Inspired by the film they inspired

Special to The Times

When “The Matrix” burst onto the screen in 1999, American audiences were dazzled by its spectacular effects: characters leaping from the top of one sky- scraper to another, hand-to-hand combat that sent the participants flying -- knocking chunks of concrete out of walls -- or doing 360-degree flips in midair. But fans of Japanese animation recognized much of what they saw was a live-action adaptation of anime.

“The Matrix” and its sequel “The Matrix Reloaded” exemplify the increasing influence of anime on American live-action films. “The Animatrix,” a 90-minute compilation of short animated films inspired by the world of “The Matrix,” pushes the cultural cross-pollination even further. Seven artists from Japan, the United States and South Korea were commissioned to make the shorts, including noted directors Peter Chung (“Aeon Flux”), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (“Wicked City”), Koji Morimoto (“Robot Carnival”) and Shinichiro Watanabe (“Cowboy Bebop”). “The Animatrix” will be released on DVD and video Tuesday after first appearing on the Web earlier this year.

Beyond their look, the “Matrix” features and many anime films share a dystopian vision of a future in which humans are the slaves, targets or puppets of technology run amok. Tetsuo, the antihero of Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark feature “Akira,” is the product of an attempt to create a human bioweapon. In “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie,” Spike Spiegel has to prevent Vincent, a victim of military bioexperiments, from loosing a plague of deadly nano-robots. In “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” the sinister cabal SEELE (whose members may be humans or machines) plots to alter the course of human evolution.


These monstrous regimes can be overthrown only by a destined hero whose powers have been refined through intensive training. In the “Matrix” films, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) believes Neo (Keanu Reeves) is “the One” who will destroy the Matrix, and teaches him to fight in the cyber-world. Similarly, Shinji Ikari, the reluctant hero of “Evangelion,” can’t resist his fate: He is the “Third Child” who must learn to pilot the giant biorobot Unit 01. Domon Kasshu in “Mobile Fighter G Gundam” and Guts in “Berserk” pursue rigorous courses of study that include sword fights under icy waterfalls. Even the comic heroes of “Dai-Guard” (“office workers saving the world!”) require special training and dedication to pilot their Edsel of a robot.

“Matrix” creators Larry and Andy Wachowski are fervent anime fans, who cite “Akira,” Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” and Kawajiri’s “Ninja Scroll” as influences on their work. In a recent online discussion, they noted, “In anime, one thing they do that we tried to bring to our film was a juxtaposition of time and space.”


Some of the “Animatrix” films tie directly into the narrative of the live-action movies. “The Second Renaissance” (Part I and Part II) depicts the wars between humans and machines that led to the enslavement of humanity and the creation of the Matrix. Michael Popper, whom Neo guides through his escape from the Matrix in “Kid’s Story,” appears in “Reloaded” as an eager young cadet who dreams of serving aboard Morpheus’ ship Nebuchadnezzar.

The crew of an ill-fated hovercraft struggles to reach Zion with the news of an upcoming machine attack in “Final Flight of the Osiris,” which bridges the two features. “Osiris” was released as a trailer in theaters with “Dreamcatcher” earlier this year.

Other shorts echo themes from the features or present related side stories. The battle between two extravagantly costumed Kabuki warriors in Kawajiri’s “Program” amplifies the cybernetic training exercises Neo undergoes. In Watanabe’s stylish “A Detective Story,” a ‘30s-style shamus pursues Trinity (voice by Carrie-Anne Moss) through a weirdly retro world, then helps her escape from enemy agents.

Each segment has its own graphic identity. The characters in “The Second Renaissance” films are drawn with a monochromatic simplicity that recalls the work of Jean “Moebius” Giraud. To get the old newspaper photograph look of “Detective Story,” Watanabe photocopied the backgrounds, crumpled the copies, then ran them through a fax machine. During the Japanese publicity tour for “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver met special effects and computer animation consultant Michael Arias, who introduced them to a number of Japanese animation artists.


Arias, who had worked on American and Japanese films, became a producer on “Animatrix.” Speaking recently by phone from his home in Tokyo, he discussed the evolution of the project, which began as an idea for a television series.

“The first thing Eiko Tanaka, the president of Studio 4upon C, and I did when we met with ‘Matrix’ and ‘Animatrix’ producer Joel Silver was to steer him away from the idea of a TV project,” Arias says. “When you’re making a series, there’s just not enough time to get the kind of handcrafted, detail-oriented animation in the films the Wachowskis like. We were given a great deal of time to make fairly short animated films -- that luxury gave us access to a lot of people, even more than the larger budget.”

Arias declined to give a budget for “Animatrix,” but sources within the animation industry place it at around $15 million, far below the cost of a feature from a major U.S. studio but lavish by Japanese standards. Hiroyuki Okiura’s highly regarded “Jin-Roh the Wolf Brigade” (1999) was considered a big-budget animated film at about $5 million. “We set out to make a film that would present a broad range of talents, not just people who were already known to American audiences,” Arias said. “We wanted to include some curveballs.”

