I’ll let you in on a secret: as much of a Japanophile that I make myself out to be on the podcast, I’m not a big fan of anime.
Sure, I like Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and the like, but nearly anyone can make that claim. That’s not to say that I’ve never been a fan, though. When I was younger, I grew to love every production that Sandy Frank (Battle of the Planets, et al.), Trans-Lux (Speed Racer), and other such chance takers in the earlier days of Americanized anime hoisted upon America’s latchkey youth. However, sometime by the mid ’80s, the well ran dry, and anime became increasingly harder to find, basically only being shown at sci-fi and fantasy conventions by the few folks hardcore enough to watch umpteenth generation VHS copies with no subtitles in a dark room full of sweaty nerds. Instead, I took what turned out to be only the slightly higher road of watching umpteenth generation VHS copies of unsubtitled horror films in a dark room full of sweaty nerds, but hey, at least we had conventions dedicated to our genre of choice back then! Point being is that, and this is something that will probably play itself out in our Satoshi Kon/Kihachiro Kawamoto episode (here), I have gigantic gaps in my anime knowledge base. Thus, it should come to anyone’s surprise that I had very little prior knowledge of Redline except that Katsuhito Ishii, known for his off-center films The Taste of Tea (2004) and Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), had written it and J-film poster boy Tadanobu Asano voice acted one of the characters.
The titular Redline is the name of a race held every five years in a part of the galaxy not disclosed until the last minute. JP, a human racer, dreams of winning the Redline, partially to redeem himself for a previous incident that sent him to prison and also win the heart of Sonoshee (voiced by Yu Aoi), a sassy female racer who also has dreams of winning. However, when JP (voiced by Takuya Kimura of the Japanese man-boy singing group Smap) drives the in the qualifying Yellowline race, he completely wrecks his Trans Am and finds that he has to deal with the same unsavory elements that landed him in prison to begin with.
Redline takes a big chunk of its narrative from ‘underdog’ sports movies such as Rocky (1976) and Rudy (1993). In fact, so much so that I needn’t say any more for you to figure out how the film ends. However, even knowing how a film like this ends shouldn’t detract from the film’s overall quality. After all, as both Rocky and Rudy exemplify, it’s the underdog’s journey to redemption that gives these films their emotional impact. Unfortunately, none of Redline‘s is particularly likable. My guess is that the Ishii was trying to make JP a “too cool for school” type of character, but his aloofness makes him unsympathetic even when it’s revealed that his prison stint was actually him taking a bullet for his equally unsympathetic and sleazy mechanic, Frisbee (Asano). The film’s very few attempts to make JP likable come with his interactions with Sonoshee, but even they just come off as juvenile lust.
The remainder of the characters, mainly JP’s and Sonoshee’s rival drivers, are reduced to simple anime and game stereotypes. Each has its own unique traits and characteristics. The team “Super Boins” are duo of oversexualized women who pose and preen as if they just got off the shift at an Akihabara maid cafe while the man-machine monstrosity Machinehead is not unlike Axel from the 1996 Playstation video game Twisted Metal 2 in spirit, if not design. In fact, Redline really feels like a set-up for a character-centered racing game a la Mario Kart.
What Redline lacks in story and characters, it has in visuals which were pretty amazing. The art style might be a little surprising to some expecting the typical “big eyes, round face” look of other anime. In fact, Redline has a distinctive western style with a rougher “urban” feel. From my limited knowledge base, I saw styles like Steve Ditko, Heavy Metal (1981) with a touch of the Sega Dreamcast’s Jet Grind Radio flare. This style really served the action well. In several scenes, the turbulence from speed is literally tearing at characters’ faces and the art style serves to underline the kinetic action in the film. The music, mostly hard-driving electronica and lithe J-pop, serves the style and frenetic pacing of the speedy races as well as the quieter moments of the film.
Style over substance is something that Redline could be accused of and it’s certainly guilty of that. However, the way I see it (and, again, with the limited knowledge I have of the medium), this accusation sort of misses the point. One of the benefits of telling a story in animated form is to do so in a manner that visually can’t be done in regular film. Sure, modern CG can approximate certain aspects of anime; for example, the Wachowski Brothers’ 2008 adaptation of Speed Racer is an example of a film with similar themes as Redline. However, the human eye can still not be completely fooled by CG when taken into the fantastic realms of anime and, when it does, produces an effect not unlike the “uncanny valley”. Anime, however, can produce a world that is unlike any other and, though Redline doesn’t necessarily provide a compelling story to fit that world, it certainly does the visuals.