Enter The Animatrix
A collection of Matrix-related animé offers beauty, horror and lots of violence
by Bryan Walsh
The focus groups are gone, the buzz has abated, the press has moved on to hyping The Hulk. You can come out now. You can confess that you hated The Matrix Reloaded. You hated Morpheus' speechifying, winced at the smarmy Merovingian and at the film's truncated ending. As for Zion, if they'd spent one more minute on that faux full-moon party, you were going to start a little Burly Brawl of your own.
So was it all an illusion then, the mind-blowing promise of the original Matrix? The answer is no, and the proof is The Animatrix. A collection of nine animé film shorts supervised by Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by a team of animé all-stars, The Animatrix is the Matrix concept free of the commercial pressure of an epic-movie trilogy. Sure, The Animatrix is in one sense a multimillion-dollar advertisement for the franchise, a part of the Wachowskis' plan to milk 99¢ out of every entertainment dollar spent this summer. But it's also a delicate, deliberate work of art, one that restores much of The Matrix's original wonder, beauty and horror, which are so glaringly absent in the sequel.
On top of all the other Matrix-related merchandise, including the video game and comic books, the release of an animated extension might seem like overkill. But the Wachowski brothers are devoted to and informed by animé the cerebral, ultraviolent, consciously cinematic style of animation pioneered by the Japanese. After the original Matrix opened in Japan in September 1999, the Wachowskis floated the possibility of producing an animé homage, based on the Matrix world, as an appendix to the films. Top directors—including Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the hip Cowboy Bebop, and Koji Morimoto, who worked on the seminal Akira—signed on immediately. The brothers wrote four of the nine shorts themselves; the rest were penned by the directors under Wachowski supervision. "The Animatrix was like being invited to the brothers' house," says Watanabe. "We got to play in their huge backyard—but we had to remain within the yard."
The result, which hit video stores June 3, is a variety pack of visual styles, ranging from the hyper-realistic computer graphics employed in Final Flight of the Osiris, to the dreamy, hand-drawn doodles of Kid's Story. Each short expands the Matrix universe in ways that the plot-bound live-action films could not. The Wachowski-written Second Renaissance, Parts 1 and 2, mini-epics in their own right, describe how man began the war with machines and how the Matrix came into being (in the usual dystopic, postapocalyptic animé tradition, man is hoisted by the petard of his own pride). The taut Program is set in a simulacrum of feudal Japan; Detective Story somehow turns the Wachowskis' vision into film noir, complete with fog, fedoras—and Trinity in (what else?) tight, black leather.
The flashy showpiece of the group is Osiris. Entirely computer generated, it's the least demanding short, seven fast minutes of racing hoversubs, squiggly Sentinel drones and skyscraper diving. If that's not enough to engage the vital 13 - 15-year-old male demographic, Osiris also throws in a sword duel that leaves the heroine wearing little more than a thong. The short is visually enthralling and its digital heroes manage to outemote Keanu Reeves. Still, Osiris is more video-game interstitial than animé.
Matriculated, my favorite, is written and directed by Peter Chung, creator of the ground-breaking if perplexing MTV animé Aeon Flux. Chung grasps the creepy biomechanics at the heart of the Matrix world. His machines and humans alike are faintly insectoid and fatally interdependent on each other. Remember how Morpheus talks about going "down the rabbit hole"? Well, Matriculated pulls you there and then some. Chung takes the concept of humans living in a computer-generated world and turns it on its head, plugging a machine into a kaleidoscopic human dreamworld. The result is electric—Kool-Aid brain candy, with a twist of unexpected pathos.
With its focus on the obscurer parts of the Matrix mythology, The Animatrix will appeal to dedicated acolytes. Less obsessive cinema buffs will appreciate it too, as engrossing entertainment and a popular expression of the sometimes obscure animé form. If nothing else, The Animatrix provides a reminder of why so many of us loved The Matrix in the first place.