There is a small, albeit significant, minority of anime fans out there for whom the feature film Redline encapsulates the spirit of what they wished most anime produced was like. I consider myself one of them, which is why it’s that much more crushing that Redline is fated to be an anomaly; the last of its kind in more ways than one. It will most likely be the last anime movie made that is primarily hand-drawn animation, and it’s not painstakingly calculated to appeal to the Japanese otaku demographic at the expense of everybody else. (Predictably, it wasn’t particularly successful in Japan.) As Redline continues to tour the film festival circuit and receive nearly universal praise from the type of English-speaking anime fan who’d attend film festivals in the first place, those of us not in major cities can only wait until the home video release slated for sometime in 2011.
Redline marks the feature film directorial debut of Takeshi Koike, but he never would have been able to create it had he not first cut his teeth on directing short animations for commercials, Katsuhito Ishii films such as Party 7 and Taste of Tea, and anime anthologies such as The Animatrix. In this sense, Takeshi Koike’s ascension is not unlike the various Hollywood movie directors who’ve gotten their start from working on things like commercials and music videos. But Koike is no rookie. He’s a longtime veteran of the anime industry, having toiled for many years as an animator at Madhouse under the tutelage/supervision of the incredibly underrated Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
With Kawajiri now in his 60s and having considerably slowed his output—I eagerly await his upcoming web animations with the premise of “guy in drag has a sword and kills many ninja”—Koike is the only potential heir apparent to the special Kawajiri throne of anime madness. Just as Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s work was heavily influenced by non-Japanese sources, so too is Takeshi Koike’s. Indeed, his character designs are so heavily influenced by early ’90s MTV mainstay Liquid Television, specifically Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung, that when many see Koike’s work they assume they’re looking at something Peter Chung made. (Quickest way to tell them apart: Takeshi Koike’s characters tend to wear pants and NOT wear codpieces.)
Trava: Fist Planet: Episode 1 would’ve fit right in on Liquid Television had it come out 10 years earlier. Released in 2003, it’s an OAV consisting of 4 short segments each approximately 10-12 minutes long, and despite the title suggesting otherwise there are no subsequent installments aside from a brief trailer for a second episode which never got made. Like Redline itself, Trava is a collaboration between Katsuhito Ishii and Takeshi Koike, but this OAV is considerably lower budget than the feature film as one might expect. Though it takes place within the same universe as Redline, it focuses on minor characters and events which by and large don’t relate to the main thrust of the movie. (Or so I imagine.) As a result of the dramatically lower budget, while it has occasional moments of the hyper-kineticism that has everyone buzzing over Redline, the vast majority of its running time is actually devoted to conversations by way of extended rapid-fire arguments, most of which is between two aliens.
First and foremost is the fast-talking and somewhat doggish-looking spaceship pilot Trava for whom this animation is named after. He seems to spend most of his time smoking cigarettes and beating up his cohort, a crustacean-like mechanic named Shinkai. The two are tasked with “marking” a nearby planet for research purposes, and along the way they salvage an escape pod containing another alien that can only be described as a “big booty girl” named Mikiru. No, she’s not particularly moe or melancholy. She’s got amnesia… and that’s more or less it as far as the story goes. We’re given hints of a greater world: the existence of a competition known as the Fist Planet, the concepts of memory erasure and transfer, sentient machinery, and galactic warfare to name a few.
But hints are all we get. We never actually get to see the Fist Planet tournament, so Trava: Fist Planet effectively feels like the setup to a larger work which never existed until now, with the release of Redline. To be fair, Redline was originally supposed to have come out several years ago, and with running times this short the plot and characterization are secondary to style.
Style is where Trava: Fist Planet stands out. The snappy dialogue, wild and crazy camera angles, and sporadic musical accompaniment will pump [clap] you up. Watch enough of Takeshi Koike’s work and you’ll notice that he’s got quite the penchant for animating scenes of people sprinting and otherwise chasing after each other at high speeds as the camera whips around accordingly. It’s no wonder that Trava refers to himself as a “Speedmaster,” as each episode tends to feature some sort of frantic, yet brief pursuit. The most action packed episode of the set is the 4th and final episode. I salute Koike and Ishii for deciding it’d be a good idea to throw in the Hokuto Hyakuretsuken from Fist of the North Star complete with ATATATATATATATATA yelling. The inclusion of that in anime is generally a mark of high quality.
Unconventional stylings for an unconventional anime project warrant an equally unconventional distribution method. Each segment of Trava: Fist Planet Episode 1 was originally distributed by way of an interesting yet ill-fated concept known as Grasshoppa!, a “DVD magazine” for which each “issue” consisted of short segments, live-action and animated, covering a variety of diverse topics the way magazine articles might. Some long-running, popular US television shows follow this magazine format for news, but we’ve not really seen it applied for short films and vignettes. Each “issue” of Grasshoppa! was effectively an anthology piece, and many of the Studio 4°C short animated works that have since been collected first made their debuts there. DVD magazines were an interesting idea, but in an era of highspeed Internet and streaming video on-demand it just wasn’t something that could last. Grasshoppa! ended after 4 issues, and Trava: Fist Planet followed suit.
With a total combined running time of just over 45 minutes, Trava: Fist Planet is unlikely to ever see a standalone US release. Even the possibility of it being included as an extra with Redline itself seems like a long shot; when asked about it at Otakon 2010, Madhouse producer Masao Maruyama expressed noticeable uncertainty toward Trava ever seeing the light of day from a licensing perspective. Alone, it’s a mildly curious yet unabashedly incomplete work, but it’s the perfect companion piece to Redline since watching it directly illustrates how these guys refined their style over the years into what you see today. Besides, all of the music and text is in English already! Clearly they knew on some level that this type of thing was more likely to hit it off with American audiences. For now, fan-made translations are all we’ve got, but if you’re interested in seeing one of the earliest directorial efforts from one of anime’s hopeful “next generation” of creators, Trava: Fist Planet makes for a good stepping point after World Record.