing, the surprising action, and the sweeping score. Meanwhile, "Stink Bomb", despite being the most conventional of the three stories and thus often dismissed unfairly as trivial, has a deep sense of black humor almost completely unseen in anime outside of Otomo's work (see Robot Carnival for some more of it in action). The homage to Dr. Strangelove is readily apparent, and it succeeds at poking fun at a variety of targets--the military, the government, and even to some extent the viewer. Finally, "Cannon Fodder" is easily the most difficult piece, made no easier by its bizarre look. Seeing past that, Otomo makes some veiled statements about the potentials of war and our human nature that prefers to blend with the crowd rather than to put ourselves at risk and to chase after truth. If there is a prevailing theme here, it is not really the concept of memories at all--it is the concept of truth and the ways that we are hurt when we consciously or unconsciously ignore the truth to pursue our own devices. Take a deep look at the film, and you'll understand what I mean.
The sad fact is that, because Katsuhiro Otomo's name is splattered all over this film, its production company wants a ludicrous amount of money to license it in North America, believing the name recognition will be worth the cost. What they do not seem to realize, though, is that the audience that Otomo built on Akira is not the audience who would most appreciate Memories. It would be like expecting the same audiences to appreciate ET and Saving Private Ryan merely because they were both directed by Steven Spielberg. This film can be purchased in the Region 2 DVD format, which includes English subtitles; however, not that many of us have region-free players or the money to spend on importing discs.
All that being said, if you like art films and are willing to examine a movie that doesn't provide you every answer, Memories is simply fantastic. Find a local anime club, borrow a friend's copy, import it--but serious anime connoisseurs need to see this movie. Thought-provoking anime are too hard to find as it is, and this is a must.
Memories -- violence, themes and concepts better appreciated by adults -- A+