Japan / USA / 2003
Influenced by anime, kung fu films and cyberpunk fiction, the hugely successful live action feature The Matrix (1999) and its further episodes Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (both 2003) were the ultimate in comic book style cinema at the time.
The Animatrix were nine animated shorts connected with the Matrix universe, mostly produced at the Madhouse and Studio 4C at the time of the second two features of the Matrix trilogy. They were commissioned (and partly written) by Matrix creators the Wachowski siblings who hired some of the anime creators who had inspired them to create this series of shorts
All of these shorts boast high production values and the best ones show innovative approaches to the neo gothic dystopian vision of The Matrix universe. My favourite is Beyond, written and directed by Koji Morimoto, whose previous track record as director includes the Magnetic Rose episode of the 1995 anthology feature Memories (also probably the best episode of that collection) and the excellent 1995 short Noiseman Sound Insect. He was also key animator on anime classics Neo Tokyo (1987), Robot Carnival (1987), Akira (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and would later be animation director of bizzarro cult favorite Mind Game (2004).
Beyond is a smaller story than all the other Matrix films, with their bombastic vision of a reality whereby we are all puppets manipulated by ninja digital fascists who keep us in line by controlling our illusionary world perception where in actual fact we are little more than farm animals bred for their exploitation. Instead this is about a girl who loses her cat.
The central character Yoko (played by Hedy Burress of TV shows ER, CSI, video game Final Fantasy X and also featured in the Animatrix film Program) is told by some local street urchins that her cat is maybe in the ‘haunted house’, which although a prohibited space is also the kid’s favourite hang out. Inside the walled off derelict building she finds a forbidden zone where the rules of physics are subtly warped, gravity can be defied, the weather differs to the world outside and fleetingly glimpsed cracks seem to appear in reality itself. As she plays with the kids and chases her cat through this mysterious magical ruined and rubbish strewn secret garden, an ominous looking armoured truck is seen making its way towards the compound.
The film works well standing alone removed from its Matrix context, as a mysterious story where the surreal bleeds into the real. Much in the style of Satoshi Kon it also perhaps contains refererences to Andre Tartovsky’s 1979 art house live action sci-fi classic Stalker, with its mysterious forbidden zone.
Beyond‘s beautiful looks seem somewhere between the stylised urban drawn 3D of Michael Arias arthouse classic Tekkon Kinkreet and the lovely organic worlds and precisely drafted characters of Hiyao Miyazaki. This all kind of makes sense as director Morimoto’s contribution to Memories was written by Kon , he had also worked with Miyazaki on the stunning Kiki’s Delivery Service and Arias was credited for the computer graphics here in Beyond (presumably the 3D rendered artwork of the city).
The realistic character animation is heavily referenced, perhaps even what you would call rotoscoped, from key scenes and movements shot on video and the score features muisc from UK cult band Death in Vegas.
The film features some anime characteristics like some futuristic looking vehicles and a sexy cyber punky heroine who likes spending lots of time in her underwear, but it differs from most anime and the other Matrix films with its lightness of touch and warm humanistic approach to the characters, who feel a lot more three dimensional and anchored in reality than usual comic strip style sketchy avatar type versions. In this slice of the Matrix universe ordinary people are treated with a degree of affection and sympathy rather than being seen as mindless drones too stupid to see the truth, an aspect of the film franchise which seemed to encourage the alienated view of humanity adapted by many of its ‘goth’ type teenage fans. Whether the Tartovsky reference is deliberate or imagined, Beyond gives the viewer the space to use their own mind and shows a heart and sophistication above the usual teenage bedroom techno sci-fi mainstream.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!