Through happy coincidence, I ended up watching Redline the same week as I did Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Both are adamantly hand-drawn throwbacks defying the computer-oriented trends in animation today. And considering my childhood was as much about hand-drawn Disney as it was hand-drawn anime, their simultaneous grasp for a 90s renaissance allows for an interesting retrospective experience. But while both successfully recapture the spirit of a bygone era, only Redline is essentially soulless.
So bad news first. Writer Katsuhito Ishii (Trava) describes his movie as one that ‘defies logic’ and hopes its force of innovation will leave us ‘traumatised’ (in a good way). When speaking of the plot, however, the word I’d pick is ‘tranquillised’. Harsh perhaps, but Ishii’s idea of defying logic is to throw in as many ideas as won’t fit, meaning rather than organised chaos, he achieves a thematic mess.
Considering the subject matter, I was expecting no plot. Imagine my surprise when I got three half-baked ones instead. Hero JP’s infatuation with sassy heroine Sonoshee and his drive to live up to her standards is the least obscure of the narratives. It characterises him as a dedicated sweetheart and gives him an emotional motive for participating in an otherwise murderous sport; without it, we’d have to assume JP was merely a glory-seeking dunce. But the cheesy execution makes the romance shallower than a Disney sequel. The worst subplot sees the military government of Roboworld trying to kill the Redline racers because their chosen track happens to invade Roboworld territory. The antagonists’ roles are so blatantly contrived to guarantee the use of missiles in the final race, that they have no opportunity to make us believe they’re serious. I would have much preferred bad guys organically grown from the show’s inherent themes. Finally, hovering somewhere between genuine poignancy and total superfluity, we get the tale of Frisbee, JP’s best friend who is involved in some trouble with gangsters. All these components are then precariously tacked together by the self-explanatory device of a car race.
Whole narratives aside, the movie would have benefited simply from cutting more scenes. The middle sees plenty of pointless sequences and dialogues that dissipate its momentum faster than you can say ‘drag’. Instead of tight, action-packed, essential story, we get distractions like JP trying to figure his way around the interior of a space pod, him shopping in an alien village, and one extended scene at a restaurant that could have been cut in half without losing any value.
I can imagine others plausibly coming to a different conclusion. The plot is discombobulated, they might argue, but this is a virtuous end in itself. Like a Coen brothers movie, chaos only adds to the charisma. The problem is simply that I could never buy this excuse from Redline; at no point could it convince me that it wouldn’t be a better movie if it just focused.
The good news for Redline (and it really is great news) is that it looks so damn good that, when it counts, we forget its hollowness. Its 100,000 hand-drawn comic book-style images imbue it with a retro-chic street cred that glassier CG works could only pray for. I especially like the invasive positioning of the ‘camera’ during races, which gives us the feeling we just might disappear up someone’s arse at the next crash. Even better, it emanates a sheer love of its own existence that I haven’t seen in a long time. There is love in the mechanical designs, which leak macho potency out of every exhaust pipe, and love in the character designs, which offer an eerie cocktail of alien appendages and 70s outfits, and love in the sumptuous colour tones and warm gloss of the images. We like to talk about dense narratives, but Ishii here delivers some dense imagery. Freeze a frame. There are one hundred things happening for five different reasons.
In terms of technique, Redline represents one of those unlikely once-a-decade events, and its mere existence warrants a sort of exhilarated shock. Let’s not forget, the movie is hand-drawn. Honest-to-God drawn by the hands of honest-to-God people who do it because they like giving us cool things to gawp at. These days, if you’re not Studio Ghibli, you’re probably risking financial ruin for your manual art. Thus, while the movie failed to suck me into an emotional experience, it forced me to stand back mouth agape and admire every corner of its uniquely wondrous construction. Watching the breathtaking first racing sequence, Redline gave me the taste of something I had sorely missed. Sure it’s confused, but it’s also sexy, painstakingly fashioned, and bold.