Anthologies aren't what they used to be. You used to be able to find the airwaves littered with them...The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales From The Crypt, and The Outer Limits, to name just a few. While it's a dying form in the US, there are still fond memories. On the anime side of things, anthologies have been primarily relegated to films like Robot Carnival, Memories, Neo-Tokyo, and The Animatrix. My guess as to why so few anime series are anthologies is that, unlike in live-action, there's a whole lot more work required. In live-action anthology series, the cast is always changing and thus there are few salary disputes. Props and sets are reused between episodes. A common narrator often provides continuity, whether it be Rod Serling's voiceovers or the Crypt Keeper's. But with anime, you have a variety of problems spring up. Every episode requires new character and artistic designs. There's no possibility of filler episodes to make up for budget and time shortfalls. Then bring in multiple directors and animators with clashing egos and ideas and so forth, and it's no wonder we haven't seen more.
The other issue is one of audience perceptions. It's one thing to critique a single film or serialized show. It's another when said show changes every week. There may be 200+ episodes of Bleach, but after a while you've got the jist. Not so with an anthology series. What's more, it's hard to read what your audience is looking for. Do they want hard sci-fi or emotional space opera? Psychological horror or gorefests? You might try one of each only to alienate your audience between the two. It's far more difficult a business than I ever gave thought to before.
All of this conversation leads us to Twilight Q, a 2-part 1987 OVA release, that was intended to be an anime anthology series. It never really got off the ground, which is sad but (in the light of all I've discussed) not all that surprising. The only reason it still occasionally gets noticed today is because the second segment, Labyrinth Article File 538, was directed by the now-famous Mamoru Oshii. While his ardent supporters might still watch it for that reason, I honestly much prefer the first segment. Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who also helmed Kimagure Orange Road TV, Here Is Greenwood, and Ocean Waves among others, Time Knot-Reflection isn't perfect but is quite entertaining, whereas Labyrinth Article File 538 is about as pretentious as you can get in sci-fi. So let's deal with each on its own terms, OK?
In Time Knot-Reflection, Mayu finds a camera stuck on a corel reef while snorkeling on vacation with a friend. She doesn't expect it to work, as the wear on it makes it look a couple of years old, but she and her friend nevertheless develop the pictures to see what they find. When Mayu looks at the photos, she's shocked to see herself in one of them kissing a young man she doesn't know! But things get even stranger when her camera gets a closer examination...as it's a model that is still in development. As Mayu gets deeper into the mystery of the camera, she is swept into the currents of time itself.
Time-Knot Reflection is not radically original, nor does it last long enough to create deep characters. However, the animation is strong for its era -- I really liked the look of it -- and the plot engaged me. Ultimately, the episode is a puzzle where different bits we learn as we go along fit together into the whole. There is a certain randomness to it; the only reason that things happen in the fashion they do is because the script says so, not because of any larger framework that makes sense of it all, and so the viewer who dislikes ambiguity may not care for it. For me, I enjoyed the mix of elements stirred together and seeing the pieces sort themselves out. It accomplishes its modest aim as a brief sci-fi entertainment with mild mindbender elements. It does not soar, but it works.
On the other hand, Labyrinth Article File 538 is a bizarre piece in which airplanes are turning into carp. Yes, carp. But nobody has yet proven that airplanes do indeed turn into carp...the planes just disappear, and stranger still, nobody really seems to care, at least from what we're shown. In the midst of the plane/carp debacle, we meet a man who's in an apartment taking care of a half-dressed little girl who loves fish and has a carp in their homestead. Meanwhile, a down-on-his-luck detective finally gets a case to investigate these two folks who might be behind the missing airplanes.
The problem with Labyrinth Article File 538 is that it's in the wrong format. As a short story, even perhaps as a radio drama, it could work. As a short film, however, it's terrible. The reason is that the majority of the episode is nothing more than the detective reading a note written by the caretaker he's investigating. There's no animation at all during this to speak of, other than an occasional changing of one surrealistic view into the apartment to another. What's more, because the detective is reading this letter for the first time, this never-ending monologue is also monotone. While the opening and closing of the episode are animated very well, the rest is just...nothing.
I am a pretty patient man most of the time. Shows that others find longwinded I find fascinating. It takes a lot for me to get bored. And, unfortunately, Labyrinth Article File 538 is just that: boring. Even though I also found Oshii's Ghost in the Shell dull, at least I could relate to the discussions, and his later works make philosophical conversations actually engaging. But this isn't a conversation, and it isn't philosophy. It's being told a story rather than shown it, which is the cardinal no-no for film and TV. The story could have been engaging if told a different way, but here, the medium doesn't work. If I could even enjoy it as a mindtrip, I would, but I couldn't. Where the ending of Akira enthralls me and bizarre flights like Lain and Boogiepop Phantom intrigue me, this was not a ride worth taking. I didn't care a thing for the characters, the animation, or the method of storytelling.
It should be noted, as I mentioned earlier, that audience expectations and desires make for vastly different viewpoints. I respect Justin Sevakis, one of the lead staff members at Anime News Network and (until recently) the author of Buried Treasure, a column on forgotten anime. In his review, he takes completely opposite positions on each episode. While we note some of the same points, he found Time Knot-Reflection pedestrian and Labyrinth Article File 538 a fascinating art film. Two knowledgable reviewers, two wildly varied opinions.
So what's the final verdict? I've given each episode its own ranking. I suggest you see both, if you can find them. As much as I found Labyrinth Article File 538 at turns annoying and dull, it's still a failure by a noted filmmaker from which much can be learned. Time Knot-Reflection is a look at a different notable (if less appreciated) director in the middle of his stride. A strange relic from another era of anime, it's unique enough to warrant a look.
Twilight Q: Time Knot-Reflection -- nothing objectionable -- B+
Twilight Q: Labyrinth Article File 538 -- nothing objectionable, save a two-year-old's naked rear end -- D