Although the Wachowskis wrote the scenarios for four of the nine shorts, the individual directors were given considerable freedom to contribute ideas of their own. The creator of the popular “Cowboy Bebop” series, Watanabe directed “A Detective Story,” which he wrote, and “Kid’s Story,” which the Wachowskis wrote.

“I loved ‘The Matrix,’ so when they asked me to do some animation relating to it, I was thrilled,” says Watanabe, speaking from his Tokyo studio through an interpreter. “When the Wachowskis gave me the synopsis of ‘Kid’s Story,’ it was only about half its final length and I expanded it. Many of the people on my staff were worried that they might not like me making drastic changes in their story. But when the brothers saw the film, they really liked it, so we were all happy -- and relieved.”

If “The Animatrix” is a hit, its success could lead to more transpacific co-productions. Previous Japanese-U.S. animated features have been artistic, critical and financial disasters: “Metamorphoses” (a 1978 film re-released as “Winds of Change” in 1980), flopped despite songs by the Rolling Stones and the Pointer Sisters. “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland” (1992) earned a paltry $1.1 million in the U.S.

Arias worries that increased U.S. influence might change anime in unwelcome ways. “The American film industry tends to absorb things, chew them up and spit them out in a processed, diluted form. My biggest fear is that Japanese animation will eventually become McAnime,” he says. “But it seems like we’re on the verge of something big here: In addition to the Academy Award going to ‘Spirited Away’ and the debut of ‘The Animatrix,’ ‘Ghost in the Shell II’ is coming up, which has some heavy American investment. There’s a ‘wow, Japanese animation is so great’ factor these days.

“In the U.S., animation is often perceived as a sort of second-tier medium that’s not really suitable for serious or adult material,” Arias concludes. “One of the great things about ‘The Matrix’ was that its strong anime influences established once and for all that live-action and animation really are one medium. With ‘The Animatrix,’ we’re making the same point in a different way -- closing the circle, as it were.”



What ‘Matrix’ shares with anime

The unlikely hero. Nerds are often the heroes in anime. Tenchi in “Tenchi Muyo!” seems like an ordinary high school kid but he’s really the heir to the throne of the planet Jurai. Shinji Ikari, the neurotic biorobot pilot in “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” is so alienated he makes Neo look downright jovial.

Gravity-defying martial arts. Anime directors have pushed martial arts moves beyond Hong Kong films’ wire-work stunts. The characters in “Dragon Ball Z” hover in midair. The Bogard Brothers in “Fatal Fury” and the warriors in “Battle Arena Toshinden” leap to impossible heights, and throw punches that send opponents flying through the air.

Science and technology run amok. Many anime villains are linked to malevolent biotechnical experiments. In “Project Arms,” a kid discovers his right hand has been implanted with machines. . A deranged scientist grows monsters from the cancer cells that killed her daughter in “WXVIII (Wasted 13: Patlabor The Movie).”

Skyscraper rooftop chases. Face-offs between anime heroes and villains often include the kind of aerial maneuvers Trinity executes when she’s pursued by the Agents Smith in “Matrix Reloaded.” The tone may vary from grimly serious (the five armor-clad heroes in “Ronin Warriors”) to farcical (the teen martial artists in the gender-bending comedy “Ranma 1/2”).

Cyber-reality. In “RahXephon,” a high school student discovers the Tokyo he knows has been hidden while the outer world is at war. The grim title character in “Serial Experiments: Lain” adopts a more dynamic identity in the cyber-world , but what’s real and what exists in cyberspace become increasingly unclear.



Auteurs of anime

Since its beginnings in the postwar era, the modern Japanese animation industry has emphasized sophisticated filmmaking over polished animation. This system hasn’t fostered animators comparable to Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” but it has produced an impressive roster of directors with strong, recognizable personal styles. Here are five auteurs whose work stands out.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri: The images of women being assaulted by demons in Kawajiri’s “Wicked City” helped to inspire the term “tentacle porn.” His work is often extremely violent yet compelling and skillfully executed.

Hideaki Anno: Eighteen years after its debut, fans of Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion” continue to debate the meaning of its flamboyant mixture of giant robots, apocalyptic Christian symbols and Jungian psychology.

Mamoru Oshii: “Ghost in the Shell” (1995), Oshii’s tale of a cyber-woman police officer battling an insane military computer, astonished a small but enthusiastic U.S. audience when it was released here.

Katsuhiro Otomo: His feature “Akira” is often described as the movie that created an audience for anime in the U.S. The “Blade Runner”-influenced vision of the future and alienated characters have been widely copied.

Shinichiro Watanabe: He succeeded in bringing the darkly stylish look of film noir to animation in the popular TV series “Cowboy Bebop” and the recently released “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”