In the two and a half decades I've been following anime, a lot has changed. We've gone from seeing mostly male protagonists (and male fans) to something closer approximating a 50/50 split. Sci-fi, once the mainstay of anime, is passe and mecha is right out; moe and slice-of-life is in. The OVA, part of the industry's bread and butter, is now on life support, even if you count original web animation. And then there's the change in the way anime is made altogether. Computers are now part and parcel of the business; it's been years since you could find a genuine cel used in an anime production. You can argue about whether things have gotten better or worse, but you can't argue that things certainly are different.
Redline is a throwback to the way things were. Hand-drawn over the course of seven years, Redline feels like an anime that came out in the 1980s. It stands in the line of Ninja Scroll, Midnight Eye Goku, and Wicked City, yet with artwork that puts all those to shame. In fact, Redline is among the most amazing looking animated films ever, and not just among Japanese artists. When earlier critics called this a "must-see," they weren't kidding...it begs to be viewed. It is the Toblerone of eye candy. It's too bad that it's so amazingly dumb at times; otherwise it would certainly be a classic.
The film begins with an awesome race that JP almost wins...yet again. With an Elvis 'do and a TransAm rather than a weapon-equipped supercar, JP has plenty of flash but can't seem to pull off a success. It doesn't help that he was found guilty years ago of race fixing in collusion with the interplanetary mafia. Battered up in his car's latest crash, JP isn't sure what to do next until it's revealed that he's qualified for Redline, the ultimate race in the galaxy -- because a couple of his competitors dropped out. It turns out that Redline is scheduled to be run on Roboworld, whose militaristic government is violently opposed to this crazy contest, and a couple more clearheaded drivers wisely decline. JP is going to need all the help he can get to get his TransAm up and running again, especially since he'll not only have to outrun some of the most insane racers in the universe but also the government forces that have been ordered to shoot to kill. Then there's the matter of Sonoshee, the beautiful driver he's known for a long time who's too much of a gearhead to find time for romance...
As I mentioned earlier, Redline is amazingly animated. That doesn't mean it's beautiful. Director Koike Takeshi has been a key animator for decades and worked on all of the seminal titles I mentioned above, as well as many others. However, the artistic style he works with is more sharp and angular, not nearly as grotesque as Dead Leaves (another anime he helped animate) but close. It definitely comes out of the Pander Brothers playbook, and I found it a bit detrimental to enjoying the show. The craftsmanship is superb, but the look is a little too ugly for my taste. I much prefer these character designs, though, to the generic pablum so many modern shows feature.
For those who are here just to see some incredible racing sequences, they're in here. The first ten minutes and the last half-hour are about as exciting an anime you can expect to see in your lifetime. They are well-choreographed and easy to follow -- which should go without saying but can't in a post-Transformers world. And surprisingly, the conclusion is such that I couldn't guarantee how it would end. It's no Akira or End of Evangelion, but in a racing movie you expect the hero will win the race. This film feels a bit more like Rocky on that end of things, and you're not sure if you'll wind up with Rocky or Rocky II.
The biggest question for some of us, though, is whether or not it hangs together well. It doesn't. It's not that the core plot is simple; enough Initial D fans like myself are perfectly OK with watching cars race down a mountain for a couple hours. It's that virtually everything outside of that main plot is bungled. The characters outside of JP, his mechanic, and his mafia-pressured financier are ciphers at best. The romance is tacked on. The villain is as dumb as a hood ornament and as realistic as a two-headed unicorn. And while underground racing always has the element of getting caught, having Redline run right through the heart of a military complex bent on your destruction is like running the Indy 500 in Afghanistan. It's mind-numbingly absurd. Logic is left at the front door throughout the proceedings. The hour or so between the two races gets a bit dull at times. And the ending? Um...yeah. (See for yourself.)
Does all that make it awful? Heck no! Old-school fans, especially those who reveled in the wonderful grade-B shlock-fests of the past, will finally have a new-school anime they can call their own. Younger viewers will probably dig on the race and the sense of style. And all of us will be left agape at the visuals. Redline marks the first film I've watched on BluRay, and it is beyond amazing. Because of its creation date, there isn't a hint of film grain or artifacting. It looks and sounds brilliant. Even if you hate the movie, you have to respect the artistry that went into its creation.
I'm not going to pretend Redline is a great film. It shifts gears from the sublime to the stupid and back again. I couldn't turn off my brain enough to love it. But is it cool and occasionally downright thrilling? Oh, yeah, baby.
Redline -- brief nudity, violence, profanity -- B+