ANIMATION REVIEW : Shorts Showcase Japanese Work

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“Robot Carnival” (which runs through Thursday at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles) is a feature-length collection of eight unrelated short films that highlight the strengths--and weaknesses--of contemporary Japanese animation.

The most interesting segments showcase the Japanese flair for creating wonderfully imaginative robots that look both mechanical and biomorphic. (This design skill has had a profound impact on the toy industry: The popular, metamorphic robot toys of the last decade, including Transformers and Go-Bots, were based on Japanese models.)

In “Opening/Closing” by Atsuko Fukushima and Katsuhiro Otomo, a city-sized complex of machines threatens to destroy a desert-like planet, only to transform itself into a dazzlingly kitsch mechanical carnival, replete with dancing dolls and clockwork musicians. Two young lovers in a futuristic amusement park are menaced by a towering robot-demon--a fantastic construction of steel bones, talons and spikes--in “Starlight Angel” by Hiroyuki Kitazume. Imaginative camera work and cutting adds to the sense of wonder the robots generate.


But for all their technical skills, the Japanese artists are not effective storytellers. “Starlight Angel” packs about as much emotional punch as a rock video, despite its adventure and ill-starred romance: The viewer never gets any sense of who those idealized young lovers are supposed to be. “Presence,” in which a lonely scientist builds a lovely robot-companion, feels limp and overly long because Yasuomi Umetsu fails to give the characters believable personalities that could sustain the ambitious storyline.

It seems unlikely that “Robot Carnival” will win many new converts to Japanese animation, but it will undoubtedly appeal to designers, to the growing legion of Japanese cartoon fans, and to children who play with robot toys.